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A Tribute To Radical Human Rights Lawyer Michael Ratner

Michael Ratner spent the last half century steadfastly fighting for human rights. He was a radical lawyer, who led the Center for Constitutional Rights. He was an outspoken advocate for civil liberties and truth-telling, as he represented WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. He was instrumental in winning due process rights for Guantanamo Bay prisoners, and he died on May 11.

In a sober statement celebrating the work of Ratner, the Center for Constitutional Rights declared, “For 45 years, Michael brought cases with the Center for Constitutional Rights in U.S. courts related to war, torture, and other atrocities, sometimes committed by the U.S., sometimes by other regimes or corporations, in places ranging from El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala, to Yugoslavia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iraq, and Israel.”

“Seeking to hold Bush administration officials accountable for torture, he turned to filing cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction in international courts—in Germany, Spain, Canada, Switzerland, and France. Michael dedicated his life to the most important fights for justice of the last half century.”

The Real News program, “Reality Asserts Itself,” produced a seven-part series with Ratner, where the human rights attorney described what inspired his passion.

“The Vietnam War was a seminal event for me, yes, in terms of saying the United States is not doing good here. And I had arguments all the time with people about it, because people believed in the United States,” Ratner recalled. “They were taught that the United States did good in the world. They were taught that without the United States, of course, looking at the Second World War—but, of course, they left out Russia from that little equation. But they were taught that you didn’t question the United States about what it was doing.”

Ratner attended Columbia Law University. When the student occupation unfolded, he joined in solidarity with other students. This further transformed him into an anti-imperialist and human rights activist.

“We heard the cops were going to come on campus. And what I did then is I formed a group with about 20 people, and we stood in front of the door to Low Library, which is where a lot of the people were in, and I just stood there with our arms locked, singing ‘We Shall Overcome,'” Ratner shared. “And these cops that were the size of giants, like, you know, longshoremen cops, just charged our line—it’s midnight—well, one, two—charged our line, billy clubs flying, and just picked us up, threw us on the ground, and beat us, blood everywhere, me, everybody.”

“I mean, this was—you got out of that, and they were going—and the buildings were barricaded, a lot of them, etc. There was blood everywhere on the campus at three or four in the morning, everywhere, thousands of cops, or at least hundreds of cops. It was one of the most dramatic nights I’ve ever lived through.”

After that experience, Ratner knew he wanted to be part of something transformative. He clerked for the only black woman federal judge in the U.S. at the time. Her name was Constance Baker Motley. Then, in September 1971, he took a job at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which was co-founded by William Kunstler.

It was newly formed, according to Ratner. The organization, which came out of the civil rights movement, included Kunstler, Arthur Kinoy and Morton Stavis. They were on the “front lines” of the civil rights movement. These lawyers were defending those at the forefront of rebellion in the 1960s. They defended the Chicago Eight. An entire section of the legal organization defended war resisters, soldiers, and other individuals.

The takeover of Attica prison was unfolding. Kunstler was at the prison helping to negotiate a resolution. What happened was horrific. The National Guard pumped their fists, chanted “white power, white power,” and put down the prison rebellion. Thirty-nine people were killed in the massacre.

“I’d seen the South, I’d seen segregated schools, I’d seen all that. But to be in a prison where that kind of massacre and slaughter and abuse and torture had happened, and to happen right in New York, and a, quote, northern state, it was astounding to see that,” Ratner said.

Following the rebellion and massacre, Ratner was part of a team, which went to the prison to talk with the prisoners and advocate for reforms.

Around this time, Ratner became involved in the Puerto Rican liberation movement. He became close to the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, which represented demonstrators and draft resisters, who would not fight because Puerto Rico did not have the right to vote. He represented protesters resisting the U.S. military base on Vieques, which was regularly dropping bombs in the Atlantic. The bomb testing was a huge issue for Puerto Rican fishermen.

