Posted by: Katharine Brown | January 19, 2015

First five weeks at CCR

Five and a half weeks into my internship, I am finally writing a blog post, sitting in a little café in Greenwich Village on my lunch break. My time in New York so far has been nothing less than incredible. Everyone at CCR is friendly and welcoming, the work is inspiring and the city is an endless maze of eclectic bars, shops and events to explore. I spent the first few weeks living in Air BNB accommodation in Williamsburg, first in a loft in South Williamsburg and then in a great little apartment off Bedford Avenue. After three weeks of exploring Williamsburg and many nights spent trawling Craig’s List for apartment ads, Em (interning at Human Rights First) and I were lucky enough to land an apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Crown Heights is a vibrant up and coming neighbourhood, only 15 minutes from the Island. Its streets are a mix of Caribbean restaurants, yoga collectives, brownstones, and great little cafes and bars. Exploring our neighbourhood and the city has been wonderful. We’ve ice-skated on Christmas day, spent three hours and a week’s grocery money in a bookstore (Strand – check it out), walked the Brooklyn Bridge on New Year’s Eve and dedicated many nights to exploring the city’s bars.

The work at CCR has been equally exciting. Born out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, CCR is a non-profit legal organisation that uses strategic litigation to defend and promote human rights. Their work has followed civil liberties movements over the years, taking issues such as racial and gender justice, corporate breaches of human rights law and illegal detentions to the courts. Through its work, CCR has shaped constitutional and human rights discourse in the US, tirelessly using the litigation as a tool for social change. Although there is a definite focus on litigation, CCR is also dedicated to community advocacy efforts, and invests a lot of time in publications and community events.

The time I’ve been at CCR has been particularly intense. In my first week here, the Garner decision was handed down by the grand jury – holding that officer Pantaleo should not be indicted. The decision was harrowing for the staff at CCR. Watching the protests in Ferguson from Melbourne was disheartening, but being here in the middle of the Garner decision really made it hit home how personal the political really is. The decision, especially coming so soon after Ferguson, outraged but mobilised so many people.  The following night the streets erupted in protests. Armed with snacks, banners and a buddy system, almost the entire CCR staff caught the subway downtown after work and joined the protests. Marching with the staff and talking to them about their reactions and ideas for change was so inspiring, and something that will definitely stay with me. The following week, the torture report was released. It contained details about the treatment of a number of CCR clients. Again, the staff at CCR were immediately mobilised into action – publishing articles, holding events and demanding accountability for those responsible for the torture regime. Interning while these events have been unfolding has been an unforgettable experience: it’s heartbreaking, but it’s also inspiring to witness the sense of solidarity and determination within the human rights community. Observing the expert reactions to these events is also an incredible learning experience. The way the staff engage with these events on a legal, philosophical and psychological level, and then convey that insight to the public is really something else.

Amidst all of the events, press releases and protests I have, of course, also been working during the day! Almost all of my work at CCR is in the International Human Rights docket, working with Senior Staff Attorneys Katie Gallagher and Maria Lahood. I’ve been writing up research memos for lawyers, drafting letters to government agencies, and assisting with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) appeals by compiling indices of documents received, assessing their significance and analysing how we can challenge redactions. I’ve been working mainly on three cases: Arar v Ashcroft, A freedom of information act lawsuit for Steven Salaita and a freedom of information act lawsuit concerning the Gaza Flotilla incident.

I was also fortunate enough to attend an oral hearing in Hassan v City of New York last Tuesday. A group of us interns met in the early hours of the morning and piled into a car for a road trip to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia – for any Sopranos fans, the first half of this drive is the theme song drive. Baher Azmy, the Legal Director of CCR, appeared for the Plaintiffs at the hearing, contending that the NYPD’s  spying program on Muslim communities in the tri-state area was unconstitutional. The spying program came to light through a series of articles published by the Associated Press. The articles reported that the NYPD demographically mapped suspicionless Muslim communities, employing ‘rakers’ in Mosques and sending informants to Muslim Student Association outings. The case charges that the program violated the First Amendment right to religious freedom, and the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause. Watching the lawyers present their respective cases and respond to questions from the bench was a wonderful experience. An interesting aspect of the hearing was that CCR encouraged the Muslim community to attend. The Court ended up being full and another Court was opened to stream the hearing live. I thought this was a really simple, but effective way of shaping the tone of the hearing. Instead of the judges considering the impact of the program on a abstract community, they were considering it with the very people the program affected sitting right in front of them. The suit is the first of its kind in America, and the result will have far-reaching implications for privacy rights in the US.

I’ll update soon on further developments in this and other cases, thanks for reading!

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