AuthorShah, Jeena
PositionAnnual Book Review Issue

AN EQUAL PLACE: LAWYERS IN THE STRUGGLE FOR LOS ANGELES. By Scott L. Cummings. New York: Oxford University Press. 2021. Pp. xxi, 661. $44.95.


  1. .... This is a multi-layered city, unceremoniously built on hills, valleys, ravines. Flying into Burbank airport in the day, you observe gradations of trees and earth. A "city" seems to be an afterthought, skyscrapers popping up from the greenery, guarded by the mighty San Gabriels. 2. Layers of history reach deep, run red, scarring the soul of the city, a land where Chinese were lynched, Mexican resistance fighters hounded, workers and immigrants exploited, Japanese removed to concentration camps, blacks forced from farmlands in the South, then segregated, diminished. --Luis J. Rodriguez, Love Poems to Los Angeles (1) Like Luis J. Rodriguez's "Love Poem to Los Angeles," Scott Cummings's An Equal Place: Lawyers in the Struggle for Los Angeles (2) is equal parts a snapshot of Los Angeles history and a story of the resistance that makes up this piece of history.

    The book captures the era that begins soon after the 1992 Rebellion, (3) considered the nation's "first 'multiethnic' riots" (4)--foreshadowing the city's struggles to come--and ends with the 2008 financial crisis. An Equal Place illustrates how the rebellion left the city in general and its labor movement in particular to confront critical questions about the future of Los Angeles. While capital (5) sought to profit from the 1992 Rebellion's aftermath--which had left "behind a repair bill of nearly $1 billion" (6)--organizers, community lawyers, and labor unions resisted the otherwise inevitable skyrocketing of inequality. An Equal Place tells the stories that made up their fight.

    Cummings shares five stories, all told from the perspective of workers: workers qua workers, workers as people who live in gentrifying communities in need of affordable housing, and workers as people living in neglected communities in need of clean air and access to affordable food. Their stories demonstrate not only how labor is a constant site of struggle but also reveal the struggle between capital and labor over who has "the right to the city." (7) Cummings opens a window into the struggle for this right.

    Separately, yet simultaneously, the stories describe an era that birthed a new approach to social justice lawyering. This approach seeks to provide creative and dynamic legal support to community-based movements that address the harms of neoliberalism. Cummings's stories carefully detail the ways in which this "new generation of lawyers, embedded in local networks and committed to local action" contributed to efforts to ensure "marginalized workers ha[d] greater protections, better wages and benefits, and a larger voice in the workplace and politics" (p. 446). The stories illustrate lawyers' vast toolkit to support workers: across legal fields (labor, employment, environment, civil liberties, and local government), across jurisdictions (local, state, and national), and across legal tactics (litigation, policy advocacy, negotiation, drafting, and education). Readers learn not only about the particularities of the struggle in Los Angeles--and the key role played by lawyers--but also about the origins of nationwide phenomena like the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) (chapter 3), which has since supported day-labor organizing in dozens of cities, (8) and community benefits agreements (CBAs) (chapter 4), a tool that has become "standard practice" for urban development projects nationwide. (9)

    The stories in An Equal Place inspire and instruct. They show that neoliberalism's logic need not be a city's inevitable path. As all-consuming as capital is, community resistance is both meaningful and concrete. The stories also show that lawyers can form a key part of that resistance--that the criticism born from critical legal studies (10) has not done away with actualizing social justice lawyering. For today's justice-minded law students and lawyers schooled in the critiques of the "legal liberal project" (p. 478) and disillusioned with the law, this book offers a detailed account of how their immediate predecessors addressed such concerns through their practice. If, as Angela Y. Davis reminds us, knowledge is built through struggle, (11) then books like An Equal Place are critical to a social justice lawyer's education.

