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Legal Observer Manual

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National Lawyers Guild
Legal Observer Training Manual
National Lawyers Guild
143 Madison Ave 4th Fl
New York NY 10016
© 2003 National Lawyers Guild
This legal observer training manual is copyrighted and protected by the copyright laws of the United States
of America. Nevertheless, this legal observing training manual, or any portion hereof, may be reproduced
in whole or in part by political activists, organizers and their legal representatives, so long as attribution is
made to the National Lawyers Guild in a prominent place on the reproduced material. Any other use of any
portion of this legal observing training manual is strictly prohibited by law.
Cover photo credit: Heidi Boghosian
What Is the Legal Observer Program?
Who Are Legal Observers?
Responsibilities of the Legal Observer
Legal Observer Coordinator
Legal Observer Dress and Actions
Interacting with Police
Preparing for the Role of Legal Observer
On the Day of the Action
During the Demonstration
If People Are Arrested
Some Typical Charges Arrestees May Face
Be Particularly Aware of Certain Unconstitutional Police Tactics
“Pop-Up” Police Lines
Denial of Access to Public Fora
Intimidating Displays of Force
Speaking to the Media
Setting up a National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense/
Demonstration Committee
Preserving Physical Evidence
After the Demonstration
Legal Observation at Small or Local Events
I. Preparations for Organizing, Training, and Deploying
Legal Observers at Large Actions
Issue a “Call for Legal Observers” on the National Lawyers
Guild Web Site
Form Housing Committee
Identify Existing or Locate Office Space
Organize Messengers
Anticipate Contingencies
Legal Observer Coordinators Structure
Legal Observer Coordinator Communications
Important Information to Create and Gather
Gathering and Using Legal Observer Data
Develop Trust with Activists
Control National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer Identifiers
Appoint a Media Coordinator
Legal Team Roles
To Deploy, or Not to Deploy
Anticipate the Need for Last-Minute Legal Observer Trainings
Recommend Mini-Recorders
Keeping Alert and Aware
Other Organizations Training Legal Observers
Using Email for Communication
In Deploying Legal Observers, Anticipate Problems 15
Often, the Legal Observer Coordinators Are the First to 15
Realize the Potential for Problems 15
“Rover” Squads 16
Be Flexible
Encourage Legal Observers to Submit Reports Promptly
Contact Information 17
Legal Observer Application
Confidentiality Agreement
A Quick Reference for Legal Observers
Legal Observer Field Notes Example
Legal Observer’s Arrest Sheet
Exit Form
We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the following individuals and organizations in
the production of this manual:
Deb Laguitaris
Bruce Bentley
Mac Scott
Carol Sobel
Zak Wolfe
The Partnership for Civil Justice
The NYC People’s Law Collective
L. Roy Zipris
Kit Gage
The Legal Observer (LO) manual is divided into two sections. Section A details the role
and responsibilities of Legal Observers. Section B outlines how to establish a Legal
Observer team for a large or complex event.
This section contains basic information to equip you for your responsibilities as Legal
Observers. Please review it before attending a National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer
training so that you can bring up any questions that are not answered after reading this
What Is the Legal Observer Program?
The Legal Observer program is part of a comprehensive system of legal support
coordinated by the National Lawyers Guild designed to enable people to express their
political views as fully as possible, without unconstitutional disruption or interference by
the government and with the least possible consequences from the criminal justice
system. In addition to Legal Observers, Guild attorneys provide legal defense for
protestors who are arrested and bring civil litigation to protect protesters’ Constitutional
Who Are Legal Observers?
Legal Observers are typically, but not exclusively, law students, legal workers (for
example, paralegals or employees of a community based organization that works on legal
issues) and lawyers who may or may not be licensed locally. Legal Observers are trained
and directed by Guild attorneys, who often have established attorney-client relationships
with activist organizations, or are in litigation challenging police tactics at political
Responsibilities of the Legal Observer
The primary role of the Legal Observer is to be the eyes and ears of the legal team–to
observe and record incidents and the activities of law enforcement in relation to the
demonstrators. This includes documenting, for example, any arrest, use of force,
intimidating display of force, denial of access to public spaces like parks and sidewalks,
and any other behavior on the part of law enforcement that appears to restrict
demonstrators’ ability to express their political views. This documentation needs to be
done in a thorough and professional manner, so that lawyers representing arrestees or
bringing an action against the police generally will be able to objectively evaluate the
constitutionality of government conduct. Information gathered by Legal Observers has
contributed to an extremely successful track record in defending and advancing the rights
of demonstrators, including in criminal trials and several major lawsuits against Federal
and local governments for their unconstitutional actions.
