What Socialists Can Learn from Community Lawyers

By Edward P

Thursday, Nov 8th, 2018, in a classroom at Harvard’s Wasserstein Hall, the Harvard chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG)1 hosted a “Law for the People” event on the Housing crisis gripping the Boston area. The panel speakers, all NLG members, were Jeff Feuer and Lee Goldstein of Goldstein & Feuer, and Nadine Cohen of Greater Boston Legal Services. Jeff and Lee are also both involved with City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) and have provided legal workshops to CLVU members as well as legal services to tenants and activists.

The panel discussion seemed mostly pitched to law students. They discussed how one can make a career in providing community legal services and how legal education pushes people away from that path towards big law and government. The panelists all offered students at the event to do clinical work2 with them. However, there were a few points that were applicable in a broader context.

The Housing Crisis Disproportionately Affects Women

Jeff began his talk by breaking down the statistics of the housing crisis in Boston. Renters are the poorest and most racially diverse segment of Boston’s population. Over 40,000 renter households have incomes less than $32,000 a year — about half the area’s median income — and most of those household receive no state subsidies for their housing. Over half of such renting households are Black, Latinx, or Asian.This economic precarity puts poor renters at constant risk of displacement. And this burden falls doubly hard on women tenants according to Nadine.

Nadine pointed out that sex discrimination in housing has often been overlooked in US law. It took years, after laws prohibiting racial  discrimination, for Federal Housing discrimination laws to include sex as a protected class. Women are also more likely to be evicted than men –  women are evicted at 18% higher rates because they are less to likely to strike deals with the landlord, or because a landlord finds having children at a property undesirable, or because women as a class are paid less than men for the same work.

Sex discrimination also includes problems beyond refusals to rent. According to Nadine, one in ten poor women reported having a landlord or maintenance worker demand sex as a quid pro quo for rent relief or required maintenance on their rented units. Other women face sexual assault or harassment from landlords or other housing providers.

Being the victim of domestic violence can also lead to a woman’s eviction. While states like Massachusetts prohibit evictions because a tenant called police or other reported domestic violence, landlords often use police responses as a pretext to evict tenants regardless of the law.

Around the US, the housing crisis profoundly affects poor women as a group. Any work done around it needs to recognize that this crisis is largely a crisis affecting women.

Working in Contradictory Spaces

Lee opened his pitch for a career  in community law practice by discussing what he saw as the characteristics of community lawyering – being part of the community, aware of the context, having an agreement with the community, viewing works holistically, listening to clients, acting as a connection between the community and client, and encouraging non-lawyers to act as legal advocates. Lee noted that some of those are not so different from what one would be doing at a big law firm — simply substitute community for corporation. The difference, Lee said, was in three things:1) not being neutral, 2) developing a distinct legal persona, and 3) understanding you’re working in contradictions.

This point on contradictions was the most important. Lee talked about the law not being neutral. It’s part of the systems of social reproduction that perpetuate inequality and that have led to the current housing crisis. In order for it to be useful as a tool a social reproduction, the law sometimes has to deliver fair outcomes to people it would otherwise aid in disenfranchising. As an example, during his talk, Jeff pointed out that the US Supreme Court, in Lindsey v Normet, ruled that USians enjoy no right to housing.

So a lawyer, who is working towards broad social change, has to understand that working within a system of social reproduction existing in contradiction with attempting to dismantle that system. All of us, who are working towards broad social change, exist in that same kind of contradiction. Capitalism is an inescapable totalitarian system, and everyone’s lives are bound up in its system of reproduction.

However, people who are privileged by these system — not just lawyers, but tech workers, academics, media personalities, politicians — must reckon with the fundamental contradiction between how their skills interact with the system and the goal of changing the system when they attempt to use their skills for movement. Without this reckoning, we will inevitably end up reinforcing capitalist social reproduction rather than overturning it.

We Must Be Led By the Movement

The resolution to these contradictions, according to Jeff, was to allow yourself to be led by the movement and by putting your skills at the service of the community. The place for lawyers in the housing struggle is to give support where and when they are invited by a community.

Jeff and Lee’s relationship with CLVU largely follows this model. Lee discussed how it was important to use the law to help tenants stay in their homes by using any technicality to get evictions thrown out or to force a landlord to deal with maintenance issue. However, as Jeff talked about, winning the fight because a landlord or police officer didn’t fill out a form correctly might not be the point. You can have the most airtight, brilliant legal argument to help someone, a tenant or a person arrested in a direct action, but it may not address the goals of the movement.

Instead the appearance in court can be an opportunity to advance the movement’s points to get its belief and arguments out to the public. In that case your ego as lawyer — your desire to prove your legal mind or protect your winning record — must take a backseat to the needs of the movement. You have to put yourself fully in service to the people you’re working for.

Likewise, when you’re in a space where community are discussing how to respond to issues facing them, you, as a lawyer, may know some sound legal strategy that can help fix the issues, and you should share your expertise. However, it’s not your place to insist that your expertise gives you insight into the only solution to the problem. People working together for their community’s interests are capable of immense creatively. We shouldn’t narrow our possibilities based on our understand of capitalist systems.

This fits with our understanding of our tasks as socialists. As Huey P. Netwon put it in his 1968 interview with The Movement, our goal is “…a people’s revolution with the end goal being the people in power.” Socialism is the people in power — not lawyers, coders, politicians, or union bureaucrats. Those us of us that have the privilege of working within and understanding the various systems that support and reinforce capitalist rule cannot win socialism through use of those skills alone. We have to use those skills to serve the people, not to advance our own position in the movement.

  1. Along with with the Women’s Law Association, the Tenant Advocacy Project, and Project No One Leaves
  2. Legal clinic work is essentially an internship for credit

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