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Moving the Bar: Michael Ratner, Social Justice, and a Life Defending the Revolution

Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer

Michael Ratner, Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer (London: OR Books, 2021).

Bernardine Dohrn is an activist, academic, and child advocate. She was director of the Children and Family Justice Center and clinical associate professor at Northwestern University School of Law, Bluhm Legal Clinic. She was a leader of Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground, and on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List for over a decade.
Michael Ratner, Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer (London: OR Books, 2021).

Were Michael Ratner living today, he would be deeply involved in abolishing policing as we know it: the militarization of police, and the immunity and impunity police “unions” have secured. He would be reframing the safety needs with communities of color. He would be seeing to the rights of those most urgently unhoused, the people working in hazardous conditions, those without comprehensive health care, the rights of LGBTQ+ communities, those attempting to cross borders, and the undocumented who have made that journey. He would be challenging the practices of detaining people pretrial and incarceration with extreme sentences. He would see Guantánamo finally closed.

There are a thousand ways to be a radical lawyer. Michael’s magnificent book Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer—which he wrote and dictated as his fatal cancer progressed, and was completed after his death—gives a tantalizing taste of how one person, with his increasing band of colleagues, defended movements for social justice and revolution during his lifetime. It is a primer in how to remain curious, always willing to be a student as well as a teacher. He was the very definition of a nonsectarian—as long as his clients were against U.S. imperialism. He worked with those who would mentor him. And Michael became a mentoring mensch.

It is definitive that Michael’s lifetime of inventive and thoroughly radical work as a lawyer involved bending the bar in addition to moving the bar. He repeatedly carried aggressive legal advocacy into new and deeper waters, expanding the possibilities of law as a domain of radical innovation.

Michael’s Moving the Bar is mandatory and captivating reading for everyone ensnared by, or working to abolish or transform, the so-called criminal justice system. Everyone in or contemplating law school will want to read it. Michael’s constantly expanding practice of transforming the boundaries of criminal law, immigration, constitutional, and human rights law to create breathing room for those suffering under the yoke and lash of U.S. empire is nothing less than spectacular. Even though Michael took more losses than wins, he and his teams of colleagues and students learned to absorb legal losses and turn them into popular lessons about struggle. He broke from his family’s expectation that he would return to Cleveland to run the family business, and, slowly, with each decision, recreated and invented the practice of “movement” lawyering.

I met Michael and his close friends at Columbia Law School in 1967 when, just out of law school myself, I moved to New York to work at the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). The idea was to rebuild the guild—ravaged by the Joseph McCarthy attacks of the 1950s—by creating NLG law school chapters, and to concentrate on the work of draft resistance and mass arrests during demonstrations. Simultaneously, African-American lawyers were creating the National Conference of Black Lawyers, in the context of the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, Black Power, and further uprisings against racism and white supremacy across the nation.

My first effort to recruit law students was at Columbia Law School. A large audience of law students showed up in a banked, auditorium-like classroom. In the back row, nodding in agreement as I spoke, sat Eleanor Stein, Gus Reichbach, James Morrow, Barry Wildorf, and Margie Leinsdorf. Michael Ratner, it turns out, had taken a leave of absence after having scored at the top of his class and making law review after his first year—the ticket to ride into clerking for important judges and being recruited by major corporate law firms. He was also absorbing the death of his father. Michael somehow knew he needed some different type of legal learning to broaden his framework, before continuing two more years of legal study. “At this point I was too busy with law review and classes. My politics were liberal, certainly not leftist. I assumed I would go straight to a big commercial firm,” he noted.

Remember, there were next to no law faculty of color except at the renowned Howard University, only tiny numbers of students of color studying law in the United States, effectively no women faculty, and only very few women law students. The military draft was expanding as the United States escalated the war against Vietnam. It was not until 1968 that being enrolled in law school ceased to be an automatic deferment for the draft. As a direct consequence, in 1969, women would enter law schools in record numbers.

