Midwest Conference Report

by Chris Williams University of Iowa College of Law

The NLG Midwest Regional Conference in Milwaukee March 30-April 1st was a promising start to the mobilization that progressive activists will need to make in response to recent political changes. Titled "Building a Progressive Voice in the Age of ‘Compassionate Conservatism,’" the Midwest guild members put together presentations and workshops on a variety of topics that maintained the central theme of how to effectively combat anti-progressive policies. There were approximately 50 people in attendance; the group consisted of lawyers, judges, activists, journalists and law students.

Featured workshops included:

Opposing racial profiling
Political manipulation of the judiciary
Illegal immigration reform and legislation
Putting the Movement back in the Labor Movement
Fighting supermax prisons
Normalizing trade relations with Cuba

Opening speaker David Newby, President of Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, pointed out three core principle of the right wing. First, survival of the fittest is the natural order of things and wealth is an appropriate way to determine who survives. Second, any attempts to increase democracy are contrary to the natural order of society and markets. Finally, private enterprise should rule a society that holds property rights above human rights in its value system. Newby also pointed out that the wealth of the richest 1% of the population has ominously reached the level it was at in 1929, just before the Great Depression. Unfortunately, I think it would be safe to predict explosive growth in the public interest sector in the next ten years.

Presenters pointed out trends and statistics that indicated increased encroachment on basic tenets of a truly democratic society. EEOC Administrative Law Judge Henry Hamilton III illustrated how the judicial appointment process is putting Congress in control of all issues of first impression. This, he explained, teaches law students and lawyers that they need to become cold "originalists" or "constructionists," with strong notions of judicial constraint, in order to succeed to the bench. Ellen Bravo, Director of the 9 to 5 Organization for Working Women explained that we can look forward to welfare reform that is based on the insulting premise that people do not want to work for a living and must be forced to do so, often at far less than what anyone could call a "living wage." A journalist in attendance pointed out the fact that there are only seven corporations controlling the media in America, a disturbing figure given that the system depends largely on political pressure from the public for change to occur. In general, the conference warned that people who don’t believe "survival of the richest" is the way the world should be run will be facing an uphill battle for years to come.

The conference was not only about venting liberal frustrations, however. Wisely, emphasis was put on organizing people around central issues in the face of a targeted and multi-faceted attack on individual rights by what some attendees called the "talk radio agenda" of conservative leaders. Bravo cheered the group up by pointing out that the recent presidential election "wasn’t lost, we were robbed!" Milwaukee County Labor Council President John Goldstein stressed the need for people to focus on the number of issues they can effectively address before tackling every possible threat to their communities. "This may mean you won’t be able to do certain things, but you’ll probably have success in what you did focus on," he said. Everyone who spoke during the weekend agreed that in response to attacks on individual rights and meaningful democracy we will have to become just as organized as our opponents.

The conference concluded after a practical training in Legal Observing and Mass Defense, in which Joe Neterval and John Bachman gave a presentation on how to protect protesters and activists from being unfairly convicted for their political actions. As a student it was inspiring to learn from lawyers engaged in meaningful work. I probably learned more in Milwaukee in three days than is typically taught at law school in 2 weeks (conspiracy theory #154, law students are intentionally given too much work in order to prevent them from exercising the idealism that brought them to school in the first place).

NLG conferences will play an important role in bringing people together to develop strategies to protect and expand the few individual rights that currently enjoy some degree of protection. In the current political atmosphere, it is clear that groups with platforms like the Federalist Society, who subscribe to Justice Scalia’s "originalist" idea of constitutional interpretation, will succeed in suppressing some civil rights. However a collaborative and focused drive to mobilize the public on issues affecting fundamental rights will be much more effective than an unorganized scramble attempting to respond to every attack on the rights of workers, minorities, women, prisoners, or the environment. The next collective step appears to be establishing a consensus about what specific issues to focus on. Students have the potential to help tremendously by organizing conferences that allow activists from all walks of life to educate and collaborate.


Chris Williams

University of Iowa College of Law