Interview with political prisoner Lynne Stewart

Attorney and political prisoner Lynne Stewart was interviewed by mail by Patricia Vickers, a founding member of the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) of Pennsylvania. Ms. Vickers is the co-founder/editor of The Movement magazine of the HRC. A former 1960s student activist, Ms. Vickers is an eco-feminist whose youngest son, Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall, was a wrongly convicted juvenile serving life imprisonment in Pennsylvania prisons. Though incarcerated for 25 years, he is a political activist.

Human Rights Coalition: Hello. Welcome to The Movement, Sister Lynne. Thank you for granting me this interview with you. How are your health and spirits, and how are you being treated at FMC Carswell [Federal Prison]?
Lynne Stewart: My health is passable—the usual brushfires of aging, but good. My spirits are always high, especially with the mail I get to encourage me. I am being treated as well as can be expected. I receive heavy scrutiny—all mail, e-mail, and phone conversations.
Human Rights Coalition: There are people who aren’t aware of your unlawful confinement and the government’s repression of you for your legal representation of the Muslim Blind Sheik. Can you enlighten the people about your situation?
Lynne Stewart: There are two aspects to my “situation,” as you so gallantly described it. First, I was prosecuted for doing what I believe is the duty and work of an attorney—to represent the client zealously and conscientiously. In the case of the original trial (1995) of the Blind Sheik, Omar Abdel Rahman, of Egypt, we wanted to keep his name alive so that we could eventually try to negotiate a return for him even if it meant jail in Egypt. In that spirit I made a press release public, and to Reuters, expressing his point of view on a unilateral cease fire then in effect in Egypt. I believed that this was part of salvaging him from the torture of his solitary confinement and also that it was part of the work I had sworn to do. I was tried and found guilty for materially aiding “terrorism.”
Then, after I received a sentence of two-and-one-half-years, as opposed to the 30 years the government wanted, on appeal, the Second Circuit Court sent the case back for the judge to give me more time. Without much ado, he sentenced me then to 10 years, partially based upon statements I made after the sentencing and before I surrendered in November 2009. That sentencing is currently on appeal and will be argued in the fall in New York City.
Human Rights Coalition: In the people’s eyes, mine included for sure, you are our [s]hero and represent a long line of principled and committed warriors of the struggle. How do you take being a political prisoner of the American government?
Lynne Stewart: I believe I am one of an historical progression that maintains the struggle to change the perverted political landscape that is the U.S. It seems that being a political prisoner must be used as a means of focusing people’s attention on the continuing atrocities around them. Nothing seems to be too shocking or corrupt to blast the complacency. Like my client Richard Williams used to say, I might think I hadn’t been doing my utmost if they didn’t believe I was dangerous enough to be locked up!
Human Rights Coalition: In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence is unconstitutional. However, I am sure there are forces working behind the scenes within the Criminal Injustice System—like what happened in your case—to manipulate another death penalty outcome on Mumia. What is your opinion of the current news surrounding our brother Mumia?
Lynne Stewart: Mumia’s case is our greatest challenge because he is the best and the brightest, and they know it too. We, the progressive revolutionary movement, and Mumia’s lawyers, must create the strategy that forces the District Attorney to elect to try the death penalty issue. Then we get a chance in public, in court, to clearly present the overwhelming proof of his innocence. The worst thing that could happen is that the DA elects to give him life without parole—a living death that deprives our movement of one of its true leaders. I just hope that the blood-thirsty Blue Line forces the issue and holds out for the death penalty so we are in the position to take advantage and advance our cause, and Mumia’s.
Human Rights Coalition: July 4th is widely celebrated as “Independence Day” in America, but the masses of people are experiencing their independence (freedom) taken away by the corporate American government, and by the big banks and mega-corporations that run them. Are the citizens of America truly free, or is their independence a grand illusion?
Lynne Stewart: I re-read Frederick Douglas’ great 4th of July speech every year to just remind myself of how little the ultimate issue has changed from the founding of the nation to today’s alleged “freedom.” Racism is at the core of the empire; and we can never be blinded by all the fireworks in the world.
Human Rights Coalition: Can you describe the difference between civil rights and human rights?
Lynne Stewart: For me the difference is the same as between the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The Bill delineates the ways that government may not encroach on our ability to operate freely. It is a prohibition on the government limiting free speech, religion, the right to bear arms, and the right to free assembly. It delineates the rights within the legal system.
The Declaration guarantees fundamental human entitlements—freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, freedom to choose, freedom to live in an environment that doesn’t kill us, and our children.
We obviously fight for more than the political guarantee to be free of government interference—it is to be able to live an open and generous and contributing life toward the betterment of people on the entire planet.
Human Rights Coalition: Sister Lynne, What are human rights to you? What do you make of the growing human rights movement in the U.S.? And how can people advocate their human rights effectively?
Lynne Stewart: Advocating for human rights must always delineate that our struggle is not one of “self interest.” It is a fight for all of us. This raises the always-troubling question of the recognition that for some this may mean sacrificing their entitlements (i.e. skin privilege, class privilege) to better others’ lives. Nobody wants to give up what they feel that they have achieved legitimately, “within the system.” But without the recognition that one has benefited unfairly by the unwritten “code” that has favored certain groups over others, change cannot occur.
