Towering human rights attorney Michael Ratner died May 11 at the age of 72. A former president of the National Lawyers Guild and of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Ratner was perhaps best known for his efforts on behalf of prisoners being held indefinitely and tortured in the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo, Cuba, but his involvement with Guantánamo goes back to the 1990s, when hundreds HIV-positive Haitian refugees were held there in inhumane conditions.
Although he racked up many important legal victories, including the overturning of the NYPD’s notorious stop-and-frisk policy and a Supreme Court ruling that terror suspects held in Guantánamo were entitled to habeas corpus rights under the U.S. constitution, he took on cases with little regard for their winnability, but rather on the basis of whether they would advance the cause of human rights and justice.
He viewed the legal arena as only one of many fronts in the pursuit of progressive radical change, and he took part in many demonstrations and other activist events. He and his wife journalist and filmmaker Karen Ranucci were also central to a vital community of progressives, and they are legendary for hosting an annual July Fourth barbecue and softball game, where legal, media and other activists battled it out on a baseball diamond.
As part of a “Shadow Cabinet” special issue of The Indypendent published at the onset of the second Obama administration, Ratner outlined his first steps if he were appointed attorney general. The article – “Toward a Revolutionary Transformation of Society” – is republished here. — Ellen Davidson
It will be a cold day in hell when a person with my politics is appointed attorney general of the United States. The attorney general is the head of the misnamed Department of Justice, better named the Department of Injustice. She (one woman has held the job since 1789) is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States and enforces or does not enforce federal criminal and civil laws including civil rights laws. Agencies such as the FBI (U.S. political police) and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) come under its umbrella. Even within the context of a capitalist structure and a legal system that currently oppresses the majority of the population, the attorney general could turn this society on its head and take important steps toward a more equal, less oppressive and freer society.
What I have suggested below are arguably transitional steps that contain within them the potential for aiding a revolutionary transformation of society. I want to stress that none of these can be achieved without a massive mobilization of people in the streets. Ultimately, only with socialism will we live in a society where law will work for people and not be employed as a means to protect the ruling class.
Let’s assume I take office on January 20, 2013, the same day Obama takes the oath of office for his second term.
What do I do on the first day? I could number a sheet of paper from one to 100 that would reflect many of the actions I would take. However, for today, let’s start with the top 10. I would begin by not enforcing certain laws, which I have the right to do; then I would investigate and prosecute the real bad guys.
- Handcuff the FBI not activists. Protect our right to dissent and protest by ending FBI surveillance, spying, wiretapping, racial and ethnic profiling, use of informants and entrapment of activists and others not engaging in criminal activity.
- No criminal prosecutions of those involved in the sale or personal use of all drugs. Recommend the immediate parole of all persons jailed for crimes relating to drugs.
- Recommend parole for tens of thousands in federal prisons including those convicted as juveniles, political prisoners such as Native American activist Leonard Peltier and those serving more than 20 years. Those remaining should be treated humanely (no solitary), and given educational programs. Ultimately, prisons must be abolished. “When the prison doors are opened, the real dragon will fly out.” — Ho Chi Minh
- No prosecution of the undocumented. No more criminal enforcement of immigration laws including Operation Streamline, which has resulted in criminal prosecution and jail sentences for scores of thousands of immigrants
- End the prosecution of truth tellers and internet activists. Bradley Manning, Jeremy Hammond, Julian Assange, Barrett Brown, the late Aaron Swartz and untold others who seek to expose criminality and challenge corporate control of information which should be free to all.
- Don’t enforce the tax laws against those forced to carry the burden for the rich. The attorney general cannot change the tax code, but can refuse enforcement of its unequal burden. No criminal prosecution or civil enforcement actions against people or families who earn under $40,000 and who refuse to pay taxes. Tax the rich, not those with lower incomes.
- Indict and prosecute Obama and administration officials for murder by targeted assassination. A federal judge recently said, in the context of the drone killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki, that the President could be subject to prosecution under a U.S. statute prohibiting “foreign murder of United States nationals.”
- Indict and prosecute the George W. Bush torture team. Bush, Dick Cheney, former CIA head George Tenet, scores of others and the lawyers such as Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo, who tried to justify the practice.
- Too big to fail; too big not to be in jail. Bank and financial institutional fraud was one of the main causes of the 2008 continuing crash. Yet, 2011 saw prosecutions of financial institutions fall by half from the decade before. Prosecuting bank and financial fraud is a necessity. Another crash is inevitable under our current capitalist system, but its severity can perhaps be limited by going after the big, bad banks.
- Propose a law similar to that in Bolivia, Law of the Rights of Mother Earth (Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra). The law gives a legal personality to the human community and life/ecosystems. Even prior to trying to pass such a law I would ensure that all of the federal agencies under the Department of Justice protect Mother Earth and her life systems. I would attempt to enforce those rights in court by seeking to protect indigenous communities and their culture and the right to clean water and air and to live free from contamination.
While the above actions are possible under our current capitalist system, as I said, they are unlikely without a mass movement making militant demands.
I want to conclude with a paragraph by my friend Michael Smith, who is co-editing a forthcoming book entitled Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA:
“Law in America is sold as an impartial force for justice and equality. The frauds of formal equality of rights and the apparent neutrality of judges was brilliantly pierced by Anatole France’s oft-quoted remark that the law in all its majesty forbids all persons, whether rich or poor, from sleeping under bridges. With socialism in America, the people will own the bridges, and they’ll sleep peacefully and contentedly with a roof over their heads knowing full well that they have created a society where the law won’t work against them and in the words of that great manifesto ‘where the full development of each is the condition of the full development of all.’”
This article originally appeared in the January 21, 2013 issue of The Indypendent.