Back in the first week of June, 2020, soon after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, I found myself once again in the streets marching in the streets of Oakland, CA and taking action for black lives. I’d been here many times before after the murders of Michael Brown, Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling. Beyond that, I’ve been organized and partaken in campaigns, direct actions and mass protests on a myriad of issues from the war in Iraq to knocking Wall Street banks for their financing of fossil fuels to the Indigenous uprising around Standing Rock for decades.
But that night felt different. The crowd has a ferocious energy. It trashed corporate banks and retail outlets. It tossed back teargas canisters launched by the Oakland police. It stood its ground as the police shot flashbangs. We established a temporary “cop free” zone at 14th and Broadway. When I returned home that night, I saw social media reports coming in from all over the country with similar images. I realized the ferocity was not unique to the Bay Area. A full scale uprising had erupted against various versions of the state — the police state, the corporate state and the federal state, particularly the malignant policies of the Trump Administration. Continue reading
In Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014 thousands of young Black people responded to the murder of Mike Brown with weeks of bold and fearless mobilization and direct action, facing down mass arrests and brutal repression to start a national movement for Black lives. In North Dakota in the fall and bitter cold winter of 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their water-protector accomplices fought back against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline by mobilizing tens of thousands put their bodies on the line, camping, praying and blockading construction equipment. On January 20th, 2017 thousands of people from all over the country converged in Washington, DC to confront the inauguration of President Donald Trump, blockading checkpoints, disrupting celebrations, and burning limousines.
All three of these moments of contention captured the imagination of millions across the country and around the world to catalyze unrest. Images of protesters facing down with riot police through clouds of tear gas, water protectors locked down to construction equipment, and limousines burning were projected across the front pages of newspapers around the world. But behind all of those dramatic moments, each of these uprisings relied on a complex network of movement infrastructure to make sure that everyone is fed and healthy, to facilitate communication and outreach, to provide legal support, and coordinate hundreds of other tasks to keep the action going.
In the Lawyers, Lockboxes and Money series we have explored the networks and organizations that work to serve food, offer medical care, and coordinate legal support for social movements throughout the past several decades. To start to examine the how social movement infrastructures is mobilized in moments of social movement uprising we can look at three significant episodes of contention in the United States in recent years: the Black Lives Matter mobilizations in Ferguson, Missouri following the murder of Mike Brown, the indigenous-led encampments blocking the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota near the reservation of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the protests against the inauguration of President Donald Trump in Washington, DC on January 20, 2017.
Each of these mobilizations emerged separately in very different social and political contexts. But despite the differences in time, location, and issues raised in these mobilizations many of the same movement infrastructure organizations and networks emerged to provide important logistical support for each of these movements. The level of spontaneity, the relationships between movement organizers and movement institution organizations and networks, and the availability of internal resources all informed the ways that movement infrastructure was mobilized in support of each of these struggles.
Black Lives Matter — Ferguson, Missouri
At 12:02 pm on August 9, 2014 police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, Jr., an unarmed Black teenager while he and a friend walked down the middle of a residential street in Ferguson, Missouri not far from Brown’s home. Ferguson Police left Brown’s body lying uncovered in the hot sun for four hours while crowds began to grow. That night and every night for the next several months, young Black people took to the streets demanding justice for Mike Brown and an end to racist policing.
Brown was not the first young Black man to be murdered by a police officer that summer, and he wouldn’t be the last. But his death sparked a movement. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, “For reasons that may never be clear, Brown’s death was a breaking point for the African Americans of Ferguson — but also for hundreds of thousands of Black people across the United States… It is impossible to answer, and perhaps futile to ask, the question ‘why Ferguson?’ just as it’s impossible to ever accurately calculate when ‘enough is enough.’”
“That evening, my best friend and I took the back streets into Ferguson, down the now-famous West Florissant Avenue, only to be turned around. The police had the streets completely blocked off. There was SWAT everywhere, in gas masks, full body riot gear, police dogs, batons, and really big guns, also known as M16’s swinging from their hands. This was unimaginable… The police dogs were barking so loud we could hear them through our rolled up car windows. As we drove away and found a safe space, anxiety took over. Yet, I was not afraid.”
The protests were met with brutal repression at the hands of local and state police and the Missouri National Guard. Outfitted with riot gear and armed personnel carriers, police officers sic’d dogs on protesters, deployed chemical weapons, shot rubber bullets and arrested hundreds. But people were not deterred. In the face of a militarized police force overwhelming police violence, hundreds of people returned to the streets night after night.
