The “people’s lawyer” on her most controversial criminal defense cases—including the one that sent her to prison.
Courtesy of Lynne Stewart.
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.
Guernica: After nearly ten years of library work and organizing around education, you shifted your focus to law. What led you to that transition?
Lynne Stewart: I was teaching at a very large public elementary school in the Lower East Side and we had our usual monthly teacher/principal conference. The principal got up and made a ten-minute speech about how the school was improving so much, that the kids were all reading, how we were doing such a great job. When he finished, I got up and said, “That sounds very good on paper, but I’m the librarian. I see every kid in this school. My observation is they still can’t read. They’re in sixth grade, and they’re still reading Hop on Pop and One Fish Two Fish because it’s easy and they can do it. But nobody’s reading Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer.” So there was a moment of silence, and then the meeting went on as if I had never spoken. But that’s because I was known. I was a radical. I had opened up the schools during the Shanker strike [by New York City’s United Federation of Teachers in 1968]. I was speaking out for kids in the community. But that day, for some reason, just grabbed me.
Ralph had, by that point, been to jail and lost his teaching license. He had opened a small motorcycle shop right around the corner from the school. I left the school that day and went over to his shop. I was expecting a baby. I said to him, “I am going to end up like one of those shopping bag ladies on the subway because [the administration is] going to make me crazy.” It’s one thing to be in the opposition, it’s another thing to be ignored. He said to me, “What’d you want to do?” And I said, “You know, I always wanted to go to law school.” So he looks at me and he does not say, “Well, if you could teach another year we’d be in a much better position,” or, “Could you go part time?” He said, “I guess you’d better go.” So when people say, “What do you look for in a partner?” I say, “That’s what you look for.” So I went to law school, I had the baby, and he continued working in the shop.
You’re working not for the corporate interest, not for the government interest, not for your own self-interest. You have a higher calling.
Guernica: Legal education at that time was fairly regimented and traditional, yet you developed a sense of law as a tool for social justice and radical change. Was it something about Rutgers that inspired your thinking on legal work?
Lynne Stewart: I went to Rutgers because they gave me a free ride, because that year they were very progressive and very anxious to have a freshman class with over 50 percent women. All of that [tuition] money was a fortune in those days.
Ralph Poynter: After the first day of orientation, she came back directly to the shop, took the first bus across town, and she said, “I met the most wonderful man who lectured us on the law. His tie was down to his knees, but when he opened his mouth, the sky opened up.” It was [civil rights attorney] Arthur Kinoy. From that moment on, Lynne wanted to be Arthur Kinoy.
Lynne Stewart: To a certain extent, in law school, I always had an attitude. I had been in the movement for ten years, I had kids, I had worked with Ralph. I was there to get through, to take the bar, and to get to work. But along the way, I met some remarkable professors, one of them being Arthur Kinoy, whom I remained in touch with until he died. I always said, no award is greater than when Arthur said, “We have to defend Lynne. She is a people’s lawyer.” To him, that was the goal, to be a people’s lawyer.
Guernica: What does being a people’s lawyer mean to you?
Lynne Stewart: It means that you’re working not for the corporate interest, not for the government interest, not for your own self-interest. You have a higher calling. Your goal is to make a better world through the work you do. It’s not always possible, and you have to earn a living. We certainly had to earn a living; we had all these wonderful children. But, basically, you’re not looking to join the country club.
Ralph Poynter: [laughs] I couldn’t even pick up golf balls at the country club!
Guernica: Your interpretation of being a people’s lawyer seems to center on criminal defense work, for which you developed an enormous reputation. How did you begin?
Lynne Stewart: My anti-authoritarian instincts let me directly to criminal defense work. I worked for a couple years for one of Ralph’s customers, whom he met through the Hells Angels. It was private work. I was originally advised that I should work as a prosecutor because they say, “If you make a mistake as a prosecutor, your mistakes go home, whereas if you make a mistake defending, they go to jail.” It never worked out, anyway. I was told by Frank Hogan, who was a legend of prosecutors then, “We don’t hire women.” He just said it right out. Well, what am I doing here then?
