In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges hosts disbarred civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart and activist Ralph Poynter in a discussion on the outcomes of 1960s and 1970s radicalism, and where that political consciousness is today in the face of worsening social and economic conditions.
CHRIS HEDGES, TRNN: Hi, I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt. Today we’re going to discuss the political radicalism that gripped especially young people, African Americans, in this country a few decades ago, in the 1960s and the 1970s, and what happened to it. Where did it go? How was it repressed? Why has that militancy, especially in our system of what Sheldon Wolin calls inverted totalitarianism and this corporate coup d’etas that we have undergone, why isn’t it being expressed within the wider society? And with me to discuss that is the great civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart, who was disbarred because of her activism, standing up to power for three decades, caught up in the war on terror, but who has spent her life defending the poor and the marginalized, who wept in court when one of her clients, Omar Abdel-Rahman, the sheikh, was barred from presenting a credible defense, and is everything a lawyer should be. And with her is her equally magnificent husband, Ralph Poynter, great activist, and it’s an honor to speak to both of you. Thank you for being here. RALPH POYNTER: Thank you for having us. LYNNE STEWART: Pleasure. HEDGES: So, Lynne, you began, you often say, as a lawyer carrying out civil rights cases, defending often radicals, especially Black radicals, at a time when there was some hope in the legal system. STEWART: Well, my original epiphany as a nice, white, middle class girl from Queens– HEDGES: –A librarian– [audible laughter] STEWART: -A librarian, you know, a librarian and all those good things, valedictorian, the best of the brightest, was when I went to work in Harlem as a librarian in ’62, and of course that was just, it was just starting to bubble up then, a whole great movement, and as I said, I was so fortunate because I had my epiphany at the same time the movement was coming about, and so here I was, in the middle of Harlem. I didn’t even know that Harlem existed, although I had been raised not five miles away in Queens. And right away I began to perceive some of the warts and the ugliness which I later really discovered to be more than that, to be a real cruelty to children, and I had some help along the way. And that, of course, is this guy who’s sitting next to me. He was, I was the librarian and a few months after I got there he came into the school as a teacher and they gave him the classroom right across the hall from the library.
And I was, as I always like to say to the young folks, my hair was as long as my skirts were short. HEDGES: [audible laughter] Well, that’ll get Ralph’s attention.
STEWART: You’re right about that, but as time developed we both talked constantly about the schools, and how the fact was that the schools were so far behind, and that it was [crosstalk] so clear– HEDGES: [interceding]–And we should add that Ralph was more than a teacher, he was an organizer within the union, right? STEWART: Right. POYNTER: Yes. STEWART: We began talking, and then talking led to doing and doing led to, and of course I was not about to take on, not that I had any particular sensitivity, but he was so angry, and he was so ready to do this, and so it started, I guess you can agree, I wrote a letter to the parents, saying, you know, you’re constantly told your child can’t learn, your child doesn’t learn, but what you don’t know is, every other child’s mother is being told the same thing, and actually all of these children can learn, but you’re caught up in the system. He then began to distribute this letter out in front of the school and asked for a meeting. And of course that was, he was immediately fired, the first of three times, and that was the beginning of, well I think it was the beginning of the fight for community control of schools. HEDGES: When did you go to law school? STEWART: I went to law school in ’71. I taught for 10 years altogether, first in Harlem and then I went to the Lower East Side where I continued to struggle in the schools of the Lower East Side where we lived at that time also. HEDGES: And was, when you went to law school, was it with the intent of being a civil rights attorney? STEWART: No. You know, it’s interesting. I went to law school because I needed, I couldn’t work in schools anymore, the oppressive bureaucracy of the place. I said, you know, I always wanted to go to law school. And unlike, you know, people say, well, how did you manage to, how did this manage to last all these years, or? Because it was always a working partnership, and when I said that we had six kids to support, I was the only wage earner, and he said to me, he said, well, I guess you’d better go, then. And I did. And I didn’t go with the intent that I was going to right the wrongs. I just knew it was a niche for me, because I could come up against government now, fight government on behalf of someone who didn’t really have the tools or the wherewithal to do that, and yet I could still go home and look at myself in the mirror [inaud.]