    This Review seeks to identify the questions the book did not answer. They are questions that today's movements, which resist "single-issue" thinking (12) and conceive of themselves beyond the United States' borders, have forced upon those of us who identify as social justice lawyers. These movements are led by those who were raised in immigrant communities dislocated by trade liberalization and targeted by the so-called War on Terror, came of age amid the rise of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and see their future timed to the accelerating speed of the climate crisis. I view Cummings's analysis as missing two fundamental questions that these movements are asking social justice lawyers to incorporate into our work:

  2. How do we incorporate a radical analysis into our work? (As Professor Davis has reminded generations of activists, "radical simply means 'grasping things at the root.'" (13)) Specifically, how do we see racial capitalism as the root cause of injustices? (14)

  3. How do we seek truly transformative change, meaning change that shifts power specifically by building the power of oppressed people to dismantle the systems of their oppression? (15)

    The newest generations of lawyers who came to law school through resistance movements are often asking these same questions.

    This Review explores Cummings's stories through these two questions to offer alternative frameworks within which to assess the struggles recounted. Part I provides a brief overview of Cummings's analyses of the five campaigns for low-wage workers at the heart of An Equal Place. Part II offers seeds of a radical analysis of the forces that created Los Angeles's "low-wage worker" in this era. Such an analysis roots out the political economic system of racial capitalism, specifically its transnational and carceral dimensions. Part III offers an alternative framework to assess the role of lawyering in the book's stories of resistance, one that addresses critical race scholars' critique of the "legal liberal project" and seeks transformative change by understanding organizing as a theory of change as opposed to a tactic for change.

    Today's movements learned from the movements of prior eras. So what today's movements teach us now should guide not only how lawyers approach struggle today but also how we assess the work done to support struggles in the past. Ella Baker reminds us that "in order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been." (16) In essence, this Review asks: How can those who come after us help us better understand where we have been?


      In An Equal Place, Cummings offers a text that new lawyers, and those who train them, have been searching for in recent years: contemporary stories of how communities resist the inequalities of neoliberalism and, specifically, how lawyers support those communities.

      Across five case studies, Cummings traces the types of low-wage workers who formed the "the bedrock of grit and determination" of contemporary Los Angeles prior to the 2008 recession (p. 508): garment workers, toiling away in sweatshop conditions; day laborers, facing the threats of antisolicitation ordinances; retail workers, exploited by large corporate employers upon the expansion of LAX airport and the city's redevelopment projects like the Staples Center and L.A. Live; grocery workers, impacted by the growth of big-box stores like Walmart; and truck drivers, whose polluting trucks form part of the logistics tied to the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. These workers are not those who make up the American idealization of labor: unionized white workers who are members of large unions that came together in the early twentieth century--like the Teamsters and International Longshore and Warehouse Union. They are instead the workers who were deemed "unorganizable." (17)

      These "unorganizable" workers in Cummings's stories came to prominence in the 1990s. They were created by a new iteration of racial capitalism in the United States, characterized by both the decline of manufacturing and the growth of the service sector, (18) and prefiguring today's gig (19) and "Amazon" (20) economy. This new economy was central in creating precarity not only for workers qua workers but for workers as residents, parents, and racialized bodies. (21) This precariat class (22) was generated as a result of capital's efforts to evade the legal architecture that the labor movement secured in the 1930s, specifically by moving manufacturing to places with fewer legal protections and changing the structure of labor relationships that necessarily remained in the United States. Cummings's stories illustrate four specific mechanisms of the latter: (1) relying on involuntarily part-time, high-turnover workers, who are harder to organize (23) (the retail and big-box store model (chapters 4-5)); (2) contracting out labor to smaller companies--less visible to the law--along the supply chain, which must lower the cost of their labor to remain competitive for these contracts (the sweatshop model (chapter 2)); (3) hiring "independent contractors" in lieu of employees altogether, who are, as a result, not simply left unprotected by labor law but also prohibited from organizing under antitrust law (the "owner-operator" model (chapter 6)); and (4) driving workers further into the underground economy through criminalizing racialized immigrant identities (24) (the day-laborer model (chapter 3)).

      In each story, organizers and lawyers...

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