I went from there and hung out my shingle [as a legal advocate]. I’ve been asked by young people, “How do you become a lawyer?” You make yourself available to the movement. At that point, for example, battered wives were not on the top of anybody’s list. It was, “What did you do to provoke him? Why would he do that to you?” Stuff like that. I called the hotline, and I said I was available to help get orders of protection. I would help do whatever needed to be done, serve their papers. Many times, they’d go to court, get their papers, and then be afraid to serve them on the guy. So that was one source of income. But I took anything that came across my doorstep. I started getting a reputation.
Guernica: Your first major political case was representing the May 19th Communist Organization. What was the genesis of that?
Lynne Stewart: It was probably one of the most white radical groups out there, mainly radical women. They were organizing around the Springboks rugby team that came over [to New York City] from South Africa to play [in 1981]. They organized a demonstration outside Kennedy Airport, and after the demonstration, things got rowdy and ended with some acid being thrown. The Port Authority claimed the acid was thrown in the eyes of one of their cops. Seven or eight people were arrested, and I had let them know that I was available if they needed lawyers. They called me, and I went to represent one of the people who actually threw the acid, Donna Borup, who’s still wanted.
Guernica: How did you feel about taking such a high-profile case and representing these clients?
Lynne Stewart: I was just afraid I’d get passed by! It seemed like it was an industry for [a few] movement lawyers, and they were not anxious to let anybody else in. But I was friends with some people who were very close to [the May 19 Communist Organization] and I knew they needed lawyers. And see, I was non-organizational. I was not a member of May 19th, or a socialist party, or any of these organizations. I was not one of their house lawyers.
We’ve never been card-carrying communists. We have a Marxist view, but it’s not doctrinaire. We’re not waiting for the working class to rise up, we’re not waiting for the unions. That’s gone, that passed, that didn’t happen back in the ’30s, and it’s not going to happen now. But we still ally ourselves with organizations that strongly believe it will happen.
Guernica: Your reputation was cemented when you represented David J. Gilbert of the Weather Underground in 1983 for his role in the Brinks robbery and subsequent shootings. At the time, the Weather Underground was increasingly under surveillance, and public support for their work had dwindled. Gilbert had been spotted shooting at the scene. What was your approach to that case?
Lynne Stewart: A group [involved with the Weather Underground] came to see me and said, “We need a lawyer for David Gilbert, and we’d like to know, how would you represent him?” Well, he was caught at the scene with money, with everything right there. And I said, “Well, there was a guy who represented himself at a trial and he said in his defense that ‘history will absolve me.’ I guess we’d start it from there.” They said, “You’re the one! That’s it!” But I’m no fool: caught at the scene, dead cops, Weather Underground background—everything was working against him. There was not much hope for the case. But I’m committed, and I’m particularly committed to the political people who needed defense. I understand that they’re fighting a bigger war than just, “Let me go get some money for cocaine tonight.” They’re out there fighting the government on behalf of everybody.
But of course, the judge had promised that everyone would be paid from government funds. The three lawyers who had been on the case from day one were paid. They were all male; they were all white. My two co-counsel [a woman and African-American man] and I had a six-month trial, but we were paid no money. I said to him, “I just want you to know, they’re turning off the phone in my office tomorrow. I have a son in college, and we get phone calls every day because we haven’t paid tuition yet.” And at this point, he turns around and says to another guy, “She has children?” So we never got paid. I’m happy to say I became an enemy of [that judge] for the rest of my life.
Guernica: Have you ever turned down a case?
Lynne Stewart: I would never take a case that had to do with abusing children. They’re the true innocents. All of the rest of us, we have smears and stains, but they’re helpless. I couldn’t add my talent, which is prodigious, to a defense of someone even accused of hurting a child. I would never defend a cop—though I did on a few private cases, when cops were acting not as cops but as private citizens. Other than that, I represented everybody who came by. It made me somewhat of a pariah, with some people like the National Lawyers Guild, which didn’t think we should be representing drug dealers and cases like that. They thought that we were representing people who didn’t deserve high-class representation.