The presence of Legal Observers serves as a deterrent to unconstitutional behavior by
law enforcement during a demonstration. Police officers are often deterred from
engaging in unconstitutional activity when their actions are being documented.
Legal Observers do not engage in crowd control, speak to the media, interfere with an
arrest in progress or provoke actions. If asked for legal advice, it is best to refer
protestors to Guild lawyers or provide them with Know Your Rights publications. This
ensures demonstrators receive information that is accurate in the local jurisdiction, and
avoids issues of the unauthorized practice of law.
Legal Observer Coordinator
The Legal Observer Coordinator is responsible for (1) serving as liaison with the Legal
Team, including attorneys; (2) making sure that Legal Observers are located in critical
spaces around the exterior of demonstration and at the front, back and sides of the march;
and (3) collecting notes, green Legal Observer hats and armbands if worn, as well as any
visual documentation (films or videotapes). The Coordinator is responsible for getting
this documentation to the attorneys conducting criminal defense or civil action. If
necessary and if requested, he or she may vet this written and visual documentation.
Legal Observer Dress and Actions
Legal Observers should generally avoid wearing shirts with political slogans or buttons
that might undermine the credibility of all National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers.
Although Legal Observers must always be prepared to face police harassment, there are
good reasons to avoid unnecessary confrontations, the most obvious being that a Legal
Observer who is dealing with police harassment is, during that time, unable to provide
Legal Observer assistance to demonstrators.
One of the primary functions of the Legal Observer is to act as a deterrent to dangerous
or illegal activities by law enforcement. Thus, legal observers should be visible to both
activists and police.
Methods to maintain visibility:
• Identifying clothing
- Legal Observer Hats
- Badges or armbands
• Announce presence of Legal Observers to activists and note identifying clothing
• Maintain a central presence if possible, such as by having a Legal Observer table
or banner where Legal Observers can be located and check in if necessary.
• Dress comfortably and conservatively. Note how members of the media dress, in
casual clothes with lots of pockets.
Legal Observer hats and armbands are available from the National Lawyers Guild
National Office and will be given out at Legal Observer trainings.
Legal observers are safest and most effective when they work in teams. Try to avoid the
impulse to run off on your own no matter how chaotic the event may get. Your partner
depends on you. One should take notes, and the other should record the action via
audiotape, still camera, or video camera, if your local Guild Chapter or Legal Team so
advises. The note taker can help the visual recorder by watching for interference from
others or by pointing out poor walking surfaces, such as a nearby curb.
Not all actions will have sufficient legal observers on hand to work in teams. In these
instances, exercise additional caution. Check in frequently with the Legal Observer
Coordinator or command center.
The NLG coordinates and deploys Legal Observers for the purpose of safeguarding and
advancing the Constitutional rights of the demonstrators. We do not pretend that we
have no politics. It is not even uncommon for the NLG to have a public position similar
to that of the demonstrators we are supporting in a legal capacity, as, for example, at a
protest against a war that the NLG has condemned as unlawful. Nevertheless, the Legal
Observer role is a distinct one, and needs to be approached with a high measure of
To properly serve our purposes, the NLG observers need to be identifiable as a part of the
professional legal support on which demonstrators count. Think about what kind of
person would best put the police on notice that their actions are being documented as part
of a professional operation that will hold them accountable in Court for any violations of
protesters’ rights. We should take every step we can to maximize the benefit to the
demonstrators who are counting on an effective legal support team. Also, the attorneys
who will be reviewing your notes are counting on you to be thorough and professional.
