UNSW Centre for Crime, Law and Justice intern, Rose Chubb, attended the 2021 Australian RebLaw Conference. We invited Rose to share some reflections on the event.
RebLaw, or the Rebellious Lawyering conference, took place over two days in late September 2021. Underpinning it was the concept of ‘movement lawyering’. Movement lawyering refers to the practice of legal advice, representation, and advocacy in service of a broader social movement.
Speakers included international keynote, Vince Warren, CEO of the Centre for Constitutional Rights in the US; and Australian keynote speaker, Megan Davis, Pro-Vice Chancellor Indigenous at UNSW and a former member of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Panel discussions involved speakers from a wide array of perspectives including Sophie McNeill, journalist and human rights researcher, and Alejandra Ancheita, lawyer and founder of Mexican non-government organisation ProDESC, activating for the rights of Mexico’s marginalised.
Two ideas stood out at the RebLaw conference, both of them visible throughout the conference. The first is discomfort. Lawyers involved in social movements are often fighting the system that pays and sustains them, but hurts those they are working for or with. Australia’s criminal justice system punishes individuals without thought for their community or the impact the past may have had. Indeed, it may be beyond their official remit to do so. Courts, prisons, etc. exist for their own purposes: to create justice, vengeance, rehabilitation. When viewing the accused who pass through them, they are focused on the individual. Social movements are not. Therefore, although a lawyer represents an individual, they are representing them in a system of oppression.
A key example of this is seen in Indigenous communities. In a system not made for them, in a land stolen from them, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are treated as ‘lesser’. This is seen in higher rates of Indigenous imprisonment, greater infant mortality, overall poorer health. Indigenous people are far more likely to be arrested for relatively harmless crimes, such as swearing in a public place. While I and others like me may not actively seek to make lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people worse, the broader societal system that benefits us hurts them. When we take no action, or refuse to acknowledge this, we agree with it. Discomfort is acknowledging this; is speaking against it. As speaker Debbie Kilroy, founder of activist and fundraising group ‘Sisters Inside’ stated, I should ‘put my whiteness on the line’.
This leads into the second theme, the idea of voices.
At the conference, recognition was given to Indigenous people – to their culture – with an understanding that their voices have been taken. This is only an Australian experience, however, with international speakers showing how these issues, while starting at grassroots, have capacity to cross borders. Not only this, but conference speakers all spoke of themselves as representatives. People speaking for other people, about their issues. Again, this represents a move away from the individual, finding power in the community.
I also want to touch on speaking ‘for’ other people. It is no doubt possible to do so in an ethical manner, however I believe there is, and saw represented at the conference, a fine line between speaking their words, or speaking your own. What are the intentions behind it? How do we choose to speak? Is it for glory, or is it out of genuine want to right injustices and wrongs? How to tell? Vince Warren spoke of building a community. The community remains in control, with the lawyer merely at their service. They may argue amongst themselves, but in the end, it must be the community’s choice. Otherwise, as legal workers, we are simply perpetuating the colonial ideas that brought us here.