Street Tactics & Law on the Streets

This time the night was warm compared to the bitterly cold night that we last marched. That night we marched for Eric Garner, a previous night we marched for Mike Brown. When we marched for Baltimore, it was warmer and the NYPD was hot. The cops were out in force –  helicopters flying overhead, riot gear, white shirted detectives, street cops, and paddy wagons.

I saw an old friend from law school with the bright green hat of a National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer. She is a defense attorney – a kick-ass defense attorney for poor people. She said something to me that stayed for with me for days, she said, “well it’s great that the cops are all here.” Sweeping her hands towards the phalanx of state power, “because when they are here, arrests go down everywhere else in the city. My night arraignments will be slow.”

Let’s break this down. Because the cops are out suppressing protesters, they can’t be in poor neighborhoods, harassing and arresting poor black and brown people like they usually do every day.

This makes me think of strategy and demands. People collectively, deliberately putting their bodies in the way of the fascist state is a successful tactic, not just for the public statement but because it actually helps more people of people of color to survive, even just for one more night. When a poor person gets arrested for bullshit “quality of life” violations like jaywalking, street performing, jumping a turnstile – this one arrest will lead to a cascading, catastrophic series of interactions with the State. So even one night, where the police have left poor people’s streets and apartment buildings, to police us at Union Square, is priceless, it is a life saved.

The recent Black-led rebellions that have arisen using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter have been criticized sometimes for their lack of demands. As if more civilian review boards or the election of the right politician will save Black lives. Actually, putting their bodies in the streets, and in streets that are used by white, middle class consumers, changes the balance of power, Even if just for one night.

Street protests and rebellions are hard to sustain. But they are not hollow gestures as some people have insinuated. That warm spring night, I saw young people getting important education on tactics and state power, as police got the word from the Mayor that these protests would no longer be “tolerated.” And the huge police presence, momentarily stopped the broken windows policing in poor, black and brown neighborhoods. Accomplishing something that has not been accomplished by litigation or the election of a democractic mayor.

The Murder of Walter Scott, Abolition, And Alternatives to “Carceral” Reform

Another blatant murder of a Black man, Walter Scott, by the police state. The narrative hasn’t changed, the police murder a Black man, Mr. Scott, and then cover it up with all the power of the state, the murderous cop plants a taser next to the victim, to bolster the cop’s story that the cop was “fearing for his life.” and the state’s  initial response was that this shooting was justified.This would have remained the dominant narrative except for a video. A video that clearly showed the victim, fleeing, weaponless, and being shot in the back. There has already been a lot of thoughtful, rageful, and mournful pieces written about the lies told by and about our police state and our criminal “justice system.” I have been unsure what, if anything, I have to add to the discussion. However, I have been thinking about an additional angle – feminism, social justice movements, and the prision industrial complex. The Marshall Report, just released a piece about child support and the number of men who fear the police because of warrants for failure to pay. It is here: The fathers’ failure to pay child support is a major problem for single moms and has been claimed as an issue by conservatives and feminists alike. This is a real problem – divorce being a major catalyst for driving mothers into poverty. However, arresting fathers and putting them into jail for failure or inability to pay child-support is nonsensical, no one can pay anything while in jail. So why would advocates fight for legal mechanisms like arrests for failure to pay child-support? I think that questions affords us a place for self-reflection on the legal reforms that social movements fight for. Movements led by an upper/middle class white(mostly) professionalized class usually equals “reforms” that contribute to the strength of the police state and expansion of the prison industrial complex. When white feminists advocate for these solutions, radical, women of color, groups like INCITE! refer to it as “carceral” feminism. Victoria Law in the left magazine, The Jacobin, defines it as,”… an approach that sees increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to violence against women.”  Kimberle Crenshaw, in her groundbreaking piece, Mapping the Margins, Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color, first pointed out the obvious in her critique of Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA) – that solutions that rely on the state to stop violence will INCREASE violence against working class women of color and non-citizens. And outcomes for interaction with police will be different for a white middle-class woman versus a poor Black-woman. Obvious – if anyone had actually paid attention the experiences of Black women and the US state. The same state that previously legalized the bondage, commodification, and rape of Black enslaved women could hardly be trusted to stop violence against Black women. To understand our history, is to understand that the law, as an outgrowth of the capitalist state, has always regulated Black bodies and Black labor in order to maximize white, capital, profit. So when we call for the state to ensure that men pay child support through disciplinary tactics like probation and incarceration, we are just enabling the capitalist, racist state to continue to regulate/enslave Black and Brown bodies. When we call for mandatory arrests of accused wife abusers, we are doing the same. When we when demand hate crime legislation we are doing the same. When we call for the end to human trafficking through the demand of more prosecutions, we are again empowering the state to continue to arrest more Black and Brown people. That is just how it works. Money that pours into the our criminal incarceration system only goes to building a more sophisticated police state and creation of more state sponsored violence. It will never end violence. This is why I am an abolitionist. This is why you should be one too. There are alternatives to calls for reform that don’t strengthen the police state. Instead of calling for the arrest of fathers who can’t or won’t pay child-support, we can join in coalitions calling for full-employment, fair jobs, $15 and a union. Instead of calling for the independent review boards of the police, diversity in the police, or more community policing, we can call for reparations and the dismantling of the police force. Instead of calling for Hate crime legislation, we need to reduce the thousands of acts that are now called felonies in our criminal incarceration system. Instead of calling for the end to deportations for some of us but an increase in deportation for the “criminal”, we could say that they/we are all our family and demand full legalization and the end of deportation and detention for all of us. As I am writing this, I see more articles calling for the same. Like this article by Mychal Smith of the Nation, Abolition. Reparations. Full Social and Economic Equality. If you want to read more: read Michelle Alexander’s book, the New Jim Crow, Angela Davis’ book, Are Prisons Obsolete, and INCITE’s website, and many more sources, that I don’t know yet!