In his second year, Michael decided to take a break from his grueling law school life of nonstop studying (he had similarly taken a year off while in college at Brandeis). He decided to go to work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund (LDF).

In the turmoil of “urban uprisings,” as the Black rebellions were called, Michael decided to research and write about their legal implications. The more he read, the greater the contradictions he uncovered. He supported the use of federal troops to promote integration—in Little Rock and the deep South, for example—but opposed presidential power to send federal military forces onto our streets. How to reconcile these inconsistencies? How to research (no computers, no Internet), and how to think? At LDF, taking copious notes by hand, he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lawyers, became close with James Nabritt III, and shared an office with Tony Amsterdam, a brilliant lawyer/thinker/speaker who was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and focused on abolishing the death penalty. Tony’s strategy was to delay and delay and delay every execution. By 1972, he would argue and win Furman v. Georgia, arguing that the disparate impact on Black Americans was unconstitutional. The justices wrote nine separate opinions. But four years later, the Furman decision would be undermined.

As I was beginning to travel to law schools outside New York, working to organize new NLG student chapters around draft resistance and mass arrest defense, Tony and I were frequently speakers at the same law school events. He was a sensational orator as well as a brilliant legal strategist. I was passionate about law students’ obligation to speak and act up in the face of U.S. genocidal war and racism, and to put themselves in proximity to the struggle. It was quite something to speak along with Tony. He generously tolerated me.

Michael worked on several “poverty law” cases while at LDF, contesting the practices of pre-judgment garnishment (where creditors can garnish any money or assets of debtors who default). Just finding out which states permitted this practice in 1968 took a month of laborious research. LDF won the case in the U.S. Supreme Court. Next, he worked on the case Ratner v. Chemical Bank, which challenged the consumer credit nondisclosure of the rates of interest. Michael showed his own credit card statement to his supervisors, thus having a “named case” as a plaintiff before graduating from law school. LDF won the case, and then moved to file the case as a federal class action, but was denied class action status eight months later. Thus, the “victory” only applied to Michael’s case, rather than all of Chemical Bank’s clients—awarding Michael $1,000 in damages and $25,000 to the LDF for legal fees—an omen of the continuing challenge of achieving legal wins that actually change the behavior of vulture capitalism.

In a strange coda, when the New York State Bar Association interviewed Michael for admission in 1971, a distinguished partner at White & Case asked him: “Do you think it was a good idea for young lawyers to sue major banks?” Michael was stunned and changed the subject. He was admitted.

Michael returned to the Columbia University campus, as did I, in the spring of 1968, a week after students had seized five buildings, including the iconic Low Memorial Library where the president of Columbia, Grayson Kirk, had his office. There, they discovered evidence that Columbia (and a consortium of other universities) had—as they suspected—a secret agreement with the government to do military research on the U.S. war in Vietnam, and that the university was indeed committed to building a new gym in Harlem’s Morningside Park that would be for Columbia students only (activists dubbed it “Gym Crow”). Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Student Union (of which Juan González was a part, there being only two self-identified Puerto Ricans at Columbia) had been agitating and organizing around these issues for a year.

In a somewhat Zelig manner, Michael made his way onto campus on April 30, 1968, hours before the police arrived in force. To his astonishment, his fellow law students Eleanor and Gussie were among the hundreds inside the buildings. Banners were hanging from the occupied buildings, students were milling about or hanging out of windows, food and water were being pulled up with ropes. “I got caught up in it,” Michael writes. He joined the small group holding hands in front of the entrance to Low Library. As darkness fell, anxiety rose.