“I will always remember that the call to action initiating the movement was organic — that there was no organizing committee, no charismatic leader, no church group or school club that led us to the streets. It is powerful to remember that the movement began as everyday people came out of their homes and refused to be scared into silence by the police…In those early days, we were united by #Ferguson on Twitter — it was both our digital rallying cry and our communication hub.”
While the calls to action were organic, the mobilization happened within an ecosystem of organizations and networks. On a local level, the Organization for Black Struggle, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment and Hands Up United all played a significant role in supporting the mobilization and national organizations including Color of Change, Black Lives Matter, and Black Youth Project 100 amplified the action beyond Ferguson. Alongside the nightly actions, a scaffolding of infrastructure emerged to support the burgeoning movement.
As police deployed chemical weapons and other ‘less lethal’ crowd control mechanisms, it became immediately apparent that if people were going to be able to stay in the streets, the movement would need to develop the capacity to provide medical first aid. Because there was not an active street medic team in St. Louis, community-based organization Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) recruited volunteers who were interested in providing first aid on the streets. MORE set up a telephone training call with Noah Morris, a longtime street medic organizer who walked volunteers through the basics of providing first aid in the streets. The following week MORE was able to recruit a street medic team from Chicago to come to Ferguson to help build out a more formal medic support infrastructure.
In the first week of protests, as the arrest count grew, other organizers from MORE who had gained some experience organizing legal support for actions from the climate movement launched a legal support structure. “We printed up slips of paper with a legal support phone number on them and set up a fundraising link,” remembered Arielle Klagsbrun, an organizer who was working with MORE at the time. “The first two nights I went out to the streets and handed out these slips of paper while Molly [another MORE organizer] waited by the phones. People looked at me like I was crazy, but then the number and the link blew up on social media.”
The legal team trained volunteers to staff phone lines, set up an intake system to keep track of people who had been arrested and bailed out of jail. While the MORE team had some experience with organizing legal support for smaller actions, the volume of arrests was overwhelming. Volunteers were staffing four phone lines around the clock. A couple of weeks into the protests, Sarah Coffee, a veteran of the Midnight Special Law Collective showed up at the volunteer office to offer to help. Coffee, along with other legal workers affiliated with the NLG helped to set up a more formalized system that could handle the volume of arrests that were occurring on a nearly nightly basis.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Ferguson, Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels, a retired grandmother went looking to find a way to help out. “I asked, ‘what can I do?’” she told the Huffington Post. “They said a little home-cooked meal wouldn’t hurt nothing, so I went home, and the next day I came back with spaghetti and salad and garlic bread. After that, every day I fed them. Every day.” Daniels would continue serving food through the weeks of protests and the non-indictment. Later on, volunteers from Seeds of Peace would travel into Ferguson to support Daniels, particularly during the Ferguson October mobilization and the resurgence of activity following the announcement of the non-incitement.
Geographically, the World Community Center in St. Louis where MORE and other organizations had their offices acted as an organizing hub for coordinating support work. Throughout the fall and into the winter, churches in Ferguson also opened their doors for meetings, vigils, and as safe spaces during the chaotic nights of protest. One national NGO gifted the movement a subscription to the Revolution Messaging platform which allowed organizers to send out mass texts to a list that grew to 6,000 cell phone numbers.
On October 10, sixty days after the murder of Mike Brown, Ferguson Action, an umbrella of St. Louis-based organizations kicked off Ferguson October, a weekend-long national mobilization bringing thousands of people from all over the country into St. Louis. Over four days organized dozens of actions and events including marches, rallies, trainings, and a series of direct actions in Ferguson and around St. Louis.
On August 8th of 2014, no one would have imagined that Ferguson, Missouri would become the site of a major uprising that would catalyze a national movement about structural racism and police violence. And certainly, organizers on the ground did not have the infrastructure that they would need to support that type of uprising. But within weeks, organizers in St, Louis were able to mobilize and deploy a sophisticated movement infrastructure by pulling from local assets that had been developed over time, years of relationships with organizers across a broad range of social movement spaces, and absorbing an influx of energetic volunteers, eager to plug into meaningful work.
In April of 2016, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters set up camp near the banks of the Cannon Ball River, in the path of the planned 1,172 mile Dakota Access Pipeline starting the Sacred Stone Camp. Construction of the pipeline would violate the Fort Laramie Treaty, which affirmed the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s right to their land and risk contaminating the tribe’s drinking water. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Standing Rock’s Historic Preservation Officer, said she hoped the camp would “educate the world about the abuse of fossil fuel, the history of the cultural sites along the path of the pipeline and provide education on non-violent direct-action training and non-violent civil disobedience against a billion-dollar oil company.” Participants in the camp eschewed the term “protester” as a negative and colonial term, referring to themselves instead as “water protectors.”
