In Memoriam

Lynne Stewart: The People’s Lawyer

Lynne Steward with husband Ralph Poynter (Liberation photo: Gloria La Riva)
Lynne Stewart with husband Ralph Poynter (Liberation photo: Gloria La Riva)

Lynne Stewart, a revolutionary and people’s lawyer who fought for political defendants often persecuted by the system, and who herself was imprisoned for her principled advocacy of others, died on March 7.

The Party for Socialism and Liberation extends our deepest solidarity and condolences to her lifelong partner Ralph Poynter and her entire family.

Stewart was fervently dedicated to the cause of prisoners, both those behind bars for their political beliefs as well as the victims of mass incarceration and criminalization of the poor.

Stewart gained the admiration and solidarity of many in the progressive and revolutionary movement because she not only fought valiantly in the courts but above all, was a true radical activist. She was no stranger to rallies and marches. Stewart firmly believed in revolution and the mass struggle as key to people’s victory.

And when a U.S. judge sentenced her to 10 years prison in June 2012 after her unjust conviction related to her defense of Egyptian Muslim cleric Omar Abdel Rahman, it took that kind of mass mobilization — championed by her husband Ralph — to free her on compassionate grounds because of her illness. She was freed in January 2014.

Stewart was an elementary school librarian in the Black community of Harlem in the 1960s, when she decided she needed to become a lawyer. She believed she could have a bigger impact as an attorney fighting injustice.

While pregnant and with six children between her husband Ralph and herself, Stewart began her legal schooling at Rutgers Law School. She graduated in 1975.

Stewart had a profound working-class consciousness that made her an exceptionally tenacious attorney for those she defended. She was not only fighting for her clients’ well-being, she was battling the racist, sexist, pro-war and capitalist system that oppressed them.

One case of Stewart’s that engendered raging headlines in New York City and a massive, racist manhunt was that of Larry Davis. A young Black man, he was portrayed by the New York media and NYPD as a monster who deserved nothing less than death for shooting and injuring nine policemen. Some 27 cops had surrounded and raided an apartment he was in, supposedly to question him about a crime. As they entered with guns blazing, he fired back and managed to escape. After 17 days in hiding he turned himself in.

It was portrayed as an open-and-shut case in the most racist manner. The media effectively declared Davis guilty.

But the case was turned on its head when Stewart and radical attorney William Kunstler proved at trial that Davis had fired in self-defense after being targeted by the Bronx cops. Some of them were involved in systematic drug dealing and Davis had reason to believe they were out to assassinate him. Davis was acquitted but later convicted on weapons charges.

Starting in the 1990s, U.S. imperialism’s so-called “war on terrorism” in the Middle East and against Muslim communities was also intensified in the United States. One person rounded up was Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. He was tried and convicted in 1995 despite no proof linking him to terrorist acts. For years he was held in extreme isolation in U.S. super-maximum prison at Florence, Colorado, denied family visits, all human contact in prison and permitted no communication with the outside world.

Lynne Stewart became his attorney after his conviction. Famed attorney Ramsey Clark had asked her to take his case after the trial and she agreed. There were some who advised her not to, saying it would hurt her reputation.

Stewart would have none of that.

Her own words best describe the U.S. government’s repression of her for daring to defend a man branded as an enemy of U.S. interests in the Middle East.

From a 2011 autobiographical essay:

“Many of you know that the U.S. came after me for being too good a lawyer for my clients, and when representing Dr. Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian Muslim cleric, accused of terrorism on the word of a double agent, I made a press release to Reuters News on his behalf.

“He had been a leader in the anti-Mubarak, free Egypt movement for twenty years and the news release was to express his views of the current situation in Egypt, publicly.

“For this I was convicted of aiding terrorism. It is a joy to me that the Arab Spring that ousted Mubarak and the continuation of the Egyptian quest for true democracy has put the lie, and the shame to the U.S. government.”

After Stewart was freed to be with her family in January 2014, she continued to speak out vigorously for political prisoners and many progressive causes.

We salute Lynne Stewart and her partner in life and struggle, Ralph Poynter. He worked non-stop for her freedom, determined that she would come home.

‘If you are to be a fighter for freedom you organize, organize, organize’

In 2011, at a National Conference of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, we presented awards to various Fighters for Justice, individuals renowned for their persistent activism. Her letter to acknowledge her award remains a testament to her revolutionary and optimistic spirit, an inspiration to all:

“Dear friends and comrades at PSL:

I am overjoyed and proud to accept this award as a Fighter for Justice, especially to be amongst such stellar comrades in the struggle as Mumia Abu Jamal, Leonard Peltier, the Cuban Five and the Angola 3. This is not to mention my joy that my brother Ramsey Clark will be present.

“There is no greater honor than to be recognized by those with whom you have marched shoulder to shoulder for great causes. My entire adult life and legal career have been about prisons. Criticizing them, fighting to keep people out of them, defending those who are caught in the cruel mesh and recognizing those who have spent their lives there for political acts in defense of community.

“As a lawyer, it was often difficult to frame an argument on the basis of justice when I knew that it was not part of the equation for those making the decisions. And yet, the battle was to be fought with zeal.

“As Emiliano Zapata said, we must come to authority not with hat in hand but with rifle in fist: the ultimate symbol of people’s power.

“We have a responsible mission. If you are to be a fighter for freedom you organize, organize, organize. You resist the outrages of authoritarian government. You speak up and fight back.

“Love and struggle, Lynne Stewart”

Lynne Stewart Presente!


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