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The Legacy of Lynne Stewart: The People's Lawyer

April 26, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Well, sometimes the impossible takes a little longer”, remarked Lynne Stewart, December 31, 2014, on her arrival in New York, released from federal prison in Texas, after a vigorous family and internationally driven campaign on her behalf. (She was suffering from advanced cancer.)

Stewart lived three more years, nearby her family, always with a smile for visitors. This was the woman who dared this mild rebuke to her sentencing judge: “I do not intend to go gentle into that good night” she told him. 

Last Saturday, almost 500 friends and admirers of the brave lawyer who had the courage to challenge U.S. Homeland’s chief John Ashcroft fifteen years ago, gathered to celebrate a remarkable and honorable life.

April 22nd, the same day when tens of thousands were gathering in cities across the country to support our scientific community under threat by Trump administration budget cuts, one is struck by the contrast with those memorializing this “people’s lawyer”.

That modest assembly in a quiet corner of New York, the city where she grew up and where Stewart worked all her life, represented a revolutionary era whose very place in U.S. history is dangerously marginal. Moreover, that history is barely recognized by the rather belated post-November 8th arousal—the new liberal movement-- now gathering with its multitude of committees, mass parades and lefty celebrity speeches: part of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution. Fine. But a far cry from what Lynne Stewart’s celebrants represent.

                Unarguably America needs organized massive resistance to threats posed by the current administration; push back is essential on all fronts: healthcare, the arts, environmental protections, bank regulation, civic rights, and on and on. One hopes that the thousands of communities mobilizing nationwide, from villages to city centers and suburbs will-- after the committees are settled, the speeches made, the funds raised, the petitions signed-- act. They have organizing tools unavailable in past revolutions. Digital platforms flowing into every hand can inform with virtual velocity; Google maps assure you that your small effort is fed into a nationwide net of tens of thousands; you are not alone. Leaders can materialize in weeks with Twitter and Facebook skills at their command, cameras everywhere recording their emergence. Film celebrities join in, drawing even greater numbers to the effort. These are essentially what we have, and they may indeed be what are appropriate at a time when representatives of our police state are more numerous and more heavily armed, endowed with more authority and less tolerance.

                Those gathered to remember Lynne Stewart last week were authentic, tried revolutionaries: poets Nat Turner and Amina Baraka; former political prisoners, attorneys who had stepped forward to defend unpopular characters, teachers, organizers in solidarity with Cuba and Palestinian statehood from the 1960s to today; Vietnam war veterans and the unjustly imprisoned; defiant elected representatives from New Jersey and Brooklyn; the journalist and theologian Chris Hedges who refuses to join the liberal voice that claims it is the rightful alternative to the Republican party.

Each woman and man reminded us what makes a revolution. Each invoked the grass roots experience of Stewart, a librarian and teacher who turned to law in order to fight injustices she witnessed in the lives of her students. Eventually she took on the case of Muslims wrongly accused in the early 1990s when the government was using secret evidence to illegally charge and convict. Where other attorneys shied away from representing terror suspects, Lynne Stewart remained committed. There was some success when the government was eventually prevented from further use of secret evidence.

Then came the 9/11 attacks, and everything changed. Stewart insisted on defending attorney-client privilege (a right the government suspended). She had to be stopped. And they put Stewart, at the age of 73, in jail to do so.

As Brooklyn assemblyman Charles Barron reminded us on Saturday, “Lynne was a sweet person.” Even as she presented her cases and spoke to the media, she was always mild and respectful, always witty and bright-eyed. It’s not simply that she’s missed. We need to believe others as courageous and well equipped as Stewart was can come to our aid today.  END

Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist and radio producer in New York. She is a longtime associate of Lynne Stewart, interviewing her during her fight against government use of secret evidence against her clients during the 1990s, then during Stewart’s fight against the department of justice attack on lawyer-client privacy rights, and finally in the campaign led by her husband and comrade, Ralph Poynter, for Stewart’s release from prison on health grounds.

[ The Legacy of Lynne Stewart: The People's Lawyer ]

Veteran Killers in Our American Streets

April 14, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Why do we allow veterans of recent wars to keep their weapons at home? Sometimes I think I’m alone in noticing a troubling American social pattern. When I mention how it keeps coming up again, others admit that they too noticed it. That’s all. It’s not the sort of thing one can easily follow.

