Tips on Working Solo for NCBL

Submitted by: Mark P. Fancher

NCBL has great potential for programmatic work that captures the imagination of our community. Such projects do not always require the collective effort of either a chapter or the full organization. There is much that individuals are capable of accomplishing, even if they are new to the organization, or even to the legal profession. What follows are a few suggestions:

Potential Activities

Speak in the name of NCBL: The impact of oral and written statements by an individual can be considerably enhanced by making them on behalf of NCBL. For example, you may have opinions about social or political developments and you routinely share them in letters to the editor, blogs or social media. These opinions may be briefly considered by readers, but unless you have some measure of celebrity, as an individual you are but one of many voices. However, if that same opinion is offered on behalf of an entire organization of black lawyers, it is not only remembered, it makes news and makes NCBL both visible and relevant. Individuals inclined to offer public commentaries need only prepare them in draft form and submit them for approval by the board of directors. It’s easy and very helpful to NCBL once they are approved.

Work with local grassroots organizations: There are numerous little grassroots organizations in your community. Their focus may be on civil rights, tenant’s rights, welfare rights, workers’ rights or prisoners’ rights. There are public school parents’ committees, anti-police brutality coalitions, environmental justice organizations, anti-imperialist alliances, and much more. If you attend a meeting of one of these groups, inevitably, a member is going to ask something like: “Is the zoning commission legally allowed to let that liquor store remain on that corner?” Or maybe someone will say: “If we picket, how close can we get to the building?” On still another occasion, a member might say: “We really need to send a letter to the police chief letting him know that we know our legal rights.” When these statements are made, that is your cue to rise and say: “I am a member of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and I can take on that task as a representative of NCBL.” This simple act accomplishes so much for the organization because it not only becomes a new case or project on the NCBL docket, but it also adds to the already vast reservoir of good will that NCBL enjoys. Ghost writing a letter or researching a simple legal issue may seem insignificant, but to activists without legal training these services are highly appreciated.

Monitor and investigate: In every community there is no shortage of government and corporate corruption. As an individual there is nothing to stop you from watching those who are suspected of corruption, chronicling their actions and issuing reports that NCBL’s board has first reviewed and approved.

Street corner teaching: Some years ago when NCBL’s board met in Selma, Alabama, Faya Sanders explained that she and her husband Hank walked the streets at least once weekly to speak informally with young people in the community. To demonstrate the benefits, she took several of us out with her. The conversations we had with the teenagers and young adults gathered on street corners concerned not only their legal rights but also random discussions about black history, culture and other matters. This is very easy to do and it builds a solid, organic relationship between NCBL and the community. With respect to available time and energy, there is complete flexibility.

Actual Projects

What follows are summaries of a few projects that I took on, essentially as an individual when I was a new lawyer and a new NCBL member living in southern New Jersey during the 1980s. I don’t know that these experiences should be regarded as a model, but hopefully they give some idea of the practical dynamics, challenges and rewards of working for NCBL as an individual, or in concert with a small group of colleagues.

Racist Violence

In 1986 I became aware that few weeks passed when there was not at least one news item about a racial violence or racial harassment incident in the South Jersey region. They ranged from beatings to racist graffiti on buildings to burning crosses to a small incendiary projectile that was shot into a church. The incidents did not occur within a particular geographic region, but were scattered throughout the southern New Jersey region, which is vast and diverse in character. Few of the incidents occurred in the highly urban cities of Camden or Atlantic City, and most occurred in suburban and rural areas. The fact that there was not a single location for the incidents made it easy for law enforcement officials to claim that they were “isolated.”

When I decided to make this an NCBL project I sent press releases to local newspapers announcing the organization’s plan to monitor and investigate the incidents. I was quite surprised by the level of interest and reporters began to call for interviews. There were immediate questions about NCBL because it had no history in the area. I was candid about the fact that our “chapter” was small, because in truth it amounted only to me and about three other friends who agreed to lend their names but not necessarily their time and energy. I nevertheless did not want to appear to be a lone wolf and Dianna Williams, a JerseyShore attorney younger even than me, graciously consented to participate in the media interviews.

