Movement Lawyering Course Brings Community-Centered Fight for Social Change to AUWCL

April 23, 2021

BLM plaza in DC

When questioning inconsistencies in the law “applied differently to people based on skin color and a host of other immutable traits,” 3L Daraja Carroll said she’s often been given one answer – That’s just the way it is.

“I knew in taking this course on Movement Lawyering, I’d be getting more,” Carroll said. “More out of my education, more out of my time, and more out of my professors.”

Offered for the first time at AUWCL this spring, the 8-week Movement Lawyering course was taught by Adjunct Associate Professor Tasnim Motala.

“Movement lawyering takes a lot of ‘truths’ that we are told about the law and turns them on their head,” said Motala, who litigates cases relating to protesters' rights, police brutality, and prison conditions and co-directed Howard Law’s Movement Lawyering Clinic. “As movement lawyers, we fight for big and systemic change. We recognize that the law is not and has never been neutral to race, class, sexuality, and gender, and that justice and freedom will not come without challenging the foundations of our legal regime that uphold and entrench these inequalities.”

When it comes to implementing social change, the law is just one kit in a movement lawyer’s toolbox, Motala explained. While many see lawyers as the experts, movement lawyering requires attorneys to “decenter” themselves and allow the impacted communities and their organizers to take the lead in establishing strategy, narrative, and next steps. Litigation, protest, public information campaigns, and legislative advocacy are all approaches used by movement lawyers, she said.

“This country has never seen big change without the work of organizers and community activists. It is crucial that law students understand the role that lawyers have, and have not, played in these movements,” said Motala.

Fighting for Social Change

A part-time evening student, 4L Neil Jackson has worked for nearly a decade in the business of insurance and financial services. He took Movement Lawyering to learn where and how he can use his legal education to build a world that is more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable within this space.

“As architects of the laws governing society, we each have a role to play as lawyers in building a better and brighter future,” Jackson said. “This class challenged me to discover how I can live true to movement values throughout my career.” 

One main theme of the course is that seemingly varied social justice movements are inherently linked, Motala said. Topics discussed included immigrants rights, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ equality movements, abolition, internationalism, and the past and present fight for Black Liberation. Julie Mao, immigrants rights organizer and lawyer at Just Futures Law; Jenn Ubiera and Whit Washington of Law4Black Lives; Claire Glenn of the Prince George's (PG) County Public Defender's Office; Meena Jagannath from the Movement Law Lab; and Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights were some of the guest speakers to lend their insight and understanding to the class.

“[Warren said] that we often view the law as a zero sum game. However, losing a court case doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t accomplish your goals,” said 3L Dana Busgang, when asked about one of her key takeaways from the course. “Your client may feel vindicated just by having someone fight for them in court. Your case may create precedent that is helpful to future parties. You may receive significant media attention from your case, and the public pressure that results from the media attention can help accomplish your goals. Winning a case isn’t everything.”

Identifying Courtroom Injustices

In lieu of a final paper, Movement Lawyering students had the option to work with grassroots community group Life After Release. For this “Court Watch” project, students virtually attended bond hearings taking place in PG County, and made note of any injustices seen – including due process issues and judges behaving unprofessionally. They then worked with the organization to develop an advocacy plan to bring more attention and accountability to thee wrongdoings.

“The experience was both unsettling and invigorating,” Carroll said. “Court watching in PG County courtrooms is shocking, especially knowing the severity of the COVID-19 outbreaks in jails.”

3L Annie D’Amico said the project allowed students to witness “the level of disdain and apathy that PG County states attorneys regularly display while denying people their freedom, as well as the judges who listen to someone explain that their family relies on them to survive and then choose to set a $45,000 bond.”

Following a report of these injustice published last year by Howard Law Clinic students, which resulted in little resolution to the issues, D’Amico said she and other Movement Lawyering students worked to publish a similar report to illustrate just how little improvement has been made.

“Accountability is a huge shortcoming in the criminal justice system and one that I am passionate about improving,” she said. “I am incredibly grateful that this class, and specifically Professor Motala, created an outlet for students who feel the same.”