Because media ignores it, the aggravation seems to disappear. Then it returns, as it did with the latest school killings—this time at the school in San Bernardino, California, this week.

I expect mine will be a highly unpopular opinion---it’s a hard one for Americans to swallow. But it has to be pointed out that when our military teaches our men and women to kill, legally, there is a terrifying and common spillover here at home, namely: they go on killing.

I have never been privy to the way military authorities pump up soldiers to kill, to revenge their fallen comrades, to hunt what are presented as savage animals who would take away ‘our freedoms’. But I‘ve heard enough to know that military training really hardens men, subjecting them racist and violent language to motivate them on the battlefield. Soldiers also learn to feel comfortable with weapons; they become highly attached to their guns.

We have to own up to it. As much as our presidents celebrate “these gallant men and women who put themselves in harms way”, U.S. veterans are increasingly among the killers in our own neighborhoods. They are among the gun-lovers and gun owners killing us and our children-- in our streets, in airports, in their homes and in our schools. When will we disarm these men who we celebrate for killing Iraqis, Afghanis, Syrians, Yemenis, Somalis?

In the case of Marine Chris Kyle of “Sniper” fame, the six dead in the baggage hall of Ft. Lauderdale airport, and this week’s San Bernardino’s North Park Elementary School killings, focus is on the victims. Yes, teacher Karen Elaine Smith deserves to be known and mourned nationally. So too, 8-year old Jonathan Martinez. That this teacher was dedicated to working with special-needs children, and the dead child himself suffered from an illness, makes the violence against them all the more despicable.

But news reports in this massacre’s aftermath, and likely in the weeks ahead will, according to common practice, fail to adequately investigate implications of the killer being a U.S. veteran who served in American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

                In the case of the famous Iraq ‘war hero’ Chris Kyle, films and memorials celebrated this soldier’s killing power—160 kills, was it?—his victims may also have been teachers, perhaps among them, fathers, and brothers of boys like Jonathan Martinez. When Kyle was later murdered, it was by a fellow Iraq veteran. Eddie Routh was invited by Kyle and his colleague Chad Littlefield for an afternoon’s entertainment at a local shooting range. In the course of their sport, Routh shot dead both of his colleagues.

That event received wide press coverage because of the celebrity of Kyle, where again his prowess as a killer of Iraqis was applauded. Coverage included some history of Kyle’s killer with the spotlight on his mental problems.

There were others—too many. Remember Esteban Santiago-Ruiz? He is the mass murderer of 5 (with 8 injured) at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport last January. He too was a soldier, noted for receiving 10 awards during his time in the military.

Now we have Cedric Anderson, this month’s San Bernardino school killer. While investigations of his background highlight violence against women, he was also held (charges were dropped) for acts involving weapons. (There’s only cursory reference to Anderson’s 8 years in the U.S. navy.)

I recall reading about a man who murdered himself and his two daughters in their home-- a nice home on a nice American street—about a year ago. He too, I recall, was a military veteran. News of that massacre focused on his two unfortunate girls.

                Yes, we know about PTSD. We know these boys have seen their buddies killed and wounded. We know the Department of Veterans Affairs could do better. But what about these men holding on to weapons when back in civilian life? What about the way they are trained in violence and hatred?

What about gathering data countrywide on how many killers in the U.S. over the past 25 years are veterans of recent wars? And how do U.S veterans who kill and maim, once discharged, compare with others across the globe, and in earlier U.S. wars? This epidemic needs urgent attention because we have more than two million of these young men among us. END

 

[ Veteran Killers in Our American Streets ]

Back in Government Hands!, or "Dying to Get Back to School"

April 06, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Back in government hands”; the journalist repeated it twice in the same account of her report from Homs, Syria. Lyse Doucet had returned to the former rebel-occupied (and we know the reputation of those rebel jihadis, don’t we?) Syrian city of Homs last week.

With apparent sympathy, Doucet sought out Bara’aa, now 12, to learn how the girl was managing. It had been three years after their first encounter, following the death of the child’s mother in a bombing.

