Photo by David Thomas
Sharlyn D. Grace (forefront) observes anti-Trump protesters interact with Chicago police officers outside Blue Frog’s Local 22, 22 E. Hubbard St., on Friday night, hours after President Donald Trump took office. Grace serves as a neutral legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild, which monitors and records police activity during demonstrations. 
Posted January 26, 2017 2:36 PM
Updated January 27, 2017 3:55 PM
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Keeping a legal eye on demonstrations

By David Thomas
Law Bulletin staff writer

Update: Sharlyn D. Grace's job title was updated to "senior policy analyst and staff attorney" in the fifth paragraph.


In the glow of the massive TRUMP letters on the tower across the river, Sharlyn D. Grace had her lime green beanie on.

Crowds swarmed around her on Friday night, signs in hand, chanting their displeasure with the man who earlier that day took the oath of office in Washington, D.C.

But Grace wasn’t there to join the chants — she was there to ensure their constitutional right to protest.

The hat marked her as a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild, an association for progressive attorneys and jurists. Legal observers monitor and record police activity during protests and demonstrations to see if protesters’ First Amendment rights are being respected.

“I think mass mobilizations of people are part of progressive social change, that people having the ability to be safely in the streets, the ability to gather in dissent, is crucial for the sort of social change we want to see. It’s not going to be made by law and policy changes taking place in downtown by policy experts and attorneys,” said Grace, senior policy analyst and staff attorney at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice.

The presidential inauguration of Donald Trump last Friday triggered protests nationwide, including in downtown Chicago. Monitoring the police presence at those protests were attorneys like Grace, Millicent A. Hoffman and Emilie Junge.

“What we’re doing is two things,” said Hoffman, who owns the Law Office of Millicent A. Hoffman P.C. “First, we’re recording what we see … if the protester is being arrested, we try to find out the full spelling of their legal name and where they’re being taken. It’s really hard to find someone in the system in Chicago unless you have the correct spelling.”

Grace said she spent nine hours monitoring the protests as a legal observer on Friday following the inauguration protests and on Saturday during the Women’s March.

On Saturday, she coordinated guild observers, deploying them in spots where they expected to encounter a police presence.

“To me, as an attorney and as a white person working on criminal justice reform, those people in the streets, those people who created this political moment where criminal justice policy reform is going to happen, those are the people I am accountable to in the reforms that I push,” Grace said. “They’re leading this movement, and it’s our responsibility to make it as safe as we can for everyone out here.”

The Law Bulletin shadowed Grace for two hours on Friday night as she stood at North Wabash Avenue and East Wacker Drive, where many of the protesters seemed to gather.

When some of the protesters thought they could sneak closer and demonstrate right outside the Trump International Hotel & Tower, Grace chased after them, and the Law Bulletin followed.

Grace and her colleagues are primarily focused on the interactions between protesters and police, although they do monitor altercations involving counter-protesters or bystanders.

“It’s not why we’re out here, but it is something we pay attention to,” Grace said. “But it’s not our mission. We’re looking at government conduct for the most part.”

Grace at one point stopped the interview to watch the civilian driver of a car get uncomfortably close to a protester who was marching in the middle of the street. Despite some shouting, the situation defused with no injuries.

By the end of the night, legal observers with guild’s Chicago office witnessed 13 of the 16 arrests police made. By Tuesday, all 16 individuals had been released from custody.

The guild had 39 legal observers deployed during Friday and Saturday’s protests, in total. Joining them during Friday’s protest were eight legal observers from the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU-affiliated observers on Friday wore orange hats and blue vests over their coats, said Lindsay S. Miller, a staff attorney coordinator of the ACLU program.

Both the ACLU and the guild require law students and attorneys to take training sessions before volunteering as a legal observer.

Grace said the guild does not limit the role to those practicing law — anyone can become a legal observer for the group. However, many of the guild observers interacted with on Friday were attorneys.

