Last night, on what would have been his 73rd birthday, nearly 1000 people turned out to commemorate CCR's late President Emeritus Michael Ratner. Executive Director Vince Warren, among two dozen others, spoke about Michael, who he was as a lawyer, an activist, and a person. Below are Vince's remarks.
"We who believe in freedom cannot rest...
We cannot rest, we cannot stop, we cannot be equivocal because the stakes are too high and people’s lives are on the line. Each of us has within us the potential to enroll ourselves on the side of right and justice. We have the potential to risk everything in support of change that will make a difference in people’s lives. But before we can meaningfully and principally walk the long, arduous, thankless and risky path, we need to find the freedom we believe in in ourselves. That was both the first lesson, and after many more, the last lesson I learned from Michael.
The first time I set foot into the world of the Center for Constitutional Rights was in 1992 as part of the Ella Baker Law Student Program. As a young law student, I was intimidated. And I was right to be. CCR had an extraordinary history of fighting the largest battles, being politically aligned with the most progressive movements, and I was just a law student. I didn’t know anything. But even amidst the chaos and the urgency, I saw through Michael’s leadership that CCR was a place where even young, freshly minted lawyers could try their hands at a case that they never dreamed someone would have the chutzpah to do, embroil themselves in the pressing issues of the day, and hold with great sanctity, the worst nightmares and wildest dreams of the client.
As an Ella Baker and in my time as a young lawyer on the CCR board, I was in awe of Michael. His networks of political people across the world were vast; the trust he shared with the most radical and vulnerable people was unparalled; and his ability to divine the right legal strategy for the most impossible of problems was legendary. I wanted to follow him. I wanted to work with him. I wanted to do what he did, and I wanted to be me while I did it.
Michael took an interest in me. I couldn’t understand what he might see in me, as compared to the other amazing and talented people who came to CCR, but, of course, the value of mentorship is to see something in someone that they don’t see in themselves. We spent time together talking about politics more than cases. I think this was because he sensed that I was getting very good legal development and education, but he wanted to invest in my political development. That was Michael. The two were never separate for him, both needed to be honed, both needed to be nourished, both needed to be developed, but the law could never trump politics. Politics had to always trump the law. Rules that supported injustice had to be broken and raw naked power that oppresses must be stopped.
Michael showed me that when handling big political cases, most people think you’re crazy when you file them, most people think you wasted your time when you lose them, and some people think you’re a hero when you win them. But all that is besides the point. He showed me that our clients are the heroes, for you’ll never suffer what they went through, the only people that are crazy are the ones that don’t see how far things will go if you don’t try to stop it, and it’s a waste of time to try to ask the establishment to please change some of the horrible things that they are doing.
When I became executive director, Michael and I would meet at the Washington Square Diner on West 4th Street, sit in the back and start talking. It was here that we first discussed the idea of a larger more in depth young lawyer training program, the Bertha Justice Institute, which thanks to the partnership with the Bertha Foundation, now trains young lawyers and law students across the country and across the world in the art of movement and people’s lawyering. A core part of the training in the Ella Baker program and the Bertha Justice Initiative is to wrestle with the question of how we know our work really makes a difference even when most people think it won’t. Michael’s answer to that question was always, “of course it makes a difference, I’d hate to see where things would be if we didn’t do something.” And the students that came through these programs have been recruited to work places as far flung as Guantanamo and Ferguson, MO.
After all of the incredible work on Guantanamo, Michael was known to compare the story of the Guantanamo work - winning in court followed by rollbacks in Congress - to that of Sisyphus, who was eternally dammed to keep rolling an enormous rock up a steep hill, at great effort and exertion, only to have the rock roll back down the hill to be rolled up again. However, there is more to the comparison that Michael let on. To hear the story of Sysiphus told in the usual manner, he was an untrustworthy man and a cheat who thumbed his nose at the gods, didn’t follow the rules, and got what was coming to him - an eternity of futility.
But to hear Camus tell the story, Sysiphus was a hero. A hero precisely because he didn’t follow the rules and refused to let the gods dictate how the lives of mortals should be lived. In fact he put death himself into handcuffs and escorted him to jail, as the legend goes. Michael taught me that there is no power too big to be put into handcuffs, and like Sysiphus, I should not be afraid to slap them on, no matter what the cost.
As Camus says, “Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart.”
Happy birthday Michael.