People’s lawyer Lynne Stewart, who spent four years as a political prisoner, died at home in Brooklyn, New York, on March 7 from complications of cancer and a series of strokes. Born in 1939, she was 77.
Lynne’s experiences as a public school teacher and librarian in Harlem led her to become an attorney for the poor and those who are targets of the racist, sexist, anti-working class justice system — Black Panthers, Weather Underground members, and young people caught in the school-to-prison pipeline.
In 2005, Stewart was unjustly convicted of supporting terrorism while serving as the court-appointed lawyer for an accused terrorist, the late Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman. Her “crime” was to help her ailing client publicize a press release that she hoped might play a role in transferring him back to Egypt.
In its post-9/11 anti-terror hysteria, the George W. Bush administration used Lynne’s prosecution to discourage other lawyers from representing those accused of terrorism. She was sentenced to 10 years. Already suffering with cancer, she was denied adequate medical treatment while incarcerated.
Massive international protests won her “compassionate release” on Dec. 31, 2013. With her husband and lifelong activist partner Ralph Poynter, she spent her last years fighting for political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier and for free speech, racial justice, women’s rights, and quality public schools.
Lynne was a long-time friend to the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and Radical Women (RW). She spoke at forums on her case at FSP and RW events and gave a keynote address at the 2008 Radical Women Conference.
Both groups were active in organizing for Stewart’s defense and part of the international campaign to free her, which stands as an inspiration for activists facing multiple challenges today.
Lynne believed that the capitalist system must be changed with “radical surgery,” a conviction she spoke to with fire, grace, and optimism. She was nonsectarian to the core, someone who brought others together to fight the good fights — including, ultimately, the battle for her own freedom.
Stewart closed the 2007 National Lawyers Guild convention with a powerful message: “We go forth to safeguard the right to speak and write; to join; to learn; to rest safe at home, to be secure, fed, healthy, sheltered, loved and loving; to be at peace with one’s identity.”
Lynne will be remembered for her zeal for justice, which never waned, and her passion for liberation, which was all-encompassing.
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