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.

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