Friday Dec 01

BOOK REVIEW: Fitting Law and Lawyers into Social Change


Redford, Katie and Mark Gevisser. The Revolution Will Not Be Litigated: People Power and Legal Power in the 21st Century. OR, 2023.

“As I read it, one thing in particular has struck me, bearing out my own experience: the way “the power of law” and “the power of people” need to work together to bring about significant transformative change.” - Jane Fonda, from the foreword

People harmed by the government may not trust the law to solve their problems. Why should they? When you’ve ignored, colonized, enslaved, exploited, demonized, and murdered by the law, it’s hard to trust it to then bring you justice. “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house,” wrote Audre Lorde in one of her most famous essays, encapsulating this viewpoint. “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Yet as Jane Fonda reminds us in her forward to The Revolution Will Not Be Litigated: People Power and Legal Power in the 21st Century (2023), a collection of essays edited by Katie Redford and Mark Gevisser, it often takes the power of the law to elevate the will of the people over the powerful few. “It takes a lawyer, an activist, and a storyteller to change the world,” says contributor Jennifer Robinson, quoting the legendary American movement lawyer Michael Ratner.

I often find reading collections of essays akin to a search for treasure among the rubble, but every one of the gripping stories Redford and Gevisser shares from lawyers, organizers, activists, organizations, and movements who use the law to advance justice is excellent. Organizers are often natural storytellers, and, as it turns out, so are many movement lawyers and their clients.

Redford and Gevisser address the law’s ability to both help and hinder change, in each chapter, from both legal and movement perspectives. In the chapter on the struggle to legalize LGBTQIA+ relationships and rights in Kenya, contributor Njeri Gateru articulates a fundamental dilemma for “cause lawyers” such as herself. “When I think about what’s at the root of the pain of queer Kenyans, and in other words for me too, it’s the law itself. It’s the law that permits all the violence and discrimination against us. And now I must go into battle to make things better by using the tools of that very same law that causes the pain in the first place!” From this standpoint, good government’s ability to enforce good laws becomes the prize, not the problem, especially once a movement can win governing power with a long-term strategy to create a more just society.

The authors and contributors are careful to point out the dynamic relationship between movement lawyering and movement organizing as both strategy and tactics within larger fights for land, bodily autonomy, freedom of expression and identity, safety, and economic security. Jane Fonda’s foreword and Redford’s frequent evocation of Audre Lorde sandwiches the inherent tension between legal and movement organizing strategies, with the authors and contributors' commitment to people power as the strategic center.

Fonda’s fierce lifelong activism means that she has run into (and through) the law many times. This includes her recent work with Fire Drill Fridays and Greenpeace USA, along with stories of her time at Standing Rock in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples against the fossil fuel industry. If the law does not serve human dignity, Fonda explains in her foreword, then “we can choose to break the law too.”

If a country’s laws say, for instance, that sex workers in Kenya are criminals, or that 1 million people in India’s Narmada Valley do not have standing to challenge the construction of dams that would force their resettlement, then what is the best way to change these laws? The book and its contributors take us to more than a dozen countries to examine this question, and their choices will surprise, delight, or frustrate you.

In addition to citing its best-known passage, Redford also evokes less familiar parts of Audre Lorde’s writings, such as this passage from The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House: “Make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures.” This ongoing dialogue with Lorde offers an insightful counterpoint which generates creative agitation throughout the book.

Lorde’s Master’s Tools, written in 1984, was a challenge to white feminists generally and in particular to those gathered at a New York University Institute for the Humanities conference. In the same essay, Lorde also writes: “Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being. Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.”

The process of relational power-building Lorde describes is at the heart of good organizing, and it’s visible in many of the stories in The Revolution Will Not Be Litigated.

Each of these stories advances the collection’s central premise, which Gevisser lays out in the introduction: “The starting point is that when movements and lawyers work together, the shift in power and transformational impact is greater than the sum of their parts.” Gevisser and Redford arguer that people power is the goal, not simply winning a case.

The activist-authors who offer their stories in this collection include:

  • Jennifer Robinson frantically helping orchestrate a protest outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, providing the activists with the legal ammunition they needed to prevent the British authorities from storming it;
  • Ghida Frangieh at the barricades of Lebanon’s 2019 revolution, in the detention centers trying to access arrested protestors;
  • Eimear Sparks in the vibrant, triumphant reproductive rights movement in Ireland that led to a referendum in favor of legalizing abortion;
  • Nana Ama Nketia-Quaidoo working with Ghanaian villagers to reverse a land-grab by their chief;
  • Ayisha Siddiqa, a shy Pakistani immigrant to the United States who finds community in her new home for the first time while leading the 2019 youth climate strike through Manhattan;
  • Marissa Vahlsing and Ben Hoffman, who putter along an Amazon tributary in a peke-peke boat, visiting residents as they try to resist an American oil company;
  • Kumi Naidoo, who describes racing a rubber dinghy across stormy Arctic seas toward the Cairn Energy oil rig Greenpeace seeks to occupy;
  • Julia Lalla-Maharajh, campaigning against female genital mutilation in Africa, shares vivid descriptions of introducing newly forged passage-to-womanhood rituals in Senegal and Kenya to replace traditional cutting;
  • Pavel Chikov fights police torture in Russia, terrifying before Russia’s War in Ukraine and worse now;
  • Klementyna Suchanow, who describes the relationship between legal advocacy and movement building in the heat of the ongoing battle for abortion rights in Poland;
  • Joe Athialy, who reflects on his experiences as an activist in the “Save The Narmada Valley” movement in India, trying to stop a dam project that would displace a million people;
  • JingJing Zhang, who describes her landmark litigation on behalf of pollution victims in China;
  • Krystal Two Bulls, who recounts her activism against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, and the legal backlash against her;
  • Robin Gorna, who recalls the 1990 campaign that introduced human rights into the fight against AIDS, when campaigners boycotted the 1990 AIDS Conference in San Francisco because the U.S. still prohibited the entry of HIV-positive foreigners;
  • Mark Heywood, who describes the South African AIDS movement’s courtroom victory in 2001, reversing a government decision to withhold antiretroviral medication from pregnant women with HIV;
  • And more!