Especially with the growing use of the lime green Legal Observer hats that people readily
identify with the National Lawyers Guild, people know of our support by our mere
presence. It is also helpful to explain to people — with the increasing numbers of new
people stepping forward to express their views — what the Guild Legal Observers’ role
is, and the importance of maintaining that appearance of professionalism to the success of
their demonstrations and the ability to defend against arrests.
In short, we ask people to commit themselves to act as Legal Observers and not
protestors, and avoid blurring of lines between Legal Observer and activist.
Interacting with Police
Do not argue or fraternize with the police. You may be arrested for any number of
charges if you argue. And by being too friendly to law enforcement you may send the
wrong message to protestors who rely on the Guild at demonstrations. However, you
should ask the police pointed questions, such as, “Why are you telling people to leave
this part of the park?” Their answers may later serve to document what is occurring for
later evaluation, and may also serve to deter unconstitutionally overbroad restrictions on
Preparing for the Role of Legal Observer
Familiarize yourself with the various “Know Your Rights” materials that are available on
the Guild website, as well as These materials are
largely directed toward an audience of political demonstrators, and will help you to
identify some of the primary legal issues that may arise at demonstrations. We also have
available packets of relevant statutory text and case annotations for certain jurisdictions.
To be an effective Legal Observer, you should understand the kinds of situations that
might lead to arrest, as well as the Constitutional and statutory limitations on law
enforcement, as well as the common mistakes, attitudes, and decisions made by police
that give rise to defenses to criminal charges.
While Legal Observers, especially non-lawyer Legal Observers, should not give legal
advice, your observation should be informed by a general familiarity with the kinds of
charges people might face, what happens when people get arrested, what defenses might
be raised at trial, and what types of government misconduct might lead to civil litigation.
You should also have a basic understanding of potential defenses such as the rights of
assembly, speech, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances; justification
(essentially, the commission of a harmful act reasonably believed necessary to avoid a
greater harm); self-defense and defense of others; and de minimis infractions (where the
actor’s conduct may have caused the harm that the law prohibits but to an extent too
trivial to condemn with a conviction). This knowledge will help you identify things to
look for and record during a demonstration. An overview of this information is provided
in these written materials, but it is imperative that you rely upon local attorneys to
provide you a list of the specific codes, charges, and possible punishments that may arise
in your jurisdiction.
Depending on what your local Guild Chapter or local Legal Team advises, you will need
to bring the some of the following items with you:

Notebook and pens
Green Guild Legal Observer hat that identifies you as an observer
Legal Team telephone list
Identification and bar card if you have one
Cell phone or adequate change for pay phone
Area map if needed
Police misconduct forms
Police department phone numbers: precinct-division-Headquarters

Audio recorder
Camera (disposable cameras are recommended)
On the Day of the Action

Show up early, a bit before your appointed time
Check in with the Legal Observer Coordinator
Get your location assignment and double check it on a map
Become familiar with any mass transit in the area or arrange for other
Exchange cell numbers with Legal Observer Coordinator and other Legal
Check in with the Legal Observer Coordinator throughout the day
At the end of the day, check in with the Legal Observer Coordinator
a. To sign out so they know you are present and out of harm
b. To see if you are needed to go to a precinct or convergence center
c. To surrender to the Legal Observer Coordinator any notes or evidence
you may have collected
During the Demonstration
Take detailed notes, including:
What law enforcement agencies are present (city, county, state, federal, private
security) and any names and badge numbers you are able to see, especially of those
conducting an arrest
If you cannot see this kind of identifying information or if there is none, note down
physical descriptions as best you can
Who is in charge
Warnings given, who gave them, what they said, how much of it (if any) you can hear
Routes taken by demonstrators (streets and times)
What media is present
Names of people arrested and their conduct (walk, passive, resists)
Officers’ conduct and any special circumstances (force used, injuries, sweeps,
inability of demonstrators to disperse)
If you have a camera, and if your local Legal Observer Coordinator and Legal Team have
asked that you do so, take a few photos to document the scene even before it appears that
the police are intending to take any action with regard to the demonstrators.
If an incident between police and demonstrators occurs, get as close to the scene as
necessary to get a good perspective. A clear angle may be more important than getting
close if your vision will be obscured. If you have a camera, the wider point of view may
in fact reveal more than closer shots that are too narrow.
