Feathered Bastard

American Bar Association Conference Protested to the Tune of the Village People's Y.M.C.A.

About a dozen or so activists protested an American Bar Association conference at the Pointe Hilton Tapatio resort in north Phoenix, demanding that the participants walk out of the conference and join the nationwide boycott of Arizona over SB 1070.

Organized in part by Linda Brown of the Arizona Advocacy Network, the group was blocked from entering the main conference room by Pointe Hilton staff, but the demonstrators did manage to make attending lawyers run the gauntlet as they handed out fliers and sang an animated version of the 1970s Village People hit Y.M.C.A., with lyrics that got their point across.

Here's a sampling:

Lawyers! Why are you here ?

I said...Lawyers! Arizona loves fear!

I said...Lawyers. You should boycott AZ

Because ra---cist laws are cra-----zy

Save for one incident where an attendee was apparently hit inadvertently by a protester who threw fliers into the door of the conference room, the demonstration was peaceful and disbanded as soon as a Phoenix police detective showed up to shoo demonstrators away.

The ABA's Equal Justice Conference is an annual event wherein lawyers discuss the "delivery of legal services to the poor and low-income individuals in need of legal assistance," according to the ABA's Web site.

Though the conference was planned at least a year in advance, it has been dogged by controversy since Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law.

The co-sponsor of the event, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association officially withdrew from the conference May 5, citing its opposition to SB 1070, which encourages local cops to enforce federal immigration law and check the status of those they suspect of being undocumented during any stop, detention or arrest.

According to a spokesman for the ABA, some 265 persons canceled their plans to be at the conference, leaving about 500 lawyers still attending the three day event.

"I had a lot of friends and colleagues who decided not to come," said Karen Grisez, a lawyer with the D.C. firm Fried, Frank, et al., who's also Chairwoman of the ABA's commission on immigration. "Or on the NLADA side, to pull out. I don't condemn people for making the decision not to come, but for us to come here - aside from all the logistical difficulties of canceling so close -- the ABA was in a position where it couldn't readily move this conference to another location

"For a lot of the groups that attend this is their premier annual training event. They plan their calendars, clear their schedules and budget their training expenses to be here. A lot of those people were clamoring to go forward."

Grisez said she helped the ABA retool the conference's program to address immigration issues. As a result, the conference now features a presentation on SB 1070 by the Tucson-based Border Action Network.

But protest organizer Linda Brown was having none of it. She said the ABA was warned they would be protested if they didn't withdraw. And she said the conference planners had the option of doing an Internet-based Webinar, if finding a new location was too difficult.

"We can't give a pass to one organization while all these others are taking a hit," said Brown. "They clearly don't understand the depth of the seriousness here. If they had done a Webinar, it would have generated a lot of respect."

Brown said it was disingenuous of the ABA not to cancel the conference. She also asserted that the ABA's membership had been lobbying the leadership to ax the Pointe Hilton event.

"It shows a real level of cluelessness," Brown said of ABA's decision to go foward.

Interestingly, the keynote speaker for the conference was Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario, who gave a slideshow presentation based on her reporting for what eventually became the best-selling book Enrique's Journey, which charts the journey of a young Honduran boy traveling north through Mexico in an attempt to join his mother in the United States.

Ironically, Nazario was giving her address even as the activists demonstrated outside. She was booked to give the keynote speech before the controversy ensued.

Grisez told me she was opposed to Arizona's new "papers please" law and said she believed the legislation was unconstitutional. She also stated she thought the law had a good chance of being stopped by a preliminary injunction before it goes into effect in late July.

The ABA's President Carolyn Lamm has issued a statement on the ABA's Web site condemning the law as "draconian" and based on "prejudice and fear." Lamm is scheduled to speak Friday at the ABA's awards luncheon.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons