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Posted on Feb 9, 2014
“I come around the door and the guy looks and says—and he was clearly a cop, you know, the cheap shoes—and he says, ‘We’re not here for you. We’re here for her,’ pointing to me,” she said. “I was flabbergasted.”
FBI agents took her from her home, and she was released later on a $500,000 bond signed by her three children.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft came to New York in April 2002 to announce that the Justice Department had indicted Stewart, along with a paralegal and an interpreter, on grounds of materially aiding a terrorist organization. Ashcroft that night went on “Late Show With David Letterman” to tell the nation of the indictment as part of the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
In Stewart’s trial the government again endlessly spewed myths about Islamic terrorism. It demanded a staggering 30-year sentence. U.S. District Judge John Koeltl instructed the jury more than 750 times that the photos of Osama bin Laden and the 2001 World Trade Center attacks shown to the jury by the government on a 10-by-12-foot screen were not relevant to the case. Stewart was sentenced, to most people’s astonishment, to 28 months.
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The federal government’s orchestration of fear, Stewart said, has made the country increasingly deferential to authority—especially white, male authority. In the Carswell maximum-security prison, the women’s facility where she was incarcerated, she heard numerous accounts of gross injustices endured by poor women. She frequently asked some of these women why they had not demanded a trial rather than submit to a plea deal, or why they had not stood up and proclaimed their innocence. The answer, she said, was always the same: “I was afraid. I was afraid.”
She blames the wrecking of the legal system, in part, on the skyrocketing costs of law school. Law graduates, she said, have to “mortgage their souls in order to go to law school.” When she applied to Rutgers Law School in 1971 the school’s commitment to making sure half the class was women allowed her to get a scholarship. The financial aid, along with the low state tuition, made it possible for her to attend.
In later years she operated a law practice in Greenwich Village for poor clients. Her office was above her husband’s motorcycle shop on the ground floor. “I could take whatever pay stub I wanted,” she said.
The rise of corporate-backed organizations and think tanks designed to veer every public institution away from traditional liberal democratic values has dismantled our civil society, she said. The right-wing Federalist Society, after its founding in 1982, mounted a frontal assault on the legal system. Stewart, after Stanford University asked her to speak there in 2002, arrived on campus to find that the Federalist Society had pressured the university to rescind the invitation. Sympathetic students found her a place to talk, and Federalist Society members peppered her with hostile questions at the event. She was able to knock back their verbal harassment because, she said, she was “a trained trial attorney who had been in the business for almost 30 years” at that time.
The federal government by the 1980s, she said, was “mopping up” the remnants of radical activists, many of whom had been underground for years. She and other civil rights attorneys were able to battle on behalf of these political radicals, but by the end of the 1980s the state had finished its hunts for underground activists. And lawyers, Stewart said, “were no longer part of the game.”
Stewart, who spent a decade in the Harlem school system as a librarian before going to law school, said working with those considered by society to be “throwaway kids” meant that she knew the injustices of the system. The system, she said, has “failed them [poor children] from beginning to end.” This failure to provide elemental justice, spawned by the so-called war on drugs and massive rates of incarceration, especially for poor people of color, was soon replicated within the courts in the name of the war on terror. And this corrosion has spread. Basic legal protections, stripped first from the poor and then from Muslims, have been stripped from us all.
I asked Stewart if there had been a specific moment when she lost hope in the judicial system.
“I always believed, Chris, that I could do it,” she said. “You know, it’s like, you’re the last man. You’re like the kicker [when the opposing team is] running the ball back. You’re the only one between the goal post and everything. But I was there. They had to get by me. If they couldn’t get by me, then they couldn’t win. I have enough ego and belief in myself to say I didn’t believe they could do that every time, that I could win, that I could make a difference. I think I did make a difference for a lot of people, even people who got convicted.”
The climate in the nation’s courtrooms charged irrevocably after 9/11, she said. The occasional victories she and other civil rights lawyers were able to win before then became nearly impossible to replicate.
“The playing field suddenly changed and everything favored the prosecution, certainly in federal cases,” she said. “There was no level playing field anymore. It was like if you were the last guy standing and you had to keep them from making the goal you were at the six-inch line trying to do it. It was impossible to stop them. They controlled it. They controlled what the charges were. They controlled whether an adjournment would be given. They determined whether the cooperation is worthy, and everybody must cooperate, and it changed into a very different system, certainly on the federal level.”
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