“I was sympathetic to their demands and their tactics, but for me—not having been in school for several months, the occupation came out of the blue. To join now felt like jumping off a cliff. It was a leap that I was not prepared to make—at least not yet.” His mind was filled with images of Orangeburg, South Carolina State College, where police entering the campus killed three Black students and wounded twenty-seven. He walked up to the edge of Low Library and a young man in the line blocking a key entrance held out his arm. Michael locked arms with him. Around twenty people were at that entrance. “About 2:00 am, the police arrived, wave after wave, swinging billy clubs.… A muscular cop in plain clothes picked me up like a matchstick, carried me a few feet, threw me on the ground, and gave me a couple of hard whacks with his stick. I lay stunned.”

In one night, 150 injured students ended up in the hospital. More than 700 were arrested and taken into custody. Michael escaped. Furious students shut down Columbia for the rest of the semester. President Kirk did not attend the graduation ceremony and resigned before school resumed in the fall. Thousands of students at Columbia and around the world were radicalized—including Michael. The arrested students were represented by activist lawyers, many of them Guild lawyers, who would become my role models, colleagues, and friends for the rest of my legal career.

On graduating from law school, Michael clerked for the extraordinary judge Constance Baker Motley. Judge Motley was legendary. My colleague and brother-in-law Haywood Burns had clerked for her just before cofounding the National Conference of Black Lawyers. Judge Motley was an African-American woman, a Columbia Law School grad, and a federal judge on the twenty-ninth floor in Foley Square, all at a time when her secretary typed opinions with carbon paper copies and Michael and her other law clerk ran to law libraries to get the appropriate books so she had the governing opinion before her on the bench. The two law clerks drafted opinions following her instructions, and she would review, edit, rewrite, and issue them.

One of Michael’s stories from this year stands out. One late afternoon in early spring, a lawyer came into the judge’s office with a sheaf of papers. His client, a woman, was being held at the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village on Sixth Avenue. She was having a difficult pregnancy but refused to see the prison doctor; she wanted a court order to see her own doctor immediately. Her lawyer asked for a hearing before the judge that evening.

The client was Afeni Shakur, one of the Panther 21, charged with more than one hundred counts of conspiracy to bomb New York City landmarks (such as the Botanical Garden in the Bronx), along with another twenty members of the Black Panther Party. No such bombings had occurred. Michael asked the lawyer to give him time to speak with Judge Motley. His co-clerk, confident that there was no constitutional issue at stake in what should be a state court matter, went home. Michael took the matter to the judge, noting that Shakur had the right to decent medical care in prison. Judge Motley asked her lawyer, along with the attorney for the prison, the prison warden, and Shakur, to appear in her court that evening.

They met in a large ceremonial courtroom, where emergency cases were then heard, all judges rotating in for three-week assignments. Michael writes that an obviously pregnant, 20-year-old Shakur and her lawyer requested that she see her own doctor. Prison officials, including a tough-looking warden, noted that they had competent doctors, there were “security” issues, and the case did not belong in federal court. “How can you deny this woman the right to see her own doctor?,” asked the judge. There was no good answer. From the bench, the judge ruled that Shakur’s personal doctor could treat her in prison. The baby, of course, would be Tupac Shakur, born just after the full acquittal and subsequent release of all members of the Panther 21.

Tellingly, Michael writes a harsh self-criticism for his failure to retain an active friendship and professional relationship with Judge Motley. He privately disagreed with some of her later actions, and moved onto accepting a job at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) without continuing to be in communication with the judge. “Today I think, ‘How could I have been so intolerant.… I cannot believe what a fool I was to cut off the friendship when there was still so much to learn from her.’”

By accepting offers to work at CCR, Michael and Margaret Ratner, recently married, both chose to work at “an aggressively, risk-taking and overtly political collective.” “Up dingy stairs to a badly lit dingy loft,” he had a desk and a telephone in a cubical in a room where everyone worked, where all— lawyers, legal workers, and administrative personnel—were paid the same low amount. They decided as a group what cases to take.1 Two days after they began work, the Attica Prison Rebellion began, when prisoners seized control of Attica Prison, where two thousand men—85 percent Black and Puerto Rican—were patrolled by prison guards who were entirely white. Four days later, police, sheriffs, hundreds of state troopers, national guardsmen, and correctional officers launched a massive assault on the prison and “D yard,” which was the center of the uprising. Scores of prisoners were killed and injured, and nine prison guards were dead.

