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‘Making America Live Up to Its Promise’: An Interview with Lynn Stewart

Mike Burke Jun 28, 2005

Longtime radical New York attorney Lynne Stewart will be heading to court on September 23 for a sentencing hearing – not for a client, but for herself. In February a jury convicted her on five counts of conspiring to aid terrorists and lying to the government by smuggling out messages from her jailed client Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. It marked the first time that the federal government has prosecuted a defense attorney in a terrorism case. Stewart has maintained she was simply representing her client. She faces up to 30 years in prison, though the judge could choose to give her a more lenient sentence.

What figures in American history inspire you and give you courage?

My epiphany as a movement person came when I was 22 years old and went to teach at a Harlem public school on 135th and Lenox. After my epiphany, it certainly became Harriet Tubman and John Brown who fought back against the system and actually the law as it was then constituted. They showed there was such a thing as morality. I would say those are my greatest heroes.

I have personal heroes too. Bill Kunstler, of course, was my dear friend, but also someone who never shirked from a case, never stepped back to take the easy way out. All of these people inspire me and are the true patriots, because to me in a democracy, you have to keep the power toeing the line in response to the people. The only way to do that is by having a critical mass – people who are critical and willing to speak out and to hold the government to the highest standard.

Of course you also must have a government that is responsive – that seems to be the missing element these days. This government is not responsive. It is not responsive legislatively; it is not responsible in the executive branch, and in the judicial it waffles. We all know what the outcome of that is: If they are not responsive, then the people have the right to rise up and change that government.

How do you define patriotism?

At the root of it all I think of those old lines that Paul Robeson sang, “The House I Live In.” This is my America. I love this place. I grew up on a block where we played stickball in the spring and roller-skated in the summer. I want to have that place for my children and grandchildren. I don’t want them thinking of having to support the empire or to go off and fight evil wars or even to participate in the evil here at home, which is becoming a bigger and bigger issue. I think it really is about making America live up to its promise.

If we don’t force the country to live up to that promise then we are not doing our duty as citizens., even when it is very hard. Even when it is much easier to lay back with the remote and the six-pack and not go to that meeting, not go to that demonstration, not write the letter to the editor. It takes a certain amount of energy to be a democracy and I’d like to think that energizing is part of what I do and what I want to see done.

Can you talk about the significance of July 4th?

The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays because, of course, it celebrates the revolution – the right of people to self-determination. We need to remember that people do have the right to self-determination, to decide for themselves how they are going to be governed.

What does it mean to be a revolutionary in 2005?

I think it means at this point looking for basic change, change in the structures – somehow getting away from this corporatized America which, with its tremendous power and money, is able to control all the rest of us, the media and just about everything we do and say.

I think to be a revolutionary is to say let’s get back to the grassroots, let’s put the people back in charge, whatever that takes to do that, and to use Malcolm’s old line – by any means necessary. The power has gone askew and we really need to make it come back to represent the people rather than the big guys.