Movement Defence Committee -- the radical legal collective supporting protesters in Toronto

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Image: Joshua Scott/Flickr

Macdonald Scott is a legal worker at the firm Carranza LLP, where he specializes in immigration law. He is also an active member of the Toronto-based Movement Defence Committee, a collective of lawyers and legal workers affiliated with the Law Union of Ontario focused on providing legal support for protesters targeted by the police. Scott Neigh interviews him about the relationship between social movements and the legal system and about the work of the Movement Defence Committee.

Sometimes, in the course of political action, people get arrested. Of course, people get arrested all the time in lots of different contexts in the course of everyday life, with certain communities particularly targeted for criminalization, harassment, and arrest. But police action, police violence, and arrest can also be an element of how the state responds to things like demonstrations, occupations, blockades, picket lines, and the like.

There is a long history of lawyers and other legal workers who have progressive or radical politics acting in support or as part of social movements and communities-in-struggle. In the United States, the National Lawyers Guild has brought progressive lawyers and legal workers together since the 1930s. In Ontario, the Law Union of Ontario has done something similar since the 1970s.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the global justice movement was in full swing and there were mass protests in Seattle, Quebec City, and elsewhere, there was an upsurge in the formation of grassroots legal collectives. While the older lefty legal organizations had broader mandates, these collectives often focused on supporting people who faced legal troubles as a result of collectively taking the streets. In Ontario, the group that formed at this point was called the Common Front Legal Collective.

Macdonald Scott joined the Common Front Legal Collective in 2004 when he moved back to Canada, after being involved in a similar formation while he was living in the United States. And he was actively involved when the Common Front Legal Collective shifted form, became a committee of the Law Union, and changed its name to the Movement Defence Committee in 2007 or 2008.

The lawyers, law students, legal workers, and activists of the Movement Defence Committee take on a number of movement-related roles. They do know-your-rights workshops for activists and organizers. They do trainings for lawyers and legal workers who wish to become legal observers at protests. They produce various print and online resources to help activists and organizers understand the legal system. But the core of their work is support in the context of demonstrations.

The committee encourages groups in Toronto to let them know in advance when they are holding a protest or some other collective mobilization that might be met with a police responses. They are usually able to send at least one, sometimes several, legal observers to the action. The committee does its best to ensure that its phone line is on, in case anyone is arrested. They are usually able to have a lawyer intervene with the police to try and negotiate their release from the station that day. Failing that, they provide a free lawyer for the release hearing the next day. And they do their best to connect people who want one with a movement lawyer who is lower cost or takes Legal Aid, who can represent them for the remainder of their interactions with the legal system. When appropriate, they can also sometimes help arrestees organize themselves into their own collective defence committee.

The committee averages about four or five demonstrations per month. During moments of heightened mobilization, they are of course more active. During the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010, when police arrested more than a thousand demonstrators and bystanders, the committee was very involved in the legal support work.

A key principle of the committee's work is that they are not neutral, as a civil liberties organization would be, but rather regard themselves as part of the movement. They work to adhere to anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, and broader anti-oppression principles. They operate by consensus. And they are clear that their role is not to dictate movement tactics, but to help activists and organizers understand the legal implications of their choices and to provide legal support when necessary and possible. They are also keen to help people in other cities set up their own movement defence committees.

Image: Joshua Scott/Flickr

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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