Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Two "Progressive" Legal Organizations and Their Two Very Different National Conferences

After the latest Law for the People Convention (the name for the National Lawyers Guild's annual, national conference), I'm feeling pretty glad that the Guild is not the American Constitution Society. Don't get me wrong, I like those kids and there are a few joint members in both organizations, but there are some key differences between the two organizations.

Let's look at the two groups' 2014 conventions.

ACS says this on their website: "The ACS National Convention is the premier legal event of the year, attracting more than 1,000 of the nation’s leading progressive judges, lawyers and policymakers." Leaving aside the fact that "premier legal event of the year" is just their opinion, I have to admit, they do get some big names. This year they had Sonia Sotomayor, who, as Supreme Court Justices go, is a pretty cool jurist, and obviously a pretty important person.

The NLG's conference sometimes gets a lefty Congressperson to attend, like John Conyers, but usually, big name politicians and federal judges keep as much distance as possible. ACS had Conyers as part of its "honorary host committee," but it also had Harry Reid, Patrick Leahy, and Nancy Pelosi on board. Despite our lack of big-name Democratic politicians, we still had over 700 people attend our conference. Not too shabby considering a big part of our plenary was a debate about whether to call ourselves an "anti-capitalist organization." The opponents won the day, but most, nonetheless, felt the need to declare that they, personally, were anti-capitalist.

In contrast, ACS honored Roderick A. Palmore, executive vice president, general counsel and chief compliance and risk management officer, and secretary of General Mills. How he fits all that on his business cards, I'm not sure, but he has been a strong proponent of diversity in the legal profession, so it isn't as if his award was completely out of place. But the NLG would never honor him. We wouldn't. If his General Mills credentials didn't disqualify him, the fact that he is also a director of the Chicago Board Options Exchange and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company would certainly seal the deal.

The NLG conference was a pretty unique event – a legal bar association gathering of lawyers, legal workers, law students, and activists. We listened to a keynote address from Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union leader and Rahm Emanuel adversary, who spoke passionately about supporting public schools and defending the rights of teachers in the workplace. We honored an immigration advocate who told a story about representing a mother and daughter who were tortured for hours at an immigration facility in an attempt to get them to admit that they were undocumented.

We did actually have one Supreme Court Justice now that I think of it – Fernando Vegas Torrealba spoke at a few sessions and was there for the full conference hanging out with Guild members he considers friends. He is the President of the Electoral Chamber of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, and has defended the reforms of the Maduro government, and the Chavez government before it. There was quite an international presence actually: activists and legal activists from Palestine, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Mexico, Iraq, Japan and elsewhere – most of whom discussed their work opposing U.S. foreign policy or fighting back against policies of their own governments, but policies directly, or indirectly, supported by the U.S.

The ACS conference didn't have any obvious international issues on its agenda. They did seem to have a lot of good panels that would have fit in at a Guild convention, at least by looking at the titles: The Privatization of America, Protecting Women's Reproductive Health Care in a Hostile Era, Seeking an End to Racial Profiling, etc. Still, much of their conference seemed to be focused on listening to politicians speak and organizing to get good judges on the bench. Not horrible stuff, but just not the kind of thing the NLG would spend a lot of its precious time on.

The NLG conference also included a lot of critical discussions on the criminal justice system, including Stopping the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Stopping Mass Incarceration, and a session on Political Prisoners and the Prison Industrial Complex. There were presentations and discussions on Indigenous Resistance to Resource Extraction, Sex Work and the Failure of Anti-Trafficking Policies, Pursuing Accountability for U.S. Torture, and Protecting Dissent. A bunch of topics that would scare away most General Mills' executives and mainstream politicians.

But the NLG's goal is, and has always been, to demystify the law and to bring it back to the people. So, a lot of our conference emphasized the connection between legal work and community activism. A lot of the speakers were non-legal activists – a Ferguson resident who was starting to film the cops, a counselor with the AFSC's Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, an American Indian educator, a Chicago Public School social worker, an organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War, an activist whose work focuses on "dismantling the prison industrial complex," and a "Black trans activist and sex worker rights advocate." We also had a bunch of rad lawyers talking.

It was pretty inspiring, relevant and very much cutting edge (for a legal conference). I can't say the same thing for the ACS conference, but they have a different mission than we do. We both use the word "progressive" to describe ourselves, but our politics are obviously more left than theirs, and our relationship to power is more outside than theirs. We also see our role, as people with specialized legal knowledge, differently. By and large, the Guild sees itself as using the law as a tool for positive social change when possible, but recognizing that the law is also, in many cases, a hindrance to positive social change. We also see our role as empowering the communities directly affected by oppression, so when possible, putting legal tools into their hands rather than just treating them as clients.

This different philosophy is reflected in the NLG conference and becomes clearer when comparing it to the ACS event. I was energized at this year's Law for the People Convention in Chicago and am looking forward to next year's conference in Oakland, California. Particularly considering the high cost of air travel these days, I don't think I'll be attending an ACS conference anytime soon.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

ISIL is Scary, but the U.S. is Way Scarier

How does one adequately comprehend and confront the chilling and horrific killings of human beings like the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff?  It is the stuff of nightmares and horror movies.  It hits right at our deepest, darkest fears about death. It is difficult for us to fathom what was going on in their heads as they faced their last moments or what would be going on in ours.