By June of that year, the camp had outgrown the Sacred Stone site, and a larger overflow camp, the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) was set up nearby. The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), the Indigenous Peoples Power Project (IP3), Honor the Earth, Greenpeace USA, the Ruckus Society, and several other organizations released a video “Warriors Wanted,” a call to action for “trained action organizers” and “skilled builders.”
“We need folks to bring supplies and stay to take action with their bodies and prayers. We need allies to come prepared for the elements to stand with us on the high planes of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and to peacefully stop this destructive pipeline with us. Be prepared to follow the guidance of indigenous leadership but also to operate with autonomy.
Indigenous people, climate activists, and other allies answered the call in droves. By late September more than 300 federally recognized Native American tribes were represented at the camps, and the camps swelled to more than 4,000.
The logistical and infrastructural challenges of operating a camp of four thousand people in rural North Dakota for several months were daunting. As winter approached these challenges became even more acute, communiques coming out of the camps inviting supporters became more specific about their needs. One call to action from the Oceti Sakowin Camp emphasized the logistical needs of the camp.
“Coming here is now about more than our individual experience, it’s about pulling together so we can Stand Strong. Oceti Sakowin needs community members prepared for arctic conditions. We need people with the fortitude to dedicate a significant portion of each day to the survival of the community. Please bring all-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive vehicles. Areas we need help most are in the kitchens, compostable toilet maintenance — an essential foundation for healthy communities, and people able to transport donations to camp from surrounding communities… We welcome skilled experienced builders who can help us with reinforcing existing structures. We welcome skilled medics and natural healers who work collaboratively to take care of our Water Protectors.”
By early fall, the water protectors had organized at least 13 different kitchens across the three main camps to feed the thousands of people who were living at Standing Rock. The main kitchen was coordinated by a vegan chef named from the Netherlands who had worked with a collective of vegan chefs in Greece that cooked meals at refugee camps for 8,000 people a day. Another kitchen was staffed by Seeds of Peace volunteers, yet another was led by Brian Yazzie, a Navajo chef and chef du cuisine at the Sioux Chef, a Minneapolis-based catering company that works to revitalize Native American food culture. Elizabeth Hoover from the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA) observed that preparing traditional indigenous foods became culturally and politically important to the movement. “Traditional foods are considered an important tool in, and motivation for, winning this fight against polluting fossil fuels. Getting traditional foods into camp to keep morale up — whether that was enough buffalo meat in the stews across camp, or more tribally specific delicacies… was an important focus.”
While the kitchen crews kept the camps fed, the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council worked to meet the basic medical needs of the thousands of people who had converged at the camps and provide first aid to water protectors who had been injured by the police or by the cold during the numerous actions and confrontations. There was no shortage of volunteers interested in helping with the medic team, but organizers struggled to match volunteers with the appropriate skills with the appropriate tasks. One of the organizers of the Medic and Healer Council, said,
“We had to triage which volunteers we could take. Higher credentials were great, but folks needed to be able to work in our systems and be able to survive the conditions without being a drain. The effect of this was we prioritized more well-rounded folks who could stay longer than folks with high degrees of specialized training. There were a lot of folks who just showed up we had to tell to leave or that they weren’t welcome to work with us. A lot of folks were pissed off by that — especially white folks who felt more entitled.”
To fill the gaps experienced action medics reached out through networks of medics he had worked with in the past to recruit volunteers with both the skills and the cultural competency to do the work appropriately.
In addition to dealing with the logistical challenges of camping in North Dakota in the winter and police violence, water protectors at Standing Rock also faced hundreds of arrests and aggressive prosecution by authorities. In total the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline led to 836 criminal cases. The caseload was so large that the State of North Dakota was forced to appoint an additional judge to hear cases and allow out-of-state attorneys to practice in North Dakota. In its ruling, the Supreme Court wrote, “due to the significant increased caseload of the South Central Judicial District as a result of criminal charges stemming from the pipeline protests,” out-of-state lawyers would be permitted to represent defendants “in criminal cases pending in the south Central Judicial District arising from arrests made during protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
Once out-of-state lawyers were allowed to take cases, attorneys from all over the country with backgrounds in a wide range of social movements were invited to take on water protector defendants. Some had backgrounds supporting Native American struggles while others traced their backgrounds to other social movements. Lawyers with backgrounds in the Wounded Knee Defense/Offense Committee, the Peoples’ Law Collective, the NLG Mass Defense Committee, the Civil Liberties Defense Center, the Center for Constitutional Rights, EarthRights International, the Oakland Law Collective as well as dozens of law firms all took cases. By the time all 836 cases were resolved 392 were eventually dismissed, 188 were granted pre-trial diversions, 146 resulted in plea agreements, 42 resulted in acquittals at trial, and 26 resulted in convictions at trial.