I also believe we have lost the sense that we enjoy the right of self-defense. Everyone is so busy announcing their “peacefulness” and willingness to be a victim for a cause, that we forget that a true measure of one’s seriousness is to defend oneself, and others—to live; Che’s observation that a revolutionary is moved by great feelings of love. This includes not only self-sacrifice but also daring to struggle, daring to win (to quote another hero, Mao).
Human Rights Coalition: What are some of the human rights violations that you see happening in the U.S. today that we, the people, need to eliminate?
Lynne Stewart: The most egregious and obvious violations are occurring in the prison system. Not only the obscenely long sentences but the torture holes of “Special Housing Units.” These are the equivalents of Belsen and Dachau, resulting in living death and mental deterioration. When I think that so many imprisoned without current hope of redress are political prisoners and have been held so for decades, it not only brings tears but also a feeling of grim determination to make it change!
Human Rights Coalition: What are some of America’s foreign human rights violations going on that people may not be aware of?
Lynne Stewart: I personally feel that the deterioration of the African sub-Saharan continent and its descent into rapacious capitalism will ultimately translate into unparalleled destruction of people and resources. I include South Africa in this assessment. If the African National Congress (ANC) and Mandela had remained steadfast in the socialist principles that guided their resistance and not given in to the terrible temptations of compromise, greed, and power, we might have seen the beginning of a different balance of power. Alas, this was not to be and instead we see the depredation of Africa, by absolutism and the American capitalist paradigm.
Human Rights Coalition: People seem to be oblivious or indifferent to the human rights abuses that occur daily in U.S. prisons against other human beings, women prisoners in particular. Can you shed some light on that human rights issue?
Lynne Stewart: Human rights do not exist in prison. Aside from the obvious violations described above, I see day-to-day a brainwashing that teaches all prisoners that they are less than nothing and not worthy of even the least human or humane considerations. This is reflected in the lack of adequate medical care, the appalling diet, the steady diet of spoon-fed mediocrity—TV (Archie Bunker re-runs), movies, no access to the web, etc. There is an absence of legal advice or aid inside the walls. Law libraries with books have been eliminated; instead they have a computer program that is so anti-user that even I, an attorney of 30 years, have difficulty navigating it. Their goal is to keep us dumbed-down, docile and estranged.
The outside world is oblivious because they too have been brainwashed into believing that those locked away are less than human—based on differences of race and class. It is most difficult to struggle against the power if you don’t have a belief that the struggle is worth the sacrifice.
Human Rights Coalition: Do you consider the legal practice of sentencing children to life imprisonment without any possibility of release (a de facto death sentence) for homicide, to be a human rights violation? 
Lynne Stewart: I am 100 percent opposed to anything that does not have a factor of human redemption or at least of remediation. I guess it is part of a whole belief system. If you are, like I am, committed to “changing” the world it must be ALL of us, who deserve to live in a system that recognizes that terrible psychic and physical damage can be done to human beings, and has a plan to make people, especially children, whole and restore them to our community.
Human Rights Coalition: In Pennsylvania, being debated is whether sentencing child offenders to life imprisonment without parole should simply be “reformed” by leaving the legal practice intact and simply give the child offender a sentence of life with parole eligibility or should the legal practice be abolished entirely and a new sentencing scheme be developed for child offenders instead? What is your position on the matter—reform or abolish it? 
Lynne Stewart: Your question really asks if “reform” is possible within an inhumane system? This is an issue revolutionaries have wrestled with always. Do we give the starving a crust of bread or leave them hungry to make the greater change. I, like Rosa Luxemburg, always made it my practice to minister to immediate primary needs but also to render the explanation for their predicament in political terms and with political (group action) solutions. At least in that way, the baby was no longer starving for milk and there might be a spark ignited for the next confrontation with the oppressor.
In the strict context of your question, we do need to struggle to save people from the most inhumane punishments. However, until we resolve the burning questions of race and class, we must not forget that these are palliative, Band-Aids on a hemorrhage.
Human Rights Coalition: What do you say about the illusion of democracy in America that the people are now witnessing from the domestic austerity program that the federal and state governments are imposing on the American people?
Lynne Stewart: Our job is how to smash the myth of America and we haven’t really figured out as a movement how to blast our way past the sentimentality the media foists on us. We used to believe that if people knew the “truth,” this would shake their faith and move us toward change; or alternatively, if their personal shoe pinched, they would act in self-interest. Now people seem to know only fear and rely on the myths of Big Brother government to assuage them. Our job is to keep on struggling, keep on raising the contradictions, create an atmosphere where we the people are ungovernable.
Human Rights Coalition: Any final comments for the movement out there, Sister Lynne?
Lynne Stewart: In this struggle, once you enlist, it is for life. There are no guarantees and you will be disappointed. But you will also be uplifted when there are victories and enriched by friendship and dedication of the comrades. Most importantly, you can look in the mirror every morning and be at one with the person there because you made the difficult choice and decided to fight for the people against the evil empires. It is the best way to live and I have been on the lines for fifty-plus years, living it.
Reprinted from The Movement #12, published by the Human Rights Coalition—Philadelphia, c/o Lava Space, 4134 Lancaster Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19147. Phone (215) 921-3491, http://www.hrcoalition.org. E-mail: info@hrcoalition.org.
You can write to Lynne Stewart at: Lynne Stewart, #53504-054, Unit 2N, Federal Medical Center, Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.

Contributions can be made to: Lynne Stewart Defense Committee, 1070 Dean St., Brooklyn, New York 11216. For further information: (718) 789-0558 or (917) 853-9759.

> The interview above was conducted by Patricia Vickers.