The Law and the Matrix – an analysis for geeky radical lawyers (like me)

ImageI was asked recently, “Well if litigation is the death of organizing, then what’s a radical lawyer to do?”

It is a great question and one worthwhile to explore since we just celebrated, May 1st – International Workers’ Day.

Law is conservative by nature. “Law” is a complex system designed to regulate and discipline on both a large scale, “population” level, and at an individual level. It defines and reinforces the power of certain groups of people, like the creation of individualized property “rights” for those that the legal system deems as “owners” of such property. The legal system also reinforces and codifies state power over both the population and the individuals. For instance, it defines the legal rights of those that are defined as “citizens” and those that are not and these designations and definitions change over time according to many factors, like labor needs, racism, and political power.

As attorneys, we must, at least at some level, operate within the regulatory system, in fact we become “officers of the court,” sworn to uphold this regulatory regime. Attorneys are supposed to believe in the law’s ability to define right and wrong, legal vs unlawful, distribute justice and retribution. The regulatory system we know as “law” is a human constructed landscape where boundaries are defined as “real” and therefore unchallengable rather than social constructs that reflect distribution of wealth, power, and control. I like to compare it to the Matrix, from the movie, – our regulatory system called “law” feels and looks real because we tacitly agree to its existence.

If the legal system is like the Matrix, attorneys are the maintenance workers within the Matrix. Most Liberal attorneys, the ones who want to “do good” are like benign architects of the Matrix. Liberal attorneys still “believe” in the law, they believe that some reform will can make law better, but they still believe that lawyers, courts, and judges have the right to construct the boundaries, define and distribute justice.

Radical lawyers then need to be able to operate within the Matrix but without reifying it or justifying it. Part of that is our own, individual way of operating within it. Do we accept our “special” titles as attorneys? Do act like our knowledge makes us superior to others? Do we minimize people’s actual EXPERIENCE of the “Law” vs. what we learn in books? Do we actually believe that we deliver justice? Do we police movements by telling them all the legal why’s of what they want to do won’t work? In other words are we urging people to only work/color between the lines of the Matrix?

Before becoming an attorney, I was a union organizer for 10 years. I realized that I actually knew a lot about the law because I worked within its confines and OUTSIDE of it. A good organizer pushes the boundaries of the law and the best lawyers are the ones who explain the boundaries and risks of jumping those lines and then LEAVES the room.

Back to May Day – The International Workers Day. May Day commemorates workers’ collective victory for the 8-hour work day in 1886. This was not a litigation strategy, this was decades before workers in the US had the “right” to join unions or strike under the National Labor Relation Act which was passed in 1935 (but workers didn’t actually the anything until many years later, more on that below). Back to 1886, during this time, the act of workers getting together to fight collectively was often considered a “civil conspiracy” under the law to interfere with the boss’ property rights. If workers had followed a legal strategy they would first had fought for recognition to the “right” to gather together as labor under the law. This would have been working within and by the rules of the Matrix and under the rule of law. Instead, they took the right to organize as labor against capital as their own rights, they didn’t need a lawyer, judge, court to tell them they had that right.

They didn’t need experts or studies to show/prove that 8 hours was the maximum amount that work should be in a day. They had their own experiences, their own analysis. They fought through withdrawing their labor from the equation – they struck. Not surprisingly, strikes are traditionally viewed with suspicion by the legal establishment. In one case, when fisherman decided to strike on the open sea, the court called it economic extortion and it was taught in my law school class as an example of contract made under duress and therefore invalid. Even today some strikes are still illegal, the Taylor Act in NY declares it illegal for the transit workers to strike, and when they did recently, their president was put in jail for calling the strike. It is now “legal” for the boss to hire replacement workers to break a strike. Under our broken labor law, unions can’t strike at the locus of power – the customers which is called a “secondary boycott”, workers in unions can’t have solidarity strikes, workers can’t refuse to cross picket lines. Labor law has become a way to capture, subdue, and break labor.

Judging the May Day strike for an 8 hour work day – we must call it a resounding success. If I was a movement lawyer in 1886, the best thing I could have done would be to leave the room during planning, since all their plans and dreams were outside the margins of the law. Imagine workers in the middle of the industrial revolution in a “conspiracy” to dream that their lives would be more than work, that 8 hours was all they should give to capital, that they had the right to withdraw their labor until their demands were met. Big, “impossible” dreams – dreams outside the Matrix of the law.

