Minnesota Law Students Flock to Aid George Floyd Protesters, Advocate for Change
When Professor Perry Moriearty put a call out for Minnesota Law students and recent graduates to help individuals arrested protesting the tragic killing of George Floyd, she had no idea that, only four hours later, she’d have 100-plus volunteers register for training.
“It was incredible,” said Moriearty, who had asked only a handful of students to get the word out.
The hour-long virtual training session prepared students to staff a legal support hotline run by the Legal Rights Center (LRC) and the National Lawyers Guild’s Minnesota Chapter. The hotline helps protesters who were arrested and their families get the legal and emotional support they need. Students perform intake on the calls and work with lawyers to provide much-needed legal support. Through a partnership with the Minnesota Freedom Fund, protesters who need financial help with bail also receive assistance. (The Fund, which had less than $150,000 before the start of the protests, saw its balance swell to more than $30 million as contributions flooded in from across the country.)
Hannah Camilleri Hughes ’20, who trained for the help line, also participated in some of the local protests.
Hughes, who will join the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office after taking the bar exam, says she was motivated to action by the horrendous and senseless killing of George Floyd.
“Unfortunately, George Floyd is not the first black man to be brutally murdered at the hands of the police,” she says. “I believe we need to fundamentally reform policing in our communities to bring an end to police brutality. I believe that means we need to divest police departments and invest in our communities. I also believe in the First Amendment right to protest.”
Matt DiTullio ’20 says he volunteered because he wanted to help in whatever capacity he could. “I felt the need to help folks who have been arrested for expressing their frustration, outrage, and/or countless other emotions, regardless of how those emotions were expressed. …. To me, it is mind-boggling that society is upset over the response, when that response is in reply to centuries of blatant injustice, including what we all witnessed on May 25.”
DiTullio has already spent one eight-hour shift fielding more than 100 calls on the hotline. He says everyone he spoke with was extremely grateful for the assistance. “When folks are arrested, many for their first time, it's a terrifying experience,” he observes. “I hope to let arrestees know that we are going to do everything we can to help them. There are folks out here who care about them and they will not be facing these charges alone.”
Like Hughes, DiTullio plans to pursue public defense work after taking the bar exam.
Volunteer Ren Kuan ’20 observes, “I hope to contribute my skills and labor and support protesters so they can continue to speak up and show up, because protesting works.” She worked her first eight-hour shift on the help line late last week.
“Some calls were productive, with protesters asking to be connected to the Minnesota Freedom Fund and inquiring about available legal services, and people calling to donate,” Kuan says. “Other calls were strange, with people calling to criticize the movement and the government in general or simply to vent.”
Kuan, who had meaningful experiences on both prosecution and defense sides of the aisle during law school, hopes to use her law degree to be able to help people through working in the criminal justice system.
LRC associate director Andrew Gordon ’08 was amazed by the volume of student volunteers. “I've been in my current position long enough to remember—and have worked on—support for demonstrations related to Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, he says. “Because of those experiences I wasn't surprised that there were individual students that were interested in volunteering in support of our work, but I was left speechless by the sheer numbers of students willing to share their time and energy to support those demanding justice for George Floyd and real, sustainable change in how communities of color are policed.”
BLSA Keeps Focus on the Long Term
The Black Law Students Association (BLSA) issued a Statement to the Law School Community calling for justice and change last week. “As future lawyers, we have the unique ability to not only change the systemic policies, laws and regulations that encourage the disparity that many of us face, but we can also reshape the climate of race-relations for our future generations,” the statement says.
While “a number of our members have taken on initiatives they feel will best serve our community at this time,” BLSA as whole is “mostly focused on long term and sustainable efforts in this fight,” says rising 2L Jessica Bontemps, co-president of the group. For example, she notes that BLSA is engaged in talks with the Law School’s Admissions department about expanding the school’s outreach to Black and underrepresented students with a “Diversity Ambassador” position.
BLSA also has plans in the works for a mentorship program in the fall for high school students in underserved communities in the Minneapolis area, according to Bontemps.
Other Law School Opportunities on the Horizon
While the students are busy connecting those in need to legal support, Moriearty is providing that support through the School’s Law Clinic; she helped advise several arrested protesters on securing bail relief through the Minnesota Freedom Fund. She is hopeful that there may be opportunities in the future for students to assist using their legal skills.
To that end, the clinical faculty and staff last week convened a meeting to discuss ways to expand and add to the summer and fall programs to address community needs. Representatives of 10 of the Law School’s 25 clinics, as well as all clinical staff, participated in the meeting. Several of the proposals discussed have now entered exploratory stages.
For some clinics already in operation this summer, help to affected community members is available immediately. For example, local small business owners dealing with the legal complications of damaged property or loss of inventory from the rioting and looting can avail themselves of the Business Law Clinic’s Brief Advice Sessions conducted virtually by students. The Business Law Clinic also plans to add to its offerings virtual information sessions in which students, with the assistance of a licensed attorney, will present on legal topics of interest to small business owners.
Moriearty worked with rising 2L Eura Chang and rising 3Ls Amanda Teserak and James Holden to assemble the names of nearly 70 students who have expressed a willingness to volunteer for community organizations that need assistance. The Law School and the LRC are working to match those students with local organizations, as well as national opportunities for students elsewhere this summer.
“Outside of having worked alongside University of Minnesota students as interns in my office, I've worked with those who were previously involved with the National Lawyers Guild and other organizations,” says LRC’s Gordon. “I continue to be impressed with the creativity and verve that they bring to any space, and was tremendously impressed most recently by the initiative taken by several of the students to organize their work and efforts in support of black lives.”
Hughes urges other Minnesota Law students not to wait to get involved. “The time to be a lawyer leader is now. I've honestly been struggling with balancing bar exam preparation, participating in protests, getting informed, and volunteering, but this can't wait. Police brutality and the oppression of black people in our communities has gone on far too long, and we can't sit back and wait for things to fix themselves. Our community needs us, and we need to act.”