When speaking with reporters we described our plans to reach out to churches and community organizations as well as to the victims of the incidents. We also encouraged the public to contact us. At the time I was testing the waters at the small law firm where I was employed, and I was not yet certain about how much of my activism would be tolerated. So, rather than provide reporters with my office address I instructed reporters to write that the public should send information to my apartment. When the articles were published, I remember being in the presence of older colleagues who winced when they saw that my apartment location was published. I felt pretty stupid, but in the days before websites, e-mail addresses and my willingness to get a post office box for NCBL, it seemed like my most expedient option. The good Lord protects babies and fools. Given that I was both, I don’t recall more than a couple of pieces of hate mail that came my way, and I received no midnight visits from the Klan.

I did receive a few additional tips about racial situations in the region, including an underground Klan recruitment drive in a rural town. In the months that followed I put lots of miles on my beat up 1978 Honda Civic driving all over the territory conducting interviews and looking at the results of vandalism. I made most of these trips alone, but I was accompanied on a few by my buddies Chuck Dortch or Morris Smith. We took photos, sat and visited with families who were victimized. Years later I was to learn that some of these people never forgot these visits, and they regarded them as quite meaningful and reassuring during a time when they felt very isolated and vulnerable. A few regarded me as “their lawyer” and sought me out for representation in connection with other matters.

When I was satisfied that we had enough evidence of these incidents to make the case that there was a problem worthy of special attention, I authored a report to the Governor that documented these occurrences accompanied by a legal argument for why he was obligated to take action. It was front page news and caused a bit of a local sensation. The Governor deflected requests for comments, saying he had not had an opportunity to study my report. If I eventually received a written response it was not substantive. Nevertheless I ultimately received a request to attend a meeting in Trenton (the state capitol) to discuss my report. No details were provided about the agenda or attendees. I didn’t know what I was walking into, so I attempted to recruit another NCBL member to accompany me. I had no luck.

On the day of the meeting I was led into a conference room. Seated around the table were about a dozen stoic people whose body language made it clear that they were not going to bother with ice-breaking, good natured banter. I came to learn that they were the top leadership in New Jersey’s law enforcement community. They launched right into questions about my findings. They also asked what I suggested as a remedy. Among other things I told them that my efforts to collect information had been hampered by the fact that police were characterizing these incidents as “assaults” rather than “racial assaults;” or as “vandalism” rather than “racial vandalism.” This made it difficult to establish patterns of racial crimes, and consequently difficult to establish a need for special law enforcement investigations and strategies.

I was politely excused from the meeting, and I heard nothing further. However, not too much later, I did see a public announcement that a new statewide rule went into effect that required all law enforcement officers in the state to indicate on all police reports whether the crime was a “bias incident.” I believe our project caused that change, and to my knowledge that rule remains in effect.

Divestment

During the early to mid 1980s, the Camden Coalition for a Free South Africa and Namibia (CCAFSAN) was a grassroots anti-apartheid committee organized and led by Cathy Dunbar. Over the years the organization hosted a wide variety of community education events, and also conducted a perpetual petition drive urging that the City of Camden divest from corporations with ties to apartheid. Its crowning achievement came when it successfully lobbied the City Council to pass a resolution that required the city to divest completely. Nevertheless, within a short time after passage, the city signed a new contract with IBM.

During law school I had attended a number of CCAFSAN events. When I graduated I looked for ways to use my legal training to help them, and the best I could come up with was a memorandum that detailed the international law authorities that rendered apartheid illegal. I hoped that it might somehow be useful to their lobbying efforts. I doubt that they ever had any occasion to use the memo, but they were grateful just the same. I wanted to make a more significant contribution, so when the IBM contract was signed I saw my opportunity.

Cathy Dunbar explained to me the sequence of events leading to the passage of the resolution. It was presented during a City Council session, and council members made gratuitous comments about the horrors of apartheid and congratulated the city for taking this step. At least one citizen asked if they were truly divesting and that individual was provided assurances that this would in fact occur. Yet, the resolution itself was a legislative drafting disaster. All provisions requiring the cessation of business dealings with apartheid-connected companies were placed in the resolution’s preamble and recitals section, leaving only language requiring the city to publicly condemn apartheid in the operative portion of the resolution.