The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline catalyzed the struggles for indigenous sovereignty and climate justice, capturing the imagination of millions of people all over the world. The thousands of people who poured into North Dakota brought global attention to the fight, but at the same time, they also brought dramatic logistical and infrastructural challenges. Over a ten-month period, social movement organizations and institutions from a wide range of movement traditions mobilized existing infrastructure and generated new resources under the leadership of indigenous leaders to support the camps and amplify the struggle. As a result, thousands of people were able to face down relentless police violence, aggressive prosecution, and the North Dakota winter mounting a forceful challenge to the rich and powerful fossil fuel institutions.
J20 — Two months of organizing, one day of action, and eighteen months of legal defense
On January 20, 2017, after a bitter presidential campaign, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. While his press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” many commentators observed that the crowd was embarrassingly small. Just outside the fenced-off parade route, human blockades had shut down the checkpoints leading into the parade route and National Mall, leaving thousands of would-be Trump-supporting audience members surrounded by angry protesters. Meanwhile, an anti-fascist bloc snaked through downtown Washington, leaving broken windows, spray-painted graffiti, and at least one firebombed limousine in its wake. Police responded with tear gas, pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, and mass arrests. By the end of the day, 234 people had been arrested — all of them facing serious felony charges.
Much of the infrastructure to support the protests, which came together under the banner of #DisruptJ20, was organized by the DC Welcoming Committee (DCWC), which described itself as “a collective of experienced local activists and out-of-work gravediggers acting with national support.” The DCWC continued, “We’re building the framework needed for mass protests to shut down the inauguration of Donald Trump and planning widespread direct actions to make that happen. We’re also providing services like housing, food, and even legal assistance to anyone who wants to join us.”
DCWC organizers experienced a unique set of conditions in mobilizing the infrastructure to support the protests. First, in contrast to more spontaneous mobilizations, like the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Mike Brown, the date and time of the Presidential Inauguration is prescribed in the Constitution. This gave organizers an important opportunity to plan ahead and build infrastructure before people spilled out into the streets. Second, as the nation’s capital, Washington, DC is home to a wide range of NGOs, movement infrastructure institutions, and experienced organizers.
To kick off organizing for the inauguration, DC-based organizers hosted a spokes council meeting on December 11th, 2016. Coming out of that meeting DisruptJ20 organizers began pulling together the logistical infrastructure for the protests. An e-mail report-back laid out the infrastructure plan, “We are putting together all of the infrastructure needed to support mass protests, including a convergence space for the week, mass housing, a legal collective, a medic collective, food, and security.” The report back included a link to volunteer to join one of the infrastructure teams and went on to describe some of the infrastructure plans.
“Medics-We’re looking for trained street medics, EMTs, Medical professionals, healers, body workers, herbalists, and anyone else to support the health and well-being of everyone participating in the protests against the inauguration.
Legal- We’re looking for law students, lawyers, trained legal observers, or anyone interested in helping staff the legal hotline or jail support.
Food-Seeds of Peace and Food Not Bombs are both involved in organizing food for the week. We need donations of both bulk foods, produce, and prepared foods, as well as volunteers.”
Robby Diesu, a longtime DC activist, said DCWC organizers — many of whom had worked closely with mainstream NGOs in the past — made a conscious decision to use their relationships with existing organizations to mobilize for DisruptJ20. While many of these NGOs did not have the stomach for being publicly associated with the unpredictable and confrontational street protests, “some of the people that work at NGOs want to support the work because they see it as important, even if it does not fit in their organizing model.” He also said that DCWC organizers saw organizing for the inauguration as an opportunity to build capacity within local social movements. “From the get-go, there was a conscious decision to use J20 as a training and development opportunity for newer organizers.” Newer activists stepped into leadership roles with the support of more experienced organizers who shared contacts, offered advice, and helped newer leaders debrief meetings and plan next steps.
The medical team also saw the protests at the inauguration as an important opportunity to develop new street medics. While there were a number of experienced street medics living in Washington, DC, there had not been a formal medical collective for several years. About a month before the inauguration, the DisruptJ20 medic team organized a 20-hour street medic training for new medics.
