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What Do "Legal Observers" Do?

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01: A protester affiliated with Occupy Wall Street speaks to a representative from the National Lawyers Guild while being arrested during a march through lower Manhattan on May 1, 2012 in New York City. Occupy Wall Street has joined with unions during the May Day protests, a traditional day of global protests in sympathy with unions and leftist politics. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

If you've attended or seen photos of the protests across the country in recent days following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, you may have noticed people in the crowd with neon green hats.

These people are likely Legal Observers. And here's what they do:

The most prominent source of Legal Observers in the U.S. is the National Lawyers Guild. Their Legal Observer Program was established in 1968 to provide aid at anti-war and civil rights demonstrations in New York City. Legal Observers are often lawyers, but they can also be law students, legal workers, and others who have educated themselves on the law.

The program was designed to help people across the country express their political views without unconstitutional interference - including from police. In the most optimistic sense, Legal Observers help to deter illegal behavior by law enforcement.

So, They Just Stand and Watch?

Not exactly.

It's true, Legal Observers usually stand separate from protesters. They position themselves close to protests so that they can be accurate reporters of what goes on. They often record the demonstrations (and make it clear they are recording) to show law enforcement and others they are being watched. They take notes about the events that unfold so that there is an objective record. The Civil Liberties Defense Center provides a helpful form Legal Observers can use to organize their notes.

Legal Observers also often provide information to protesters about their constitutional rights. They might carry cards to hand out with essential information or counsel people who are detained by police. At the end of the day, they are there to protect the rights of protesters and provide accountability.

The National Lawyers Guild provides training for Legal Observers throughout the year. For more information, contact your local chapter.

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