He was arrogant, he was brilliant, he went by his own rules. It was difficult for him to have a woman lawyer.
Guernica: So others within the legal left did not always support you?
Lynne Stewart: I’ve always been knee-deep in trouble, I guess, but the only incident I really remember was when I was given a subpoena by the special narcotics prosecutor to come in—this was in the late ’80s—and tell him who had brought money to me in a certain drug case. I said, “I can’t testify to that, it’s privileged.” I raised all the issues. In the end, I was ordered to speak. I went before the grand jury and refused. The judge held me in contempt and actually indicted me. It was then that both the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Guild said they couldn’t help me because it involved drugs. I must say, I had contempt for them. Come on, we’re in this because we’re lawyers and we believe [that people have a right to] a certain level of representation. And what is this? Now I am going to get tarred? My son Geoffrey wrote a motion to release me, and he won.
Guernica: You represented Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman against charges of conspiring to commit terrorism, for which he was convicted in 1995, a case that resulted in your arrest and eventual incarceration. How did you become involved in his case?
Lynne Stewart: I got a visit from [a colleague of former US attorney general] Ramsey Clark to see if I’d be interested in doing the sheik’s case. After a certain number of years, doing the same kind of cases, I had a sense that Muslims were the new target of the government and [the state] was going to really come down on them. Ramsey was very anxious to get a high-level, high-quality movement lawyer because this man probably had more prestige than any Middle Eastern person who’s ever been on trial in this country. He was a doctor from Al-Azhar University. He was highly respected all over the Middle East. There was a sense, a true sense, in my opinion, that he was being railroaded. So when Ramsey Clark asked me to go down and interview the sheik, I did, of course. To many people’s amazement, we hit it off very well, and he indicated to Ramsey that he wanted me to represent him.
I had a couple of problems. Here was a mountain of material I hadn’t even seen or contemplated, it was not my usual milieu of the American left, or even the mob, for whom I’d done some cases. I was your typical living-room liberal. He, of course, was a very different kettle of fish. He was arrogant, he was brilliant, he went by his own rules. It was difficult for him to have a woman lawyer.
Ralph Poynter: He wanted to get my permission to allow Lynne to do the case. So he got on the phone with the interpreter and called me. He said, “This is an important case. Your wife could have problems doing it.” I said, “My dear sheik, I am guilty of the most serious crimes you can be guilty of in America: I was born poor and black, and you are just small potatoes.” I could hear all the translation, I could hear a roar of laughter, and he got on the phone and said, “Small potatoes!” And that was the joke from then on. He’d introduce himself as “small potatoes.”
Lynne Stewart: During the course of the trial, my daughter got chicken pox on her honeymoon. I told the sheik, and he said, “You’re the mother, you should be home with her.” I said, “I should be home with her? Sheik, who’s going to try your case?” He laughed. He got it right away. We were very, very close. He said things that still tear my heart at this point. We were, of course, completely cut off as part of my ongoing punishment. You know that question: What do you do when you think the client’s guilty? The real question is: What you do when you think a client’s innocent?
I really believe he was innocent. And “innocent” is a word I don’t use. They manufactured a case against him because it was in the interest of the United States government, and the Egyptian government, and they came at him from both sides. They both worked on this to make sure he went to jail and he was off the scene in Egypt, because Egypt was, and is, the tinderbox of the Middle East. Our most important ally.
Guernica: Many lawyers, organizers, and activists within the movement face severe burnout. Given the pressure around your cases, how did you work against fatigue?
Lynne Stewart: I always had a variety of cases, so while I was representing [Larry Davis, acquitted of shooting six police officers] in the Bronx, with the entire press corps of New York showing up, I also was representing Jose Diaz, who lived down the block from me. The variety was good.
Ralph Poynter: You always said you took your job seriously, and I thought you always took it too seriously. She took on responsibility, and it just never left her.