During this same period, Ratner developed into an advocate for the rights of people in Cuba, particularly against the U.S. empire. He represented the Venceremos Brigade, which sent “progressive Americans to Cuba to do work—sugarcane work or construction work—as a way of breaking the blockade of Cuba.” And, at one point, Ratner even went on a brigade in 1976 and did construction for six weeks.

Ratner spent much of the late 1970s pushing back against President Jimmy Carter, who was waging empire in Latin America and aiding governments that were suppressing revolutionary struggles.

Around this period in history, Ratner represented a magazine called “Covert Action Information Bulletin.” It was run by Bill Schaap, Ellen Ray, Lou Wolf, and Philip Agee, the former CIA agent who exposed the names of agents and authored “Inside the Company.” Ratner represented the magazine. In response to Agee, the government passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act to prohibit CIA agents like Agee from revealing the names of agents.

Ratner was active throughout the 1980s in opposing President Ronald Reagan’s illegal wars in Central America, especially in Nicaragua.

According to Ratner, “I went up to one village in northern Nicaragua, and there were, you know, little girls laid out in their coffins with flowers around where Contras had attacked them and killed the little girls. I represented an American named Benjamin Linder. Ben Linder was there as an aid worker, was building a dam in a place called Jinotega in Nicaragua that would give electricity. It was a little, you know, small dam for the little village, and the Contras shot at the dam, and then, when he was laying on the ground, they execute[d] him point-blank, 26-year-old U.S. engineer. I mean, the atrocities done by the Contras were just numbing.”

“I probably, with other people at my office, some of the lawyers, and activists, brought a dozen lawsuits on various aspects of Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Contras. It was a very active period of my life, really not just supporting ‘U.S., get your hands off Central America,’ but really wanting to support revolutionary movements for change in those countries. And, of course, the mass slaughter was incredible, and the things I saw on the ground were horrible.”

Ratner witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center. However, the horrific events of September 11th did not temper his advocacy for civil liberties. He argued just one month later that the U.S. was transforming into a police state. He was one of the first Americans to call attention to the “climate of fear” created by the so-called War on Terrorism.

…It is no exaggeration to say we are moving toward a police state. In this atmosphere, we should take nothing for granted. We will not be protected, nor will the courts, the Congress, or the many liberals who are gleefully jumping on the bandwagon of repression guarantee our rights. We have no choice but to make our voices be heard; it is time to stand and be counted on the side of justice and against the antediluvian forces that have much of our country in a stranglehold.

The domestic consequences of the war on terrorism include massive arrests and interrogation of immigrants, the possible use of torture to obtain information, the creation of a special new cabinet office of Homeland Security and the passage of legislation granting intelligence and law enforcement agencies much broader powers to intrude into the private lives of Americans. Recent new initiatives—the wiretapping of attorney-client conversations and military commissions to try suspected terrorists—undermine core constitutional protections and are reminiscent of inquisitorial practices.

Although it is not discussed in this article, the war on terrorism also means pervasive government and media censorship of information, the silencing of dissent, and widespread ethnic and religious profiling of Muslims, Arabs and Asian people. It means creating a climate of fear where one suspects one’s neighbors and people are afraid to speak out.

The claimed necessity for this war at home is problematic. The legislation and other governmental actions are premised on the belief that the intelligence agencies failed to stop the September 11th attack because they lacked the spying capability to find and arrest the conspirators. Yet, neither the government nor the agencies have demonstrated that this is the reason.

This war at home gives Americans a false sense of security, allowing us to believe that tighter borders, vastly empowered intelligence agencies, and increased surveillance will stop terrorism. The United States is not yet a police state. However, even a police state could not stop terrorists intent on doing us harm. In addition, the fantasy of Fortress America keeps us from examining the root causes of terrorism, and the consequences of decades of American foreign policy in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Unless some of the grievances against the United States are studied and addressed, terrorism will continue.

