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What Organizers Need From Lawyers, Part 1: Help Block Authoritarians

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Lawyers must be prepared to help defend the terrain on which we organize, stop the criminalization of protest, and help build ecosystem-wide approaches to safety and security.

In the previous two dispatches, we issued a call for progressive lawyers to join the pro-democracy fight alongside social movements and explored what’s behind the global rise in authoritarianism.  Now we turn to the crucial question of what fightback strategies will be most successful. How do we as lawyers leverage the full arsenal of legal tools to protect, bolster, and embolden the social movements that are the heartbeat of an emerging multiracial pro-democracy movement?

To answer that question, we spent the last two years talking to organizers across the United States who are leading racial justice, climate, labor, immigration, housing, reproductive justice, and abolitionist organizing fights.  We asked them what’s working, where lawyers are falling short, and what their agitations are to our sector.  In this two-part dispatch, Part 1 will cover our first set of takeaways from those conversations, namely that organizers urgently need lawyers to help defend the terrain on which our struggles take place. In Part 2 of this dispatch, we’ll share the second set of takeaways: how lawyers can offensively help movements build power toward constructing a multiracial, pluralistic democracy. Here we’re talking about a democracy unlike anything we’ve ever known in this country—a political system that is inclusive, equitable, reparative of past injustices, able to balance diverse subjectivities, responsive and accountable to the people, and majoritarian with meaningful avenues for participation and expression for minority positions.

Defend the terrain of organizing

To leverage the law in service of pro-democracy movements, organizers need lawyers anchored in a strategy to “block and build”: block rising authoritarianism and build a multiracial democracy that is more expansive and inclusive than ever before.  Organizers are cohering around this strategy, running political education with their members, and looking to build relationships with lawyers who share their analysis.  As our last dispatch covered, there’s a lot to block—this is what we will cover in Part 1 of this dispatch. Part 2 will address the “build” side of the strategy and what lawyers can do. 

Given the scale and quantity of potential threats to democratic institutions and the terrains we fight on, we’re heartened that lawyers are tracking threats like the ones in the Heritage Foundation-backed Project 2025, mapping possible risks, prepping filings, and trying to avoid duplication in litigation efforts.  However, there’s a big gap between the kinds of threats most lawyers are preparing for and the most pressing threats identified by organizers and communities on the frontlines. 

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Organizers tell us that areas of struggle that are defining the conditions in which we wage all our fights are all but off the radar for most lawyers. These include an increasingly constricted space for protest and public dissent. The proliferation of guns among vigilante groups paired with an uptick in law enforcement-private actor collaborations (for example, private or corporate-funded groups working in concert with law enforcement like those we have seen in the Standing Rock and Stop Line 3 fights) are making it harder and more dangerous to be an organizer. 

We heard from organizers around the country that the current climate—especially after the January 6th insurrection—has made their members more apprehensive and hesitant to take part in mobilizations for fear of vigilante violence, arrest, retaliation and/or deportation. The threats are not distant or hypothetical. To cite just one incident, in March 2019, white supremacists set fire to the offices of the Highlander Research and Education Center, a 92-year-old social-movement training hub in Jefferson County, Tennessee, a place where Rosa Parks, Septima Clark, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others studied and strategized.

The most vulnerable groups are often the first to bear the brunt of increasingly hostile conditions. Authoritarians consolidate power by seeding fear and marginalizing and criminalizing certain groups of people—LGBTQ+ folks, women, immigrants, houseless people, and drug users, among others. These are the groups that will face the tip of the spear if some of the authoritarian moves we discussed in the last dispatch go uncontested.  Ultimately, we need many more of us from the legal sector thinking holistically about how to keep our most vulnerable communities safe–this starts with anticipating and guarding against the imminent threats already on our doorsteps. 

Adopt ecosystem-wide approaches to safety and security

A movement ecosystem—the diverse range of groups that collaborate on campaigns by sharing infrastructure and information across issue areas and types of work (organizing, advocacy, legal, electoral, social services, etc.) in a given locale—is only as safe as the least-protected group within it.  We need to help fortify organizations’ safety and security infrastructure to build more resiliency against potential attacks with an ecosystem-wide approach, instead of supporting organizations piecemeal. This requires establishing more diverse organizational entities in the ecosystem (e.g., 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), LLCs, cooperatives, etc.), conducting ecosystem-wide threat assessments, and creating security plans for digital and operational security (e.g., using secure communications platforms, protecting organizational and personnel information, ensuring that offices are secure and establishing protocols if anyone in an organization is targeted or attacked).

Organizations will need dedicated resources to track and respond to threats as they arise at the local level—whether those are acute threats of political violence or harmful policies that demand longer-term legal and organizing pushback.  More resources also need to be allocated to facilitate principled relationships and collaborations among the grassroots and national technicians and subject-matter experts.  Building true resiliency requires an approach that identifies and addresses weaknesses across organizations working together in any given campaign, sector, or region. Funders and coalition builders should adopt more collective, sector-wide safety strategies to ensure effective protection against threats.

