BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

Affirming Justice Post-9/11

In a post-9/11 world, a “new normal” exists in the US. It tilts in no small way towards the power of government’s three branches. The trio focuses, almost obsessively, on national safety and security. Against that backdrop, Albert Ruben’s new book amplifies the strengths and weaknesses of a progressive institution involved in civil liberties and human rights struggles for nearly five decades.

In The People’s Lawyer: The Center for Constitutional Rights and the Fight for Social Justice, From Civil Rights to Guantánamo, he chronicles the roots and branches, people and ideas, propelling this beacon for the rights of the accused no matter their alleged crimes.

Ruben has written no hagiography. For instance, he sheds light on messy internal rifts and shifts, weaving the personal and political, of the actors and factors of the CCR, then and now. Along the way, Ruben makes clear the organization’s original mission to affirm and create more justice for oppressed blacks deprived of voting and human rights in the Deep South during the 1960s. A linchpin of this approach was the “Dombroski strategy,” using federal injunctions to thwart criminal charges by state prosecutors.

Ruben, in 12 punchy chapters and an afterword, enlightens readers with an ear for pithy quotes from sources. Some have name recognition, such as CCR co-founder William Moses Kunstler. Others have less, including CCR co-founders Arthur Kinoy, Morton Stavis and Benjamin Smith. On this front are the many paid and unpaid attorneys whose low/no-pay labor over the years has kept CCR in the game of social justice law. Ruben offers readers compelling views that show and tell the contours of this challenging dynamic.

Since the 1960s, shifting tides of political movements and tendencies have tested the CCR’s resolve. Take feminism and the women’s movement. Together, they brought new cases to litigate. An example of its lawsuits involved a fight against restrictive abortion laws. At the same time, workplace issues of gender and power rose at the CCR. Meanwhile, the CCR kept its eye on the prize of linking education and litigation. Lawsuits defending dissidents opposing US wars in Central America in the 1980s such as Crockett v. Reagan demonstrate the CCR’s capacity to build public awareness of the government’s clandestine military actions. “The legal is midwife to the educational,” Ruben writes. His interviews and research sketch what it took and takes to maintain such forward momentum.

In a chapter on the struggles between CCR staff and board, Ruben fleshes out pivotal stresses and strains within the institution. The fall of the former Soviet Union plays a role, as the New Left eclipses the Old Left. Something had to give. And it did, culminating in a 1994 strike at the CCR. That it survived such turmoil is remarkable, given the steady rightward drift of two-party politics and the wealth that both attract.

Ruben’s capsule summaries of CCR cases that had an impact on it, national consciousness and the law are instructive. The cases reveal a breadth and depth of landmark litigation that touches in part on issues of enforcement for torturers and war makers. The CCR’s Estate of Himoud Saed Abtan, et al. v. Prince, et al. forced the military contractor Blackwater to compensate victims of the firm’s lethal rampage against Iraqis in Nisour Square. Daniels et al. v. City of New York, a class action suit against the Big Apple’s finest, obligated officers to desist from violating black and Latino males’ Fourth Amendment rights to be free of stop-and-frisk practices based on racial profiling. Money or lack of it can doom a non-profit such as the CCR. Thus Ruben closes with a look at the valleys and peaks of this cash flow issue.

He covers the harsh impact of the 2008 financial crisis on the CCR. To that Ruben adds the Guantánamo Initiative on behalf of detainees held and mistreated by the US government in its global war on terror. How did the two matters intersect for the CCR? Ruben provides an absorbing look at these changes.

His Afterword closes the circle on the CCR’s history as the past and present. In short, it thrives and today has no shortage of work. Accordingly, Ruben’s book is a compelling read for folks of all backgrounds, especially youth. 

Seth Sandronsky writes in Sacramento. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2011

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