Legal Observers Stand By To Document Civil Rights Violations At Ohio Protests
Neon green shirts and caps can be spotted sprinkled across crowds at rallies in Columbus. But the people wearing them aren't there to demonstrate; rather, these legal observers are tasked with witnessing and recording any possible civil rights violations against protesters.
What they see and write may help attorneys build a case against law enforcement misconduct.
As police actions come under even greater scrutiny, the legal observers program is garnering new support from across the community. Since the beginning of recent protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, the number of legal observers in Columbus have nearly doubled to 200.
Kevin Truitt, head of the program for the Columbus, Ohio Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), has been involved in the program for over four years. Truitt says he just trained 182 new legal observers statewide, the largest number in recent memory.
“People are reaching out to us and are very excited. They want to support this movement,” Truitt says.
During the first week and a half of protests, Truitt says legal observers witnessed a number of alleged civil rights violations by police: excessive use of force, deployment of pepper spray and tear gas, and instances of officers in riot gear physically assaulting demonstrators.
To volunteer as a legal observer, it’s not required to be a licensed attorney or law student. Conflict of interest rules prevent anyone affiliated with law enforcement or a government agency, such as a prosecutor’s office, from participating.
The National Lawyers Guild established the Legal Observer Program in 1968, a time of extraordinary social unrest, civil rights demonstrations and anti-war protests. The law-savvy network was intended to support demonstrators’ First Amendment rights to free speech, and protect against unconstitutional behavior by law enforcement.
It’s part of the organization’s larger Mass Defense Committee that provides “know your rights” training, bail support and legal representation for arrested protesters.
Over 50 years later, the program's mission remains much the same. Truitt puts it simply: Legal observers are present at demonstrations, marches, protests or rallies to “monitor and document law enforcement misconduct.”
Columbus legal observers testified for the defense in the Black Pride 4 Trial in 2017, when four protesters were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, failure to comply and resisting arrest during the Columbus Pride Parade. Truitt says that legal observers provided testimony for three of the four involved, who were ultimately convicted on six of eight misdemeanor counts.
That was the only criminal trial Truitt can recall that used the testimonies of legal observers. However, Truitt also submitted a declaration for the Ohio ACLU's federal lawsuit against Columbus Police for pepper spraying protesters in January 2017, during rallies against President Trump's "Muslim ban."
Truitt says the NLG specifically supports efforts related to social and economic justice.
“We only show up for protests, rallies, and demonstrations that are consistent with our values, so it’s not just any protest,” Truitt says.
The NLG didn't deploy to this past May's "Open Ohio" protests at the Ohio Statehouse – where police took a less confrontational approach to the armed, mostly-white demonstrators criticizing Gov. Mike DeWine for closing businesses.
Anna Sanyal is a local attorney who recently became a legal observer. She says she's seen racism play out in her South Asian community and is pushing for solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“As you may know, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was an impetus for changing immigration policies in this country. These policies heavily favored highly educated Asian immigrants,” Sanyal says.
She wants her community to step up to the plate and support those protesting police violence.
“My people are here from those countries because of those activists, but we don’t recognize that as a community,” Sanyal says.
While Truitt and Sanyal acknowledge their motivations to become legal observers may be biased, they say the legal observing process itself is not.
“I think total objectivity is impossible in any context,” Truitt says.
Truitt argues that the imbalance of power at these demonstrations is clear to the plain eye.
“It doesn't feel hard to me to see police officers in riot gear deploying tear gas against peaceful protesters, chasing fleeing people and pepper spraying them, shoving people to the ground, officers on horseback nearly trampling people on public sidewalks, and conclude it is inherently and objectively wrong,” Truitt wrote in an email.
Truitt says legal observers don't normally record events with phones or camera, but rather rely on detailed written notes. Their documentation includes timestamps, locations, police activity, and where they are in the crowd.
“It's easy to report on these actions honestly, we saw them with our own eyes and experienced them ourselves,” he says.
Sanyal says that written documentation is critical in an age of cell phones, arguing that videos and images can be manipulated.
"You have a firsthand account of things that are happening as the day unfolds,” Sanyal says.
Legal observers have yet to testify for any criminal proceeding or civil rights trial related to recent demonstrations. Earlier in the month, after Columbus lifted its curfew, City Attorney Zach Klein dropped all curfew-related charges agaisnt arrested protesters. Klein said his office would review all violence charges filed against protesters, as well as claims of misconduct by police.
“The legal system moves very slowly, but it could happen down the road,” Truitt says.
In the future, Truitt says there may be other ways for legal observers to report their observations in Columbus City Council hearings or committee meetings.
Legal observers’ information exists specifically to protect the demonstrators and is protected by the “work product” doctrine. Disclosure of their notes can not be compelled by a subpoena.
“When you are legal observing, you are upholding the rule of law," Sanyal says. "We’re there to protect people’s constitutional rights to protest.”
Sanyal believes that simply being present as a legal observer and lawyer helps to balance the power dynamics during demonstrations.
“When you tell law enforcement that you are a lawyer, their tune changes. They’re more aware of what they’re doing,” Sanyal says.
Many demonstrators say they feel safer with a legal observer presence as well, Sanyal and Truitt noted.
"I wish that we didn’t need to be out there,” Truitt says. “It would be nice if we could find ways to let people gather, protest, and raise their voices without having to worry about law enforcement, violence, or brutality.”
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