Grassroots Movement Lawyering: Insights From the George Floyd Rebellion


In the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police, protesters engaged in acts of destruction, looting, and seizure of private and state property on a scale unseen since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. An estimated $2 billion was caused in private property damage, by far the most expensive for an uprising in American history. The most secure sites of state property, including the Third Precinct in Minneapolis, were set ablaze. In Seattle, protesters seized and converted a neighborhood into an experimental, collectively run society free from state and police intervention. These and other disruptive acts came to be known as the “George Floyd rebellion.” Notable as all these actions were, this rebellion constitutes an increasingly prevalent form of social movement under neoliberalism.

This Article makes sense of the George Floyd rebellion in light of the movement law premise that social movements work to fundamentally transform state and society. The events of 2020 reveal a critical gap between the dominant client-based model of movement lawyering, and movement lawyering oriented to and in solidarity with the grassroots. By analyzing the rebellion, this Article is the first to offer insights on how movement lawyers might reorient their practice to respect the unique contributions of grassroots social movements of today.

This Article argues that movement lawyers should, in the short-term, recalibrate their practical advocacy to support grassroots initiatives that directly expand the capacity of subordinated populations to control their own destinies and equitably distribute resources themselves, instead of depending on the state as the primary provider of rights and resources. As a long-term project, by embracing the transformative horizon of the rebellion, movement lawyers should commit to transformative advocacy of their own to shift the underlying paradigm of property law rooted in private ownership towards recognition of common property. Thus, rather than echoing conventional movement demands for a mere redistribution of property entitlements, the rebellion teaches movement lawyers that structural transformation necessarily entails a foundational reconfiguration of property law.


About the Author

Associate Professor of Law at Golden Gate University School of Law