In sharing these stories, The Revolution Will Not Be Litigated points to another of its central themes: that storytelling and narrative power are as essential to the success of social movements as lawyers and organizers. People’s stories ground Redford’s formative experience as a young lawyer in Burma (Myanmar), set the foundation for her co-founding Earthrights International with Ka Hsaw Wa and Tyler Giannini in 1985, and later her residency and a conference at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center which first gathered many of the authors whose lived experiences are featured in The Revolution Will Not Be Litigated.Redford explains the ethos at the heart of her work: “Win or lose in court, we wanted to make sure that we won the movement—that the communities had more power, more agency, more networks and confidence to engineer their own solutions after our case. . . than they did before.” Her understanding of social change includes narrative power that can win cases in the court of public opinion to expand the limits of what a society perceives as possible, whether or not they win in the court of law.

In the case that became Doe vs. Unocal, Earthrights International sums up what was at stake on their website: “When Unocal, a U.S. oil and gas company, partnered with the notorious Burmese military to build a gas pipeline, knowing the military would commit human rights abuses, we filed a landmark lawsuit against Unocal. As predicted, the military pulled villagers from their homes and forced them to do backbreaking work to support the Yadana gas pipeline project, while committing other horrific abuses including rape and murder. I forced Unocal to settle in 2003, marking the first time a human rights lawsuit against a multinational corporation resulted in compensation for the survivors.”

In the book, Redford goes deeper in her analysis of this case: “The lesson I learned from Unocal is that it’s all about power. We want our clients and their communities to feel more powerful, to be more powerful, because of our legal work and the process we help them access. And we want those who abuse power because they have too much of it to understand that they have less power than before they were hauled into court. Impunity breeds future abuse; and the threat of legal accountability deters it. Win or lose, if we haven’t left our clients and their communities more powerful than they were before we started, we haven’t done our job.”

There are also U.S. stories in this volume, of course, as we continue our long and winding road to justice and freedom in the face of rising autocracy and other crises. Justin Hansford is a lawyer who was active at the birth of the Black Lives Matter Movement in response to the racist murder by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Baher Azmy and the Center for Constitutional Rights led a high-profile trial challenging the New York Police Department’s racial profiling of Black and Brown communities, known as "stop and frisk," in New York City.

Experienced organizers reading The Revolution Will Not Be Litigated may be frustrated with the equation by several contributors of power-building with mass mobilization. Organizers love mass mobilizations, because they can quickly shift the landscape, but they also know that sustained power comes from organized people in relationship to each other in strategic constituencies that can win campaigns, governing power, and change the story.

Redford clarifies the book’s perspective on power in the epilogue: “Power is at the center of every movement story and legal case. Whether advocating for racial justice, sexual and gender equality, human rights, Indigenous self-determination, environmental protection, or corporate accountability—this book’s contributors, and the people they work with, are exercising and demanding power. Law is one language of this power, and it is for this reason that it is one of the master’s go-to’s…But if law is a language of power, need it be the exclusive preserve of the powerful? Can it be invoked to strip away power from the abusive and unlock it in the abused? This is the fundamental question this book has set out to answer: not just whether, but how, law can be the servants’ tool for systemic change to such an extent that they cease to be servants at all, but become masters of their own destiny. One answer is clear: to shift law from its establishment moorings cannot be done unharnessed from the power of the people.”

In her epilogue, Redford notes she and Gevisser had originally planned to call their book Rules for Radical Lawyers, offering a nod to Saul Alinsky’s seminal 1971 handbook for organizers. Redford’s rules–which highlight the importance of storytelling, and knowing how to lose gracefully–are all excellent, and I struggled not to quote them all. You’ll have to read them yourself. She also offers an alternative methodology for legal analysis and shares the common understandings from the Bellagio conference that became the guiding principles for this book project. All these essays are available at, and the authors specifically designed this website to provide students, activists, and professionals with tools for thinking about the role that legal advocacy plays in movements and movement building.

“The law is important; more than that, it has the power to be transformational,” concludes Redford. “But the revolution will not be litigated. It will be fought by those with the most at stake, with the help of the law in service of the movement.” Let’s get to it.

JAMES MUMM is a longtime community organizer who consults for 22nd Century Initiative, People's Action and other organizations.