NYC Legal Observers Detained At George Floyd Protest

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (June 5, 2020, 1:13 PM EDT) -- The New York City Police Department briefly detained at least 10 legal observers with the National Lawyers Guild during a peaceful protest in the Bronx on Thursday night amid ongoing demonstrations protesting the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

The observers, or "LOs," were grabbed and cuffed with zip ties shortly after Mayor Bill de Blasio's ongoing 8 p.m. curfew took effect, according to witnesses and the National Lawyers Guild. They were held for approximately 20 minutes, and some sustained minor injuries, such as scrapes. At least one was held against a vehicle. 

The legal observers, volunteers tasked with documenting police misconduct, are easy to spot because they wear bright green baseball caps that say "National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer" in large print. They were plucked out of a larger group of protesters "kettled," or surrounded by police, near East 136th Street and Brook Avenue in the Mott Haven neighborhood shortly before 8:00 p.m., according to witnesses.

"Everyone was just on their knees in a pit in the middle of the road, and they picked us out according to hats and lined us up against a car and took our IDs," one legal observer, who asked not to be named, told Law360 on Friday.

"I want to emphasize the fact that the legal observers were detained against the backdrop of deeply brutal arrests of our comrades, neighbors and friends. We were [detained] in a pit of others, but were cut," they added. 

Several legal observers noted that another group, known as the Black Legal Observers Collective, was also in the melee Thursday wearing red berets. Police did not group them with those in the green hats, and they could not immediately be reached for comment.

Social distancing was impossible, according to witnesses, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

"There was a woman right next to me who was just coughing constantly," one legal observer said. "The cops shoved us all together and we couldn't move. It was a strategic attack before curfew. People didn't even have the option to leave as far as I could tell."

Since de Blasio imposed a curfew this week, his office has fielded questions about various exemptions for essential workers, journalists and others. Legal observers carried printouts Thursday that said those who do "jail, legal, and medical support" are exempt.

"It's absolutely unacceptable that they were detained," NLG President Elena Cohen told Law360. "There were [high-ranking officers] at the protest who knew why they were there. The mayor very clearly stated that they were exempt."

The guild's legal observer program was established in 1968 in response to citywide anti-war and civil rights demonstrations, according to Cohen.

"A legal observer is trained by the National Lawyers Guild and they're there to observe and record incidents and activities of law enforcement in relation to demonstrators," she said. 

Incidents to look out for include use of force, denial of access to public spaces like parks and sidewalks, and other behavior that appears to restrict people from expressing their political views, Cohen added. 

Detainment of legal observers is not common, but has happened occasionally over the years, according to Cohen. The observers are typically lawyers, law students and paralegals.

One legal observer detained Thursday said they have monitored more than 15 protests in the last year without incident. The majority of the detained group was City University of New York law students, they said.

There were approximately 270 protest-related arrests across the city on Thursday night, according to an NYPD spokesperson, who described the figure as preliminary.

The department did not immediately comment on the decision to detain legal observers. 

During a press conference Friday morning, de Blasio said he discussed the issue with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea. "If someone is there in a legal role, they need to be respected. So, there's certainly things that we have to do better," de Blasio told reporters. "Any instance that is inappropriate must be fully investigated and acted on." 

After they were released Thursday, the observers stayed on the scene to speak with arrested protesters and take their names, part of an effort to connect them with legal representation. Many then dispersed to Bronx and Queens to provide jail support.

A mass-arrest processing center has been set up at the courthouse at 125-01 Queens Blvd. in Kew Gardens, Queens, for people arrested during demonstrations in the Bronx and Queens, according to a spokesperson for the courts. About 60 people were transferred from the Bronx to Queens for processing, he added. 

Siddika, a jail support coordinator with the group People's Power Assembly NYC who asked to be identified only by first name, told Law360 that she worked with several legal observers into the early morning hours on Friday.

"We definitely had a lot of people at the jail support, which was helpful and appreciated," she said.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

Update: This story has been updated with comment from the mayor. 

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