Heather, who was a member of the medic team for DisrupJ20 said that the upcoming action provided a useful backdrop for a training, the effort was “directed to Black and brown participants trying to practice mutual aid healthcare in their communities in DC and around the DMV [the DC, Maryland, Virginia metropolitan area].”
While that training was well attended and incredibly useful for local organizers, many of the participants were focused on organizing in their communities and not particularly interested in throwing a lot of energy in a mobilization with lots of people coming in from outside the area. Few of those trained ended up participating in the medic team for the inauguration. “The absorption of people from the training into the actual medical team was very low. A lot of people were there because they wanted to get skills to take to their community or other types of actions.” Between the training, veteran medics in DC and a call out over one of the national street medic email lists, a full complement of medics came together, ready to support the protestors who faced tear gas, pepper spray, and police violence.
One aspect of the infrastructure for DisruptJ20 that, in retrospect, turned out to be quite underdeveloped was the legal support structure. In 2004, after being slapped with a series of multi-million dollar lawsuits for unlawful mass arrests, the Washington DC Metro Police Department adopted a hands-off policy for protest activity, essentially ending mass arrests in Washington, DC. For the more than fourteen years leading up to Trump’s inauguration, DC police had not made a mass arrest other than those during planned civil disobedience activities. And even then, the DC Metro Police widely employed post-and-forfeit arrangements allowing protesters to pay and forfeit a small sum of money — usually $50 or $100 — to have their charges resolved.
During the protests against Trump’s inauguration, DC Metro Police rounded up and arrested 234 people, mostly near the anti-fascist bloc march. Nearly all of those arrested were charged with a suite felony and misdemeanor riot charges carrying a total of 60 years in prison. The DisruptJ20 Legal Working Group had conducted a series of “know your rights” trainings and published materials on what to do if arrested and how to navigate the Washington, DC court system — down to a detailed explanation of the city’s “post and forfeit” system. The legal working group also operated a legal hotline number, organized a jail support team to track people through the booking system.
While the legal team had posted on its website that, “for anyone who has legal entanglements that take them in the days and weeks after the Inauguration, we will be providing you with support the entire way through the legal process,” few organizers actually believed that mass arrests and prosecution were a likely possibility. The legal infrastructure was well prepared to track arrests, communicate with arrestees’ support people, document police violence and meet arrestees when they were released from custody, but it was not prepared to support hundreds of people from all over the country being prosecuted on serious felony charges.
Dylan Petrohilos who was involved in legal support work and, months later had his home raided and was himself arrested on charges relating to the inauguration protests, said “at the beginning of February we had no idea what was going on. Some people who were released had left town, and we were just trying to figure out where everybody was.” Recruiting activist lawyers to take the cases was challenging because at the time there was not an established network of lawyers and relationships between defendants and one of the attorneys most well-known for taking on activist legal defense cases in Washington became strained over strategic disagreements.
Eventually the legal support team, which became known as the Dead City Legal Posse, came together, recruiting a team of about 25 dedicated volunteers to coordinate fundraising, recruit lawyers, turn supporters out for hearings and trials, organize media support work, and take on the herculean task of supporting the hundreds of defendants who live all over the country who needed to regularly travel into DC for their hearings. Other support infrastructure came together as well. Jerry Koch, a grand jury resister who had spent 241 days in jail for refusing to inform to a grand jury, addressed one of the early defendant summits. The Tilted Scales Collective provided training and support for defendants and their lawyers on strategic decisions in political criminal defense work. Members of the RNC 8 who had faced felony conspiracy trials for their role in organizing protests against the 2008 Republican National Convention made personal phone calls to defendants offering their support and advice.
In November of 2017, the first group of defendants went to trial. After hearing four weeks of evidence the trial judge threw out the felony charges against the six defendants, ruling that no reasonable jury could return a conviction. After deliberations, the jury acquitted all six defendants of all charges. Then in January of 2018, prosecutors dropped charges for 129 of the remaining defendants, while moving ahead with the prosecution of the remaining 59 defendants, against whom the state apparently had the strongest evidence — a move that could have isolated those still facing prosecution. In May, while the second group of defendants went to trial, prosecutors revealed that they had withheld a large amount of evidence from the defense. That trial ended without convictions, and by July prosecutors dropped all charges against the remaining defendants.
In the end, the only protesters who were convicted of crimes relating to the protests of Trump’s inauguration were the 21 people who plead guilty in exchange for reduced charges and lighter sentences in the initial weeks and months following their arrest. While some of the defendants that accepted plea deals may have done so regardless of what support had been available, it is certainly possible that some of these defendants may have continued to fight their charges along with the other defendants if a more robust legal support system had been in place immediately following the action.