It is there, at the margins, that radical lawyers must operate and dream – one foot inside the Matrix and one foot outside, with organizers and the people leading the way to the outside.

Today at this May Day, let the people dream big and let us attorneys stop being the architects of the Matrix but rather the architects of the People’s dreams.


On Lawyer “Imposters” and class and race

On Lawyer imposters and class and race

 The other day I had a lovely lunch with two former classmates from law school. We were talking about future and current work. We talked about striking out on our own – putting up our own shingle as they say. I said – well I just need to get brave.

 That opened up an amazing conversation about growing up working class & boundaries of class, gender & race. Background of who was in the conversation:

M: White, working class, grew up in a trailer park in the South.

J: Black, working class grew up in housing projects in NYC. Turned 60 while finishing law school at CUNY!

Me: Filipino/white grew up in white working class neighborhood in Chesterfield Va. Neighbors were school bus drivers, big rig drivers. My best friend lived in a trailer park of which fact I was jealous since they had a swimming pool at the trailer park. My mom’s best friend worked cleaning offices and at a 7-11 convenience store. My mom was the cafeteria lady at my school, cleaned houses, worked at a daycare, and a food sample lady at Costco despite having a 4-year degree from a regional college in the Philippines. My father has a 2-year degree in computers and was first of his family who went to college. (Sorry, more about me since I know more about me). All three of us cis-women over 40, don’t you love CUNY Law?

 All three of us talked about our crossing of class lines to become attorneys. We discussed our ambivalence about being attorneys. Attorneys have a certain swagger that we now know is unjustified. We have been through the same training, education, passed the NY Bar, and so we know that lawyers aren’t “all that.” We know that you graduate from law school knowing how to do next to nothing as a practicing attorney. If only the practice of law was about passing the Bar! We can do that. Yet, we see these mainly white cis-men of privilege in their suits strutting about “fronting” as J put it, and we feel aghast.

I realized that before I went to law school I never had an attorney friend. (Is this an oxymoron anyway?) It was going to law school that suddenly opened the gates to “the bar”. Suddenly, I have people to call when a friend is arrested or threatened with deportation. Suddenly, I am the person other people call for help, although I usually answer I don’t know. One of the secrets of being a “member of the bar” is that attorney don’t actually know much, we just know where to go get the answers.

 Is this class rage? And how does it work when we are the objects of that rage? I just realized that I tend to insult lawyers – WHILE in an interview for a lawyer position. Must be part of the reason I haven’t got a law job, ha! Some winners: “Well law isn’t rocket science,” and “Most lawyers think they know everything and I don’t” was what I answered when asked about one of my special skills. My advice to future law graduates, “don’t be an asshole.” Still good advice I think.

M brought up the very idea of work – for much of her life work is what you do with your body, like landscaping or working in a factory. We all have a sneaking suspicion that “Lawyering,” then, isn’t really work. I know I feel like that – like somehow I am stealing money or I feel guilty that I get paid to do what I do when I know many women, like domestic workers, work way harder than I do for much less wages.

Another former classmate of mine, posted on his FB page that when asked if he is an attorney, he says, “oh no, no I am not,” then remembers, yes, yes he is an attorney.

The problem is, for most of history, being a “member of the bar,” carried the special privileges of the moneyed, white, cis-gendered male. Suddenly, we are in the club but we have a sneaking suspicion that we were let in by mistake. Of course, now our role is to let everyone know that the truth – that the criminal injustice system is a racist system of incarceration and profit of Black and Brown bodies. It is our job to caution our friends against cries of “justice” and extra policing when one of us is attacked, to remind people that the police are not our friends. It is our job to rage against the racism of the immigration legal system and being lawyers, maybe people will listen to us. It is our job to mentor and help other people who were never slotted for the “club” to also gain entry (if they want).

 It is a hard and nearly impossible balancing act. Like the time a judge said some racist bullshit to one of my classmates while we were observing his courtroom. The legal profession is a small, petty, conservative, judgmental place & people of color attorneys can’t afford to get kicked out of the courtroom at every racist micro-aggression, and neither can our clients.

 Not sure where these musings are supposed to go. But maybe a dialogue? What is your experience out there?







Welcome aboard our barangay!

What is a barangay anyway? Pronounced like “bar-ang-guy”

Wikipedia has this to say about barangay:

“When the first Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, they found the Filipinos having a civilization of their own and some living in well-organized independent villages called barangays. The name barangay originated from balangay, a Malay word meaning “sailboat”.”  In pre-colonial times settlers from Malaysia and Indonesia came in these boats, and settled in villages in the Philippines. Nowadays, barangay refers to the smallest unit of administrative government, it’s like a barrio or neighborhood.

In our case, our Brooklyn barangay consists of one loft, seven people, lots of love, struggle and dishes to wash. We are Filipinos, immigrants, Jewish, Americans, radicals, students, organizers, one lawyer and 3 children – afloat in the unbearable hipness of being in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We often have extra passengers that stay on our sofa. It is quite a ride, and we thought maybe you would want to join us!