Doucet, considered an outstanding, fearless and compassionate war journalist working across the region today, seemed touched that the child was doing well, especially pleased to be back in school. Doucet omitted any reference to the high value Syrians, like Iraqis and Palestinians among others, place on education. These are nations where every child since the 1960s was educated, where gender parity in school was standard decades ago.

Apart from the silliness of asking an Arab child, any child, if she likes school, and remarking “You don’t have bad memories, do you?”, Doucet seemed incapable of uttering the word ‘liberate’ at any point in her report. Palmyra was not liberated, nor Aleppo, nor Homs. No, they were simply (maybe regrettably, to some) “back in government hands”.

I don’t know if the BBC instructs its journalists never to use the word ‘liberate’ when an enemy army (in this case the Syrian government) regains territory from rebels and terrorist occupiers. Or if Doucet herself simply cannot conceive that ‘liberation’ is what may allow the child’s return to school, indeed the reporter’s own ability to enter Homs at all.

This attitude to Homs is more ironic when not far to the east, American forces are desperately trying to help Iraqis bring Mosul “back into government hands”. In the course of this assault, we are learning, many hundreds of Iraqis—probably including girls and boys like our Homs’ schoolchild—died… to get back to school. When that happens, and everyone prays it will be soon, there will doubtless be celebrations over the ‘liberation’ of Mosul.

Remember all the fanfare surrounding American forces’ attempt to liberate Falluja (in restless Anbar province) in west Iraq in 2004? Many details of the battle, which not only failed but resulted in huge losses of life, were leaked—the US troops used phosphorous gas, and besieged the city trapping many thousands of residents. The event is also remembered because dozens of American troops were killed in that effort, a major battle marking the first American encounter with Al-Qaeda/ISIS insurgents. (The second battle of Fallujah nine months later is descried as a “coalition victory”; never mind what remains of the city.)

There have been a series of military confrontations in Afghanistan and in Iraq over the years where territory held by U.S. and U.K. troops or their surrogates—were reoccupied by opposing forces. Just days ago a district where 100 British troops had lost their lives “fell to rebels”.

Given the considerable number of failures by Americans and their allies to permanently restore rebel-held regions to government hands, one can only admire a government that achieves this. (Although there is no certainty that Homs is really secure. We saw Palmyra in east Syria retaken by ISIS, then again liberated by Syrian forces.)

Consider, if American and British deaths to liberate territory in those distant places are so well remembered, can we not begin to imagine the cost in Syrian military lives? Why, when we heap applause on U.S. veterans, wounded or not, do we have no concept for their Syrian counterparts. How many Syrian mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces, grandsons and sons mourn their lost fighters, pray daily for their safety, and may occasionally even celebrate their ability, somehow, to liberate Syrian territory from jihadists?

Anyone in touch with a household in Syria will know the anxiety of family worrying when their son or brother will be called. Any young man, who for one reason or another hasn’t yet been recruited, waits in fear. He has friends who’ve been called up, others who’ve fallen on the battle field. Many refugees are youths who managed to escape the country and military service. Others still enrolled in school, are not exempt.

With every “back in government hands”, or “retaken by rebels”, there is unarguably a heavy toll involved in sending one little girl back to school. We owe her the right to feel her home has been liberated.

[ Back in Government Hands!, or "Dying to Get Back to School" ]

What Storm Stella Can Teach Us About War

April 01, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It’s been more than a week but they are still out there-- machines and people --pushing it, chopping it, lifting it-- moving it, somehow, out of the way, out of our routine pathways. Under attack by salt, sand and sunrays, the mountains of snow slowly retreat. Although early April forecasts warn this may not be the end. We groan at the thought.

People will be talking about Storm Stella for a decade. I had never seen so many plows— lumbering monsters, lights flashing, orange twelve-foot-wide metal wings lunging through the whiteness; plows with sand and salt sprayers follow the heavier machines.   Narrower roads are tackled by ATVs, shovels and buckets newly fixed to their bumpers. Snow blowers of all sizes are ferried by truck to inaccessible homes and office buildings.

As we dig ourselves out, we are uncertain if another day of snow is due. Do we have enough food? What if electricity fails?

