By Emily Donovan, Law Bulletin staff writer
Friday at noon, as other Loop workers took lunch breaks in the warm, rare mid-February sun, a criminal-defense attorney rallied a crowd of more than 150 in Federal Plaza, across from the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.
“Whose court is this?” Molly E. Armour asked into a megaphone.
“Our court!” the crowd chanted.
Chicago was one of 17 cities across the nation where the National Lawyers Guild organized hourlong rallies near courthouses. These rallies were in support of the General Strike, a move to protest President Donald Trump by coordinating strike actions across the nation.
“As we saw with all of the people who answered the call to go to O’Hare [to aid detainees of Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 travel ban], there are lawyers in our community who share these values but find themselves siloed in their work and don’t necessarily work for traditional legal aid organizations or volunteer regularly with these types of groups,” Armour said. “There are opportunities for them and we are here to help organize and work together on these issues that we have already identified and that we know are coming in these dangerous times ahead.”
Armour, owner of the Law Office of Molly Armour and the Midwest regional vice president of the guild, said the guild started discussing rallies of lawyers about two weeks earlier and that a “legal strike” in Chicago was brainstormed a week beforehand.
“As you can probably hear out your window every day, there are marches happening in the streets all the time and today we’re just going to be saying that we are a part of this community and we have certain skills that we will marshal — our legal skills — in service of the movement,” Armour said.
Standing behind banners advertising the Chicago guild and other social justice legal organizations, a midsized crowd held signs saying “silence = compliance,” “There are no ‘so-called’ judges in a Democracy!” and “Our so-called president must respect the judicial system.”
Shortly after noon, a larger crowd of protesters joined — including several people waving antifascist signs, several holding anti-Trump signs, one man beating a drum, someone blowing what sounded like a vuvuzela horn, one person wearing a “Black Lives Matter” sweatshirt and another wearing a pink pussy hat like those seen at last month’s Women’s March — and Armour turned on the megaphone.
The rally was co-sponsored by 22 other organizations that Armour described as having “a long-standing history of being there for movements.” They work in issues like immigration, mass incarceration, homelessness and community activism and included the People’s Law Office, Community Activism Law Alliance, the Uptown People’s Law Center, The John Marshall Law School student chapter of the American Constitution Society, Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Many speakers, like Max Michael Suchan, the mass defense coordinator at the Chicago guild and coordinator of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, asked attorneys to volunteer and get involved with the issues.
“We’re going to have increased need,” Suchan said. “As this administration ramps up its efforts, we know that resistance will increase as well. We are going to be there and we need you to be there with us.”
Speakers celebrated the increase in legal volunteering they’ve seen since the Trump administration took place.
Lam Nguyen Ho, founder and executive director of the Community Activism Law Alliance, said lawyers must unite with activists to offer their legal services in the way the activists need.
“Over the last two months, we haven’t been prouder and happier about the legal field because of all the lawyers who are recognizing that they have to work with communities,” Ho said. “All the over 1,400 lawyers who ran to O’Hare airport to join the protestors, to work with the people on the ground, to make sure that as lawyers we’re using our tools as a part of a much larger toolbox for social change.”
As of Friday morning, there were more than 1,411 Chicago attorneys, translators and law students on an e-mail list to volunteer at O’Hare International Airports following Trump’s travel ban. Since the executive order creating the ban was temporarily stayed, the group has been staffing 10 volunteers at a time.
Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center also cited increased activism among lawyers after the travel ban. The group led the biggest volunteer training session in its 30-year history on Feb. 2. Normal sessions have about 40 to 50 attorneys sign up. February registrations hit the room capacity of 130; organizers had to schedule an overflow session for March.
Megan J. Davis, a staff attorney for Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors, said the turnout of lawyers is a good start.
“People who I think have probably never gotten on the ground, in the streets, at the airport are really coming out of the woodwork and that’s an incredible momentum that we have to keep carrying,” she said.
However, Davis said, Friday’s protest was not even one month into the Trump presidency.
“We have four more years potentially of this administration and we have to really think of ways to not let this sense of urgency begin to feel normalized,” Davis said.
Diane C. O’Connell, a staff attorney for Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, was encouraged by the outpouring of legal volunteering and others protesting.
“I am filled with hope because I know that as lawyers, legal workers, students and activists, we know how to work powerfully,” O’Connell said. “And to win, we will need to keep working.”
MiAngel C. Cody, an attorney with the Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois and a leader with The Decarceration Collective, said the political moment is helping people see the cross-pollination of issues and no longer work in silos.
“This was just the beginning,” Cody said. “The tidal wave is about to come.”