– HEDGES: –Although you ended up defending many radicals, in particular Black radicals. STEWART: Well, they were my friends and [crosstalk] comrades of the ’60s. HEDGES: [interceding]–Well, that’s because you were hanging out with this guy. STEWART: Yes, because we were–Well, I really, see, when I got to Rutgers, I really said, this is just a way stop. I’m going to go, take this courses, pass the bar and then I’ll get out and, you know, do what I want to do. Because I didn’t really think about going to law school as being much of a learning experience. My learning experience had been on the streets of Harlem and the Lower East Side, and seeing Ralph get arrested beaten up, the whole struggles. And another thing, we were part of the anti-war thing, very big part of that. HEDGES: Let me stop there, because I want to talk about this moment in time in which you both played prominent parts. And I’ll ask you, Ralph, first. We’ve lost that consciousness, haven’t we? POYNTER: Yes. That is totally gone. HEDGES: Why? POYNTER: Several factors. The first factor was that it was a very wealthy country and they were willing to spend money to corrupt the Black community. The politicians were already corrupt, they corrupted them– HEDGES: –You’re talking about the Black political– POYNTER: –The Black politicians, all politicians, and Lynne and I had this discussion as to whether there was democracy in America or not, and we agreed that there was never democracy in America– HEDGES: –But that’s not what’s important. POYNTER: Well, white people could better afford no democracy, and so, in the struggle to get democracy they flooded the community with money. HEDGES: Oh, you’re talking about the Great Society, Johnson’s [crosstalk] War on Poverty. POYNTER: [interceding]–Johnson’s society, War on Poverty. And so, then, the rest of the Black people saw that as an economic step forward, to move out of a slum, to move into a decent housing situation and to have a car, and these people were looked up to. And the people who were looked up to were fraudulent. STEWART: Well, it was the jobs, I think, more than anything. It was having, you know, they got apartments. They got all the things Ralph mentioned, but, you know, the jobs that came through with the war on poverty, with all of that. I mean, there was a new organization every week, and everybody was working, and everybody– HEDGES: –And you both think that that was really a way to buy off– POYNTER: –They bought off. [inaud.] STEWART: They wanted–Definitely. [crosstalk] And then, okay, I’m sorry. POYNTER: And then they had the universities like Columbia University, the various universities supported this suppression of militancy. We had the Ford Foundation there, we had people in the Ford Foundation, you know, working in the Black community to keep it down. HEDGES: But, look. But we’ve got– POYNET: Go ahead. HEDGES: We don’t have any jobs. POYNTER: Don’t have any jobs. HEDGES: The social programs are gone. They just cut a million people off of welfare. POYNTER: Right? HEDGES: Things are arguably worse, because you don’t have unskilled labor unless you’re working in a Wal-Mart or stacking shelves in a Rite Aid or something. Why? What happened? Let me start with Ralph and then I’ll go to Lynne. STEWART: Okay, I just want to add to his. You have to understand that while there was this above ground fight for schools. That’s what our thing was. Everybody, people fought for housing. People fought for, you know, health care. Everybody was fighting for something, and everybody that was fighting above ground, ultimately just about everybody got bought off, but there was also an underground, and the underground was infiltrated by COINTELPRO. HEDGES: You’re talking about Black Liberation Army– STEWART: –Black Panthers, SDS, which was actually above, but below was the Weather Underground. United Freedom Front, all of these folks– HEDGES: –Who you ended up defending– STEWART: –Yes.