Caleb Stoloski remembers clearly the excruciating pain and terror of being peppersprayed, handcuffed, and hauled off to jail, charged with a crime he didn’t commit. He remembers the sadness and isolation he felt when his neighbors, informed by the media, made him out to be “the worse person imaginable.” He remembers the anger at losing his job because his employer didn’t care about guilt or innocence, just the allegations.
Stoloski also remembers the relief he felt when Carlton E. Williams, assistant clinical professor of law, and students from the Movement Lawyering Clinic reached out to help.
“Their work saved my life,” says Stoloski. “Carl is the most singularly driven person I have ever met in my life, not an ounce of doubt in what he’s doing. I am so grateful to him. His work, his strength, his tireless passion for what he does—it saved my life.”
In Williams’ clinic, students work with lawyers, community organizations, and activists to understand the strategies and tactics of movement legal work and provide legal support for movements, organizations, organizers, and individuals who are caught in the legal system.
Williams had contacted Stoloski after hearing about his arrest at a protest following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It was Stoloski’s first time participating in what was supposed to be a peaceful protest—he had come to support others, bringing with him a cart full of water, snack bars, bandages, hand sanitizers, masks, and anything he thought might be needed. But when someone near him threw a bottle of water at the police, it was Stoloski who was targeted, punched by a police officer, and charged with assault and battery. “I remember when they were fingerprinting me, I just said the Hail Mary over and over again… They were laughing.”
Though Stoloski, who is transgender, was allowed to go home, when his name was released to the media, he lost his job and suffered public humiliation. His was exactly the kind of case Williams takes to heart—and uses to teach, to help, and to change lives in whatever way he can.
Williams, who began his legal career as a criminal defense attorney, explains movement lawyering this way: “In movement lawyering, we follow what the movements tell us to do. We are in those spaces, in those community meetings, in churches, in conferences, when Muslim folks, undocumented folks, LGBTQ folks, and Native folks are in a room asking, ‘How do we get free?’ We as lawyers are in the back going, ‘How can we help?’”
In the clinic, students gain firsthand experience, knowledge, and skills in how to work with organizers and use the law to support justice movements. “Carl teaches his students that when lawyers stop trying to have all the answers and listen to organizers and directly impacted people, real change is possible,” says Catherine Sevcenko, senior counsel at the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. The National Council organizes against the incarceration of women in the belief that “prison will never be the place for a woman or girl to heal and advance her life [and] that prison most often causes further social and economic harm and does not result in an increase in public safety.”
Williams’ students engage with the National Council by interviewing incarcerated women, hearing their stories, and crafting legal arguments why these women’s situations warrant a reduction in sentence. “By supporting and empathizing with their incarcerated clients, Carl’s students begin to restore their trust in lawyers,” says Sevcenko. “Even if they can’t win freedom for their clients, the students can give them energy to fight and insist on being treated with dignity on the inside. A ‘no’ today does not mean that the answer will always be no.”
With respect, patience, and conviction, Williams and his students also worked with Stoloski to get his charges dismissed. At first, the court demanded an apology from Stoloski but ultimately accepted a letter chronicling his experience and recommendations on how to improve policing. Williams’ students interviewed Stoloski to develop the lengthy letter that described what happened on May 31, 2020, and its impact on his life.
“They were critical to getting the charges dismissed,” says Stoloski. “I was so exhausted with all that had happened. I am so grateful for their support. To have these hands reach under you and haul you back to where you can be an active, living, loving person, it’s just a godsend.”
“It’s the greatest work we can do in our lives,” says Williams. “I work with people who are advocating for change. I watch the news and I get to do something about it! It’s incredibly inspiring to me all the time.”