Imagine being caught in the middle of a crossfire. A war the people don’t want, and aren’t afraid to speak out against.
Imagine being a law student at Columbia University and standing in front of a building in protest of Vietnam. The police charge forward, you get thrown to the ground and somehow manage to avoid arrest. Your friends aren’t so lucky.
This is the beginning of Michael Ratner’s quest for justice. In an interview with him, he said growing up in Cleveland he wanted to be an archeologist. He even took his children on a dig to Crete two years ago. Now he is the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, an accomplished author and public speaker, and an advocate for people everywhere.
“At that time, it was unheard of for cops to come on a white northern campus. People were outraged and the cops were brutal,” Ratner said of the experience.
“That’s really when I decided I was going to start looking at issues dealing with justice. It really radicalized me.”
Ratner was the featured speaker at the annual Woelfl seminar March 13. He spoke on topics from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib. Ratner worked as a clerk for the only progressive African-American woman judge in the federal court, Constance Baker Motley, after law school.
Surprisingly, he never had an interest in being a human rights lawyer until law school. This is mostly due to the fact that human rights law didn’t emerge until after World War II.
Ratner was also interested in human rights law because of his family background. He is a native of Cleveland Heights and used to visit the Jewish orphanage Belfair, up the street from his house.
His family also took in the poverty-stricken or people fresh out of jail. They believed in charity and social service for others. Ratner thinks that there is constant oppression in any society. The obligation of lawyers is to put themselves between the oppressors and the oppressed.
“Post 9/11 has been much worse than I’ve ever seen in this country,” Ratner said. “There has been such a raft of new laws and power grabs by the executives that I’m not convinced that that will ever change back to what we had before.”
This is due to the fact that people will always be in fear of terrorism. A lot of people in the country have accepted the fact that torture is authorized at the highest level.
One of Ratner’s goals is to gain accountability. He believes that Guantanamo will close, because he’s convinced that the U.S. can’t keep an offshore penal colony.
Not because the administration cares about anyone, he said, but because you can’t fight problems elsewhere if you have the same problems at home. He compares it to the abolition of Jim Crow laws and the fight against communism.
“I’m not particularly optimistic because we’ve gone so far down the line,” Ratner said.
One of the clients Ratner represented was Mahar Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was accused of terrorism and tortured by the U.S. Though he was completely innocent, the U.S. still refuses to remove him from the terrorist watch list.
“There are a lot of factors that make Arar a poster person for the issue of international torture and a very important person at that,” Ratner said. “What’s amazing is that the Bush administration still hasn’t apologized or taken him off the watch list.”
People became very frightened after 9/11 and they were willing to hand over more power to the administration, Ratner said.
Since 1981 there has been an attempt to give the executive branch more power. Some people think that the increased militarization of the country concentrates huge power to the executive and by nature, this isn’t a checks and balances executive.
Ratner thinks the people’s passive attitude has improved since 9/11. Citizens are beginning to speak out against the administration and are a little less frightened.
However, the biggest problem right now is Iraq. He believes that the U.S. has to get through the war and have a foreign policy that makes sense.