– HEDGES: –But we’ll start, let me go to Ralph. So, Ralph, why? I mean, if the situation is worse now, if you agree, than it was in the ’60s, why? POYNTER: Two things. First of all, you have to understand how oppressive the situation was in the schools. HEDGES: Are you talking about in the past? POYNTER: In the past. You could not announce the reading and math levels of the students of the schools. That was a no-no, that was the first reason why I was fired, because of this letter. And then, this following year, I turned it over to the newspapers and they printed it. You were fired for that. So, it was, people had no relationship to the public schools. The parents were out. The students were out. Information. There was a, what would you say? There was a blockage on all information, and so that [is] totally oppressive. If you’re a teacher and you’re watching this and you say, hey, what’s going on here? (PART II) HEDGES: Ralph, how do you juxtapose then and now? If people are actually living, I mean, the police repression. Not that [the police] weren’t shooting Black people back then. Of course they were. We just weren’t filming it. But, you know, the despair, the physical, social and political conditions of the underclass is, I think, arguably worse. [crosstalk] Why don’t we have that consciousness? POYNTER: It is worse. Because what you have is the bubbling underneath. It is there and it is going to explode, but it’s not going to be an explosion where people are going to be working to become a part of this society that was in the ’60s and the ’70s. It was a struggle for the poor and oppressed to be come a part of. HEDGES: Right. POYNTER: That dream is dead. HEDGES: Yes, that’s right. POYNTER: It’s just ugliness now. There is just anger-ness, and it was created by the government that exists now. They think that they can continue this forever, and what you is, you have like, in housing, you have an influence of money, right-wing, corrupt money, coming to the United States, coming to New York, and they’re creating– HEDGES: –And they’re driving everyone out, [inaud.]– POYNTER: –They’re driving, and not only that. They’re creating a wealthy society compared to a society that has nothing, and what you’re going to see, and I guarantee it, more of, there’s going to be death. [crosstalk] People are going to rob. STEWART: See, I don’t agree with that. I don’t agree that there is, right below the surface, a lot of unrest. I don’t see it, either. I don’t see it at all. I don’t see it. Even Black Lives Matter, which most of the left sees as the saving grace, oh, we now have a movement again. That’s not a movement. That’s really just comparable to the old time CORE and SNCC. Not SNCC so much, but CORE, and the NAACP, and, you know, all of those organizations that were in existence in the ’60s but which we really considered [crosstalk] to be wimps, yeah– HEDGES: [interceding]–Which tended to be single-issue, single-issue organization, right?– STEWART: –Right, and were not really ready to do anything militant. [crosstalk] And I– POYNTER: –I see it different. Go ahead. STEWART: I don’t see–Ralph says, you know, that he sees that there’s a viciousness out there, and I think there is, but I don’t see it bubbling to the surface in the way he sees it– HEDGES: –Well, you know, a lot, we have such– STEWART: –A force– HEDGES: –We have such fierce systems of repression, including mass incarceration. You were, how long, three years in prison– STEWART: –Four– HEDGES: –After you, four years, disbarred, in Texas? STEWART: Right. Awful, but, yes, that. The prison systems are more efficient. Everything is much more efficient, but the question is, is that sense of young people in particular, are they so fed up that they say, as we said in the ’60s, if we can’t have the apples off the tree we’ll chop the damn tree down– HEDGES: –Let me. when– STEWART: –They don’t have that– HEDGES: –And let me just add that you were thrown in prison, really at, when it boils down to, because you were the defense attorney for Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Blind Sheikh, who was, after the hysterism, hysteria, blame for the bombing of the [crosstalk] World Trade– STEWART: [interceding]–Well, partly, he was always associated with World Trade Center one, which he wasn’t– HEDGES: –Right. ’93, was it?– STEWART: –But he was the face of terrorism. He was, every newspaper, Daily News, New York Post, there was this guy with the red turban and the shades, which I, the first thing I said to him as his lawyer was, get rid of the shades. HEDGES: Right. STEWART: Even though, he said, but, my eyes are very ugly. The guy who had been the informant told him that. I said, yes, they are, but they’re real. You’re not hiding behind anything. But that’s irrelevant. I just say that some of my clients, who were from the hoods of this neighborhood, the very people we’re talking about, after I was arrested and indicted and then ultimately convicted, they same to my office to see me and they’d see me and they’d say, you know, Ms. Stewart, or you know, Lynne, whichever way we were addressing each other, and say, they didn’t do this to you because of that old Muslim with the turban. They did this because of Larry Davis, who was a young man who acted in his own self-defense against armed police. He said, they did it because you defended us [crosstalk] street guys– HEDGES: [interceding]–Yeah. That’s right.