Each note entry should begin with the time and location. If you know that people near
you are intending to commit civil disobedience, introduce yourself and find out if there is
someone designated to avoid arrest and act as a contact, such as an Aaffinity group
support person.” Much can happen very quickly once arrests start, but try to identify who
is planning on being arrested or whether a support person is in the area who knows their
names and is not getting arrested. Try to find out from the police where they are being
taken for processing, and the likely charges. As soon as possible, alert the Legal Team
about the arrests.
It is essential that Legal Observers avoid being arrested themselves. If you are told by
police that you must leave the area or be arrested, the most important thing is to remain
calm and professional. Show the officer your legal observer ID and explain that you are
working with attorneys who represent the demonstrators. Evaluate the situation and do
not be scared-off too readily, but do not push to the point of being arrested. Legal
Observers are far more effective when they are not incarcerated! If the police ask for
your notes, tell them you are working with attorneys representing the demonstrators and
that your notes are protected as work product.
Stay vigilant at all times. Look for the incongruous detail which could indicate potential
troublemakers or undercover police: the person who comes out of the crowd to join the
march, people whose dress and general appearance aren’t appropriate to the group they
are with. Be watchful for counter-demonstrators who may instigate violence or try to
provoke protestors.
Violent fascist and hate groups have increased their visibility recently, particularly at
demonstrations attended by people of color and immigrants. When you see potential
problems, alert other legal observers in your area so the potential problems can be
monitored. If the demonstrators have organized security volunteers, you should alert
them as well. Document observations that might be relevant to defenses of self-defense
and defense of others, and to civil litigation. A conspiracy of two or more persons to
deprive an individual of equal protection of the laws and equal exercise of their
Constitutional rights is a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. S 1985(3).
If People Are Arrested
At the site of arrest you should ask the police where arrested people are being taken. If
directed to do so by the Legal Observer Coordinator or local Law Collective, go to the
appropriate precinct and talk to the desk Sergeant, ask about charges and when protestors
will be released, advocating for their earliest release.
Legal Observers witnessing arrests should get the arrestee’s name and as many names
and phone numbers as fast as possible from surrounding witnesses. Deal with addresses
and statements at a later time if need be. Encourage the arrestee and friends to shout out
the arrestee’s name or affinity alias if the group has decided to practice legal solidarity.
This is very important as law enforcement has sometimes denied access to arrested
activists if we cannot provide a name.
Ask to talk to the arrested protestors in the van and/or at the police station and tell them
not to say anything except “I want to talk to a lawyer,” and explain that the team lawyers
can answer detailed questions later. Make sure the legal team, or attorneys on call, or
legal aid, or someone, knows about the arrests.
Some Typical Charges Arrestees May Face
This list is not meant to be comprehensive, or specific to any jurisdiction. Counsel must
be consulted to determine local ordinances and statutes, and the penalties attached

Disorderly Conduct
Illegal Assembly
Conspiracy to Riot
Possession of Instruments of Crime
Resisting Arrest
Assaulting an Officer
Aiding and Abetting a Crime
Be Particularly Aware of Certain Unconstitutional Police Tactics
Several tactics of local and federal police agencies are being challenged as
unconstitutional in pending litigation. You can read the Complaints in several major
lawsuits against D.C. and Federal agencies at Please be especially
aware of and carefully document the tactics listed below, as well as the more obvious
offensive tactics like excessive force and unjustified arrests.
“Pop-Up” Police Lines. Police sometimes deploy lines of officers who obstruct
demonstrator movement, either misdirecting them, splitting up groups, or detaining and
arresting the demonstrators. Please carefully document:

Where the police line is established, and when
Whether the police line is altering the flow of a march, or trapping people
Any identifiable groups that are being detained or obstructed, such as a “black
bloc,” youth contingent, group leaving or going to a particular rally, bystanders
watching the event
Names, badge numbers, and jurisdictions such as MPD, Park Police
What the police say is the reason for establishing the police line, if they will tell
you, and what happens when demonstrators approach the police line and ask if
they can leave
How this impacts the demonstrators: period of time detained, number of extra
blocks they must walk to reach their destination
Denial of Access to Public Fora. Police sometimes set up police lines or barricades that
prevent people from using sidewalks, parks, and other public fora. Carefully document:

What spaces are “closed” in this manner
Names, badge numbers, and jurisdictions involved in the closure
What the police say is the reason for the closure
Who is being denied access – get at least a few names and contact information
How this impacts the demonstrators – beyond being unable to access those closed
spaces, does this impact their ability to get to the site of a demonstration or cause
groups to split-up or lose coherence?
