Margaret Ratner Kunstler has never been willing to make compromises with the system of oppression that surrounds us. Whether representing Puerto Rican grand jury resisters, inmates indicted in the wake of the Attica Rebellion, activists at the Occupation of Wounded Knee, or individuals caught up by the draconian and invidious Rockefeller drug laws, Margie’s work and actions have always been driven by great humanity, the utter injustice of our society and the need to alter its fundamental character.
Margie’s radical roots run deep. She had left-wing parents, Abe and Shirley Cohen, who met at a Mayday parade at a time when Mayday was a workers holiday. After graduating law school, Margie’s father opened a “patent” office down the hall from the Communist Party USA, wrote for the journal of the International Juridical Association, was a member of the National Lawyers Guild, and worked with many of the original Guild stalwarts. This background clearly influenced Margie. She proudly told the tale of her father stealing the blue back complaints as a sure wayto free striking umbrella workers. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Margie’s realized that the politics of the time—the civil rights movement and the war– and her politics demanded a political commitment. At a time when few women went to law school, she began at Columbia in the fall of 1967.
The year 1967-68 was transformative for Columbia. Margie and some of her classmates were different then the students that had gone before. Gus Reichbach, Eleanor (Raskin) Stein and other progressives were in her class. Margie, Gus, Eleanor and I established the Columbia chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. There had been a chapter previously, but the McCarthy terror and the Guild’s listing as a “subversive” organization during the “Red Scare” had wiped it out and decimated the entire National Lawyers Guild. One hundred fifty law students signed up and paid dues on the first day the chapter opened.
Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April 1968. A few weeks later the students occupied the Columbia buildings. The violent police clearing of the buildings and the campus resulted in the arrest of over 700. Older NLG lawyers such as David Scribner and Mary Kaufman along with some of the younger Guild lawyers were in the forefront of the defense. Margie worked that summer in the NLG mass defense office. She met Mary Kaufman who became her mentor. Mary showed Margie she could actually work a job consistent with her politics and understood what it was like to be among less than 20 women in her Columbia class.
After law school, Margie began working at the Criminal Division of the Legal Aid Society. The situation at 100 Centre Street was dire—as it remains today. The poorest of the poor held in prison on minor charges because they could not make
$50.00 bail. When she was able, Margie paid her clients’ bail with money from her own pocket. She also met Bruce Wright and their outspoken activism alienated their bosses and got them exiled to Brooklyn at about the same time. Wright’s courtroom was the only one in the city where a barbershop purchase was a solid defense to possession of a stolen vehicle.
A couple of years later, Margie and I went into practice together at the now famous loft on the 4th floor of 351 Broadway. Others at 351 at the time were Lou Oliver (Gideon’s father) who was the first head of the Legal Aid attorney union, Emily Goodman, now a Justice of the New York Supreme Court, and Jesse Berman. The loft, decorated by Margie, was hardly a traditional law office. A pair of caged doves met you when you stepped off the freight elevator surrounded by two swings hung from the ceiling and a large plastic sculpture with blinding blinking lights that encircled the statement “I am not a human being.” It had been given to Margie by Jean Toche one of the founders with Jon Hendricks of the Guerilla Art Action Group, who she represented. A lot of the practice was typical for radical lawyers of the time: criminal cases, mostly political, demonstration arrests, draft resisters and marijuana busts.
Margie succeeded in having an indictment thrown out against anti-war nuns who demonstrated in St. Patrick’s Cathedral arguing the separation of church and state.
She and Bill Kunstler represented the Fountain Valley 5, a group of young black men charged with murdering tourists in 1972 at the Rockefeller-owned golf course in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Margie and Bill spent months in St. Croix trying the case in a high-ceilinged courtroom cooled by an overhead fan. Margie was less than 3 years out of law school. The defendants were water boarded, yet the suppression hearing was lost. They were all convicted, but only after the FBI clandestinely threatened the hold out jurors. Margie’s client, Warren Ballentine was sentenced to 8 consecutive life sentences.
At the end of this experience, Margie and Bill were in love. Their love affair lasted until Bill’s death on September 4, 1995.
In 1975, Margie was the lawyer for Michael X. Michael X was a Black Power leader who had become famous in England and returned in the early 1970’s to his native Trinidad. He was convicted of a murder in what many saw as a trumped up case to remove a potential political challenge to the then prime minister, Eric Williams, and sentenced to death. Margie and Bill were hired by Yoko and John Lennon, who had known Michael X in England, to try and save his life. They flew to Trinidad and later to London, Margie’s description of Michael X’s cell is chilling illustration of architecture in the thrall of hierarchy. It was a grubby cage lower than the ground level of the walkway so you had to kneel to talk to him.
Michael X was executed by hanging in 1975.
Just after New York Law granted putative defendants the right to counsel at grand juries, Margaret represented Agnes Scott, a battered wife accused of killing her husband. The grand jury failed to indict after she took the stand and told how he had threatened her and her daughter with a knife.