– STEWART: –All these years, and you’re a problem to them. But that’s what, it’s not really about the old sheikh, which, of course, I do agree. It is partly that, but they had the sheikh and they could use that as an excuse, and they did. HEDGES: And you were released on compassionate release. You had a 10 year sentence, [crosstalk] but because you have cancer– STEWART: [interceding]–Yes, I went back and they gave me a 10-year. I got a [crosstalk] lower–Yes, it’s just the whole thing is, from the charade, from the beginning to the end, but– HEDGES: [interceding]–Right, yes, I know. The whole thing was ridiculous. We don’t have time to get into it. Right, right, right. I mean, originally it was a minor reprimand and then Cheney decided to turn you into an accomplice of terrorism. Before we finish, I want to ask you about the corrosion of the legal system. Legal system’s always been stacked against the oppressed and the poor, always. And yet, when you began in the early ’70s, there was more space. You even call it the golden age of the legal system. Just, briefly, tell me what you had and what we’ve lost. STEWART: Okay. I saw it as, I would characterize it as a pot boiling, and when the pot gets to the point where it’s starting to boil over, then the government knows it has to do something. It can’t just let it continue, because if it boiled over it can ruin it, quote, for everyone, meaning, mainly, those with money. So as a result, I think, and this is my analysis of it, that they then, they make it a little easier, and one of the things they did was– HEDGES: –So you’re talking about, there was pressure in the ’60s and the early ’70s because of radical movements– STEWART: –Yes.– HEDGES: –So they acted, they created a kind of safety valve where they gave people more space and voice within the system, including the legal system. STEWART: Right. And especially the legal system, because they had there the Supreme Court under Earl Warren, very famously, they just turned the whole system around. The rights that did not exist were created. There was no right to an attorney, there was, you know, you were not protected on a lineup. Ironically, and I’m sort of grinning now, yes, they expanded all of these rights and the right to be, it never was that if there was a bad search the fruits of that search were suppressed and couldn’t be used against you. That was a ’60s thing. All that came in, and the law seemed to be opening up and guarantee more rights to those accused of crime. [crosstalk] Actually– HEDGES: [interceding]–When did that start to close again? STEWART: Well, I would say that started to close in the mid-’70s again. And it closed with certain, I’m not going to cite you cases. That was never my strong suit. But, I can tell you, we all knew it, and we all knew it from the way the judges decided cases, cases that were obviously bad searches in 1978 were no longer bad searches. And cops that were lying somehow had regained credibility, the same kind of put-up stories– HEDGES: –And then it’s kind of extinguished after 9/11. STEWART: Yes. HEDGES: And in your case, you had met with your client with what had once been attorney-client privilege, and you were surreptitiously tape recorded by the government and they played that tape in your trial. Is that correct? STEWART: Right. And actually, when it took place, when they were taping it, that was before 9/11. HEDGES: Oh, was it? STEWART: That was when they came after me, but they didn’t really. They wrote me a letter and said I couldn’t do that anymore, and then they let me continue visiting him [crosstalk], and I visited him– HEDGES: [interceding]–Right. And you were not disbarred, you were not– STEWART: –No. In 2010 I continued. Ramsey Clark had done many, many press releases– HEDGES: –And then we got, was it Dick Cheney? STEWART: No, it was our very favorite friend, John Ashcroft– HEDGES: –Ashcroft. STEWART: After, but this is after 9/11– HEDGES: –Then they come, they re-visit your case and decide to [crosstalk] imprison you for it. STEWART: [interceding] That’s what we think. We can’t prove that, but I think they went back into the file and they said, oh, look at this. This is a good one. We don’t have much going on here. We’re supposedly waging this war on terror and we have, they had the young man that they had captured in Afghanistan, the American. I can’t remember [crosstalk] his name. HEDGES: [interceding] Lindh, Lindh. POYNTER: [inaud.] HEDGES: No, no. Lindh was his name. STEWART: At any rate, they had him and they had this poor mutt of a guy who was a Puerto Rican New Yorker who was caught, supposedly, bringing a dirty bomb into the country, and they locked him up in solitary, but that’s all they had. They had nobody else, but they had this old, old record. They had a convicted terrorist, Sheikh Omar. It was a no-brainer for them to bring this against me. HEDGES: So, let me close by asking you each, succinctly, with the histories that you have and your, both of your intimate relationships with the radical movements that opened up space, opened up our democracy. It’s now closed. Why? Why don’t, I’ll start with you, Lynne, and then I’ll ask you, Ralph. Given the deterioration that’s taken place, economically, politically, socially, culturally, why don’t, why isn’t that, another form of militancy being expressed in a way that it was in the ’60s and the ‘70s? POYNTER: What we have today, the parallel today is, the government saw a problem and they solved the problem. And the government solved the problem ahead of the people, and now we have people, the communities. There’s a possibility– HEDGES: –Let me just, they solved it through severe repression against radical movements, including political assassinations– POYNTER: –Yes.