Minneapolis, MN – I first met Lynne Stewart, and her husband Ralph Poynter, in the summer of 2008 at an anti-war conference in Ohio. When I met the famed “people’s lawyer,” she was in the midst of appealing her conviction for the bogus crime of vigorously defending her client. Lynne was humble and warm, and didn’t seem to notice that I was star struck as she signed on in support of the anti-war march I was organizing at the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul the coming September.
Before our paths crossed again, both our lives were forever changed. In 2009, Lynne lost her appeal, and began serving a ten-year sentence for “material support for terrorism.” The 2008 RNC protest led to an investigation of me, and 22 others, for the same bogus crime. About a year into her sentence, from behind bars, Lynne penned a message of support to myself and the other grand jury resisters.
She wrote, in part, “We stand strong with the resisters who elect not to become part of the same prosecution team that has terrorized the world. Now the so-called Department of Justice (ha!) has decided to focus on support groups of the world's peoples and also on eco-terrorism. Why? Because they can! It sends a message to the people that it’s dangerous; don’t join, don’t resist. That message must once again be shouted down, first by the resisters who will go to jail and second by us, the movement who must support them by always filling those cold marble courtrooms to show our solidarity and by speaking out so that their sacrifice is constantly remembered… Resisters must be defended to the utmost of our strength and abilities.”
In the following years, I got to know Lynne through Ralph and their friend Betty Davis, who embraced me and my fellow grand jury resisters as comrades. Their determination was as inspiring as Lynne’s, who insisted that the fight for her freedom would always be linked to and serve the struggle to free all political prisoners. As they became more worried about Lynne’s health, and the failing health of our many political prisoners and prisoners of war, they began to speak about the prisons as “death camps.”
Tonight, reflecting on that, I feel alternately joyful and bitter. I am joyful because Lynne escaped that death camp. When the judge approved her release, there was no “compassion” – the government believed she spent her last months laying quietly on a death bed. I am joyful that they didn’t know her. Lynne was so much stronger than they could ever know. She did not languish. She lived. She organized, she spoke, and she loved. I am so thankful that in these years, she made a place in her life for me, and we became friends.
We lived far apart, but on a few occasions, Lynne put me to work making flyers for projects she had going in New York. She would send me the worst instructions – rough text, maybe some random images – and I’d try to make them look pretty and read smoothly on a page for her. I love that she would criticize me for including the wrong pictures – from the messages she had sent me – because they were politically off. I accept the criticism, comrade!
I’m not sure Lynne knew how much it meant to me to see her continue her work, even when her health tried to get in the way. I have my own serious health problems, and I aspire to remain as dedicated and hardworking as she is. I think we shared the view that there is no other choice. We don’t choose our bodies any more than we choose justice – both just are.
These thoughts of Lynne give me joy, but then my mind turns to bitterness. She was not only locked away from her family and the people’s movements for four long years, she was denied the health care she needed. Lynne was strong enough to outlive the predictions of those death camp doctors, but it’s impossible not to think that if she were free and had access to real health care during those four years, this amazing woman would have defeated the cancer that plagued her. That she would still be with us to celebrate another International Women’s Day.
It’s difficult to find a photo of Lynne Stewart without a smile on her face, a light in her eyes. She spent her life sharing that light with the world, standing up for the oppressed at every turn. Even from behind the prison bars, Lynne was a hero, and she will never be forgotten. And, because Lynne would be unhappy if I failed to say so, I’ll close by asking all who read this to do your part to change this rotten world we live in, and especially to win freedom for all our political prisoners and prisoners of war.