Heidi has been Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild for twelve years, through thick and thin, through the good, the bad, and sometimes even the ugly. She has been the organization’s longest serving Executive Director since the Guild was founded in 1937. No wonder. She is instantly likeable, tactful and smart. Her strength, resilience and compassion have given the Guild a stability that has allowed it to flourish. Importantly, radical politics are always front and center in her work.
Heidi claims that she became political as a graduate student at Boston University. While interning at a weekday morning show, “Good Day!” she got involved in local TV cable production and in a film class, met Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs. She volunteered weekly to drive an old station wagon and pick up bread from stores at night. She then got involved in the Boston Women’s Video Collective. In 1983 she went with a friend to join five hundred women at the Seneca Falls Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice.
When she arrived, she wondered if she would fit in, if she would get arrested, and how she would survive her first camping experience. She was struck by how confident, free, and powerful the women seemed. Heidi settled in and participated in the activities which concluded in an action on Labor Day honoring workers and highlighting the inflation and job loss caused by militarism.
Prior to moving to New York City in 1986, Heidi served for three years as Director of Development and Public Relations for the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston. She got arrested shortly after starting the job. She had taken a personal day to sit in at Cambridge’s Draper Labs in an anti-nuclear demonstration. Her new boss saw her arrest when the demo was covered on T.V. He let it slide.
Heidi arrived in New York City during the initial stages of the AIDS crisis, and worked as a community development specialist at the Community Service Society where she helped provide development assistance to newly-formed AIDS organizations. Heidi helped raise over a million dollars in local and federal funding for drug outreach and treatment programs.
The 1988 Tompkins Square Park police riot pushed Heidi further to the left. In 1988, she was an editor of the East Villager newspaper where she formed close friendships with its writers and photographers and covered a range of civil liberties topics including the vigilante group The Guardian Angels and housing demolitions which displaced longtime residents. When she went to Tompkins Square for the paper, she was thrust into the middle of police violence. After local residents gathered to protest the imposition of a curfew in the park where numerous homeless people were encamped, hundreds of police on horseback and in riot gear converged upon the protesters. From approximately 9 pm to 5am, mounted police stormed Avenue A and surrounding East Village streets, hitting photographers and bystanders with their nightsticks, even dragging a pregnant woman from one of the few restaurants on the Avenue. Heidi was chased by a police officer into an apartment building on Seventh Street where several others were frantically buzzing to be let in. When they ran up the stairs and into a stranger’s apartment, the officer followed on their heels. The confrontation between the police and the peaceful protesters was a defining moment in Heidi’s radicalization.
Heidi’s first encounter with lawyers caused her to realize that she wanted to become one. She was serving as Associate Director of the Andrew Glover Youth Program, which had offices in the criminal court building. Her job was providing alternatives-to-incarceration and court advocacy programs for young offenders. She admired the effectiveness of the lawyers in criminal court. She enrolled in Temple University School of Law, joining the National Lawyers Guild on her very first day of law school. While at Temple she was Editor-in-Chief of the Temple Political and Civil Rights Law Review. After graduating, she resumed her AIDS work as Director of Development and Administration with the New York AIDS Coalition.
Heidi’s Guild work would take pages to detail. She wants us to make clear that the remarkable work over the years is not just her, but has been carried out with the dedicated National Office staff and the input and labor of many Guild members. She is the public spokeswoman for the Guild. She set up a national hotline and legal response for activists contacted by the FBI, raised the profile of the Guild as a watchdog of police treatment of citizens at mass assemblies, and established the Green Scare Hotline for animal rights and environmental activists targeted by the FBI. She has fought passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Heidi has an established reputation as a trusted legal authority on domestic antiterrorism laws.
Her publications are special and important. The number of her books, book chapters, amicus briefs, articles, reports, and book reviews, speeches and testimony take several pages just to list, reflecting the quality of Heidi’s contribution to the Guild and to our democratic tradition. She has published three comprehensive reports on the policing of political speech and protest. Her 2004 book “The Assault on Free Speech, Public Assembly, and Dissent” has a forward by the renowned and witty American public intellectual Lewis Lapham. In his forward, Lapham thanks her and the Guild for performing “a necessary service by publishing its report on the American government’s attempt to preserve the American democracy by destroying it.”
Just so we all recognize the extraordinary person whom we are honoring tonight, here is a listing of some of Heidi’s amazing work. She has:
- Increased the visibility of the Guild’s Legal Observer program, including obtaining trademark registration for the term “Legal Observer”;
- Published, with the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook, requested by hundreds of inmates each month;
- Launched an online national Referral Directory of Guild:attorneys;
- Filed amicus briefs in the cases of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Cuban Five, the SHAC 7 and in such cases as Hammer v. Ashcroft, and Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights;
- Significantly increased the coverage of the Guild in the mass media
Heidi truly understands that we keep our rights only by using them and it is for this and for her organizational and political leadership of the National Lawyers Guild that we recognize, honor and thank Heidi Boghosian.