Push back when they weaponize the law and twist the rules

In our previous dispatch we laid out tactics that the authoritarian Right in other countries has used to suppress activism and accountability efforts of civil society, and noted where we’re already seeing similar attacks here in the U.S. These tactics have been used for decades by large corporations to drown small NGOs in costly SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) suits. We can anticipate new sources of attacks as plans to weaponize the IRS and other administrative offices surface—for example, those laid out in Project 2025’s Mandate for Leadership. Florida recently targeted immigrant rights groups under the pretext that the entities unlawfully employ undocumented immigrants and impaneled a grand jury to investigate sanctuary city policies. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued to strip a religious group of its nonprofit status because it provides shelter to immigrants, arguing it was “operating an illegal stash house.” In Idaho, the Attorney General buried progressive organizations in civil subpoenas under the pretext of investigating mis-administration of funds for an after-school program.

Groups need lawyers to help prepare them for attacks as threats emerge and, most obviously, to defend them if they are directly targeted. They also need lawyers brave enough to push back on misinterpretations and contortions of the rules originally created to expand civil rights and democracy.  Across the country, funders, boards, and executive leaders are being overly cautious in ways that materially hurt our movements —most notably in the wake of the anti-affirmative-action cases and the Right’s aggressive campaign against any diversity or inclusion policies. Lawyers have an important role to play in advising groups about how they can navigate increasingly hostile organizing terrains in a way that allows them to keep doing their work of defending and expanding collective rights. Under no circumstances should we cede terrain that we have not yet actually lost.  

Lawyers must also counter attempts to use legislative, executive, and judicial powers to erode democracy. In the legislative realm, we need to keep our eyes on proposed legislative changes that introduce more partisanship into judicial elections and qualification processes, as well as state level pre-emption laws that take powers away from local authorities to pass progressive policies according to the will of their local constituencies like rent control, protections for transgender people, and minimum wage increases. Executive abuses of power include those of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who has used closed-door grand jury processes to investigate and remove democratically elected officials who were not ideologically aligned with him. Simultaneously, we must monitor and expose how courts are being flooded with cases seeking to undo reproductive rights, civil rights protections under the 14th Amendment, workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act, and environmental protections.

Stop the criminalization of protest

Lawyers are also needed en masse to push back on the criminalization of protest and engagement in civic life. Regardless of who wins in November, this will continue to be an area where movements will need counsel to navigate new innovations to stifle mobilization. For example, the use of counter-terrorism frameworks in civil protest contexts represents a troubling trend most evident in Black-led organizing and the climate sector which, if left unchecked, is likely to be adapted to curb dissent in other sectors. In Louisiana in 2020,  two activists challenging the petrochemical industry were charged with felony terrorism charges for delivering a box of plastic pellets known as “nurdles” (notably, the same pellets the companies insist are ecologically benign) to the doorsteps of industry executives. Lawyers with long-term relationships with the organizers were able to work together to get all the charges dismissed. 

More recently, in the Stop Cop City fight, 42 activists were charged with domestic terrorism. At least 33 states have passed domestic terrorism laws and 41 states have enacted laws that restrict the right of peaceful assembly.  These include troubling laws that mandate heightened penalties for “riot offenses” and protests involving “critical infrastructure” such as gas or oil pipelines or even blocking a road. Some of the new laws allow local authorities to charge protesters for the costs of responding to a protest.

Since the rise of protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter, the FBI has been deployed in myriad ways to stigmatize Black-led protest as extremist and use the terrorism framework to surveil and infiltrate movement groups. More recently, Palestinian rights protests have attracted a new wave of calls for “material support for terrorism” charges to be applied against activists and campus groups.  The terrorism framework was similarly weaponized to defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). 

It is anticipated that this weaponization of the terrorism framework and misappropriation of the state apparatus to target critics will worsen in the hands of authoritarian state and federal leaders. Members of the MAGA bloc have already made clear their intention to harness the law enforcement capacities of the government to silence opposition. Lawyers should not only track this, but also actively support groups in coming up with ways to protect themselves as they continue to do their important work of holding leaders accountable and defending communities against state violence. Lawyers have a critical role to play in blocking these direct attacks on the means organizers employ to dissent, fight for greater rights, and protect their communities and natural resources.

Moving from a defensive position to an affirmative one

In general, as the alarm bells on rising authoritarianism continue to sound, lawyers have been doing a decent job tracking and opposing attempts to institutionally undermine democracy. However, we must find a way to connect these to broader community systemic change efforts anchored in transformative organizing principles. To be more effective, lawyers need to collaborate as long-term partners with community groups and move more integrated efforts to both “block the bad and build the good.” In Part 2 of this dispatch, we will turn to those efforts aimed at increasing movement power to affirmatively build multiracial democracy at all levels.

Featured image: Artwork by Rommy Torrico