The legal observer programs of both organizations were described as being very flexible. As it is done on a volunteer basis, it’s up to each attorney whether he or she wants to protest or monitor a particular protest.

The amount of time guild legal observers will monitor a protest varies too. Hoffman said she planned to be there all night, while Junge said she was leaving early so she could participate — as a protester — in the next day’s Women’s March.

Among the ground rules: Legal observers have to be neutral. At the protest itself, they cannot participate in any way — including no signs and/or chants. If an attorney is a member of organization that is involved in the protest, he or she cannot serve as a neutral observer for that event.

“Before we allow them to observe in the streets they must complete a training, sign a formal agreement and agree to remain objective,” guild director Pooja Gehi wrote in an e-mail. “We don't ask [legal observers] to pretend that they don't have an opinion, but we do make sure that they do not join the protest, chant or otherwise engage with the demonstration unless it is in the context of LOing [legal observing].”

“People who complete the LO training understand that their objectivity in reporting is essential to their role as a neutral observer and that compromising that could negatively impact the outcome of any future litigation,” she added.

But there are differences between the guild’s and the ACLU’s programs. Although both groups are monitoring the police, the two appear to have different legal objectives.

Grace described the end goal of the guild observer program is to provide neutral monitors who can testify as eyewitnesses in court if a protester is arrested.

Miller said the ACLU is more interested in the behavior and procedures of law enforcement.

“The primary objective is to be a check on police, and to make sure that, systemically, they are not doing anything in protests to prevent people from exercising their First Amendment rights,” Miller said.

If the ACLU finds that the police are violating those rights, the organization will take action, anywhere from calling city officials to filing a lawsuit,

Meanwhile, guild observers said if protesters are arrested, they will try to pair them with guild attorneys for representation.

Another difference concerns the political content of the protest. The guild states that its political views are that “human rights be regarded as more sacred that property interests.”

To that end, Grace said, the guild will not deploy observers or spend resources for conservative or right-wing organizations or causes.

“While our LOs receive training in neutral observation, the NLG as an entity would not use our resources to support a neo-Nazi group's First Amendment rights,” she wrote in a follow-up e-mail.

The ACLU, on the other hand, is content-neutral about whose protests they will observe, Miller said.

“Our observers are trained to know they are not involved in the protest … it’s purely an apolitical protection of First Amendment rights,” Miller said.

The ability of both programs to cover a protest is determined by how many willing volunteers they have, but the ACLU-Illinois program is admittedly smaller than its guild counterpart, both Miller and Grace said.

The ACLU did not deploy observers for the Women’s March on Chicago because they knew other groups such as the guild already had the area covered, Miller said.

Grace has monitored protests for at least six years through the guild program, and estimated she has covered two or three dozen protests within the past year.

During the protests, guild observers stay in contact with each other using an encrypted messaging app on their smartphones.

As the Law Bulletin shadowed Grace, she and her colleagues were trying to track down information about a protester who was arrested.

Guild observers typically carry a common array of equipment: smartphones, notepads and their bright green caps.

Grace, however, seemed prepared for anything. Her backpack contained her notebook, food and water, extra hats, an extra pair of socks, an extra lining to her winter coat, an external battery, extra phone chargers and business cards.

“It’s Chicago, so you have to prepare for the weather,” she said. “It can be a long night, and if things are really active, you’re not going to be able to duck in and grab a sandwich.”

Grace described guild-affiliated volunteers as a vital communication link between protesters and others.

She recalled an instance that occurred during the protests in late 2015 after the court-ordered release of the video depicting Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago police officer, shooting Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old, 16 times.

She met with jailed protest organizers and kept them updated on how the protests continued.

“I’ve called a lot of parents to let them know their kid was arrested,” Grace said. “If a group is more organized, there are people in the organization that have contact information for protesters … if it’s unplanned, it is often times lawyers who are making those calls.”

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