Related to this, sometimes the police will line a march and prevent people from joining
or leaving the demonstration. Please be sure to document this as well, including exactly
what happens when people try to enter or leave, and contact information for those people.
Intimidating Displays of Force. Either as a sudden, “pop-up police line” as above, or
established along march routes, the police employ various means of intimidation. This
includes marching and striking their batons against their riot gear armor in unison, aiming
large canisters of pepper spray at the crowd, jabbing their batons forward, and verbal
threats. In addition to documenting who is doing this, please pay attention to how this
impacts the demonstrators. Are people expressing concern or fear, or quieting down their
chanting? Be aware that several instances of violence at demonstrations are alleged to
have been committed by plain-clothed police agents provocateur.
Speaking to the Media
Legal Observers should refer reporters to the Media Team if there is one or the Legal
Observer Coordinator. Legal Observers should limit their media contact, primarily
because it may distract from observation tasks. Remember that police activity at one end
of a march may be very different from what is happening at your end of the march. The
government would love to use a Legal Observer’s statement that “the police have been
low-key all day” when the NLG sues for police brutality that occurred at the back half of
the march.
Setting up a National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense/Demonstration Committee
The first step in establishing a Mass Defense or Demonstration Committee is to
participate in a National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer training, if you have not already
done so. Collect and read all Guild Legal Observer manuals. Invite Guild or local
criminal defense lawyers and civil litigation lawyers to serve on the committee, either as
active participants or as advisors. Immigration lawyers and disability lawyers are also
useful. If you are a Guild Law School Chapter and do not have lawyer members, make
contact with the nearest Guild chapter and ask them to help you. Ask the National Office
to put you in touch with someone from the Mass Defense Committee.
The next step is to select a Committee Coordinator and make sure that he or she has
everyone’s contact information, including cell phones. Schedule regular meetings, such
as the second Wednesday of each month. This is important in order to review upcoming
actions, to discuss pending arrests, to orient new members and to share up to date
information. Make sure that the Committee maintains regular contact with the local
National Lawyers Guild Chapter. Establish a telephone tree and/or email list as you get
larger to make sure people know about upcoming events.
Research local criminal law and, as best you can, find out about police patterns at
demonstrations and actions. Get to know the location of local police stations, jails,
immigrant detention centers etc. Make contact and establish working relationships with
the local Public Defender or Legal Aid Office. Try to work out what role they can take in
mass defense. If appropriate, and if organizational or members’ politics match that of the
Guild, invite them to join the committee. Caution: in some areas this collaboration works
well, in others it can be difficult. Use your best judgment.
Consider issuing a press release announcing that the local chapter of the NLG has joined
chapters around the country in developing a program to train and coordinate Legal
Observers, who will document Constitutional violations at the upcoming demonstration.
This is a way also to put the police on notice and explain your role, without appearing to
be working “with” them.
Get to know local activist organizations, unions, and community organizations. Let them
know what you can offer but be careful not to offer more than you can actually do.
Once you get going, invite other legal workers, lawyers, and law students to join, but
make sure you train everyone. Offer to give “Know Your Rights” trainings as well to
Preserving Physical Evidence
Obviously, you should not interfere with people receiving medical treatment. If someone
is injured and receiving treatment, wait quietly off to the side until the treatment is
concluded. There may be witnesses around that you can speak with while the person is
being treated, and you can actually assist the medics by asking people to take a few steps
back and tell you what they saw. The medics will generally need to move on quickly, but
at least get their contact information. If the person who was injured wants to talk now,
great; but if not, just ask if they want to leave contact information.
If the police fire any kind of weapon, be sure to collect spent ammunition from the area.
