He is such a pleasant-looking, agreeable type, which makes it all the more of a jolt when he says: “In my view, these people are a bunch of thugs” — the capos of the Bush Administration on the civil-rights front or, for that matter, the Get Saddam front.
“Ashcroft is the least sensitive person you could have to deal with constitutional rights; he thinks dissent is aiding terrorism. Warmongers!” says Michael Ratner with an intensifying touch of scorn. “Warmongers remaking the map of the world. I wouldn’t trust these guys to sell me a hamburger.”
Six flights up in a narrow building tucked between jeans stores and shoe stores on Broadway near Bleecker, a brisk walk from his home on the far side of Washington Sq., the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights leans forward and says: “I love living in New York and I love living in the Village, but it’s not the safest place in the world anymore.” He also says, in what might be called dispassionate boast: “The Center’s doing the best work I’ve ever seen on the heels of 9/11.”
One big facet of that work has to do with the hundreds of prisoners, 600 or more, from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria, Bosnia — “people from 33 countries, all over” — being held incommunicado all these months at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray
“I personally am representing four of them,” says Michael Ratner. “You can’t talk to them; the [U.S.] government won’t let you. They don’t even know there’s a lawsuit on their behalf. I’m actually representing their parents. The government basically says no court can hear these cases.
“It’s like extraterrestrial — another world.
“I don’t usually take cases where I disagree with the politics of the people involved. I certainly wouldn’t support the Taliban. I don’t believe in fundamentalism, or running a government by religion of any sort. But this Guantanamo business is so off the charts.
“They can pick people up anywhere in the world, not charge them, just hold them. It’s so patently against 400 years of legal history, we were compelled to take the case.”
It isn’t the first time the Center for Constitutional Rights and Michael Ratner have worked on behalf of people extraterrestrially confined at Guantanamo Bay.
In the fall of 1991 and spring of 1992, following the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, thousands of Haitians fleeing torture and murder were intercepted on the high seas and packed off to a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service internment camp at Guantanamo Bay, where they were, with agonizing slowness, “processed” — i.e., screened for H.I.V. status.
“It was bullshit, the whole thing,” says mild-mannered Michael Ratner. “Here you had men, women, children, families, surrounded by barbed wire on hard-scrabble ground, in 110-degree heat, a total nightmare. I got very wound up with the case — which anybody would have said was an impossible [i.e., unwinnable] case: black, Haitian, H.I.V.-positive.
“Well, we went to work with refugee groups and with Act-Up, the outfit based in Greenwich Village, putting together a political and legal coalition. A wonderful judge, Sterling Johnson, Jr.. made a wonderful ruling, and we got them all out of Guantanamo and into the United States.”
Currently on the nonprofit C.C.R.’s docket is another big class-action case, this one on behalf of Muslims all around the United States — “taxi drivers, flower sellers, all those poor guys who were picked up because a neighbor complained, or a visa expired. We think probably 3,000 were picked up. Many have been deported. The government won’t give us anything, any information.”
The Michael Ratner of 34 years ago had a way of finding himself in the wrong place at the right time.
In 1968, 24-year-old Ratner decided to take a year off from Columbia University Law School — “I was already becoming quite liberal” — to go to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund under gutsy, legendary Jack Greenberg.
“An incredible experience,” says the balding yet still boyish 59-year-old Ratner. “I shared an office with Tony [Anthony G.] Amsterdam, the anti-death-penalty guy. They sent me down South — well, not the South, to Baltimore — on a school-desegregation case. I was nervous, a young kid living in a motel room for a while, eating these little peanut-butter crackers.
“All of a sudden, Martin Luther King is shot. Baltimore explodes in riot. Tanks going through the streets. I can’t get out of my motel…
“So then, after King’s murder [April 4, 1968], I come back to New York, and the kids have taken over the dorms at Columbia. It’s the fifth or sixth day of the takeover. When I heard there might be a police raid, I started to go up and block the door of Low Library — ”
And never made it. “A big beefy cop, huge, like a long-shoreman, threw me down…”
The Columbia University police bust of April 1968 turned a great many liberals into something more radical.
“I was already moving in that direction, but that served me good,” says the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “It was such a shock. To have cops go onto a campus in the North and beat up white kids — not at Jackson State, but a middle-class college in New York City — people were stunned. There was a front-page picture in the papers of a kid dripping blood… April 1968 changed a lot of those kids’ lives.”
