The Watchers

Protesting at the GOP convention? Legal observers have your back.

Legal observers say heavy-handed treatment and prolonged detentions have had a chilling effect on dissenters, causing some to tone down their actions and others to avoid protests entirely. "I'm concerned about security too," said Joel Kupferman, a public interest lawyer who attends an average of one protest a week in New York City. "But there's no clash between security and allowing people to exercise their First Amendment rights. That's what makes America different."

At "Know Your Rights" training sessions, given by members of the National Lawyers Guild, protesters can learn the legal ramifications of their activities, how best to deal with the police, and how to proceed if their case goes to trial. (See for information about upcoming classes.)

Activists view the work of legal observers as integral to their efforts. "Legal observers are an arm's length from protest activity and play an important role in police accountability and ensuring our rights," said Bill Dobbs, spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, one of the groups planning a large-scale demonstration during the convention. "They observe the events as they unfold on the street, and provide invaluable legal advice right on the spot."

Miami, November 2003: Legal observers brave the tear gas with free-trade demonstrators.
photo: Jake Price/SIPA Press
Miami, November 2003: Legal observers brave the tear gas with free-trade demonstrators.

Though most legal observers acknowledge that their own politics tend to align them closer to the activists than to police, they pride themselves on their neutrality during events.

"I'd be willing to be a legal observer for the Ku Klux Klan," said Benjamin Bernard, a student at New York Law School. "Whether I agree personally or not, I'd go to protect their constitutional rights."

Those rights, as simple as the First Amendment may sound, are not so easily secured.

"Just being present puts the police on notice that there are people there watching how they conduct themselves," said Bentley. "There is a long history in this country of progressive political activism, and I think that if we can play a role that helps people to safely and orderly express themselves, then that's a good thing."

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