In Defense Of
Direct link to article: https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/in-defense-of/
Jean Stevens interviews Lynne Stewart
The “people’s lawyer” on her most controversial criminal defense cases—including the one that sent her to prison.
During America’s civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s, hundreds of activists who challenged state repression and surveillance faced arrests and criminal convictions. Many such activists sought legal defense from “movement lawyers,” those who understood and sympathized with their social justice aims.
By the late 1970s, Lynne Stewart emerged as one of the movement’s leading defense attorneys, fiercely representing members of the political left—most notably, leaders of the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. And in 1993, Stewart represented defendant Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian Muslim cleric, in one of the nation’s first terrorism cases. That role ultimately resulted in her own conviction, disbarment, and incarceration, which lasted from 2009 to 2013.
Stewart, now seventy-five, was born to a white working-class family in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens. She began on a path of challenging the status quo while working in the ’60s as a school librarian in Harlem, where she discovered a movement for greater access to education led by parents, teachers, and organizers in the neighborhood. There, she also met her future husband, Ralph Poynter, who became her lifelong champion.
In the ’70s, Stewart discovered her true calling—law. After studying at Rutgers School of Law, she advertised her services as a legal advocate, and, she says, “took anything that came across my doorstep.” However, she felt most compelled by defense work, especially the defense of those facing incarceration for struggling against “institutions which perpetuate capitalism, racism, and sexism,” as she told the New York Times in 1995. A self-described “people’s lawyer,” she not only took on the cases of high-profile clients facing political prosecution, but also low-income clients without access to a proper defense, as well as unpopular, controversial defendants, like Sammy Gravano of the Gambino crime family. Regardless of how provocative the case, as Stewart contended in a recent interview with Chris Hedges, progressive attorneys should “fight like hell” to defend their clients against increasingly powerful state repression.
In the aftermath of September 11th, about ten years after she represented Abdel Rahman, former US attorney general John Ashcroft charged Stewart with aiding terrorism. The case hinged on her relaying documents on her client’s behalf, allegedly conveying messages from him to his supporters. The American Criminal Law Review wrote that Stewart’s guiding principle was to defend those whose actions could be considered anti-imperialist: “While these views were considered radical when she expressed them in the ’90s, as seen through the lens of 9/11, they were judged by many as bordering on the seditious.” While preparing for court in her home one evening in 2002, she was arrested. Two years later, she was arraigned, convicted, and sentenced to twenty-eight months in prison. During these proceedings, Stewart was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer and spent three years out on bail for medical treatment. Despite her ill health, in 2009, prosecutors appealed her sentence. She was re-sentenced to ten years in federal prison.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, The National Lawyers Guild, and other activists and social justice organizations considered Stewart a political prisoner. Her most avid supporters—led by her husband, Poynter—organized a campaign calling for Stewart’s compassionate release and assembled a zealous legal defense team. They sought review from the Supreme Court and, in 2013, argued in federal district court that her sentence be reduced and concluded given her previous time served. Several months later, on New Year’s Eve, Stewart was released on the grounds that her terminal condition and short life expectancy warranted a shorter sentence. Newly free, she alighted at LaGuardia Airport, where an enormous crowd of family, friends, and journalists greeted her. When asked what she felt in that moment by Democracy Now host Amy Goodman, Stewart replied, “Beyond joy.”
I spoke with Stewart and her husband—who occasionally added context and color to our interview—over coffee at their home in Brooklyn, where she is currently resting, seeking treatment for her ongoing illness, and sharing her lessons and life experiences with the next generation of people’s lawyers.
—Jean Stevens for Guernica
Guernica: How did your upbringing lead you to a life of activism?
Lynne Stewart: It’s very simple. I grew up in white, working-class Bellerose, Queens. There were no black people to be seen—Bellerose is still pretty white. I went to an all-white school, had all-white friends, all-white everything. Through chances of fate, a marriage that went on the rocks, a baby, in 1962, I found myself in [Harlem].
I got a job as a children’s librarian at PS 175 in Harlem, and that changed everything. That was an epiphany. I didn’t know Harlem existed. I didn’t know there was such a place, because I grew up in white Queens, where five miles is 100 miles. So I went to the school and, being a smart cookie—as they called us in those days—I had a million questions. How did this place exist? How come I didn’t know about it? Why are people living like this? Do they want to live like this? To show you how singular I was, I said to the principal, “Well, I was a Spanish minor in college, so that might be useful to me.” He looked at me and said, “We don’t have anyone who speaks Spanish at this school. This is an all-Negro school.”
Why wasn’t I told about this? How could I have been the valedictorian, the smartest, and never known Harlem existed? As a result, I began a lifelong learning experience, because I could not accept what the party line was with education—that these people want to live like this, these people don’t have ambition, they don’t want to work. You know, all the usual bullshit. I met Ralph there probably within the first month. We were both there in September of ’62.
