I first met Susan in 1981. Reagan had just taken office and was threatening to beef up the FBI and crackdown on dissent in America. We at CCR, with others, decided to strike a peremptory blow: we organized a campaign called “No More Witch Hunts” which included a performance of actors reading a scene from ARE YOU NOW OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN, about the McCarthy witch hunts. Kathy Engel planned it and Susan performed, bringing in Richard Dreyfuss and others.
That was the beginning of Susan’s and CCR’s long relationship. In the early 80’s CCR brought a lawsuit against Reagan on behalf of Nicaraguans tortured, killed and raped by US backed contras. Mirna C., was one of our plaintiffs. That was before most Americans understood what the contra war meant.
In June 1983, shortly after that lawsuit was filed, CCR produced a dramatization, to bring the war home, called Talking Nicaragua. Susan starred in the play along with Giancarlo Esposito who spoke tonight, and other friends. The videotape of the performance was distributed nationally.
By the end of the 80’s what CCR had predicted had come true. CCR revealed that the FBI, under a claim that it was investigating terrorists, had engaged in massive spying on180 organizations and individuals involved in working against the war in Central America. Once again Susan was there—although this time not by her own volition—her name had been entered into a list of potential terrorists.
CCR filed a lawsuit. At a moment when many would have backed off, Susan went forward, head into the wind, to a press conference in front of FBI headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza. One reporter showed up. The next day the story and photo were on page 1 of USA Today. Susan was quoted: “It’s difficult for me to explain to my 3-year-old daughter how exercising my civil liberties would lead me to be called a supporter of international terrorism.”
In 1991, when virtually no one had the courage to speak out against the Gulf War, Susan and Tim marched with families of those in the military and spoke out publicly. For me, I think the most moving work together was in the 90’s when we were trying to free the HIV positive Haitians from a US run prison camp in Guantanamo Bay Cuba. CCR and I had been fighting to free them for almost 3 years. When she had the information, as always, Susan wanted to do something. Once again we found ourselves in an office discussing the facts, Susan taking notes, asking sharp questions. She got arrested for blocking 5th Avenue and appeared on Donahue. Susan became the voice of the voiceless-she brought home the reality of the world’s first HIV prison camp. But it was not enough—neither the Democrats nor the Republicans were ready to bring 300 HIV positive Haitian refugees into the United States.
Then, with 26 seconds of her life, she took a major career risk—one that was instrumental in closing down that camp. In late March 1993, I was sitting at home watching the Academy Awards. Susan and Tim were presenters. All of a sudden I hear Susan say: “We’d like to ask our government officials in Washington to admit that having HIV is not a crime and to admit Haitians into the United States” When I think about my Haitian clients, what they had gone through and what this meant to them and to all of us, those words—broadcast to millions of people — there is no way to quantify the meaning and power of that one brief act.
A minute later my phone rang. It was a call from D.C.—the Assistant Attorney General of the Untied States. He started right in: “Can you believe that”—then a series of unrepeatable expletives. Susan and Tim’s actions at that moment were acts of utter and true courage. Susan understood what was at stake. As she said: “I’ve never done anything in my life like what I did on the academy awards. But we couldn’t get coverage and it wasn’t until we hijacked the awards for 20 seconds that anyone focused on the issue.”
The Award’s producer called their actions “inappropriate” and said they would not be asked back again. Susan and Tim responded: “Was what we did inappropriate? We think that silence in the face of cruelty is inappropriate.”
The Center and Susan have worked together for almost 20 years to make this world a better place—tonight I, CCR and all of us are honor Susan because she will never be silent in the face of cruelty.