In their call to action, DisruptJ20 organizers declared, “from day one, the Trump presidency will be a disaster. #Disrupt J20 will be the start of the resistance.” They took advantage of the two months of lead time to use the mobilization not only as an opportunity to mount a bold protest but also to build capacity and develop new organizers. On January 20th, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States in front of an embarrassingly small crowd while protests raged on the streets outside. Images broken windows and a burning limousine appeared in newspapers around the world making it clear that there would be a militant opposition to Trump’s presidency. When hundreds of protesters were arrested a sluggish process of developing a legal support apparatus that was up to the challenge created a difficult and emotionally taxing time for the defendants. But with months the organizational infrastructure came together to support arrestees through their trials and secure complete acquittals for all of the defendants who stood together through the process.
Infrastructure for an Uprising
The availability of social movement infrastructure can play a role in strengthening social movements during episodes of contention and failure to mobilize resources to provide the movements basic infrastructural needs can prevent uprisings from taking off, but infrastructure alone cannot create the political conditions that lead to uprisings. Infrastructural resources, then, are mobilized in the context of existing political conditions, social formations and grievances that give rise to moments of social movement uprising. These local conditions inform the ways that individuals and institutions with specific capacities in providing social movement infrastructure are mobilized in different circumstances.
Some of the key factors determining the way that infrastructure institutions are mobilized include the degree of spontaneity of the uprisings; the infrastructural capabilities of social movements organizations engaged in mobilizations and their openness to outside support; the degree to which local movement actors engaged in these mobilizations are networked with other social movements and the availability of well-known individuals and institutions with these infrastructural capabilities to deploy in new settings. Interestingly, in recent years we have seen examples of many of the same individuals and institutions providing movement infrastructure being mobilized in support of dramatically different social movements in different geographies in support of different types of mobilizations, so it seems the specific grievances being raised matters less to the mobilization of movement infrastructure.
The degree of spontaneity of uprisings plays a major role in the way that infrastructure is mobilized and organized. Mobilizations at summits, conventions and other events allow organizers to plan ahead of time to develop the infrastructural tools that they need to support themselves. This advance notice also enables individuals and institutions with the capacities to provide infrastructure to make connections with local organizers and prepare to travel to the sites of the actions. Uprisings that arise rapidly in response to externally imposed grievances give organizers little time to develop infrastructure locally or within their movement organizations. These spontaneous uprisings are more likely to embrace external support leverage support of individuals and institutions outside of their immediate movement ecosystems. But because of the spontaneous nature of these mobilizations, the individuals and institutions that can be mobilized to provide infrastructure are likely to be those with significant organizational flexibility.
Although organizational relationships between social movement organizations and social movement infrastructure organizations and networks can facilitate mobilization of infrastructural resources, these infrastructural resources are most frequently mobilized through informal networks based on personal relationships and shared experiences. Organizers who are well-networked across social movements at regional, national and international levels can play an important role in building bridges across movements and geographies to recruit individuals and institutions with the capacity to provide support. These well-networked organizers can also play an important role in vetting the capabilities of individuals and institutions offering infrastructural support. Additionally, the availability of well-known institutions can remove barriers for local organizers who are not strongly networked in recruiting the infrastructural support they need.
Finally, the internal availability of infrastructural resources can reduce the need for social movements to mobilize infrastructural assets across social movements and spaces. Well-resourced organizations like labor unions and large NGO’s are unlikely to solicit, or even welcome, support from grassroots social movement infrastructure institutions. Additionally, communities with robust local infrastructure are less likely to rely on support from other geographic regions. While the availability of this local infrastructure can be a valuable asset for movements and uprisings, the fact that these organizations and communities are less likely to rely on outside support can play an isolating role by reducing the involvement of individuals and institutions from different movement spaces and geographies.
 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2016).
 In the Matter of a Petition to Permit Temporary Provision of Legal Services by Qualified Attorneys From Outside North Dakota, ?20160436 (Supreme Court of the State of North Dakota January 18, 2017).
Lawyers and legal workers have played an important role in movements for social change for as long as courts and lawyers have existed. Movement lawyers have played important roles in challenging unlawful government repression of social movements, challenging unjust laws, and providing legal defense for movement participants facing prosecution from the state. There is perhaps no more direct or visceral confrontation between people and the state than the criminal prosecution process wherein the defendant and the state are formally named as opposing parties.
This is the fourth segment in the Lawyers, Lockboxes and Money series, a project that explores the role shared social movement infrastructure has played in social movement uprisings and how this infrastructure has evolved over time, moving across issue areas and geographies to knit together a shared fabric of progressive social movements.