Guernica: How did you meet?
Ralph Poynter: I was teaching at another school at 8th Avenue and 141st Street and they asked me to go to a troubled school if I didn’t mind.
Lynne Stewart: That was, and still is, a typical Board of Education ploy—put the strong, masculine figure in a school with tough kids and you have a certain control. It’s very demeaning to the kids and very demeaning to the tough, black guy, but that’s how they worked it. So he came to PS 175, and the principal decided to interview him in the library. And the rest is history! [laughs]
Guernica: You worked at the school through the ’60s, through Vietnam and the civil rights movement. What were those years like, and how were you involved in activism there?
Lynne Stewart: I stayed at PS 175 through an early and very telling political action around community control of schools, which was to become my main focus for the rest of the ’60s—along with the Vietnam War and other things. It was to reclaim schools for the community, and to have the community have a first say in the schools. Of course, the leadership of that was Ralph. He went out, he was in the streets, Ralph was organizing in Harlem—the people, the parents. You name it, he was out there. I was not exactly the girl in the office, but I was still learning. It was a very, very highly fraught battle. It ended up that we did not win, and I ended up teaching on the Lower East Side, close to where we were living. Then I ended up organizing on the Lower East Side till the spring of ’71. Read the rest of this entry »
Update: GOOD NEWS, But Keep Up the Pressure! Solidarity With Marylin!
Please Spread this Petition: http://act.rootsaction.org/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=11166
The meeting with Orange School Board members that we attended last night was like nothing I’ve experienced in my life. We organized to get local people out and the turnout, over 100 p eople, was impressive. Dozens of people took the mic and spoke powerfully to clear the record on Mumia and in defense of Marylin Zuniga. We were especially impressed by the number of people who got up and spoke about Mumia. Here we have to thank our movement’s longstanding relationship with POP and Larry Hamm. We’ve been working closely with him and the night before the school board meeting, we went to a big event he helped organize at Bethany Baptist church with Cornel West. Larry asked us to talk about the issue from the front of the room, and many of those folks showed up at the Board meeting the next day.
Last night, the Orange School Board came in ready to terminate the teacher, and union lawyers had convinced her to resign at the meeting, in order to protect her teaching license. In fact they tried to convince her to call off the public meeting. But we kept at it with her, offering a challenge to the administrati on’s line and the public meeting happened. The local protestors were raucous, on fire, and their statements profoundly moving. Collectively we pushed the board back and when the board tried to stem the comments from the audience, one of the board members took a dramatic stance saying that if the public is not allowed to speak there was no reason for her to remain in the meeting, and at that point she walked out in solidarity with us. That was a game changer, a kink in their armor and at that time the crowd exploded with cheers. Before long the Board met privately and decided not to fire Marylin, to keep her salaried, although still suspended, and to reconvene at a later date to discuss the matter. The protestors also empowered Marylin to stand her ground and to reconsider her resignation which she was going to read at the meeting, but didn’t. She read an edited version instead. Below please find an article in the star-ledger with videos, and more videos. Please circulate.
Lynne and Ralph’s Letter to the Mayor of Orange, NJ:
We wish to register our objection to any discipline contemplated against Ms Zuniga. Her enlisting her students to voluntarily write to Mumia Abu Jamal who thousands believe to be an innocent incarcerated and now in failing health is a lesson in civics that all schools should be teaching. She should be honored for her insight
We are ex teachers, now retired and know the importance of not intimidating teachers to proclaim the company (government) line!!
Lynne Stewart and Ralph Poynter
Write your own letter!
SUPPORT MARILYN ZUNIGA ! FREE MUMIA
PLEASE DO THE FOLLOWING.
Call and Email the following immediately! In the subject line put I support Marilyn Zuniga and Mumia is Innocent! And you might want to also include your geographic location as they need to see support coming from all over for this teacher.
Mayor of Orange: Dwayne D. Warren Esq.
Orange Superintendent of Schools: Ron Lee
Forest Street School Principal: Yancisca Cooke
Orange Brd of Ed phone #: 973 677-4000
Lynne’s granddaughter Seraphina Brown will be singing at this event!
An event for women and trans folks only
Friday, April 24, 2015
We will donate proceeds to support Women with a Vision, a New Orleans-based group that advocates for the improvement of the lives of marginalized women, their families, and their communities (http://www.wwav-no.org).
To perform and/or confirm childcare, please contact Elspeth Meyer, 718-783-8141.
Donation: $10, $15, $20 • more if you can, less if you can’t (please note: refreshments this year are not included but will be available at the Commons Café).
*Between Bond & Hoyt. Train: Hoyt-Schermerhorn (A, C, and G); Bergen Street (F); Atlantic-Pacific/Barklays (B, D, M, Q, N, R, 2, 3, 4, and 5); Flatbush Avenue (LIRR). Bus: B63 and B65.
Resistance in Brooklyn is an anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist affinity group.