Photograph it before you retrieve it from its location, if possible. Rubber bullets and
“beanbag” projectiles are easy to locate. Place them in a plastic evidence bag. Look for
areas of impact as a starting point for live lethal rounds.
After the Demonstration
While the incident is still fresh in your mind, take a minute to review your notes to add
any details that you may have abbreviated and clarify any shorthand notations. Later,
when the demonstration has ended, review your notes again to make sure that they are
legible and the events are understandable. Remember that any trial likely will not take
place for months. For any significant incident, fill out the Legal Observer Summary
Worksheet and provide it to the legal team for their evaluation of the legal significance of
those events. You are taking notes and completing forms at the request of attorneys, to
assist them in evaluating the legal significance of police conduct. Your notes are
therefore privileged from disclosure to the government under the doctrine of Awork
product immunity.” However, it is conceivable that at some point it may be determined
that you have unique information that is relevant to an issue in dispute in a legal
proceeding. In that event, you may need to be identified as a witness and potentially
testify. It is possible that some of your materials may supboenaed by the government in
certain circumstances. This is one more reason to be certain that your notes are very clear
and accurate, and that you do not use shorthand or turns of phrase that could be
Legal Observation at small or local events
At smaller demonstrations it is likely that there will be only one or just a few observers. It is
a good idea to be in contact with the organizers beforehand. Go early to the demonstration,
introduce yourself and any other Legal Observers present to the organizers. Ask them to
announce your presence to the crowd at the beginning of the demonstration so people know
who you are. (This may not be necessary in cities where the NLG Legal Observer program
is well known among demonstrators.) Ask them how they want to interact with police and
what role they want you to take. You should try to have a Legal Observer Coordinator and a
Police Liaison, but these can be doubled up if there are just one or only a few Legal
Make it clear to organizers that you are not decision makers, you are their legal people. You
are there to advise (if a lawyer) or provide information (if legal workers and law students),
observe and support.
Once the communications structure is worked out, the Police Liaison should introduce
himself or herself to the police, ask to speak with the officer in charge and let them know
why you are there and who they should speak to if they want to speak to someone.
As mentioned earlier, assign Legal Observers to locations so they are spread out but covering
any potential trouble spots such as the front and back of the march and areas where police
lines are set up. Arrange a communication system: exchange cell numbers, distribute walkie-
talkies, and set up runners. When Legal Observers are in their locations they should identify
and introduce themselves to organizers, or peacekeepers or marshals in that location so the
organizer/peacekeeper/marshal knows who to go to with legal concerns, and the Legal
Observers with logistical or security concerns knows who to approach as well.
Make sure Legal Observers know to check in with you regularly and before they go home.
Watch for arrests and the situations noted above. Try to have a pre-arranged lawyer for
arrests if there is no legal team, and/or communications with the local public defender.
When arrests occur, talk with the officer in charge to try to determine charges, where those
arrested are being taken, and possible release times.
At the end of the demonstration collect all notes and films from Legal Observers and
make sure you have contact information for each piece and for all Legal Observers in
general. If necessary, go to where arrestees are being taken to get more information
about them. Make sure they have someone to represent them if they are being arraigned,
and that they have information on how to get representation if released at the site or at a
police station.
This information is based on the experiences of the Legal Observer team organizers at the
Republican National Convention (R2K) protests in Philadelphia in July 2000. These
materials were supplied by L. Roy Zipris, attorney and Legal Observer Coordinator at
I. Preparations for Organizing, Training, and Deploying Legal Observers at Large
Issue a “Call for Legal Observers” on the National Lawyers Guild Web Site
Unless your chapter has a sufficient number of local Legal Observers, issue a call early.
Ideally, you can issue the call as soon as you know when the event is scheduled. If it is a
large action, you might receive numerous calls of interest from out-of-towners. Include a
space on the application for a local phone number and address.
As the likelihood of police infiltration of Legal Observer training is quite real, consider
asking Legal Observer applicants for references, such as a known activist or National
Lawyers Guild member who can vouch for the applicant’s identity. Take this possibility
seriously and check references.
Form Housing Committee
Put out a call for local people willing to provide housing for out-of-town Legal
Observers. If needed, assign a Housing Coordinator to handle this task.