Michael went to Attica with a group of NLG lawyers to document the harm and to speak with both the survivors and the perpetrators. “Attica was my first lesson in understanding the need to be ‘as radical as reality itself,’” he remembered. The subsequent litigation undertaken by numerous Guild lawyers from New York, Detroit, and Chicago for wrongful death claims would drag on for decades. Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who ordered the assault, walked away. It was a harsh initiation into the rights—legal, constitutional, and human—of those thousands caged in the prison-industrial complex. Michael’s first appearance in court as a member of the bar was his Attica case, Inmates of Attica Correctional Facility v. Nelson A. Rockefeller. The first and only hearing in that case lasted less than a minute—as the judge dismissed the very notion that a court could compel a state or federal investigation of the bloody murders and assaults committed by the retaking of Attica Prison. As Michael comments: “Without pressure from social movements, it’s harder to win in court.”

“Yet CCR represented those in the anti-war movement who had been jailed, spied on, and beaten up. We represented soldiers who had been court-martialed for resistance to the Vietnam war. We represented members of the Young Lords, Black Panthers, and citizens brought before grand juries investigating the rash of anti-war bombings and the leaks of the Pentagon Papers.” Women lawyers at CCR insisted on litigating the rights of women to an abortion, to control our own bodies. Their radical stance opened a new front, as abortion right cases had previously been brought by (male) doctors in the name of their rights.

Michael left CCR for a year to teach at New York University Law School, but he continued to litigate cases. For example, Michael and his colleague Richard Levy represented young Puerto Rican men who resisted the U.S. military draft without charging legal fees. Because Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico could not vote in U.S. elections, they argued that there was “no supreme sacrifice without the supreme right.” This work led to further litigation over U.S. military operations on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico, where definitions of property lines and jurisdiction would center on the meaning of “high water mark.” The Vieques trials of protesters for misdemeanor trespassing were held only in English, and jury selection required only English speakers.

He traveled to St. Croix (Virgin Islands) in 1972 and 1973, in support of the trial of five men (the Fountain Valley 5) charged with the murder of eight white tourists at a Rockefeller-owned golf course—murders to which they allegedly confessed, perhaps after torture. Bill Kunstler and Margie worked on the trial, while Michael worked on the interrogation/confessions and jury selection. Later, one was pardoned, three men were given life sentences, and one, Ishmael LaBeet, was flown to the United States for a prior court date. On the return flight to St. Croix, he brandished a gun demanding to be taken to Cuba. “As far as I know,” Michael writes, “that is where he remains.”

In spring 1973, the University of Havana invited a group of U.S. lawyers to Cuba. At the time, Michael was representing the Venceremos Brigades and decided to make the trip. Since direct travel between the United States and Cuba was prohibited by the former, the Brigadistas traveled to Mexico City and took a Cubana Airlines flight to Havana. I had done the same in 1969, with a large delegation of young activists—both whites and U.S. Latinxs. All of these travels to Cuba by U.S. citizens were being monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. For Michael, as with so many of us, the experience in Cuba was exhilarating and hopeful: the nationwide literacy campaign that sent young student volunteers into the countryside, free education and health care for all, support for other struggles around the world. It was also filled with debates about radical change versus incremental change, liberation for gay people across the globe, economic and educational equality, and the necessity of armed actions in Salvador Allende’s Chile, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, and radical changes in Peru. Just three months later, on September 11, 1973, the U.S.-backed coup in Chile would assassinate Allende and his broad coalition of supporters, installing Augusto Pinochet as a reactionary henchman for decades.

“I learned an important lesson,” Michael would write. “The United States has a tremendous military, economic, and political ability to rollback revolutions and get rid of any government attempting to escape its orbit. I saw this again in the 1980s in Central America and in the 1990s in Haiti.”