Following the dig out, neighbors exchange memories of the last blizzard in upstate New York. Gregg says it was 2003; others claim 1996 was the worst in memory.

I don’t remember the winter of ’96. Where was I?

Now I recall: in Iraq documenting the staggering impact of the United Nations sanctions (a U.S. initiated and policed blockade) against the country. (An action which Washington forced the UN to endorse.)

By 1996 the blockade on Iraq had been in effect for almost six years. By 1996 its people no longer waited for the isolation and shortages and illnesses and deprivations and heart attacks to end. By 1996 they ceased expecting any change in the United Nations position or fair treatment from waves of rude inspection teams. So many agencies were making millions (funds allocated by the U.S. from Iraq’s frozen bank accounts) from monitors and conferences, reviews and reports about the crippled nation’s poverty, sanctions compliance, and human rights accounting, there was no incentive to end the embargo.

The assaulted, besieged population adjusted, if adjust is the right word for survival. If anyone can adjust to personal losses and war, deprivations, indignities and manifold injuries. “Whatever we suffer today, we know only that tomorrow will be worse”, she noted. I don’t remember her name, but I know her voice—low and angry, lips pressed together. She was no more than 20. Her words slap against my brain cells, again and again, twenty years later.

                Along with millions of other Iraqis she waited day after day, year after year. (And they still wait.)

Even though the embargo ended after 13 years and elections were held, many millions perished or moved abroad. Except for planning how to get whatever crumbs one may manage to suck out of the government, the only thing to look forward to is escape. A quarter century of uncertainty-- under dictatorship, under occupation, under democratically elected governments--persists.

Feeling the (temporary) assault and isolation created by Storm Stella’s engulfing New York last month, it occurred to me: Suppose it doesn't stop? Suppose another one hits before we have cleared this away; suppose all available plows are diverted to the city and we are forgotten? Suppose this goes on, the snow accumulating day after day, until May, and then suppose a week of rain follows? Suppose the melt-off and the downpour trigger floods, and roads are washed out? I didn’t feel panic; but for the first time, I really imagined what the accumulation of year after year after year of war could create.

I’d been in war zones. In Iraq observing crumbling infrastructure, closed hospitals, abandoned clinics, no flights, no medicines, no milk powder, heading for summer, I was nevertheless able to escape every time slipping in June away to avoid the searing heat. I had moved through Occupied Palestine, hearing tanks rumbling through a neighborhood, witnessing curfews and endless check points, school cancellations, shops shuttered, playgrounds locked. Since 2011, I’ve followed Syria’s trauma, with families and houses isolated from one another, declining services each month, utility cuts, shortages, one hardship piled on anther, no one to call for help.

Spring is suspended indefinitely in all these places. For all these inhabitants, all these souls.

A dystopian winter image set off by barely three days of interruption in my routine created by Storm Stella, brings me closer than anything else I had experienced to what millions are living inside those endless wars where the cruelness of winter storms goes on and on and on.  END

[ What Storm Stella Can Teach Us About War ]

The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On?

March 23, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The tall good looking New Yorker, about 25, stands out in the crowd around me. His black curly hair shines, his head raised expectantly, his smile so unlike the sleepy people around us peering anxiously into their handheld devices.

I’ll learn before my trip ends that this warm faced lad’s name is Dijon.

Our fleeting association begins there on the platform waiting for the uptown #6 train. Initially his smile attracts me; then my gaze rises beyond his face to a shimmering red and silver flag; it’s actually a balloon waving above us, and somehow I know this belongs to Dijon. Seeing “Happy Anniversary” scrolled clearly on the shimmering surface, I think ‘Nice. He’s returning from an office party celebrating his marriage’. That explains his smile too.

I’m distracted by a growl from the mouth of the tunnel, a welcome noise to commuters at the end of their workday. Here comes the #6 train. The platform, dense with thick-coated bodies, begins to stir, preparing to press into the car the second its doors slide open. Forget about a seat; I may not even find standing room.

At 4:30 p.m., the rush of workers heading uptown to their homes—one room, maybe two, three at the most, somewhere in the Upper East Side, Spanish Harlem or the Bronx-- has begun.

