Justice for All? A Short Interview with Michael Ratner
- By Derek Seidman
Left Hook's Derek Seidman had the opportunity to carry out a short interview with Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (find out more about the CCR below). Ratner is an international human rights lawyer, a former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and an author and co-author of several books, including the recent "Against War with Iraq: An Anti-war Primer". He also currently teaches at Columbia Law School. You can find out more about him and his work at http://www.humanrightsnow.org/
I went to see Noam Chomsky speak at Columbia a few weeks ago, and in the discussion period someone brought up the Patriot Act. Chomsky said that, while surely a bad thing, the Patriot Act is a triviality compared to what activists in other, more repressive countries have to go through. How big of a threat is the Patriot Act to the Left? Do you think that the government enacted it with the intention that it could be used against domestic political opposition if necessary?
The Patriot Act is only one part a massive assault on civil liberties and particularly non-citizens. Much of the damage since 9/11 has been done by executive orders or under the claimed authority of the President as commander-in-chief. This includes the detentions at Guantanamo, the military tribunals, the detentions after 9/11 of non-citizens, the various measures regarding the holding of secret hearings, and the use of torture and FBI spying on the anti-war movement. As to how bad it is, just ask the guys hanging from the ceiling in the US airbase in Bagram. Yes, it will be and is being used against us domestically. Look at the demonstration in Miami against the FTAA; look at the US citizen enemy combatants held in US brigs; look at the surveillance of Muslims.
The New York Times reported a few weeks ago that the FBI has been monitoring anti-war activities and activists. The justification for this spying is that protests could be a prime place for sabotage and terrorist-like activity. Of course, anyone who has participated in the anti-war movement knows this is a joke. Not only does the FBI admit getting information from informants, but some of the things they note-- such as activists using the internet to raise money, wearing gas masks to avoid injury from tear gassing, and holding activist training sessions-- are perfectly legal. Is it farfetched to say that we may be seeing the initial stages of a new Cointelpro-type operation, maybe less severe, but similar in intent?
Yes, we are seeing the reemergence of Cointelpro. It is amazing to me that that there has not been more of a stink made of this. The FBI is all over the anti-war and anti-globalization movement. I think but can't yet prove that informants and burglaries are the order of the day.
While it is debatable how serious a threat the attacks on civil liberties are to the activity of the Left, one thing is for sure: they are an immense threat to the livelihoods of immigrants, Arabs, and people who follow Islam. Can you discuss how attacks on civil liberties are especially endangering these groups?
To be a non-citizen in this country, particularly if you are Muslim or Arabic, is to be a suspect. Many are afraid to express opinions; many have been jailed and deported. We represent Maher Arab, a Canadian citizen of Syrian birth who was arrested while changing planes at Kennedy and sent by our government to Syria were he was held for 10 months and tortured. We are disappearing people all over the world.
You have done some work around the situation in Guantanamo, where the US is holding suspected terrorists without much pretense of legality. What's the situation like right now? What are you and the Center for Constitutional Rights doing around this?
We represent Guantanamo detainees although we are not allowed to meet them and they do not know of our representation. 660 detainees are held incommunicado and the US claims they have no rights and that no court in the world can hear their cases. The Supreme Court, in a great victory for us and our clients, has agreed to review the detentions. At this point the detainees have been held for almost two years with no court review-a legal and moral outage.
Can you leave us off by telling us about the organization you work with, The Center for Constitutional Rights? What is your purpose and what types of activity are you engaged in? Why would you encourage youth who are serious about trying to change the world to go into law? What kind of contributions can be made through legal activism?
The Center for Constitutional Rights (originally "Law Center for Constitutional Rights") was founded in November 1966 by attorneys Morton Stavis, Arthur Kinoy, Ben Smith and William Kunstler, whose legal work representing civil rights activists in Mississippi convinced them of the need for a privately funded legal center to undertake innovative impact litigation on behalf of popular movements for social justice. Robert Boehm, who worked with the CCR from its inception, was instrumental in the effort to turn the vision of the founders into a reality. Peter Weiss became part of CCR early in its history and has played an outstanding role, especially in the area of international human rights.
Born out of the early experiences of its founders, CCR develops pro-active legal strategies to address pressing problems and ensure that the basic rights of all citizens are protected under the law. From the beginning, we have used innovative impact litigation to move the law forward and facilitate the construction of a more just society.
Today, CCR continues to nurture innovation in all its docket areas. We continue to craft litigation that exposes the fundamental contradictions in American society that undermine the promise of justice for all: fault lines of race, class and gender; the ascendancy of global corporate privilege over individual rights; the intersection of poverty, race, and industrial pollution; and the indifference with which governments around the world continue to violate the human rights of their citizens. Building upon the legacy we have established, CCR remains attentive to the challenges confronted by civil and human rights activists, so that we may continue to provide cutting-edge legal defense of fundamental rights.
I have had a great time trying to change the world. Its exciting work, its human oriented and it is one way to make a contribution. There are others. The world is tough, but we must never stop our struggle to make it a better place-and get the bad guys.
Derek Seidman, 23, is a co-editor of Left Hook. He lives in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.