By Aashna Rao
Associate Editor, Vol. 26
In the past several years, a model of legal advocacy known as movement lawyering has gained increased attention. In reality, movement lawyering is nothing new—those who do this kind of work aim to provide legal support by following the lead of directly impacted communities and organizers on the ground.
Azadeh Shahshahani, Legal and Advocacy Director at Project South and former president of the National Lawyers Guild, describes herself as a movement lawyer. Project South is an Atlanta-based organization founded in 1986 with the goal of creating spaces for movement building. Since then, the organization has operated well-established organizing and community education programs. In 2016, the organization started its Legal Program; as the director of this program, Azadeh provides legal support to Project South’s organizing and community-based education work.
In the following interview, Azadeh describes what her work entails and how law students can get involved in movement lawyering.
What is movement lawyering, and how should aspiring movement lawyers approach this work?
AZADEH: I would describe movement lawyering as being accountable to the movement and taking direction from the movement and movement leaders. Organizers are the ones who set the agenda and determine the strategy.
As lawyers, your role is to provide support and insight about the legal ramifications and to bring a certain skill—your legal skills—to the table. But you need to always keep in mind that it is the movement and movement leaders that set the strategy. That’s why it’s so important for lawyers to have a clear understanding about the scope of their role.
In the context of your work with Project South, could you provide an example of how you use your legal skills to support the initiatives of organizers on the ground while following their lead?
AZADEH: In the spring of 2017, there were ICE raids in the city of Clarkston, a very diverse area of Georgia with immigrants and refugees from many different parts of the world. Those raids targeted members of the Somali community. [Project South was] working in a coalition with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) and other grassroots organizations in pushing city councils and county commissioners around the state to adopt policies limiting collaboration with ICE. That seemed like a concrete step that city councils could adopt. As lawyers, we were able to draft the policy and supporting legal memo for that to happen. But it was the organizers who decided that was the right strategy and they came to us for legal support.
The city council in Clarkston said it was welcoming and friendly towards immigrants, but after being threatened by ICE, the council’s attitude on adopting the resolution was wishy washy. The directly impacted community members in Clarkston were mostly the wives of the detained men who were picked up as a result of the raids. And the wives said, “Remember that you’re accountable to us, not to ICE. Remember that elections are coming up.” After two hours of impactful testimony from them at a hearing, the city council adopted the resolution unanimously.
There was no doubt in my mind that the reason that happened was because of community organizing. Our role as lawyers was to support that. If, as lawyers, we had approached the city council with our fancy legal papers and pointed out examples of other localities in the country that had adopted the resolution, that wouldn’t have gotten us very far at all. It was the community organizing that made it happen.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned working with directly impacted communities that you want people to keep in mind?
AZADEH: We’re in this for the long haul. Movement building takes time, it won’t happen overnight—it’s not about a legal victory in a case. It is about movement victory in order to effect sustainable change. You need to keep at it. Learn from the folks who came before us, who faced all types of state repression from COINTELPRO onwards and who persevered. We need to look to those victories.
For example, when I got to Georgia in 2007, one of the challenges I learned about was 287(g), an intense form of collaboration between local police and ICE. I remember the head of GLAHR came to our office and said, “Our people are disappearing off the streets into the Cobb jail.” Cobb was the first county in Georgia to implement 287(g). And the situation in the Cobb jail was awful.
For many years, from 2007 on, we worked in partnership with GLAHR to try to end 287(g)—we published many reports, organized, held several rallies, went to county commissioners to testify, organized campaigns year after year after year. But the same anti-immigrant sheriffs who ran on anti-immigrant platforms got elected and the county commissioner supported them. And 287(g) continued. Last November finally, thanks to the organizing work of GLAHR and directly impacted folks, they were able to get rid of two anti-immigrant sheriffs. It took thirteen years for this victory to happen but it finally did.
How do you view the role of litigation in movement lawyering and grassroots organizing initiatives?
AZADEH: Litigation is a tool; it’s an important tool, but it’s just one tool in the fight for social justice.
We have been calling for the Irwin County Detention Center to be shut down for a long time. We’ve used a variety of strategies—publishing reports, coordinating campaigns, writing letters to Congress, etcetera, for many years. There was litigation during COVID [in spring 2020] to try to get people freed. Unfortunately, in Georgia, it wasn’t successful.
The complaint that we published in September brought national and international attention to the Irwin County Detention Center and members of Congress started coming down. The same members of Congress who, in the past, would not have even answered our letters were now actively calling for Irwin to be shut down, which was pretty astounding to see. Then, there was a class action lawsuit that was filed and we were co-counsel and finally, pursuant to that, people started getting released.
In this scenario, if you saw litigation as the only tool, when the lawsuits in spring 2020 weren’t successful, you would have just backed off and thought, “I did everything I could do, and that’s the end of it.” But being a part of a movement is realizing lawsuits are one strategy and saying, “Okay, let’s see what other tools I can use” with the goal of freeing people and shutting this place down. You would think of all the strategies we have used over the years to bring attention to this place, to publish reports, to talk to directly impacted folks. And then finally filing the complaint that brought the world’s attention to Irwin and then filing the class action lawsuit. Just keeping at it until this place is shut down.
Do you have any advice on the kinds of skills or experiences law students interested in movement lawyering should seek out? What can we be doing beyond the law school curriculum to meaningfully support directly impacted communities?
AZADEH: I would highly recommend that students try to work with movement lawyering organizations so you actually see movement lawyers in action and learn the relevant skills they use every day in their jobs. Try to volunteer with grassroots organizations on the ground to see what kind of support you can provide to make yourself useful to any type of organizing that’s happening.
One avenue would be getting more involved with the National Lawyers Guild as a movement lawyering organization to see how we support the organizing work on the ground through various means. Through the NLG, students can act as Legal Observers for protests and can support people who’ve been arrested for protesting police brutality. Hopefully, this will help you start looking at the experience and the legal skills you learn not as a theoretical experiment but as a set of skills you’ve gained to support social justice movements and directly impacted people.
Finally, many law students who want to work with directly impacted communities don’t necessarily come from those communities themselves. Do you have any advice as to how we can ensure we are approaching our work with these communities mindfully and with great care?
AZADEH: I would recommend people familiarize themselves with the Black Radical Traditions of the US South. Project South, for example, is an organization based in the Black Radical Traditions of the US South. There are various principles involved: internationalism; looking to the legacy of the ancestors and the strength of the elders; realizing that there are no saviors coming from the outside; realizing we are the ones who are going to free ourselves. Folks should learn more about those principles as a way of grounding yourself and your legal work in support of social justice movements.