On Michael’s second trip to Cuba, three years later, he attended the May Day parade in Havana and heard Fidel Castro make a speech supporting the independence of Angola from the influence and occupation of apartheid South Africa. Michael made his way to Nicaragua in 1981 and again in 1982 to support the resistance to the U.S.-backed Contras.

At the same time, Michael was learning from the founding lawyers of CCR, including Peter Weiss. Peter and Cora Weiss were internationalists, interested in human rights law and its protections. Peter urged Michael to add international human rights claims to every petition he would draft at CCR. Peter continued to draft such claims for Michael’s litigation, without Michael really grasping how important this expansion of the law would come to be—to him, to CCR, and to international litigation.

On September 11, 2001, Michael went running early in the morning, as was his practice, leaving the Greenwich Village home he shared with his second wife Karen and their children Jake and Ana. As if watching a Greek tragedy, he saw first one and then a second airplane hit the north and south towers of the World Trade Center. It would be Michael’s aggressive legal responses to the aftermath of the lethal attacks and deaths that would catapult his and CCR’s legal reputation to another level, as human rights advocates insisting on global justice for the people rounded up and subsequently incarcerated indefinitely at Guantánamo.

President George W. Bush and his warmongering advisors, vice president Dick Cheney and secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, long advocates of U.S. war and invasion in the Middle East, pulled from a desk drawer and put forward the Authorization for Use of Military Force legislation that passed Congress and was signed on September 18 (with one courageous dissent by Barbara Lee of California). The legislation gave the president unprecedented powers to wage war and respond, without the support of Congress, with an enormous $20 billion additional budget and no time limitations.

From the beginning, Michael spoke and wrote against a war response from the United States. He pointed out that the UN Charter prohibited attacks on other countries except in self-defense, not for retaliation, vengeance, and punishment. He called the 9/11 attacks a criminal act, a “crime against humanity,” and likened it to the Nazi crimes tried at Nuremberg. He called for a UN criminal court with the authority to investigate, extradite, and issue international warrants of arrest. Within a week, CCR was getting frantic calls from the Muslim communities of New York and nearby states. Some 3,000 Muslim men were being detained, with no notice to family members or attorneys. Many were held at a special prison in Passaic, New Jersey, or in solitary confinement at an Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Manhattan, under brutal conditions: beaten, shackled, and deprived of sleep.

CCR filed its first post-9/11 lawsuit, Turkmen v. Ashcroft, on April 17, 2002, against the Department of Justice and the Metropolitan Detention Center for violating the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment rights of undocumented Muslims. Though some detainees accepted a settlement, the case remained in the courts fourteen years later as Ziglar v. Abbasi. Justice delayed. The panic grew with the mailing of letters containing deadly anthrax spores. Congress passed and President Bush signed the three-hundred-page Patriot Act, granting to the federal government the authority to carry out mass surveillance of citizens without a court order, and making it a crime to provide “material support” to “terrorists.” Only one member of the Senate voted “No”—Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

Further, the Military Order of the Detention, Treatment, and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism took effect on December 13, 2001. It authorized detaining people anywhere in the world, created secret military commissions with the power to use torture and evidence obtained from torture, allowed for the use of the death penalty, banned appeals to any court of law, permitted the indefinite holding of detainees without trial, and abolished habeas corpus. Reading this, Michael wrote: “I considered it then, and I consider it today, to be a coup d’état.”

He and CCR’s legal director, Bill Goodman, did an interview with the New York Times editorial board, offering to represent detainees harmed by the military order or recent U.S. legislation. The hate mail poured in. CCR staff were conflicted about who they should represent, and even Michael had second thoughts. But he encouraged the CCR staff to argue it out, sending them only an excerpt from Kunstler’s memoir about representing one of the so-called “notorious” youth charged and convicted in the Central Park jogger rape case, Yusef Salaam. At the time, CCR had refused to co-counsel with Kunstler. Yet, years later, Salaam and his co-defendants were all fully exonerated when an older prisoner confessed to the sexual and physical attack, with DNA and other evidence verified by the prosecutor.

