Like thousands of people across the world, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law student Matthew Nepute was spurred to action while trying to comprehend the horrific video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck.
With emotions running high and clashes between police and protesters making headlines nightly in response to Floyd’s death as well as other cases of police brutality, Nepute wanted to put his passion for social justice and the law to use on the frontlines of the Black Lives Matter movement.
He and fellow College of Law students Helen Lindamood and Shannon Woulfe saw an opportunity to make a difference through reactivating a student chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive association of lawyers, law students, and others in the legal field, focused on issues of social and environmental justice.
The group will join forces with other Utah attorneys to provide legal observer training for volunteers who in turn will attend protests with the organization’s trademarked “legal observer” hats —a signal meant for police that the independent monitors in the crowd are watching for violence and misbehavior. The Utah state chapter of the National Lawyers Guild has also recently been restarted because of current events.
Legal observers help to deter these types of abuses at protests, said Nepute.
“We want to make sure the protesters feel safe and more confident in what they are doing and also make sure that police don’t feel that they can commit abuses without any oversight,” said Nepute.
The concept will be new in Utah. With time, those who are a part of the legal observers’ efforts hope their presence will influence the outcome of protests where tensions between protestors and police escalate.
The National Lawyers Guild student chapter is also working to establish a jail support hotline designed to be a system to keep track of protesters who are arrested, to help ensure their safety in custody and to coordinate bail funds. The hotline will function as a tool for witnesses to report arrests and police abuses, as a way to supplement the work of legal observers.
The group launched its Legal Support Hotline in conjunction with the Juneteenth holiday recently. Support through the hotline is available by calling 801-410-0393.
In addition, those tracked through the hotline can often obtain representation through the National Lawyers Guild if they are in need of legal representation.
“For some, a public defender is not available to them or is not a good option for some other reason. The information gathered on the hotline helps coordinate resources for those less-common situations,” said Nepute.
Local volunteer attorneys will help to staff the effort and advise students on how to connect those in need of legal help with the proper assistance.
Lindamood and Woulfe said they are looking forward to helping to build the chapter as co-chairs, along with Nepute.
“I came to law school because I saw getting my juris doctorate as the key to a career where I would help elevate marginalized persons and leave the world better than I found it. To new law students, student organizations are marketed as an opportunity for us to network, to attend and organize campus events, and find internships and jobs, and this is true of most student groups, including our chapter of National Lawyers Guild. But between learning how to fit all my casebooks in one backpack and engage in the Socratic method in law classes, I put the mission to “save the world” aside because surviving law school seemed like an important prerequisite,” said Lindamood.
“But being a law student is a particular platform and a place of privilege I hadn’t imagined having before finishing law school. I am honored to use this position to help at such an important time and encourage my colleagues to do likewise,” she said.
For Nepute, watching the new student group get off the ground this summer was a case of good timing, despite the difficult circumstances that is bringing new group members together. He originally started working on the idea earlier this spring, when an immigration attorney working with the Pro Bono Initiative of which Nepute is a part of suggested the student group could be a beneficial addition to the College of Law.
Nepute started working with other students to launch the idea when the world shifted. The framework the students started in the spring would prove to be ideal to help with this summer’s protests.
“The state level chapter has been delegating tasks to everyone involved, including law students,” said Nepute. “Where we are at right now is we are putting all the infrastructure in place (so we can help more in the weeks ahead),” he noted.
How to get involved
- If you’d like legal observer or jail support hotline training from the National Lawyers Guild, or you want to join for any other reason, go to org/jointo sign up. (Dues are on a sliding scale. If you need a wavier for dues, email Traci Yoder to ask for assistance.)
- Enrolling will also ensure you’re in the email list to be notified when the digital legal observer and hotline training is available, as well as notified of all of the other events and projects that National Lawyers Guild members can participate in.
- The new student chapter accepts any current S.J. Quinney College of Law student, staff, alumni, or faculty who are also members of the National Lawyers Guild. Contact Matthew Nepute, Helen Lindamood, or Shannon Woulfe with some proof of NLG membership (such as the header from your dues receipt) and click “Join” via the student chapter page, and you will be added to the SJQ chapter’s roster.