The longest-standing institution doing this work in the United States is the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). The NLG was founded in 1937, during Roosevelt’s New Deal, as an organization of lawyers to offer a counterweight to the conservative positions being taken by the American Bar Association (ABA). The invitation to the group’s founding meeting invited lawyers to discuss the formation of an organization of “…all lawyers who regard adjustments to new conditions as more important than veneration of precedent, who recognize the importance of safeguarding and extending the rights of workers and farmers upon whom the welfare of the entire nation depends, of maintaining our civil rights and liberties and our democratic institutions.” In its early years the Guild coordinated legal work among lawyers for the burgeoning labor movement, represented accused communists target by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the red scare, and organized to oppose the rollback of civil liberties during World War II.
In 1964, the NLG formed the Committee for Legal Assistance to the South, to organize volunteers to travel to Mississippi to support the Civil Rights Movement. This marked the beginning of a shift within the organization from being a professional organization of lawyers to increasing its role as a social movement infrastructure institution. Writing a history of the Guild at its 50th anniversary, Rabinowitz and Ledwith remarked, “The Guild’s accomplishments in the South were many, but none was more important than its initial commitment to provide legal aid to an historic movement before it became a national cause.”
Over the next several years, the NLG played an increasingly active role in supporting organizers in the free speech movement and the movement against the war in Vietnam. Michael Ratner, a student anti-war activist who later became the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights observed that the guild was different from other legal groups because, “it not only defended people opposed to the war, it condemned the war and stood in solidarity with the Vietnamese people.” The Guild also recognized the role of non-lawyers in its movement work. In 1970 delegates at its national convention voted to open membership to law students, strengthening the organization’s ties with the student movement. The next year the Guild voted to open its membership to non-lawyer legal workers and “jailhouse lawyers.” Over the next several decades, the NLG would continue to play a significant role in supporting activists in the anti-nuclear movement, the Central American solidarity movement, the and the LGBTQ movement during the AIDS epidemic.
But legal work in social movements is not limited to litigation. A particularly important function that has emerged in wave after wave of movement uprisings is organizing legal support for activists targeted with arrest and prosecution. Importantly, much of the work of organizing to support large numbers of people facing arrest, tracking defendants through the booking and bail process, raising funds for legal defense, collecting evidence, and providing material and emotional support for defendants through the legal process and during incarceration, is political and organizational work that is often performed by activists who are not lawyers.
Alongside the representational legal work performed by movement lawyers, movement organizers established parallel support structures to train movement activists on their legal rights, track and support arrestees through the arrest and booking processes, raise funds to support legal defenses, and mobilize public and political support in favor of activists targeted for arrest and prosecution. When activists were targeted with particularly serious charges and sentenced to long prison terms, support committees would be tasked with organizing to provide political and emotional support for political prisoners, raise funds to support their families and their defenses, and support released political prisoners in their re-entry. Historically, these structures have been uniquely strong and well formed in the struggle for Black Liberation and the American Indian Movement — two movements that were targeted for particularly severe state repression.
Mass Legal Defense
More recently, legal support organizing structures have emerged to proactively prepare for mass arrests with legal workers prepared to support targeted activists across social movement spaces. In the aftermath of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, Washington, the Direct Action Network (DAN) Legal Team supported movement lawyers and arrestees in preparing 600 cases for trial. In addition to supporting lawyers with legal research and evidence gathering, the legal team distributed press releases, organized rallies and press conferences, and mobilized to fill courtrooms for trials.
Shortly after the WTO, the DAN Legal Team reestablished itself as the Midnight Special Law Collective. At the April 16 protests of the IMF and World Bank in Washington, DC in 2000 Midnight Special organized ‘know your right’ trainings for more than 1,500 activists, trained 200 legal observers and organized local progressive attorneys who were prepared to take cases of arrestees. In total 1,200 people were arrested over three days at the 2000 IMF and World Bank meetings. Over the next ten years, Midnight Special would train legal workers and provide legal support for thousands of arrestees in major mobilizations around the US and Canada.
Local legal collectives largely modeled after — and often trained by — the Midnight Special Law Collective emerged in different cities around the country during periods of major protest. In the lead up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Midnight Special organizers helped to form the Legal Support to Stop the War Collective (LS2SW). In the lead up to the 2008 Republican National Convention, members of the Midnight Special Law Collective traveled to Minneapolis to spend six weeks with local legal organizers, helping to form the Cold Snap Legal Collective.
By 2010, Midnight Special decided to disband, writing in a communique, “We have reached various conclusions: that we have been unable to break out of the service provider model; that we are dissatisfied with jumping from action to action, and leaving little infrastructure behind; that we often emulate the oppressive structures we seek to change; and that these problems are much harder to solve than we had believed.”