I am unconcerned how Dijon, with his unwieldy balloon and the large carton cradled in his arms, manages to maneuver himself into the train as thirty other commuters lurch through that single door. Then, doors safely closed behind us, there’s that same balloon. And, here beside me, our backs squashed side by side against the door, stands its bearer, with the same quiet smile.

As this isn’t my regular route so I must check: where should I disembark? Instinctively, I look up towards the anniversary flag: “Does the #6 stop at 84th Street?” His voice is soft, reassuring: “We stop at 86th-- good for you. You know you could have taken the #5 express across the platform; you’d reach in just two stops by the five.”

Never mind; with this friendly opener I proceed with my inevitable interview, probing my travel companion’s agenda and introducing me to another New York lifestyle experience. “Your anniversary?” I inquire. “How many years?” “Oh no”, Dijon casually rejoins and, glancing at the balloon above us, explains: “I’m delivering this: Edible Arrangements. We’re a party service (I’ll Google it later) Nodding to the package in his arms now, he explains this service for family celebrations; “They get the balloon and our fruit package -- chunks of fresh pineapple, melon, apple, stuff like that-- arranged on sticks all poking out of a big orange. It’s really pretty, done up like a bouquet.”

And do you sing as you present this gift? “No, no”, and pausing, adds “But I could sing”.

It occurs to me that Dijon may in fact be a talented vocalist-- a singer, an actor, a performer of some kind. He’s probably one of the tens of thousands of gifted young people drawn to the city in search of gigs on stage, hunting for an agent, waiting to be discovered. Yes, that explains his bearing. I miss that cue, and instead ask about his ‘edible’ services; it’s a lifestyle service, the pampering of well-to-dos and trend-obsessed young people who socialize with indulgences, like hand delivered balloons and fruit baskets. “For say $50?”, I guess. “Hmm”, replies Dijon; “Well, $50 and up.”

I think: what could he earn for one delivery (remembering he has to travel by subway)? Maybe $10. I can’t ask him directly,  so I follow up with “And tips? Do your happy anniversaries tip well?” Another “Hmmm” from Dijon. “No tips: not usually.”

(No point inquiring about health insurance or workman’s compensation.)

                These delivery gigs employ battalions of young and energetic do-anything-to-live-in-New Yorkers. Would-be actors, comedians and musicians traditionally wait tables and serve drinks in the city’s many bars. More and more, these jobs are augmented by these delivery services which employ jobless graduates and anyone else willing to serve those who can pay, however indulging and frivolous the service. What’s offered are sometimes routine and tedious (house-cleaning, dog walking), at other times exotic and terribly fashionable (you can’t imagine).

Subway advertisements abound with invitations to do something special for yourself, or a loved one—all by phone apps, and like Uber-- delivered personally by a young man or woman at your door. Handy.com, delivery.com, taskrabbit, upwork.com blueapron.com, redbucket.com, deliveroo.com are just a few examples of what’s available. 

It’s the gig economy; on one hand it’s emerging from excessive joblessness, a serious condition finally receiving attention from workers rights advocates.  On the other hand it’s created by people with abundant disposable incomes. Based on both desperation and trendyness, servitude is a growth industry in American cities. Ediblearrangements.com and bueapron.com are New York chic.

The fashion crowd—i.e. those with monthly salaries, health insurance, social security savings and a company pension fund--- chat in the bar or at office break about these trendy services, similar, one imagines, to how white ladies chatted about their domestic ‘help’.

The Sunday Lifestyle section of your newspaper features the merits of blueapron.com fashion. Meanwhile less noticed reviews expose the inbuilt exploitation and the hardships lived by these young workers.  

Doubtless some of the tens of thousands of wishful, handsome jobless graduates, having glimpsed inside those wealthy apartments to whom they delivered massages and fruit bouquets, gather after hours to invent their own startup service. Maybe they themselves can launch the next trend. 

No one is thinking about workers rights. In fact a new adjunct trend is umbrella recruitment companies. They locate, vet and sign up individuals who they then farm out for hour and day jobs. In the UK this service extends to school teachers—all to save someone else money.   END

 

[ The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On? ]
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