Quick jump, Mr. Ratner. Sept. 11, 2001, brought about a different sort of change in lots of people’s feelings about cops. How about you? Any change?
“Good question,” says Michael Ratner, and ponders for a quarter of a minute before answering. Then says:
“I still have deep distrust of police, particularly on street encounters and racial issues. It depends on the situation, but I still see them lie in court and use unnecessary physical force. One of our big deals right now is a racial-profiling case against the S.C.U. — Street Crime Unit — the branch involved in the killing of Amadou Diallo.”
After the bust at Columbia, Ratner — whose B.A. had been in English from Brandeis in ’66 — completed his last year of law school.
“When I began there, it was a pretty staid place: 15 women, nine blacks, in a class of 300. Classes six days a week. The requirement to wear a necktie had stopped just the year before.
“Now, when I went back, it was a different place. No grades. No tests. They couldn’t run the place after the bust. In 1970 they had riots again over the invasion of Cambodia.”
He came out of law school and went straight into a job clerking for Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman judge in New York State history.
“And here’s what happened. A few years earlier the Center for Constitutional Rights had been founded by three towering civil-rights lawyers: William Kunstler, who lived on Gay Street in the Village; Morton Stavis, who lived on 12th Street; and Arthur Kinoy, who taught at Rutgers.
“There was a time in 1971 when the authorities believed that Arthur Kinoy’s daughter had gone underground, so they subpoenaed him to appear before the grand jury, to find out where she was. Eventually the case came before Judge Motley. So I got to meet the three C.C.R. lawyers. This was the same year as the trial of the Panther 21 — who were acquitted by the jury in 45 minutes.
“The three lawyers really worked on me to come to the Center. I knew I wasn’t going to go to a big law firm, and [future U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Ruth Ginsburg, who was at Rutgers, invited me to teach there. But I was too excited [by the C.C.R. prospect] and turned the Rutgers invitation down.
“So I get to the Center — which was then in a junky little loft on Ninth Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets, in the middle of the porn district — on a Monday morning…and on Thursday, September 9, 1971, four days after I come to work, Attica happened.”
A great deal worse kind of bust, one that left 43 dead, thanks to Nelson Rockefeller’s State Troopers and the National Guard.
“Bill [Kunstler’s] up there, the Center is involved very deeply. I got sent up there to interview inmates. Awful. They’d made them run the gauntlet, crawl over broken glass, all that. I brought a case that there should be an investigation of the National Guard and the State Troopers, and worked on the complaint really hard.
“It got dismissed, of course, pretty quickly. But in the end” — three decades later —”I was proved right. All the cases [against inmates, against guards] were dismissed.”
Ratner stops, pauses. “I don’t have any regrets,” he says. “That period made a huge number of people question the values they were raised with. And made me decide I want to do something for the world.”
Michael Ratner, born June 13, 1943, in Cleveland, Ohio, was raised in fact in the good, middle-class, largely Jewish, Shaker Heights section of that city. His father, Harry Ratner, was an immigrant from Bialystok, Poland. “He started out here as a water boy at 16, and ended up running a building-supply business in Cleveland. My mother, Anna Spott Ratner, was born in this country; her parents came from Warsaw.”
In the mid-1980s Michael Ratner, who’d “done a lot of work against the wars in Central– America,” met a young woman named Karen Ranucci, a Brooklyn and Long Island girl who’d been working in video in Cuba and Central America.
“Friends thought we’d hit it off.” Friends were right. Karen Ranucci has won an Emmy and other awards, and nowadays runs Latin American Video Archives, described by her husband as a “huge nonprofit distributor of Latin American videos to schools, colleges and other such institutions.”
Their children are Jake, 14, and Ana, 12. The family manse is the west-of-the-Square brownstone into which Ratner moved in 1979, and bought two years later.
The Center for Constitutional Rights has a staff of 20; no endowment, no government money; it’s supported by foundations and individual donors.
“We get a lot of e-mails,” says its president. “Stuff like: ‘Why don’t you invite the Taliban and introduce them to your children?’ Also death threats, for the most modest statements [by C.C.R.] on Israel-Palestine matters. And some suspect computer viruses.”
One piece of legal business that Ramer, with another trace of pride, says he and the Center “pioneered,” was brought against former Haitian dictator Prosper Avril.
“When he reached The U.S., the Center was instrumental in the precedent-setting case that allowed his victims to sue him for torture. We won $14 million. We didn’t collect it, but we won.
“If we’d collected it,” says the president of the Committee for Constitutional Rights. “we’d have a new carpet here.”