– HEDGES: –Of people like Fred Hampton, and buying off the Black elite. Were those the two mechanisms? POYNTER: Exactly. And the big mechanism was the television with the desire, inculcating in people the desire to be a part of America, so what we see today is places like center city Chicago, 25 murders a day because the government sees that there’s a possibility. With this oppression there’s going to be a boiling over, and so what are they doing? They’re destroying all Black communities, and this is where the oppression is. But the one they missed was the white community. You see, white people, children– STEWART: –Tell us what issue you are referring to. POYNTER: The total oppression. You take food, you can do anything with people but take food away. STEWART: They’ll never do that. This is our argument that goes back and forth. He says, when they are starving people are going to come out. I say, they’ll never let that happen. They know. They are so [crosstalk] keen–why HEDGES: [interceding]–Although, but, the only thing in defense of Ralph is that food insecurity is rising, and because the government has been surrendered to corporate power, corporate power only knows one word, and that’s more. There is no internal limits, and now there are no external. You’re right about government, but government has become so anemic in the face of corporate power that I’m not sure that those rational restraints are there. That’s what the liberal class is. The liberal class functions as a mechanism. This is what Roosevelt did. This is what Nixon did– POYNTER: –Yes.– HEDGES: –Our last liberal president. It functions as a mechanism to do exactly what both of you said, to essentially, you know, let off, intervene enough to de-fang. I’m not certain that’s going to happen again, because we’re in such a dysfunctional system. POYNTER: Yes, and we see, how dysfunctional is it? Can you imagine not having water? Flint. And we knew it was coming As Reverend Pinkney said, it’s coming to you next. And what was the issue? The issue was over water in [crosstalk] Benton Harbor. And all across the country, this oppression, this insecurity, think of housing. How many people are sleeping in the street? Now, we have been flim-flammed, or misled by people saying that change can’t come through violence. Well, all the change that you know comes from violence, and once people learn that they learn if they don’t have a dollar and take it from you, that’s violence. Change does come. And it’s going to hit, like, and everybody’s going to be surprised and say, what happened? This is what happened. The government oppresses, and then they’re trying to get ahead of it by destroying the communities. And I look at Chicago and I say, you know, this is the same thing that happened in the ’60s with the drugs. They have all of the drugs, they have all the informants, and 25 people are being killed a day Black people. They’re fighting over these assets, and I says that one day it’s going to turn. STEWART: –I just want to end by saying that, you know, I do have high hopes, never, ever giving up, because as someone once said to me in Berkley, of all places, they said, you know, Lynne, when we were in the ’50s and we were out there trying to get people signing petitions for the Rosenbergs and they executed them, we really thought, this is never going to change, and then we had the ’60s. So I feel the same way. I look at it now and I say, can this ever change? Are we so caught up in this? Is there so much YouTube and so little people actually [communicating]? Will it change? And I have faith it will change, and it will come about the way it always does, by people who just have fed up and go out there and say, I am going to fight for this, fight for this, because we are also, as Ralph has just finished saying, we are sold the bill of goods, that it’s going to come by being nice and playing nice. It’s never going to come that way. HEDGES: All right, well we’re going to have you back after all of this happened to find out who’s right.
POYNTER: I like that. STEWART: Since that may be a few minutes coming… HEDGES: And thank you for watching Days of Revolt. Well, let me do it again. And thank you, for watching Days of Revolt.]
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