As troubling as their killings were, we should not use these tragedies to create more, and we should remember that gruesome killings are not the exclusive realm of a particular people or a particular religion.  In fact, the U.S. and our allies are directly responsible for millions of James Foleys (in the sense that millions of victims of our foreign policies were innocent and had loved ones, hopes for the future, etc.); and we (the U.S.) are indirectly responsible for Foley's killing as well.

But millions of corpses can pile up and their deaths don't necessarily resonate as much (with many Americans anyway).  There are a number of reasons why these killings may resonate more: They were unusual (beheadings), but also publicly posted in vivid detail on the kind of social media we're used to seeing celebrities or friends on – twitter and youtube (for Foley anyway, until they were removed).  The men were also Americans, so for most Americans, they was familiar – "dudes" we could have gone to school with or who might have worked for the local newspaper a few years back.  That all makes sense, but it isn't an excuse to care more about their deaths than others, or worse, to use their deaths to call for policies that would result in the killing of many, many more innocent people.

A beheading seems like one of the worst ways to die at the hand of another human being – and these were uniquely gruesome – done by a person covered in black fabric with a knife in hand as opposed to a guillotine or some other contraption that provides some separation between killer and victim.  (Our ally, Saudi Arabia, beheads people as well, but their victims aren't white Americans, so let's not bring that up.)  I didn't watch the video, and I won't, but I've seen some of the still images; images which are pretty chilling.  The man in black could easily be the next horror movie villain.

The killings, vividly captured on video, were also distributed online. Foley's killing was posted to YouTube with crisp images and someone with an English accent (as I understand) speaking in the video.  The perpetrator even had a twitter account which he used to post the video.  These weren't grainy videos smuggled out of the mountains of Pakistan.

So they were creepy and palpable, but they have not made me support intervention in Iraq by the U.S. anymore than I did before – I'm opposed, particularly to military intervention.  They also do not incline me to believe that the man in the video or the movement of which he is a part represents all Muslims, or that something about Islam makes these kinds of acts more likely among its followers than say Christianity does.  If anything, this all makes me want to fight back against these tendencies even more – to oppose U.S. military action in the Middle East and to oppose Islamaphobia – because I know the same acts motivate others to do the opposite – to take advantage of these acts to do the opposite.

As the richest, most powerful nation on earth, there is probably a lot we could theoretically do to counter ISIS in a way that preserved life, promoted justice and secured religious freedom.  But that ideal simply does not reflect the history of American foreign policy, particularly over the last few decades in this part of the world, and it isn't what our enormous military apparatus is set up to do or what military industries find profitable.

Just consider what we've done in Iraq over the past 25 years.  The first war in Iraq killed a few thousand civilians and injured thousands of others, but it was just the beginning of a drawn out military and economic campaign against Iraq by the U.S.  After Bush senior left office, Democratic President Bill Clinton gladly took the reins, maintaining no-fly zones and devastating sanctions.  When asked about the estimated half a million children killed by sanctions in Iraq, Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, famously replied, "we think the price is worth it."  When George W. Bush came to power, it was much easier, even if controversial, to justify attacking Iraq in part because of the prior decade of ongoing aggression against that country by the U.S.  During Bush's war, even conservative estimates are that hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of others injured or who died from the effects of war.  All of that bloody history is pretty f***ing scary.  Why would we think that having the Pentagon intervene in the current situation would lead to humanitarian results?

Considering the state that we've left that country in – the millions of dead, their families and friends with their memories; the millions of injured, their families and friends who must care for them; the destroyed infrastructure; the political vacuum that we've tried to fill with this or that leader favorable to the U.S. – it is hardly surprising that a group like the ISIL (or ISIS) would take advantage of the situation.  One wonders what would happen in this country under similar circumstances.  Would racist militias become more organized and violent? Would Christian Fundamentalists begin to train fighters?  There are plenty of backward elements in this country that could easily take advantage of such a situation.

For those who would use this act to continue to demonize Islam, one wonders why a beheading by someone who calls himself Muslim tells us more about Islam than the murdering of hundreds of thousands by someone who calls himself Christian tells us about Christianity, or the murdering and maiming of thousands by someone who calls himself Jewish tells us about Judaism. Despite the terror inflicted on the rest of the world by people who identify as "Christian," I still love my Christian brothers and sisters.
Those who cynically use a frightening and sad killing to push for wars of aggression by the U.S. or our allies are ignoring or downplaying the gruesome results of American war-making and foreign policy in the Middle East: the millions of innocent people killed had hopes and loved ones and plans for the future, just like James Foley and Steven Sotloff.  If only their killings (those millions killed by U.S. foreign policy) resonated with more Americans in the same way, the urgency to "do something" might translate into a foreign policy that actually did something good.