Identify Existing or Locate Office Space
If no space is available for a Legal Observing office that is accessible 24 hours a day,
seven days a week, find a suitable space and organize round the clock office staffing.
This should include at least two people from approximately 8am-10pm. During these
prime hours, there should always be someone at the office to coordinate and re-deploy
Legal Observers in response to emergencies, as well as to answer the myriad questions
and problems that invariably will arise.
Organize Messengers
Organize a team of bicycle or motorcycle “messengers” who can be dispatched to check
out reports from activists or other organizations, and communicate sensitive information.
Messengers should have cell phones or walkie-talkies. Messengers often come from a
local Law Collective.
Anticipate Contingencies
Anticipate and prepare for as many contingencies as one might conceive: they are likely
to occur in some crazy fashion during the actions.
Legal Observer Coordinators Structure
The Legal Observer “command structure” should be in place as early as possible, because
it is hard to organize once events get under way. It is not good to delay a vision of what
might occur with a “wait and see” attitude, which is clearly inadequate for a small chapter
of the National Lawyers Guild. The consequence may be overload and undue stress on a
small circle of people who were repeatedly called upon to put out fires.
Legal Observer Coordinator Communications
Every Legal Observer Coordinator should have a cell phone. If the chapter must rent
phones for coordinators who don’t have their own, assign someone to begin pricing
immediately. As a rule, not enough are available to borrow at the last minute. Individual
Legal Observers or Guild Chapters may incur high expenses for cell phone rental.
Important Information to Create and Gather
Develop two lists of important phone numbers (such as the activists’ office, their Legal
Committee contact, the National Lawyers Guild office, the local ACLU). One list is for
general distribution to Legal Observers, and the other is for circulation among the activist
and Legal Observer leadership only. The latter list would also include home and cell
phone numbers for people in positions of responsibility who have offered to be available
around the clock or some similar availability. Restricting access to these numbers will
eliminate unnecessary “panic calls” to these people in the middle of the night.
Prepare a map of the city, with police districts delineated, and maps of the areas likely to
be targets of demonstrations and marches.
Create a computer data bank of Legal Observer information drawn from the applications.
From that database, create a program to produce sub-lists of Legal Observer volunteers
according to important factors: i.e., hours and dates of availability, who has a cell phone,
who has a video camera, who has a bicycle or motorcycle and can rove.
Gathering and Using Legal Observer Data
To ensure confidentiality, discuss with the legal defense team where Legal Observers
should send their reports, photographs, videos, and any other legal documents. At an
early stage, organize how the information will be collated and made available to the
defense team.
Develop Trust with Activists
It is essential to engender a strong bond of trust with the activists involved in a given
demonstration. Early contact with organizers is critical; otherwise it can be difficult to
obtain information necessary for Legal Observers preparations. Activists’ well-founded
reticence grounded in caution and the need for secrecy the weeks before and during
actions have resulted in sometimes-ineffective assistance on the part of the Legal
Observer team. Part of the problem perhaps arose from an entirely justified fear of
infiltration and telephone taps.
Control National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer Identifiers
Generally, Legal Observers do not act as “peacemakers” or “peacekeepers.” If Legal
Observers are known to the police as credible, however, they can often intercede in
potential crises on the behalf of demonstrators when appropriate and when asked to do
so. To maintain this credibility, it is important to control National Lawyers Guild Legal
Observer identifiers. If Legal Observer identifiers such as hats or armbands fall into
unauthorized hands, the actions of these people might result in the harassment of
National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers. Local Guild Chapters should decide on their
philosophy so that it can be made clear during training.
Appoint a Media Coordinator
Decide whether you wish “street-level” Legal Observers to make comments to the media,
or whether all requests should go to the media coordinator.
Legal Team Roles
Make sure that the activists on the Legal team understand the role that Legal Observers
will play, distinguishing that function from the role the lawyers on the legal defense team
will play. Of course, a close relationship between the Legal Observer Coordinators and
the Legal Defense Team is ideal.
