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Livestream of ¡Michael Ratner, Presente! A Public Memorial

Special BroadcastJune 13, 2016

Democracy Now! aired a special livestream on Monday of the public memorial for Michael Ratner, a pioneering attorney who headed the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Michael Ratner died on May 11 at the age of 72. For over four decades, the trailblazing attorney defended and spoke up for victims of human rights abuses across the world. He sued presidents and dictators. In 2002, Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights brought the first case against the George W. Bush administration for the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo. The Supreme Court eventually sided with the center in a landmark 2008 decision when it struck down the law that stripped Guantánamo prisoners of their habeas corpus rights.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANNETTE EZEKIEL-KOGAN: [singing “Oyfn Pripetshik”]

BRUCE RATNER: Good evening, and thank you all for being here to honor Michael’s memory and to celebrate the life of Michael. But tonight, as we celebrate the life of my remarkable brother, I want to pause to acknowledge and mourn the lives of the 49 people who were murdered in a club in Orlando on Sunday morning. They were victims of the most unspeakable hate crime, a crime specifically targeted at the LGBT community, and we weep alongside their families and their friends and their loved ones this evening. If Michael were here, he would be among the first to condemn the twin forms of bigotry unleashed by this horrendous act: homophobia and Islamophobia. And he would rage against a gun industry that makes violence so easy to commit. He would urge us all to redouble our efforts and to stand up to hatred, to bigotry, to prejudice and to fear.

So, of course, my name is Bruce, and Michael was my big brother. So many of you knew Michael just as you saw him or heard me speak about what he would have done, as an activist, as a human rights lawyer and as a defender of the powerless. But before he became all of that, he was a brother. And tonight, Ellen and I are going to talk about Michael Ratner as a brother.

So, Michael was born on June 13th, 1943. Today, he would have celebrated his 73rd birthday. I was born 18 months after Michael, and for most of our childhood, it was, as you could see by those movies, as if we were twins. In our old family photos and movies, Michael and I are always together. We’re dressed the same. If you noticed, I follow his every single movement. We’re riding tricycles together. We’re splashing each other in a toddler pool. And we’re even filling up Wise potato chip cans with snails.

Our father, Harry Ratner, emigrated from Bialystok, Poland, in 1920, escaping the persecution that was so prevalent and a regular part of life for Jews in Poland at that time. He was Yiddish-speaking, and he only had a fourth grade education, yet he managed to start a successful building supply company in his hometown, or adopted hometown, of Cleveland, Ohio. My mother also came from—her family also came from Poland. She was the 11th of 12 children. She grew up in abject poverty during the Depression in Cleveland, Ohio. And she had a high school education. She could not afford to go to college—cost $50. And she became a secretary.

But our parents were deeply rooted in Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust was a horrible thing for them. They were shaken, and they lost many, many relatives. So, probably partly because of that and because the kind of people they were, after the war, our parents sponsored hundreds and hundreds of Jewish refugees, so that they could make their way from displaced person camps to Cleveland, Ohio, where they could start a new life. As young boys, Michael and I would go with my mother as she would locate apartments for these refugees. And on Shabbat eve, she would bring challahs and food for them to celebrate the Shabbat as they started their new lives in America. When we spent time at my father’s office, we would see men with numbers tattooed on their arms. And those people were people, men that my father had hired, so they, too, could start new lives in this country.

But the struggle for social justice was the constant theme in our family, particularly for our parents. Events like the Army-McCarthy hearings were listened to intensely by my father and explained to us. My mother explained to us about Brown v. The Board of Education. And those are what I would call today teachable moments at our family dinner table. In a draft of his memoir, Michael wrote, “I never forgot my father’s absolute commitment to immigrants and the poor.” “Absolute commitment”—Michael associated those words with my father. And yet, we associate those words with Michael. Absolute commitment.

When Michael was eight and I was six, along came our sister. She was adorable and cute—you can see from those movies—and she was the apple of my father’s eye. Well, she took my room, and Michael and I started living together in the same bedroom. I think about it, and in many ways, I would say those were some of the happiest years of my life. At night, we would talk endlessly. And we would listen to the radio to Cleveland Indians baseball games, which, of course, in those days, for those who don’t know, in the ’50s, they were quite a good team. We would talk endlessly, as I said, but every night we went through a very important ritual: He would say, “Good night, Bruce,” and I would say, “Good night, Michael.” When describing our family in his memoir, Michael used the name “impossibly close”—or the phrase “impossibly close.” Yet I know that this closeness was possible, because I lived with it for 71 years.

He was my hero. Words cannot capture the pride I had in him when, in junior high school, he was the star of our football team. True. And believe it or not, he scored touchdown after touchdown after touchdown as the running back. Literally every time they gave him the ball, he scored. But the pride extended to when we went to law school together, and he finished at the very top of our class, or, in 2001, in November, he came to me, and he said, “I’m going to start a case.” That case is now known as the Guantánamo case. You have to understand it was in the midst of a post-9/11 intense hysteria. Or, when he was sick with his illness, he struggled day in and day out to get better, and he never, ever complained. But he wasn’t just my hero. He was also my greatest friend. My father had a saying on the wall in his office, and it said, “A friend is one who knows all about you and loves you just the same.” And that friend was Michael. He knew all about me, and he loved me just the same.

