By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Tony Paris is an activist and attorney with the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice where he specializes in workers' rights regarding plant closings and mass layoffs, unemployment insurance benefits, and wage and hour actions.

He currently sits on the National Executive Committee of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), which for nearly 75 years has provided representation to those targeted for their criticism of U.S. policies.

In recent weeks, Paris has served as a NLG legal observer for the Occupy Detroit protests.

Mathis: Are you an activist or attorney first?

Paris: I don't think that I'm really able to separate those two things. Through my work with the National Lawyers Guild and the Sugar Law Center, I'm able to focus on cases that do not just have a one-dimensional legal component but are also part of a larger movement. So I try to approach my cases with an "activist" mindset and strategize toward the broader end of empowering working-class people and their communities.

Unfortunately, the legal system is oftentimes an extremely frustrating means of trying to achieve this empowerment. People who think that they are going to get "justice" only from the courtroom are sadly mistaken. But by viewing the law as just one tool to be used in addition to--and in conjunction with--other methods, it helps put things in perspective for me. By approaching cases from this activist point of view, my clients and I are able to have victories in building power and support--even if the case loses or the law hasn't caught up with the injustice yet.

Mathis: In recent weeks, the Mass Defense Committee of the National Lawyers Guild has shown unprecedented support of Occupy protests, coordinating hundreds of attorneys, law students, and legal workers to protect the First Amendment rights of demonstrators. Why do you want to be a part of this cause?

Paris: I am so proud of being part of the National Lawyers Guild during this exciting time. The way that the NLG has responded so quickly and effectively--not only in Detroit--but all across the country, has not only rejuvenated and inspired us....but it's proved our relevance and that we are needed as the "legal arm of the movement" toward the ends of human rights being more sacred than property interests.

Supporting and defending the Occupy Movement is exactly why I went to law school and the type of work that gets me out of bed every morning. When you look back in history, so many of the things that we now hold dear--civil rights, worker rights, women's rights, etc--were all born out of a hard struggle...things that the establishment did not want to concede. And it took people taking to the streets to fight for what they believe in. If it weren't for these brave individuals and the risks they took, we'd be in even worse shape than we are now. Power doesn't give up anything without demand. And we are here to help them get their message out.

Mathis: Does your legal support for social justice movements in the United States extend to the Tea Party?

Paris: No--my work with the National Lawyers Guild would not include legal support for the Tea Party. However, if a Tea Party member happened to call Sugar Law with questions about their rights at work--or lack of rights at work for that matter given the current state of affairs--I would definitely advise them.

Mathis: Will you be paid for your efforts?

Paris: My work with the National Lawyers Guild is strictly voluntary.

Mathis: How can you afford to take on this work pro bono?

Paris: I am very fortunate to have a day job as lead attorney at the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. Sugar Law has a long-standing and deep-rooted affiliation with the National Lawyers Guild. Because of this, the work I do during the day often intersects and blends in with the Guild's work. Sugar Law is a non-profit law center. We depend a lot on donations and grants to pay the bills.

Mathis: Since Oct. 14, about 100 people have been camping out in Grand Circus Park protesting social and economic inequities. It will get cold soon. How long will they last? And what's it like out there at 3 a.m.?

Paris: Yes, it is already getting cold...especially at night. I was there this past weekend playing guitar and my fingers were numb after just a few minutes. But there are some very die-hard and tough individuals out there and as far as I know, they don't have a time table to leave any time soon.

Mathis: How would you say Detroit compares to other cities with Occupy protests, in terms of the city's treatment of protestors, campsite conditions, etc?

Paris: Well--unfortunately we've seen what's been happening in Oakland. When, Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen suffered a fractured skull at the hands of police--we wondered whether police in Detroit and around the country would also eventually turn to similar tactics against the people. And this still is a concern....but to be honest, over the years the City of Detroit has come a long way in terms of their treatment of demonstrators. There are some good community-policing tactics being utilized and even the permit was granted without too much of a headache. We hope this continues. The suburbs on the other hand ... Well, that's a different story.

