The Daily Gazette, Patrick Dodson / AP

Black Lives Matter conference looks to strengthen legal response to racism

Organizers and participants say grass-roots movement seeking to unify efforts across the US

Lawyers and activists from across the country are convening in Harlem from Friday for a conference aimed at strengthening the legal strategy of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Three women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — founded the Black Lives Matter project in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in 2012. The movement began as a online campaign to raise awareness and organize responses to what it said was racial profiling and police brutality but soon grew into an influential coalition of activists, rallying around the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Now with Black Lives Matter chapters popping up across the nation, advocates are seeking to “build a stronger, more cohesive legal arm” of the young but growing movement.

“One of the aims is to unify efforts across the country. Usually, there’s a last minute scramble to formulate a response and identify lawyers immediately after a tragedy,” Carl Williams, a conference organizer and racial justice attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, told Al Jazeera.

The conference, Law for Black Lives, kicked off Thursday evening with a film screening of “Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialist Self-Defense” and opening speeches by three prominent human rights activists including Mireille Fanon Mendès-France, the chief rapporteur of the U.N. Working Group on People of African Descent and daughter of postcolonial thinker Frantz Fanon.

The event is being organized by a planning committee that includes representatives from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Dream Defenders, National Bar Association and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Organizers say they expect the conference will help them identify the legal needs of the black activist community and devise tools and tactics to address those needs.

“We hope it will encourage the legal community to step up its game in support of the movement for Black Lives," Williams said.

The conference will highlight a variety of legal tactics, including looking outside the U.S. for help. One session scheduled for Friday focuses on leveraging international legal mechanisms such as the U.N. to address state violence in the U.S. The program points out that “challenging highly powerful entities — like the government or the police — is often incredibly difficult using solely domestic courts and domestic laws.”

Also planned are sessions on how racism manifests itself within the legal community and ways to economically empower the black community. 

“The space will stitch together a community of like-minded individuals and build a deeper collective understanding of how legal advocates can build the power of movements,” according to the official website for the conference.

In less than two years, Black Lives Matter has grown to include a broad array of groups. Conference participants include representatives from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil liberties advocacy organization.

"The Black Lives Movement is absolutely intertwined with the Muslim community. CAIR has a huge caseload of civil rights complaints from members of the African-American Muslim community," said Jenifer Wicks, CAIR’s national civil rights litigation director.

While the conference primarily targets the legal community, organizers say community activists are also present and should remain the backbone of the movement. Legal advocates, they say, shouldn’t co-opt the central role of grass-roots activists.

Lawyers “are the rear guard, not the front-line troops. Community activists will be there to explain their needs and provide services and support," Williams said. 

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