I can’t believe that the famous civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart was actually in Berkeley this week!
Berkeley used to be so very cutting-edge modern — but thanks to our current mayor and city council, my beloved city has degenerated into just one more developer’s paradise and wannabee suburb. So it did my heart good to see Lynne Stewart visiting our town.
Stewart, if you remember, was given an unusually harsh sentence in a Texas jailhouse by a Bush administration kangaroo court for doing what she has done best for the last 50 years — representing people who have no one else to represent them (even people who took scurrilousness advantage of her representation). And she was only released from this stiff jail sentence when it became clear that she was dying of cancer while incarcerated.
And now here she is, about to give us a talk on the trials and tribulations one has to go through in order to stand up for the underdog these days. And as we sat there waiting for the event to begin, someone who didn’t know what Stewart looked like came up to her and said, “Would you like to sign my fair-housing petition? Do you live in Berkeley or Oakland?”
“I live in Brooklyn!” Stewart happily replied. And that’s how we met her. Fragile but still tough.
Then another person started making small talk with Stewart about the food that being served at this pot-luck brunch. Really? You get a chance to talk to one of the greatest civil rights attorneys of the American century and you want to discuss recipes? Well, I wanted to discuss recipes too! “What was prison food like?” I asked her.
“Any vegetables served?”
“They gave us tough stalks of broccoli — which in an aging prison population with no teeth, this was a problem.” Then Lynne smiled. No bottom teeth.
“Mass incarceration needs to be forced off the map,” said the speaker who introduced Stewart. “We are so happy that you are here.” Me too. I was so pleased to see that Stewart was healthy enough to make it to Berkeley — and then make it up the stairs to the second floor of the Unitarian church, which was almost more than I could do.
“There are so many things going on in the Bay Area right now, that I’ll be glad to finally go back to Brooklyn where it is quiet. But I am here on a mission of gratitude, because it was people like you who got me out of jail. And while I’m not exactly a Luddite, I’m not at home in the electronic world either — but so many of you went online for me. You downloaded petitions and had people sign them. Over 50,000 people signed petitions to bring me home.”
And speaking of the internet, I just can’t resist pointing out that the loss of net neutrality will be (yet another) huge blow to democracy and freedom everywhere. And all those lies that neo-cons can’t resist telling us will continue to go unchallenged — And we would never have have become aware that Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Gaza, Ukraine, etc. have all been just one gigantic Pat Tillman scandal after another — only writ large. “I am not a crook” just doesn’t wash any more, thanks to the internet! But I digress.
However it wasn’t until Stewart got cancer, changing the conversation away from her being a political prisoner to being more about her personal story, that she was allowed to be released. Yet the issue of political prisoners is still dear to her heart.
“Being imprisoned has made me impassioned to work for both political prisoners and for women prisoners too — those who have no one to protect or represent them. All they have is four walls.”
The folks who put her in jail in the first place were all worried about what Stewart would do when she got out. “So they wanted me to sign a ‘remorse’ letter, saying I was sorry. And I wrestled with this because I did want to get out, to see my grandchildren. But my husband Ralph said that he would back me regarding whatever decision I finally made. ‘You do what you need to do’. But in the final analysis, I didn’t sign it. I just couldn’t let all the people who supported me down.”
How could she say to all the young lawyers who looked up to her, “Oh I didn’t really mean it, didn’t really stand up for my rights.”
Then Ralph Poynter spoke. “I was flying down to Texas for a New Years Day visit and I got this call while waiting in line at the rental car counter. ‘Lynne is free! She’s waiting for you in the parking lot!’ And I was so excited that I couldn’t even start my rental car and couldn’t even remember where the jail was!” And then he changed up his rental Ford for a Cadillac.
Poynter then talked about his own battle to get Stewart released. For months on end he had stood in front of the White House, and had collected signatures from across the world on her behalf. “Lynne has worked for 50 years, helping people in need — battered women, gays, victims of civil rights violations — so it was easy to get people to help her too. All of you have saved her life. And it has been a race to save her life. The poor-quality medical care she received in prison? They tried to kill her!
“But when Lynne started getting over a hundred letters a day, the pressure to have her released became serious. And when Lynne finally came home, she didn’t have MediCare. She had planned to go to Sloan-Kettering, but her MediCare had been cancelled while she was in jail because she had become ‘inactive’ and she would have had to wait eight months for her enrollment period to come around again.” Eight more months without treatment would have killed her for sure.
Finally, after two months spent solely on trying to cut through bureaucratic red tape, Stewart finally got Medicaid.
“I started right in with chemo,” she told us, “once we got my prison medical records sorted out. The prison doctors never talked to the outside specialists in Texas and it was all a big mess. ‘Why does everything take so long,’ my New York doctor asked when he finally saw my prison records. And because of this lack of communication, many women in prison die as a result.”
When she was in prison, Stewart tried to help her fellow inmates as much as she could. “And I still try to help them now. And it hurt then and it hurts now — to see them suffer. I still send them books that I think they will like. No note. But they know who it is from.” All prison mail is censored.
“People now say to me, ‘Lynne, you look so good! I thought you were dying!’ but I am still as bad as I was — except now I have liver cancer as well. But with cancer, there are so many things you can still do, so right now I am active. Good cancer doctors always say, ‘If you think you can do it, then do it!’ And I wanted to take this chance to see all the people who helped me for so many years.” Her activism gives her a great reason to fight to stay alive.
“And what about lawyers these days,” Stewart then asked. So many people are being arrested — and then they all sink below the waves. he quality of defense lawyering for the women she met in prison sucked eggs. “They lied and they were corrupt.”
“There used to be a raft of activist lawyers. Now there are none. It’s appalling. I myself have been disbarred. I can’t even work in a law office now, not even to do filing. Someday I hope to get my law license back.”
Then Stewart read a short poem by Bertolt Brecht entitled “And I always thought”:
And I always thought
The very simplest words
Must be enough.
When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself.
Surely you see that.
PS: Stewart’s audience at the church was composed mostly of older white people such as myself — we were all survivors from The Greatest Generation, the horrible McCarthy era and the hopeful reforms of the 1960s. We in the audience were all idealists with hope for a better world, bravely still fighting against the mish-mash of greed, unnecessary war, pollution and election fraud that the world is stuck with right now.
Which leads me to my next question: How come we, like Lynne Stewart, became such hopeful idealists — while the rest of our generation became just a sad bunch of useless couch potatoes, mindlessly cheering on racism, sexism, fascism, and various lies from Fox News?