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Activist Lawsuits and Funding the Movement

By: 
Lesley Wood, Meredith Slopen, Daniel Lang, Joseph Phelan, and Mac Scott
Date Published: 
June 1, 2010

A few months ago, $13 million dollars was awarded to the activists who were unlawfully arrested on April 15, 2000 in Washington DC as part of the weekend of protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. In the next few years a number of other class action lawsuits will probably be settled, where activist defendants are likely to receive large sums of money. Some of us, who were arrested, cuffed, and held for participating in a peaceful protest, may be receiving a lot of cash.

With potential money on the horizon, we're excited. As we look at our student loans, credit card bills and rising cost of living, this could really help. But then we think: how could some of this money get redirected back into the movements that mobilized us in the first place? The organizations that inspired us aren't getting their bills paid. The ones we work with now constantly have to dedicate time and other resources to fundraising. We still believe that change is possible and that these groups are making a difference. Imagine what they could do with a thousand dollars! What about ten thousand?

Over the past few years there have been a number of activist lawsuits that have ended with large sums of money changing hands. Some of that cash has gone to support projects the activists are involved in, more or less directly or systematically. When activists arrested at the "Battle of Seattle" received a significant lawsuit settlement; a group of them formed Money to Movements to redirect some of these funds to movement projects and organizations. They collectively identified projects they wanted to support, and asked defendants to donate if they could.

Some folks in New York had a different idea. They weren't a large group, just four people arrested at an antiwar action who accepted a substantial settlement offer from the city. They divided the sum into five portions rather than four and donated the "movement" share to several organizations-both those working on the issues that brought them into the streets and those doing the underfunded movement-support work that makes court cases winnable and settlements possible.

There will be an impact on municipal government budgets in DC and other cities settling (or losing) lawsuits over police tactics. Raising the cost of policing protest is one way to discourage cities from violating civil rights. However, the people of the city end up paying double when settlement money leaves their municipality. Redirecting the tax dollars we win in these situations to organizations fighting for justice in the cities that have been the sites of struggle for the global justice and antiwar movements reinvests the money in communities already targeted by militarized policing and disinvestment.

We recognize that not everyone is in the same situation. Some of us are in dire straits financially. But many in our movement have the financial stability to use this money to directly support our movements.

Whether as a class of defendants, an affinity group, or an individual, these decisions are difficult but necessary. We need to be able to talk openly about the possibilities these settlements offer. A vibrant and effective movement is more necessary than ever-this is but one opportunity to continue to invest time and energy in the fight for global and local justice.

Daniel, Joseph, Lesley, Mac, and Meredith live, love, and struggle in New York, Miami and Toronto. Some of us were arrested in Washington and New York City and want our movements to be strengthened by these settlements.