When Radical Lawyers Take the Airwaves

Indypendent Staff Apr 15, 2014

Michael Steven Smith is a radical lawyer and author whose activist resume dates back half a century. He has written five books, including Notebook of a Sixties Lawyer: An Unrepentant Memoir and Selected Writings. Most recently he was a co-editor of Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA. He has also co-hosted Law and Disorder at WBAI-99.5 FM since 2004. The show currently airs Mondays 6-7 am. 

Indypendent: How did you meet your two co-hosts, Michael Ratner and Heidi Boghosian?

Michael Steven Smith: Michael Ratner lived around the corner from me in the Village. This is 25 years ago. He was elected as President of the National Lawyers Guild and came over to ask me to work on their magazine, Guild Notes. We’ve been friends and comrades ever since. Heidi was hired as Executive Director of the Guild a dozen years ago. We started doing "Free Mumia" work together.
Indy: Are the three of you practicing law?

MSS: When I got out of law school I thought, well, I wasn’t going to practice law just to make rich people richer. Michael and Heidi thought the same. I dodged the Vietnam draft by getting the domestic version of the Peace Corps. They sent me to Detroit’s inner-city to do poverty law. I did tenant organizing and was active in the anti-war movement and I got the book Malcolm X Speaks into the city’s bookstores. When I left the program, I was too old to be drafted and I helped start up a movement law firm.
Indy: What kind of work did you do?

Smith: We advised DRUM, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, which was a radical organization of Black auto workers in Detroit. And, we represented people resisting the draft and organizing against the war in the military. I went down to Fort Jackson, South Carolina on a case called The Fort Jackson 8. The extraordinary Leonard Boudin was the main lawyer. We won and extended First Amendment rights for soldiers to march in protests and to publish anti-war newspapers and keep them in their lockers. When the GI’s started turning against the war, it was all over. Then I moved to New York City in l97l, worked for Pathfinder Press, a socialist publishing house, and got a job at Harlem Legal Services. From there, I moved on to represent indigent merchant seamen at The Center for Seafarers’ Rights. I ran their legal aid program. Lately I have been suing insurance companies on behalf of injured persons. 

Indy: What about Michael and Heidi?

Smith: Michael clerked for Black Federal Judge Constance Baker Motley when he got out of law school, practiced criminal law briefly and then joined the staff at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which came out of the civil rights movement of the Sixties. The day after he took the job they sent him up to Attica to deal with the prison rebellion. Bill Kunstler, a founder of the CCR, was already up there. Michael became Litigation Director and then President. He did a lot of work representing Cuba and the Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua. Now he is representing Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Hard to believe, but he has been at the CCR for 40 years. He is now President Emeritus.

Heidi graduated law school at Temple in Philadelphia before heading up the Guild. She is admitted to the bar here and works not just as an organizer but as an author. She has done great work around the country on police abuse and governmental and corporate intrusion on privacy. Her recent book Spying on Democracy will be the classic on how this government has turned democracy on its head. She has a great radio voice and TV presence and is becoming a spokeswoman for the movement in this regard on national media.
Indy: Why and when did you start the show and where did you get the idea?

Smith: Bush had been elected back in 2000. It was evident that he was morally and intellectually challenged, but it was deeper than that, it was systemic. When Bush and Cheney and the “oil junta” gave the order to attack Iraq, the ultimate crime of aggressive war, on the lie that Sadam Hussein was connected to Al-Qaida, we started thinking about approaching WBAI with the idea for a show on law and public policy. Jim Lafferty, head of the Los Angeles NLG, was an inspiration at Pacifica station KPFK with his popular drive time show. I gave a presentation to the WBAI Program Committee. The Program Director then was Bernard White. He backed us and we were put on the air every other week. After a time it was every week. Now thanks to WBAI we are on 65 stations around the country, from Moscow, Idaho to two new Pacifica stations in Houston and Washington, D.C. And we get thousands and thousands of Internet hits weekly from around the world. We have a map of this. It is amazing. New Zealand, Russia, Argentina, everywhere.
Indy: How did you choose the name Law and Disorder?

Smith: It is the title of a column in a local Kingston, NY newspaper that chronicles things like DWI’s and drugstore break-ins. We thought it was apt for the grander criminals on the national stage.
Indy: Looking back over the past decade, what do you think are some of the highlights of the show?

Smith: We’ve had great people on from “A” to “Z,” from Tariq Ali to the late Howard Zinn. OR Books has asked us to transcribe the most important interviews for a book to come out at the end of this year. Collin Robinson, the partner at OR, says Law and Disorder is an intellectual and political history of the last decade and deserves to be gotten out to the movement in book form. One segment that we occasionally run is called “Lawyers You’ll Like.” We’ve had great movement lawyers on: Mel Wulf, the former head litigator of the ACLU; Bill Schaap, who did so much to expose CIA crimes; the late Len Weinglass, one of the best constitutional law movement defense lawyers of recent times; Holly Maguigan, who taught at NYU School of Law, the former Co-President of The Society of American Law Teachers, who was recently given the great teacher award; and Ramsey Clark, the former Attorney General.
Indy: What are your plans?

Smith: The rule of law has gone to hell in a handbasket. Even former President Jimmy Carter recently said we are no longer living in a democracy. We expose this, rally people against it. But more broadly speaking we don’t think that democracy is compatible with capitalism. Dictatorship is. But not democracy. 

I co-edited with Debby Smith and Frances Goldin the visionary book HarperCollins just published called Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA. Frances came to us and said she wanted to do two things before she died. She is 89 years old. She said she wanted to free Mumia and to do a book on what America might be like if we got rid of capitalism. Four of the articles in the book are on law. 

Michael Ratner wrote one called “What I Would Do If I Were Attorney General.” It starts off saying “It’ll be a cold day in hell if someone with my politics was made Attorney General." But it is possible if the radicalization, which is just beginning, picks up speed, a lot of it. I wrote the one on civil law. Mumia Abu -Jamal and Angela Davis wrote on on criminal law and Ajamu Baraka, who is on the Center for Constitutional Rights Board with me and Michael Ratner, wrote one on socialism being the ultimate expression of democracy, both political and economic. The book starts with an indictment of capitalism, has 20 chapters by various authors on how everything – ecology, housing, food, medical care, education, sexuality, science, art, media – would be different if we had a new economic system. The last part is how to get from here to there, from where we are to where we want to be. All the profits from the book are going to the Mumia defense.
Indy: How is the book being received?

Smith: It is amazing. Alice Walker wrote saying “This is the book we’ve all been waiting for.” It is appealing now because of the dead-end crisis this society is in. Even the establishment Kirkus Review really liked it and wrote this about one of the contributions to the last segment on how to make the third American revolution “Historian Paul Le Blanc argues persuasively for a third American revolution mounted by a broad left-wing coalition that could spark a mass socialist movement” and that “socialism involves people taking control of their own lives, shaping their own futures, and together controlling the resources that make such freedom possible …. Socialism will come to nothing if it is not a movement of the great majority in the interests of the great majority … People can only become truly free through their own efforts.”
Indy: Your final thoughts?

Smith: What Paul wrote is a profound truth. And only with an independent media can we continue our work because only a politically aware, socially committed populace can affect important and lasting change.

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