On The Case

Stepping up to represent protesters: ‘We’re lawyers. We have skills people need’

(Reuters) - Caleb Kruckenberg has a full-time job as litigation counsel at the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a Washington, D.C., public interest group. But on May 30, with protests breaking out across the country in response to the video of the death of George Floyd, Kruckenberg, who has experience as a prosecutor and public defender, took to Twitter to announce that he would provide pro bono representation to demonstrators arrested in Washington.

Since then, Kruckenberg told me, he has been deluged with calls and messages. Some are from people who want to go out to protests but are worried about being arrested. Kruckenberg said he warns those callers that if they are detained, they should expect to spend at least 24 hours in police custody without the ability to contact a lawyer or family members. Kruckenberg has also taken calls from people who’ve been arrested and released and want him to explain what will happen when they show up for court dates later this summer. Two people have asked Kruckenberg to take their cases, he said, including one man who appears to have been mistakenly arrested because he was wearing the same color shirt as a protester who breached police barricades.

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“It’s been hard to watch all of this,” Kruckenberg said. “We’re all feeling so powerless. But we’re lawyers. We have skills people need.”

Kruckenberg is one of hundreds of lawyers who have publicly offered pro bono representation to demonstrators arrested during this week’s protests. It’s been mostly a spontaneous uprising, though in Atlanta, volunteer lawyers have created a group, Atlanta Justice Lawyers, to coordinate efforts and offer training. And for Kruckenberg and two other lawyers I talked to about their pro bono representation of protesters, the work is a way to feel like they’re contributing to what could be a historic movement.

“My job is to uphold the Constitution,” said Houston criminal defense lawyer Brenda DeRouen. “What better way to do that than to defend people who are exercising their First Amendment rights?”

DeRouen started making a list of lawyers offering pro bono services as a resource for protesters, then quickly realized there were too many names to fit in one screenshot. Her database of lawyers and firms volunteering their services now includes more than 100 entries, she said, and she’s planning to add another 100 names. DeRouen and her associate are handling 10 pro bono cases themselves, mostly on behalf of protesters who, according to DeRouen, were arrested for trespassing after police herded them into a field.

Both DeRouen and criminal defense lawyer Damon Chetson of Raleigh, North Carolina, told me they’ve been criticized for offering to represent arrested protesters. Some volunteer lawyers on DeRouen’s list have said they will only accept cases involving non-violent charges like trespassing or obstructing a roadway. Not DeRouen or Chetson, who said he received an arson threat after posting an offer of pro bono service on Twitter on May 30.

Chetson said he was acting as a legal observer at a protest in Raleigh that night. From his vantage point, he said, the crowd seemed peaceful until police officers fired tear gas and began steering protesters toward the city’s main street. During that action, he said, storefront windows were broken – although Chetson maintains it will be impossible for prosecutors to show who broke them.

“It’s important for all of us to understand (protesters’)stories – to humanize someone who’s just called a looter,”Chetson said.

The real test of this moment, of course, is not what lawyers are doing today or next week. It’s whether the energy that inspired hundreds of lawyers to volunteer to represent protesters can produce reforms. That is the goal of We the Action, a three-year-old group that matches volunteer lawyers with nonprofits in need of pro bono services. We the Action announced on Tuesday that it had formed a racial justice task force. More than 500 lawyers have signed up to offer pro bono services, said the group’s president Sarah Baker. (In all, she said, the group has enrolled more than 10,000 lawyers to do pro bono work for more than 300 nonprofits.)

At the moment, Baker said, the task force is waiting for We the Action partners, such as the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights or the Mississippi Center for Justice or the Center for Policing Equity, to call on the lawyers who have signed up.

“These flash moments get people engaged,” said Baker. “What we want to see happening is sustained support for the organizations out there doing this work.”