George Floyd protests and ongoing pandemic push attorneys to provide free counsel

By Sidnee King and Emine Yücel
Medill Reports

As hundreds of protesters wait in jails across the country after a weekend of raucous demonstrations, lawyers from Chicago to Los Angeles are taking to social media, offering free counsel. Legal professionals say pro bono work is especially important given that the pandemic is still ravaging the country, meaning protesters put in jail or even detained in police vans are being put at risk.

Chicago-based attorney Derrick Morgan, Jr. was scrolling through his Twitter feed at 6 a.m. on May 30, overwhelmed by the number of people he’d seen violently arrested by police in Minneapolis. As a black man, Morgan was deeply disturbed by the images.

After getting the green light from his bosses at Saeed & Little, LLP, Morgan tweeted, “If you’re arrested for protesting in Chicago, Indianapolis or Louisville, my law firm will represent you pro bono.”

Sixteen hours later, the post was retweeted more than 96,000 times, and his inbox was flooded with hundreds of messages.

“It just blew up,” Morgan said. “The number of people who have been reaching out to us is overwhelming.”

Since the release of footage in which former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was seen kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, leading to his death, officials in major U.S. cities are working to contain boiling protests.

Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman announced third-degree murder and manslaughter charges against Chauvin days after the footage was released, but protesters across the country say they’ll keep showing up until the other three officers involved are arrested.

According to the Associated Press, over 4,000 arrests were made nationwide over the weekend.

On May 30, Chicago’s downtown was flooded by demonstrators demanding justice for Floyd, risking confrontation with law enforcement. Morgan was one of thousands present that day.

Following the protest, Saeed & Little called for all hands on deck. Morgan and his colleagues worked through the night to filter through requests for legal help that came mostly through social media, and the firm’s website crashed after a high volume of visitors. “We’re just trying to make sure we don’t leave any stones unturned,” said Morgan. “We’re trying to represent everyone because they’re entitled to a defense.”

The City of Chicago hosted a number of press conferences over the weekend. Between Friday and Sunday, Chicago’s top cop, David Brown, confirmed that CPD arrested nearly 1,049 protesters. Among those arrested, police reported that some were carrying baseball bats, bowling balls and bottles of urine.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot imposed a citywide curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. until further notice.

“My expectation is that most people who have been peacefully protesting today are going to go home,” Lightfoot said in Saturday’s press conference. The mayor later emphasized that people who choose to defy the curfew will be put in jail. “They will be locked up,” she said.

Since the coronavirus pandemic struck, jails across the nation have been an incubator for COVID-19. Attorneys in major U.S. cities expressed concern that an influx of people sitting in county jails will increase the chances of protesters contracting the virus.

Ted Wenske, a criminal defense attorney, said he felt a duty to keep people out of jails and prisons. “In the age of COVID-19, I don’t think anyone should be in a death trap in these prisons right now, whether or not they’ve incited any sort of violence,” he said.

In California, another criminal defense attorney, Joe Mastro, hopes the threat of COVID-19 will compel the Alameda County District Attorney’s office to decline filing charges against many of the protesters arrested in the Bay Area.

As of May 30, the Cook County Sheriff’s office has reported that 974 people have been infected with COVID-19 at the county jail on South California Avenue. Ten detainees and employees have died, and several are still recovering.

Morgan noted that though the virus may not be at the forefront of the public’s consciousness, it is still an issue of consideration.

In a nationwide survey of 420 correctional and detention facilities last month, the CDC reported over 7,600 COVID-19 diagnoses in incarcerated or detained persons and staff members. County courts are holding virtual hearings, and the California Supreme Court set bail at $0 for low-level offenders in an effort to keep jail occupancy at a minimum.

As attorneys continue to extend their services free of charge, some have attached contingencies to their offers, noting they would only represent individuals who were protesting peacefully.

“Peaceful protesters are being arrested and sitting in overcrowded jails without masks,” Austin-based attorney Tycha Kimbrough said. “We will not stand for that.”

Others, like Wenske and New York-based attorney Dan Lynch, say they’ll do their best to keep as many people out of jail as they can. “I don’t turn anybody down,” said Lynch. “If a protester came up to me and they were arrested for doing something violent, that’s still a part of my job.”

Lawyers are pooling their resources to represent as many people as they can. Some private attorneys have committed to only taking on a handful of clients, while firms, like Saeed & Little, have recruited attorneys, law students and recent graduates for assistance.

Tim Hazen, 25, is one of them. Hazen, a law student at University of Illinois Chicago’s John Marshall Law School, decided to volunteer for the firm after seeing Morgan’s tweet. “This is a good way that I can get involved as a white male,” Hazen said. “ I believe that actions speak louder than words and volunteering to help the cause is something I can do.”

Many attorneys are investing their time and billable hours as an act of allyship. Minnesota attorney Nico Ratkowski and his wife joined protests on Saturday in Minneapolis at the site of Floyd’s killing. The immigration lawyer recalled hundreds of people gathering on E. 35th Street and Nicollet Avenue near the AutoZone that was later set on fire.

Ratkowski is dissatisfied with Hennepin County’s handling of Floyd’s case and the treatment of protesters in Minneapolis.

“It’s astounding that the other three cops haven’t been arrested, but hundreds of protesters are being detained,” he said.

Lynch has spent 20 years defending protesters pro bono, and Mastro, a self-professed opponent of police violence, worked to clear the names of demonstrators protesting the 2009 killing of 22-year-old black man Oscar Grant by Oakland police. Both are using their privilege and education for solidarity, as they describe it.

“For white people, this is not the most comfortable subject to talk about, but I think you really just need to embrace being uncomfortable and address it head on,” said Hazen, who is volunteering to help two protesters.

On the other hand, Morgan asked his white colleagues to join him in his efforts against police violence and brutality, which he said was his responsibility to his community.

Saeed & Little’s junior and senior attorneys typically charge clients anywhere between $150-450 an hour for their services. But, with the pro bono work they’re doing, they are sacrificing billable hours to work on defending protesters.

Morgan and other Saeed & Little attorneys have been receiving death threats since their efforts to help protesters went viral.

Morgan highlighted that he has access to resources that others might not. “Quite frankly, I feel like it’s my natural duty, as a black man, to resist oppression and racism,” Morgan said. “I can’t sit idly by and do a disservice to my community and my ancestors. I am in a position to make a difference.”

Photo at top: CPD officers clashing with protesters in downtown Chicago at Saturday’s demonstrations. (Grace Asiegbu/MEDILL)