Margie spent a fair amount of time defending grand jury resisters. She not only defended many political targets of grand juries, but ran the Guild’s Grand Jury Project in the late 70’s and was the primary editor and co-author of the treatise Representing Witnesses Before Federal Grand Juries. One of her grand jury cases stemmed from the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). She and Bill represented Jack and Micki Scott who were alleged to have been involved in harboring Patty Hearst. Spousal privilege succeeded in the motion to quash.
Illustrative of her grand jury cases was that involving the aggressive attempts by the federal government to destroy the Puerto Rican independence movement. In the early 80’s she worked with Liz Fink and Michael Deutsch in representing witnesses subpoenaed who the government wanted to testify about bombings allegedly carried out by the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberaci6n Nacional). There has a long political history of non-collaboration with the grand juries both by independentistas and other progressives. The use of the grand juries in this period was particularly nasty. Margie’s clients were subpoenaed twice and both times jailed for refusing to testify. The then famous Grumbles motion, named after war resisters, carried the day and secured the release of her clients on the ground the civil contempt jailing had lost its coercive effect and become punitive. Despite this the government did something it rarely does and indicted the five for criminal contempt and all were convicted. These cases like others Margie and NLG
lawyers have defended are proud moments of peoples’ resistance. Today we are seeing a reprise of the grand jury’s utter misuse in the case of Sarni al-Arian-who is facing a third grand jury and years of jailing for his resistance.
Margie was a staff attorney and educational director at the Center for Constitutional Rights throughout the 80’s, the height of the U.S. war against the liberation of Central America. She realized early on that with the Presidency of Reagan and the publication of the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Change, which called for increased spying and surveillance of movement groups that the spy agencies suppress opposition to Reagan’s policies. The FBI was out interviewing activists at their places of employment and burglaries of movement offices were rampant. To counter this repression she, along with Ann Marie Buitrago, (former director of the Fund for Open Accountability and Information and the co- author or the book Are You Now or Have You Ever Been in the FBI files?) established the Movement Support Network (MSN) at CCR. It was to play a major role in exposing and fighting back against the repression of the movement to stop the wars in Central America. MSN trained activists in FBI resistance, published materials including the well-known “If An Agent Knocks,” a pamphlet that should be required reading for all activists, and critically set up a hot-line that took hundreds of calls about suspicious actions by the FBI, Red Squads and other government agents.
Margie and Ann Marie wrote FOIA requests to every FBI field office (over 50) and received a trove of documents exposing a massive surveillance program on protestors against the Central American wars. Almost every field office was involved and thousands of people were under spied upon. There was national outrage and congressional hearings. Margie testified at those hearings about at least 50 break-ins that MSN had documented and about an undercover informer, Frank Varelli, from El Salvador, who said that the investigation of supposed terrorist links of CIPES and others was an excuse for the F.B.I. to persecute opponents of the Central American wars. (Today we are again looking at a
persecution of CISPES for its work with Venezuela as was done in the past with El Salvador.) In January 1988 Margie was selected as the ABC’s Evening News Person of the Week for her work in documenting allegations that FBI surveillance was used against opponents of President Reagan’s Central American policy.”
The 80’s was an incredibly busy time for Margie at CCR. She founded the Cuba Travel Project to challenge the embargo and to provide representation for hundreds of travelers whom the government wanted to fine. She developed the legal theory that Leonard Boudin and CCR employed in Wald v. Regan, which narrowly lost 5- 4 in the Supreme Court. She developed CCR’s challenge to the embargo against Nicaragua. As part of this initiative she won a significant victory on behalf of the Veteran’s Peace Convoy which sought to send humanitarian goods to the people of Nicaragua. The convoy was driving the aid through Texas when customs seized four vehicles (29 had already gotten through the border) and arrested eight veterans. CCR led by Margie immediately filed in federal court in Texas and won a ringing opinion from the judge who held that the “President has no authority to regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly, donations of articles which the donor intends to be used to relieve human suffering.”
More recently Margaret has worked with the Guild Mass Defense office and with the Writ Squad around the RNC representing demonstrators and securing a contempt citation against the City for disobeying court orders to release them. In her role as president of the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice she fought for changes in the Rockefeller drug law and secured the release of scores of non violent drug offenders.
Margie is a lawyer but she is also a political activist. It might better be said that she is a political activist but also a lawyer. An important example of this is her involvement with the cause of the Palestinians. She has not only travelled to the occupied territories, but she and her daughters, Sarah and Emily Kunstler, made important and moving NLG videos of the outrages visited upon the people of Palestine and those Palestinians still living in refugee camps in Lebanon. She has supported the freedom struggles of Palestinian prisoners and worked on behalf of those whose homes were demolished by the Israelis.
We are proud to honor Margie Ratner who stands for an uncompromising life of integrity and struggle.