I agreed to have NCBL sue on behalf of CCAFSAN with the hope that with the help of a transcript of the actual proceedings leading to the passage of the resolution, the court would look beyond the paper document and enforce the council’s stated intent. It was a vain hope. During the hearing on the city’s motion to dismiss, the judge made it clear from the outset that while he shared my view that the document was a catastrophe, he did not feel legally compelled to look beyond it.

It was a full docket and the courtroom was filled with lawyers and others waiting for motions in other cases. I decided that if I couldn’t win the argument, I would at least exploit the forum and educate those present. I launched into a combination speech and respectful sparring session with the judge. I suspect that because of the subject matter the judge indulged me more than if I were fighting about an auto negligence case. In attendance was Godfrey Sithole, an ANC member in exile who regularly worked with CCAFSAN. He absolutely loved the argument, and talked about it for years afterwards.

I filed a motion for reconsideration and then an appeal, losing them both. If the City Council had been held in higher esteem, it might have been possible to publicly shame them for their duplicity. But their actions were instead regarded as par for the course. CCAFSAN turned the page and soldiered on.

Vineland Uprising

It was a familiar story. In 1989 the police department in Vineland, New Jersey had a poor relationship with the black community. The tinder box was ignited when a white officer shot and killed a 24-year-old black man who allegedly threatened police with a lead pipe. In response an estimated 200 people spilled into the downtown area throwing rocks and bottles into store windows. There were about 30 arrests. It appeared to me that this was in every way a protest, and on behalf of NCBL I sent a letter to the prosecutor requesting that he not pursue charges against those who were arrested. The letter was reported by the Associated Press and that news story was published in the New York Times among other places.

I also created a “know your rights” brochure that focused on encounters with police. I put a box of them in my car and drove through the streets of Vineland’s black neighborhoods distributing them to pedestrians. The handouts were eagerly received and led to a series of spontaneous street corner teach-ins.

The exposure also brought me into contact with a developmentally disabled black man who claimed that Vineland police were routinely harassing and humiliating him. I provided him with advice about how to navigate those encounters.

Millville Klan Rally

In 1989, the Ku Klux Klan applied for a permit to rally in Millville, New Jersey. Citing public safety concerns the city denied the request, whereupon the Klan sued with the assistance of the ACLU. Publicity about the event captured my attention and I drafted and filed an amicus brief on behalf of NCBL that sided with the city and advanced arguments about the legitimacy of limiting hate speech. Although the brief was reported in one of the local newspapers, I received little direct feedback. I do recall however that when I spoke with the ACLU’s attorney, his facial expression betrayed a combination of bewilderment, shock and disgust all at the same time. This was to be the first of a couple of run-ins with the ACLU over the hate speech issue.

The Klan won its lawsuit and was granted a permit to rally, but things did not go well for the hooded hooligans. Crowds of Millville’s white citizens turned out armed with mud balls that they aimed at the handful of assembled Klansmen, who in turn gathered up their sheets and ran out of town. It was a delightful case of unexpected street justice.

 

Summary

There were a variety of other projects I undertook during that period. I wrote amicus briefs in a case concerning low income housing. I made arguments on behalf of tenants of a poorly-run rural public housing complex at a housing authority meeting. I organized a bike-a- thon called “30 Miles Against Apartheid” to raise money for the ANC. I pushed for the prosecution and conviction of teen-aged skinheads who beat a 15-year-old black Puerto Rican boy within an inch of his life. There was more, but the point is that it is possible to do a great deal in NCBL’s name. It just takes a little creativity, and a willingness to just “do it” as the Nike people say. There are many veteran NCBL members who at some time or another have done comparable work, and all are no doubt willing to offer advice. But it is most important not to feel constrained by methods, strategies and tactics used in the past. Progress is the fruit of innovation.