The CCR staff debated the matter and came to agree with Michael and Goodman. On a panel at Columbia Law School, Michael said: “We see the law as a malleable instrument that has some flexibility. We believe it can effect social change, even with losses.” CCR assembled a team that included Eric Friedman, Jules Lobel, David Cole, Ted Shaw, Steven Watt, Joe Margulies, Sandra Babcock, and Clive Stafford Smith. The American Civil Liberties Union declined to participate for another year. CCR’s first client was David Hicks, an Australian citizen who had converted to Islam and traveled to Afghanistan to fight. Within two weeks, CCR received its next clients: Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal from Tipton, England. Their families had first contacted Gareth Pierce, a British lawyer who had represented Bobby Sands (the Irish hunger striker back in 1981), and Stafford Smith. The legal teams dug into deep legal and historical research.

They agreed that any prisoner should be considered a prisoner of war, thus protected under the Geneva Convention, instead of “enemy combatants”—a legally meaningless term. Michael’s memoir tells the story of a two-year multinational struggle to engage lawyers, academics, families of the tortured and “disappeared” prisoners, and the prisoners themselves to build a legal case that would place barriers to U.S. torture and disappearance without trial, to shine light on the invisible, and to slow the post-911 narrative that anything goes once the United States has been attacked. Read the chapter on Guantánamo with extra care. You will see collective, radical, outstanding legal work and solidarity at its best. Human rights lawyers and corporate volunteer lawyers were producing their best work in tandem and together.

Yet, while the legal team waited to see if the Supreme Court would take their case, they launched a solidarity campaign. Vanessa and Corin Redgrave performed in theaters using material from the Guantánamo Testimonials Project. They published a short book by Michael and Ellen Ray called Guantánamo: What the World Should Know. They gathered amicus curiae briefs, noting the shocking experience of Korematsu in the Second World War (for which professor Geoffrey Stone wrote the brief); they produced a handbook for lawyers about how to deal with military commissions, with the volunteer assistance of active military lawyers. Michael spoke at a conference in Oxford and traveled the United States speaking about the cases. On December 10, 2003, the Supreme Court announced that it would take three Guantánamo cases (Rasul v. Bush, Al Odah v. United States, and Habib v. Bush). They were combined and known as Rasul v. Bush.

The Supreme Court scheduled the oral argument for April 20, 2004. After agonizing discussions, it was decided to ask retired judge John Gibbons, a Nixon appointee who was now representing death row inmates, to argue the case. In oral argument, Judge Gibbons stuck to the issue in the case, now before the court: Is there jurisdiction to hear a habeus petition from Guantánamo? Two related cases came before the Supreme Court just eight days later, where the government argued that the court must trust the president.

Perhaps it took the photographs! The images that exposed the U.S. torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad ran on 60 Minutes on April 28 and hit the headlines to shock the conscience of the U.S. courts and population, within hours of the second Supreme Court argument. Pictures of naked prisoners piled on top of one another, prisoners being led around on dog leashes, prisoners forced to sodomize each other, an electrically wired prisoner forced to stand on a box above a body of water, prisoners being attacked by vicious dogs, a woman service-person posing before a dead prisoner packed in ice. Michael writes that he already thought they would win Rasul, but the photos from Abu Ghraib sealed his conviction.

The arguments in the Supreme Court in Rasul resulted in a 6 to 3 decision written by justice John Paul Stevens, holding that the courts had jurisdiction to hear petitions for habeas corpus from the Guantánamo detainees. The majority discussed the importance of the Magna Carta. Could the executive imprison people at will, without any court review? This was a clear no.