And as far as the conditions go, we have not heard anything distressing and a local business is allowing protestors to use their bathrooms. We have been hearing that other cities are going to use the "health and safety" issue as a legal basis for shutting down Occupy camps. But whether Detroit is also going to try this remains unknown at this point.

Mathis: What would surprise people to know about these protesters?

Paris: They are dedicated, educated, and a lot more organized than they are being portrayed. They are made up of all types of different ages and backgrounds. They are also extremely brave. When you think about it, as much as we all like to sit around talk about how upset we are at the current situation in America, they are actually out there doing something. They are sacrificing comfort, warmth, etc for something they believe in. At a moment's notice, they join other demonstrations all over town.

Mathis: Are they misunderstood?

Paris: I think in a lot of ways they are. Many people think that they represent only the far outliers of the disenfranchised. But this is not true. Let me give you an example. Last week, Occupy Detroit joined southwest Detroit residents to protest the Ambassador Bridge's failure to complete the Gateway Project as ordered by a judge. The protesters blocked Fort Street traffic to the bridge to Canada for nearly an hour to call attention to the hazards posed by international truck traffic on local roads. As the demonstration wrapped up and the standoff ended, the protestors were cheered on by the waiting truck drivers who honked their horns and waved in support.

Mathis: Some protesters have been criticized for being engulfed in consumerism; for camping out with their iPads and smart phones, supporting the corporate greed they condemn. Is that a fair criticism?

Paris: I don't think that's a fair criticism. I mean we have to work inside the parameters of the world we live in and use the tools that are available. Modern technology and media have their place to be used for good. Beyond the faster exchange of can facilitate cooperation and put a spotlight on the actions of police and corporations.

Mathis: Another criticism of the group is the lack of specific policy demands. How would you sum up what it is they want?

Paris: I don't think that pigeonholing the immense amount of discontent that's reflected in the Occupy protests with a list of demands would be beneficial. This isn't a hostage situation. And, I'm definitely not going to try and put a bumper-sticker phrase on it all. Different groups have different injustices that they want to bring attention to but a lot of it is intertwined in the fact that democracy in America is on life support. We live in a plutocracy. Regular people are being cut off from the profits that they break their backs to help create, and nothing is trickling down. Then, to top it all off, they--unions, teachers, etcetera--end up being blamed for something that was not created by them. The people that created the mess are doing just fine.

Mathis: Mitt Romney said the movement incites class warfare, presumably between the 99 percent majority, and the one percent with all the money. Do you agree?

Paris: To me, the "class warfare" happens when a mother of three kids gets her heat shutoff in the middle of winter. It happens when she has to balance 3 part-time contingent temp jobs--without health insurance, sick pay, etc--just to put food on the a city where her vote doesn't even matter because our governor has put in an emergency manager to be dictator and rewrite laws as he pleases. It happens when taxpayers bail banks out only so they can turn around and foreclose on thousands of homes. That is class warfare. It happens all the time in subtle and unfortunately legal ways from that 1 percent. But I guess Mitt only calls it "class warfare" when there's actually some push-back.

Mathis: Two Occupy Detroit protesters were arrested last week after interrupting the videotaping of a Wayne State University television show featuring the CEO of the New York Stock Exchange Euronext. Are you representing them? What's the latest?

Paris: Myself and fellow National Lawyers Guild Attorney Shaun Godwin were present at their arrest and upon their release. They're being charged with misdemeanors so it's potentially serious. There was another demonstrator cited with a civil infraction for Disorderly Conduct / Impeding Traffic. We in the Guild are coordinating their legal defense.

Mathis: What's your best guess as to how this will all end up?

Paris: Of course we hope that the prosecutor does the right thing and dismisses the charges. And, unlike our Occupy clients,none of the banksters are being charged with anything.

Published: Fri, Nov 11, 2011