To Deploy, or Not to Deploy
Determine in advance whether or not Legal Observers will be sent to actions where your
aid has not been requested. Although some groups don’t ask because they don’t know we
exist or just don’t think about Legal Observers, other groups may not want witnesses on
hand. Try to contact the organizers and ask if they want Legal Observers.
Anticipate the Need for Last-Minute Legal Observer Trainings
Early Legal Observer training is of course useful, but during multi-day actions, anticipate
a late crest of interest and be prepared with personnel to train new Legal Observers.
Recommend Mini-Recorders
During Legal Observer trainings, recommend the use of mini-recorders to “take notes”
during an event. Remind people to use the counter when they transcribe their notes so
that the actual place in the tape of any specific reference can be readily located. Not only
is the use of a tape recorder efficient, allowing the Legal Observer full mobility, but the
tape of the actual event–with the background noises and confusion– may be highly
effective evidence at trial.
Keeping Alert and Aware
Remind Legal Observers that it is important to keep alert while they walk with protesters,
keeping an eye out for incongruities: someone stepping out of the crowd to join a march,
someone dressed in a discordant manner or hecklers, for example. Particularly during
permitted, peaceful marches, many inexperienced Legal Observers walked along,
chatting, and not paying sufficient attention to the peripheries.
An example of situations to be alert for: During one march, there were 10-12 undercover
cops dressed like fraternity kids in baggy khaki shorts and t-shirts; they stood out clearly
from the march’s legitimate constituency. Remind Legal Observers that “infiltrators”
should be brought to the attention of march security or coordinators to be dealt with as
those authorities consider appropriate.
Other Organizations Training Legal Observers
If other organizations (such as the ACLU) are also training Legal Observers, consider
whether you want to coordinate the training and deployment of Legal Observers. Note
that the training and underlying philosophies of these organizations groups may be
Using Email for Communication
Because the primary means of communicating with Legal Observers may be e-mail,
remind people to check their e-mail often. If people don’t have e-mail or don’t have
access to their accounts at night or on weekends, develop a phone list or phone tree as an
In Deploying Legal Observers, Anticipate Problems
During the Republication National Convention (J20), Legal Observers were, at times,
unable to reach certain locations because police closed off checkpoints or blocked people
from crossing major streets; when the parade began, people could not cross Presidential
Avenue. Consider placing Legal Observers on each side of major arteries.
Often, the Legal Observer Coordinators Are the First to Realize the Potential for
For example, there may be many unannounced (although not necessarily spontaneous)
actions, often several occurring at the same time, sometimes at the same place, and you
will learn of them when calls for Legal Observers come in, and it will be immediately
clear that there is a conflict. On more than one occasion, the Philadelphia Guild Chapter
was informed of two actions, independent of each other, in the same place and time,
where the two groups had not talked with each other and had no idea of the other group’s
action. We then had to get groups to communicate with each other to avoid undermining
or harming each other’s actions. It is essential to have a list of contact people (including
cell phone numbers) for each group that asks for Legal Observer assistance.
“Rover” Squads
Have a squad of rovers available and ready to go anywhere, anytime. Besides impromptu
actions, there were demonstrations that you may not about in advance, in part because the
leadership never knew to ask for aid. Try not to be forced to scramble these actions.
Be Flexible
Often, in Philadelphia, when some group thought their agenda was at issue, they did not
always want to work in solidarity with other groups. The anarchistic tendencies of some
groups required Legal Observers to make quick decisions in the field about whether or
when to follow splinter actions. “Spur of the moment” decisions are easier to make if you
have previously determined the chapter’s position on whether Legal Observers should go
where they have not been requested, considering that demonstrators, for their own
reasons, may not want Legal Observers present. (See Part I, §7, above.)
Encourage Legal Observers to Submit Reports Promptly
At the earliest phase, have a team ready to sift through the Legal Observer reports to
organize them into a coherent picture of the events. This will allow the defense lawyers
to prepare bail reduction petitions or probable cause/habeas corpus challenges, and the
other members of the legal team to prepare and file civil rights law suits, if and where
Note: These are only samples and are intended to be used
to assist in developing event-specific or
geographic-specific materials that meet the needs of the
local Legal Observing and legal teams.

About author
A #globalrevolution enthusiast. Twitter: @AliceKhatib
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