There's a place for me – on the line between protesters and police

I have been an activist since my early teens, when I refused to dissect a frog and a fetal pig in my middle school biology class.

In college, I threw myself into campaigns for women's rights, the environment, poverty alleviation, and antidiscrimination issues.

Activism was my motivation for going on to law school. I envisioned myself using my legal skills for a greater good. But it took a while for me to find a way to reconcile these two halves of my life.

As an activist, I stood among the throngs at protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in both Washington and Ottawa.

In Quebec City last year, I felt the sting of tear gas and witnessed demonstrators tearing down a fence separating the crowd from the meetings of the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit.

At the end of the summer, a few days before I started law school, I attended a rally in Philadelphia on behalf of the imprisoned Mumia Abu Jamal.

Before law school, my life was completely absorbed by these political issues.

Once I started, however, I realized that few of my peers shared my political beliefs. It became clear that many of the social-justice goals I had thought were so simple were not easily obtainable; I had been so naive.

Not only that, but I also felt disassociated from my circle of activist friends, who didn't seem to be able to relate to the experiences I faced in law school.

On a windy day in February, my life as an activist and my life as a law student finally merged.

I became a legal observer, an independent mediator between police and protesters who makes sure that the rights of all parties are upheld. For the first time, I was able to help people by directly applying some of the skills I had been learning in law school.

During a demonstration against the World Economic Forum meetings at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, I disseminated information about individual legal rights in the event of an arrest, negotiated and eased tension between police and protesters, recorded arrest information, and helped individuals who were detained to obtain legal counsel.

My position as a legal observer allowed me to defuse a number of intense moments throughout the day. At the end, I felt respected by both police and protesters.

Standing on the lines between these two groups, I realized that my life as an activist had undergone a transition. I also appreciated law school more, and found a place in a circle of progressive law students and lawyers.

For the summer, I'm working part time at the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, which provides free civil legal services to people who cannot afford to pay for them.

So far, I've worked to make sure public housing tenants are not evicted without due process and have pursued Social Security benefits for a disabled child. My experience at Legal Aid has been another excellent opportunity to see how my education can truly serve the social good.

Being an activist and a law student is no longer cause for an identity crisis.

• Cassandra Kelleher just completed her first year at Albany (N.Y.) Law School.

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