While numerous issues remained outstanding, CCR raced to have as many cases as possible filed in federal court. Lawyers were finally allowed to visit their clients at Guantánamo, with strict and cumbersome rules, but to visit nonetheless. One hundred lawyers visited their Guantánamo clients within six months. Eventually, six hundred lawyers, from law firms big and small, represented Guantánamo clients through CCR, and visited their clients.

The administration set up a tortuous tribunal system, the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, where prisoners could not see the evidence against them, could not have counsel, could not confront their accusers, and had no right to appeal.

Moving the Bar concludes with a section on “New Projects” underway during the closing years of Michael’s life. The stabilizing of the legal work and new leadership of CCR in the person of Vince Warren, a young Black lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union who was determined to keep racial justice work at the forefront of the CCR agenda. In cases like Floyd v. City of New York, CCR lawyers filed a class action lawsuit in 2008 to stop the police department practices of stop-and-frisk racial profiling of Black and Latinx residents. CCR lawyers also litigated a class action lawsuit, United States of America and Vulcan Society v. City of New York, charging the New York City Fire Department with discriminatory hiring.

Further, Michael became involved in a weekly radio show with Michael Smith, called Law and Disorder. He nurtured the creation of the European Center for Human Rights in Germany. In an astonishing step away from his own Zionist childhood, Michael was a catalyst in the founding of a new organization: Palestine Legal. It was here, again, where I had the privilege of working closely with Dima Khalidi, Maria LaHood, and Michael to recognize the need for a legal organization in the United States to support grassroots organizing in support of Palestinian rights on campuses and communities. Dima was a young lawyer in Chicago, a graduate of the School of Arab Studies in London, and had lived and worked in Palestine. She and Maria, a remarkable litigator at CCR, developed a Know Your Rights curriculum to take to campus organizers on issues of justice for Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students and faculty. With Michael’s enthusiastic endorsement on his return from his family travels to Palestine in 2010, I joined the initial board of Palestine Legal.

We had gone to Cairo to the Gaza Freedom March in the winter of 2010, to join Code Pink and thousands of others attempting to enter Gaza via Egypt. Gaza was under strict blockade and siege by the Israelis and their U.S. partners since 2007. We intended to bring essential medical and food aid to Gaza. There, in the once magnificent but crumbling Hilton Hotel on the river, we met up with Michael, Karen, Jake, and Ana. We had dinners and meals together, and after several attempts to reason with U.S. Embassy officials and board buses bound for Gaza, Michael and his family left Cairo to enter Palestine from another direction. But the project threw us together again, and working with Michael, Dima, and Maria in the early years of Palestine Legal was an adventure and a blessing.

As Michael and Maria did so well, they each offered their skills to Dima and to a small, start-up, not-for-profit organization. They introduced Dima to their contacts, they encouraged her to hire staff, they invited her to leadership trainings. Dima and the terrific Palestine Legal staff she was assembling gave confidence to campus organizers, helped them mature in their analysis and presentations, and provided a growing team of lawyers to represent them in legal conflicts. Moving the Bar fails to give Dima and Maria the full agency and credit they each deserve. But Dima had a place of honor at Michael’s powerful memorial, and their work, staff, and the board have continued to thrive and expand.

Michael was a genius at recognizing the moral authority of Palestine Legal’s work and quietly offering his wisdom in the face of conflict. It made him happy and deeply satisfied, I think, to have made the transition to this justice work as he fell ill. His penultimate chapter, “A Visit to Palestine,” is a perfect tool to open the minds of Americans still caught up in the need to support Israel or its leadership. We miss Michael, but we are confident that he would be proud of Palestine Legal’s growth, depth, and authority.


  1. For an excellent history of the Center for Constitutional Rights, see Albert Ruben, The People’s Lawyer: The Center for Constitutional Rights and the Fight for Social Justice, from Civil Rights to Guantánamo (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011).
2021, Volume 73, Number 7 (December 2021)
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