Lynne Stewart: I loved the work. I missed it for years after I was arrested. I couldn’t drive past 100 Centre [New York City Criminal Court], that whole area, without crying, seeing people going to court and knowing I couldn’t do that anymore. I still do miss it. I don’t think I could ever go back. Maybe I could consider second-seating my son or someone else whose work I respect. But I could not take on any responsibility. I’m out of step; I haven’t kept up.
The prosecution makes all the important decisions: what’s charged, how much is charged, whether you can get a decent offer. Every defendant becomes an informant today.
Guernica: How do you think the role of movement lawyers has changed since you tried your biggest cases?
Lynne Stewart: Today, it’s not the same playing field as when I first became a lawyer in 1977, where the government had been restricted by our wonderful [Supreme Court Justice] Earl Warren’s court rulings. Now it’s all going the other way, the flow is against the defendant, against anything that could really help a client. But you still fight it, you do what you can do. It’s all there is.
Lawyering is very individualistic. There are lawyers who are going to be that persistent birddog, they’re never going to give up on the client, they’re going to defend people. A good recent example is Ben Rosenfeld, who defended the “eco-terrorist” [Eric McDavid] who just [was released]. Ben is of the old school. He is a fighter, and he’s young. There are lawyers who believe in client-centered representation and who are dedicated on that level, the same level I feel I was dedicated.
My son does criminal defense work. I get the war stories from him, and I see it is harder than it was [for my generation], much harder. The law has basically restricted the playing field so that the prosecution makes all the important decisions: what’s charged, how much is charged, whether you can get a decent offer. Every [defendant] becomes an informant today.
I feel for young people today. When I came out of law school, yes, we were broke, we had these kids, we had problems. But it was straightforward. I didn’t have to say, “My God, I am $80,000 in debt, I have to get a job, I have to pay it back, my life is ruined otherwise.” We were able to go forward and work toward building something new, and that’s what we did. Today many lawyers are unable to feel free to be advocates.
There’s a lot of active radical thought today but not much action.
Guernica: What advice do you have for movement lawyers and organizers today?
Lynne Stewart: First of all, think creatively. Think, “How can we deal with this particular case in a way we haven’t dealt with similar ones in the past?” Second, don’t be afraid of the people who are willing to defend your client. I find too many lawyers say, “Keep that defense committee away from me!” If it weren’t for my defense committee, I’d be sitting in [federal prison in] Texas today. And the press! You’ve got to learn to handle the press because god knows the government does all the time.
The night they announced the verdict in Ferguson, there should’ve been some spokesperson that was not Al Sharpton to have responded to that, to raise the movement or progressive position, and to raise the question that the use of the grand jury by a prosecutor is hardly something that is legally sacrosanct, and we should question it. On a certain level, we don’t try enough cases. We should try more cases before juries and let jurors decide. On grand juries, my position is the grand jury should be eliminated, but there are creative ways a lawyer can use a grand jury if they have a client with a sympathetic cause who has been wronged by the police.
Guernica: Reflecting back on your organizing work in the ’60s around community-based education, do you think there’s a role for social justice lawyers and advocates in other movements besides criminal defense?
Lynne Stewart: I’d say there’s a role in all. [Ralph and I] were discussing not long ago that in the ’60s, everybody had their own niche. We had people who did housing, people who did anti-war, people who did schools. Everyone operated in their own niche, but not separately. We all were together on certain issues when it was important. Everybody was active in the ’60s. I feel that there’s a lot of active radical thought today but not much action.
Guernica: Why do you think so?
Ralph Poynter: I think people are afraid. I remember when we’d have discussions in the ’60s among people who were active. We’d say, “Well, people are afraid,” and the answer to us was, “If you’re afraid, you know you should be doing something.” People are afraid today, but they’re not doing anything.
Lynne Stewart: I spoke in front of a huge gathering in Seattle, and someone got up and said, “I’m just so afraid.” I said, “The only way not to be afraid is to join with other people who are also afraid.” There’s a great poem, [“The Low Road”], by Marge Piercy that says, “Alone, you can fight…but two people fighting can…cut through a mob.” The only thing we have is each other.
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