Meet The Lawyers Keeping an Eye on Occupy Wall Street

Photo by Jefferson Siegel

"Someone needs to get over to Bank of America."

The shout—aimed at a handful of National Lawyers Guild members gathered around a folding table—came from a group of some 200 people bunched together in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, a grassless plaza that is the headquarters of the month-old, anti-corporate demonstration known as Occupy Wall Street.

"I'll go," said Zainab Akbar.

Clad in a gray pantsuit and neon-green baseball cap emblazoned with the words "Legal Observer: National Lawyers Guild," Akbar hustled toward the intersection of Liberty Street and Broadway, where dozens of chanting, placard-waving protesters lined the sidewalk in front of the bank branch. A pack of New York City police officers stood nearby. As more demonstrators joined the throng, the number of police officers on the scene also increased. 

By the time Akbar, an unemployed lawyer who recently completed a fellowship with an American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Michigan, crossed the busy intersection, the marchers had begun to disperse and make their way back to the park. What might have turned into a tense standoff had ended before ever really starting.

"Whenever there’s interaction between police and protesters," she said, "we need to see what's going on."

Akbar is one of about 200 National Lawyers Guild members volunteering as legal observers on the scene at Occupy Wall Street. A national nonprofit composed of lawyers, legal workers, and law students, the guild is encouraging its members to monitor events at the Zuccotti Park encampment and to trail protesters when they march to locations elsewhere in the city.

The guild's mission, said Gideon Oliver, a solo practitioner and member of the executive committee of the group's New York City chapter, is to ensure that demonstrators are able to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Guild observers attempt to identify everyone who is arrested, record the arresting officer's badge number, and obtain contact information for potential witnesses. Following those steps makes it easier to coordinate jail support services and legal representation, said Jane Moison, a guild member and associate at criminal defense and civil rights firm Rankin & Taylor.

The observers' presence is especially important, Oliver said, when police make arrests in bunches.

"When arrests happen on a large scale, you need to get the names of people arrested to make sure they get through the system and out of police custody," he said. And when tensions flare between police and protesters, the presence of guild observers provides a cooling effect, added Martin Stolar, a New York City solo and former guild president: "Once protestors and police see the green hats, they know someone's watching."