In the shadow of a rising and ominous global security state, Ratner turned his attention to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of terrorism suspects—some tied to the 9/11 attacks—were held in indefinite detention without charge or trial. They were subject to torture and abuse. President George W. Bush’s administration refused to allow the prisoners to exercise due process rights and challenge their confinement.

A Columbia University magazine profile indicates Ratner was not certain about representing Guantanamo prisoners. He was “used to representing feminists, black activists, antiwar folks. This was going to be completely different: protecting someone’s fundamental rights, no matter who they are. At the time, there was a lot of publicity about the detainees being the ‘worst of the worst.’ For all I knew, these were the people who planned 9/11. It wasn’t easy.”

The government hid behind state secrets and maintained the prisoners at Guantanamo should be tried before special military tribunals. Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights fought for years until a lawsuit on behalf of three prisoners went to the Supreme Court. The Abu Ghraib scandal was breaking news days after the arguments before the high court, and they won.

“With Michael, the Center for Constitutional Rights was the first human rights organization to stand up for the rights of Guantanamo detainees, and Michael was a founding member of the Guantanamo Bay Bar Association, a group that grew to over 500 attorneys from all over the country working pro bono to provide representation to the men at Guantanamo that has been called the largest mass defense effort in U.S. history. Michael acted as counsel in the landmark case Rasul v. Bush, and after two and a half years of litigation, CCR and co-counsel won the first Guantanamo case in the United States Supreme Court.

But the U.S. government responded by institutionalizing a military tribunal system—a second-class legal system which obstructed access to federal courts in the U.S. President Barack Obama succeeded Bush and incorporated this system into his efforts to “reform” how terrorism suspects were treated. Obama also refused to prosecute any Bush administration officials involved in torture.

“It’s essentially a continuation of the practices of the Bush administration that we so condemned under Bush, and now we’re seeing them under Obama,” Ratner said when he appeared on Thom Hartmann’s “The Big Picture” in 2010. The practices are now “deeply dug into our country,” he added. “Not just with a Republican but with a Democrat, violations of civil liberties that I’m sad to say are going to be with us for a very long time.”

The final chapter of Ratner’s life as a radical human rights lawyer involved writing a book, called, “The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld.” He pushed for Bush administration officials to be arrested and prosecuted in European countries because the Obama administration would not hold officials accountable for war crimes. He also turned his attention to the U.S. government’s war on WikiLeaks and, in particular, the case of Chelsea Manning, the U.S. military whistleblower who disclosed over a half million documents and the “Collateral Murder” video. He represented WikiLeaks and Assange.

It is this part of his life, where I had the honor and privilege of meeting and interviewing Ratner for my work. He provided insightful commentary for my coverage of Manning’s court martial at Fort Meade. He privately encouraged my journalism, which for an emerging journalist was huge in building my confidence.

All of the above barely does justice to the vast efforts Ratner engaged in on behalf of human rights. It omits work on Haiti, Palestine, war powers, immigrant farm workers, and numerous other human rights cases in which Ratner played a key role. However, it offers those who are unfamiliar with Ratner’s vast accomplishments a portrait of what he achieved.

There are two sentiments to end this tribute. There was never any partisan tribalism with Ratner. No matter who was in power, Republican or Democrat, Bush or Obama, Ratner fought for the rights of people who were vulnerable and oppressed—people who needed advocates like Ratner the most.

Ratner also did not take cases because he was certain he would win them. He was not interested in achieving legal precedents that would help his legal organization raise money off victories.

“Our center’s job is to take the long shots, the cases no one else will take, the ones that don’t necessarily have legal precedent on their side,” Ratner told Columbia University magazine. “We take cases that we think are important, simple as that. If we lose, we’re still spotlighting issues, and slowly changing public consciousness. But we’ll beat this foolish law.”

And, finally, as CCR wrote in their statement, “Michael’s legacy is the sea of people he has touched—his family, his clients, his allies, his colleagues, and all of the young lawyers he has inspired. Today we mourn. Tomorrow we carry on his work.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."