While Midnight Special is no longer organizing as a collective, it remains an important movement resource. More than nine years after disbanding, Midnight Special’s website (www.midnightspecial.net) is still live and its materials are widely circulated and used by movement organizers. Additionally, veterans of Midnight Special continue to participate in legal support in major recent mobilization including the Ferguson uprising, Standing Rock, and the Inauguration of Donald Trump.
The landscape of legal workers supporting movement mobilizations is now mostly informal, but tightly networked. The NLG Mass Defense Committee listserve offers a space to broadly exchange needs and opportunities for legal workers. Many of the legal support organizers with experience coordinating legal infrastructure for large mobilizations have long histories of working together through intense situations at earlier mobilizations and rely on direct contacts and personal relationships to mobilize each other across different movement space over time.
Tilting the Scales
More recently, another movement infrastructure organization that has emerged is the Tilted Scales Collective. Tilted Scales is a small anarchist collective whose work “has involved support during all stages of a person’s case — from arrest through trial and into post-conviction appeals and long term support during a person’s time in prison.” Tilted Scales has organized webinars and speaking tours on their goal setting framework and worked with defendants and their support committees to organize for a political criminal defense.
This work has helped to fill an important gap in movement legal support work. While the lawyers representing activists facing serious charges are generally experts in the law, many do not have experience with collective action or social movements. Dylan Petrohilos who had his home raided and was charged with multiple felonies for his role in organizing protests of President Donald Trump’s inauguration said the support provided by Tilted Scales was invaluable. “They helped to contextualize the political implications of organizing my legal defense. They gave me feedback and support through the whole process. Working with them felt like a security blanket.”
“The legal system is designed to be hyper-individualistic, and defendants are making decisions in a framework of uncertainty,” said an organizer from the Tilted Scales Collective. It is not uncommon for lawyers to encourage their defendants to take cooperating plea deals that involve informing on comrades or portraying their clients as “good protesters” as a way of distancing them from “bad protesters.” One of the roles of the Tilted Scales Collective, organizers say, is “preparing defendants to push their lawyers to create legal defenses that will help them achieve their goals for the charges they’re facing.”
In 2017, Tilted Scales published a Tilted Guide to Being A Defendant, a “guide for people who are seriously entangled in the criminal legal system, whether they are facing federal felony accusations, conspiracy charges, terrorist enhancements, or potential years or decades in prison.” The Tilted Guide offers political defendants a framework for setting and balancing personal, political and legal goals; suggestions on working with lawyers, codefendants, and support committees; and advice on resolving cases and, if needed, surviving prison.
As our social movements become more powerful and pose increasingly credible challenges to existing power structures, we can anticipate an acceleration in the repression of dissent. Throughout history, the state has responded to the growth of radical and revolutionary movements with surveillance, infiltration, violence, aggressive prosecution and incarceration. In just the past few years, hundreds of people arrested in Ferguson, Standing Rock, the inauguration of President Trump and dozens of other actions have been charged with serious felonies. If our movements hope to continue to increase our capacity to create disruption and challenge entrenched and unresponsive elites, we will also need to invest in our collective capacity to support each other through challenging and often long legal processes — from arrest, though prosecution, and incarceration.
 Rabinowitz and Ledwith, “A History of the NLG 1937 to 1987.”
Yesterday in Jefferson County, WV, over 300 community members showed up to take their concerns over toxic air and water pollution from a Danish Rockwool insulation factory straight to its gates.
Twenty-four people sat in and were arrested at the gates of the proposed Rockwool insulation plant. Local police barred the press and legal observers from video taping or photographing the arrests.
“They are choosing to make us their guinea pigs, they are choosing to put us in harms way, they are choosing to save money by using coal and gas and putting children in direct harms way its disgusting and I’m 100% against this factory, we will stop it,” Scott Sarich said, a protester and a parent.
Local, state and federal officials have secretly committed over $37 million for incentives to a Danish corporation that would impose a polluting factory and significantly deteriorate our land, air and water. The factory site is within 2 miles of public schools attended by 30% of the county’s students. The pollutants emitted by the factory include phenol, formaldehyde, methane and PM 2.5 that affect the kidney, liver, brain, heart and lungs. Furthermore, the 1400 acre industrial zone will use large amounts of water, coal and fracked gas in its operation.
To date, the WV Dept. of Environment has issued all the necessary permits for construction and operation, and the project has been supported by Senator Joe Manchin. (Shocking, we know.)