Caleb Stoloski remembers clearly the excruciating pain and terror of being pepper-sprayed, hand-cuffed, and hauled off to jail, charged with a crime he didn’t commit. He remembers the tremendous sadness and feelings of isolation when his neighbors, informed by the media, made him out to be “the worse person imaginable.” He remembers the anger at losing his job because his employer didn’t care about guilt or innocence, just the allegations.
Stoloski also remembers the utter relief he felt when Carlton E. Williams, assistant clinical professor of law, and students from his Movement Lawyering Clinic reached out to help. “Their work saved my life,” says Stoloski. “Carl is the most singularly driven person I have ever met in my life, not an ounce of doubt in what he’s doing. I am so grateful to him. His work, his strength, his tireless passion for what he does—it saved my life.” In Williams’ clinic, students work with lawyers, community organizations, and activists to understand the strategies and tactics of movement legal work and provide legal support for movements, organizations, organizers, and individuals like Stoloski who get caught up in the legal system.
Williams had reached out to Stoloski after hearing about his arrest at a protest on May 31, 2020, in Boston after the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It was Stoloski’s first participation in what was supposed to be a peaceful protest—he had come to support others, bringing with him a cart full of water, snack bars, bandages, hand sanitizers, masks, and anything he thought might be needed. Stoloski was caught up in a kettling tactic used by police in riot gear to disperse the crowd. “They ordered us to disperse and then began chasing us.” Someone near him threw a water bottle at police. But it was Stoloski who was targeted, punched in the nose by a police officer, and charged with assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon. “I remember when they were fingerprinting me, I just said the Hail Mary over and over again . . . They were laughing.”
Though Stoloski was released on bond, thanks to the Massachusetts Bail Fund, his name was released to the media and he suffered public humiliation and lost his job. His situation was complicated by the fact that Stoloski was transgender and threatened in humiliating ways. His was exactly the kind of case that Williams takes to heart and uses—to teach, to help, and to change lives in whatever way he can.
“It’s the greatest work we can do in our lives,” says Williams, a renowned expert on social justice movements and the law. “I work with people who are advocating for change. I watch the news and I get to do something about it! It’s incredibly inspiring to me all the time.” Williams began his legal career as a criminal defense attorney, eventually becoming a racial justice attorney and working for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Williams explains movement lawyering this way: “In movement lawyering, we follow what the movements tell us to do. We are in those spaces, in those community meetings, in churches, in conferences, when Muslim folks, undocumented folks, LGBTQ folks, and Native folks are in a room asking, ‘How do we get free?’ We as lawyers are in the back going, ‘How can we help?’”
In the clinic, students gain firsthand experience, knowledge, and skills in how to work with organizers and use the law to support and defend justice movements. Williams says his clinic has become so popular that he can only accept 15 percent of students who apply. “They’re motivated by the divisiveness around the country, by the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s March, by Indigenous issues, and by Trump. They want to do something to help the nation. And they see law school as providing tools.”
Williams often uses the analogy of union organizing in describing the goals of movement lawyering: groups fighting for more equitable treatment whether in the workplace or in the community. And union organizers like movement organizers are vital to the goals of achieving a more equitable workplace or community because they are the ones with a plan and a strategy and the ability to effect real change, he believes.
“Carl teaches his students that when lawyers stop trying to have all the answers and listen to organizers and directly impacted people, real change is possible,” says Catherine Sevcenko, senior counsel at The National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. The National Council organizes against the incarceration of women believing that “prison will never be the place for a woman or girl to heal and advance her life (and) that prison most often causes further social and economic harm and does not result in an increase in public safety.”
Williams students engage with the National Council by interviewing incarcerated women and gaining the kind of insight and empathy critical to successful movement lawyering. They are helping to tell their stories “in compassionate release motions and then crafting legal arguments for why these women’s situation is ‘extraordinary and compelling,’ warranting a reduction in sentence,” says Sevcenko. “Cornell students worked on the compassionate release motion for Chyann Bratcher, a woman doing a life sentence for the drowning death of her husband, which the coroner ruled an accidental death but the federal government chose to prosecute as a murder. That motion was unsuccessful but told Chyann’s real story and gave her renewed strength to fight for her freedom. We continue to advocate for Chyann and have included her in our list of women who deserve clemency from President Biden.”
In working with the council and its incarcerated clients, students learn the principles of movement lawyering and the patience required in watching the wheels of justice turn. “It’s like whittling,” says Williams. “It’s a really slow process. You slice pieces off but over time you will be able to see massive amounts of change.”
Sevcenko says Williams and his students do “life-affirming work” for the council’s clients through the Charlotte Ray Freedom Project. “By supporting and empathizing with their incarcerated clients, Carl’s students begin to restore their trust in lawyers. Even if they can’t win freedom for their clients, the students can give them energy to fight and insist on being treated with dignity on the inside. A ‘no’ today does not mean that the answer will always be ‘no’.”
With empathy and respect, patience, and conviction, Williams and his students also worked with Caleb Stoloski to get his charges dismissed. At first, the court demanded an apology from Stoloski, but accepted a letter chronicling his experience and recommendations on how to improve policing. Williams’ students interviewed him to develop the lengthy letter that described what happened on May 31, 2020, and its impact on Stoloski’s life. “They were critical to getting the charges dismissed,” says Stoloski. “I was so exhausted with all that had happened. I am so grateful for their support. To have these hands reach under you and haul you back to where you can be an active, living, loving person, it’s just a Godsend.”