Well, I followed him to Massachusetts to go to college, and then I followed him to New York to go to law school. And even into our seventies, Michael and I would get together, very often on a Sunday afternoon. I would drive up to his country house. And we would play, just like we were kids, together, and we would talk about politics. We’d talk about the world. We’d talk about our work. We would go fishing together. We’d talk about our parents. And most importantly, we would talk about our wonderful children. Nothing in life felt as natural to me as to be together with Michael. Whether it was in our backyard in Cleveland or upstate or even in his hospital room, when we were together, everything seemed just right. And we knew each other inside and out. He knew, at a ballgame, to get me two hot dogs with mustard. And I knew how he liked his bagel—schmeared with cream cheese. And he knew what to say to my kids when I could not find the words. And I knew that in his final days, Michael had one regret. And that’s that he wouldn’t be there to see his children, Jake and Ana, take the next steps in their adult life.

Well, it’s been a few weeks since we lost Michael, and spending the rest of my life without him seems like an impossibility. But Michael would not stand for such talk. He would be impatient with it. So, like all of us, I will wipe away the tears, and I will keep moving forward, always remembering—always remembering how blessed I was to have Michael Ratner as my brother, and always keeping my loved ones impossibly close. Good night, Michael.

ELLEN RATNER: Good evening. I’m Ellen Ratner. And before I go into my talk about my brother Michael, I just want to give a shout out to Simon Albury, who went to college with Michael in 1965. I got to spend the afternoon with him. He came here from England. And it was like being with Michael. So, just thank you, Simon.

You know, my brother Michael was eight years older than me. That’s a very big age gap, big enough that one might assume that Michael couldn’t be bothered with me. Think about it. What would a 13-year-old boy have any use for a kid in kindergarten? Fortunately for me, the answer to that question was Michael Ratner. Michael was the most caring, patient and generous big brother I could have ever hoped for. My childhood memories are filled with scenes of Michael Ratner teaching me about the world and sharing knowledge, the values and the love I needed to make my way in a very sometimes difficult life, but sometimes not.

Just a few examples. I loved tagging along to watch Michael play ice hockey with his friends on a frozen pond near our house. Not only did Michael tolerate his baby sister being there, he also took that time, that rare time, to explain the science behind how water becomes ice. Michael would also play the Smothers Brothers records on hi-fi, which we now call high fidelity, explaining to me what the song lyrics meant and why these songs weren’t just funny, but important.

I was then beginning junior high school when Michael taught me what socialism was. And he said why it was a good thing. “All people want to eat,” he said. But what about the evils of communism and the domino theory that my teachers had taught me? Michael presented me with a very different view. “What the United States government really wants to do is to push our system onto others,” he said. Whoa! The idea that my teachers might have it wrong was mind-blowing. This was my first real lesson in critical thinking, and the first that many Michael would teach me.

To be clear, Michael’s socialist leanings had their limits. After all, what true socialist would invest hours teaching his little sister how to play Monopoly? And Michael didn’t just teach me how to play Monopoly; he taught me how to win. He showed me which properties were the most valuable, made sure I understood the importance of building on those properties. And I think Bruce must have been taking careful notes at that time.

Just a few years after my lesson in socialism, Michael told me—and I said this at his 70th birthday party—”All governments are bad, and some are worse than others.” He said our leaders and teachers weren’t telling us the truth about the war in Vietnam. He explained that millions of people in our own country didn’t enjoy the same rights as perhaps he did. I wanted to believe that my teachers were right and that our government was good. But somehow I knew Michael was telling me the whole truth. After all, he read absolutely everything. He seemed to know everything. He could always keep up with my parents during our dinner table conversations. He must be right, I thought.

In so many ways, over so many years, on so many issues, Michael Ratner was right. He made the world a fairer, compassionate place. Today is also his birthday. He touched the minds, hearts and lives of thousands of people in countries around the globe. And he made me as happy and as proud as a little sister could be. Thank you.

MARGARET KUNSTLER: I’m Margaret Kunstler, and my role here tonight is to tell you how Michael became a political lawyer with a dream to change the world.

When Michael arrived at Columbia Law School in the fall of 1966, it was his final wrenching escape from the tremendous pressure he was under to remain in Cleveland and take over the family business. Michael’s loving, powerful and generous father had died just before he went away to college, and his uncles were losing patience with his avoidance of the life they expected him to lead. Michael, for his part, had no vision of practicing law, but because he had rebelled, he needed to prove that going to law school was the right decision. He did it by excelling. He made Law Review and was one of the top five students in his first-year class.

But at the start of his second year, he saw that although his success freed him from Cleveland, it did not give him a reason to become a lawyer. He decided to leave, and explained that he needed to take a year off. But I think he was at a crossroads. Maybe he wasn’t going to come back. Maybe he wasn’t going to be a lawyer after all. A professor suggested that he take a job with the Legal Defense Fund, no doubt hoping that Michael would find something meaningful in the practice of law that would cause him to return. LDF dispatched Michael to Baltimore to interview potential plaintiffs for a school desegregation case. On April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was murdered and anger, sadness and chaos took over, LDF called him back to New York. But for four days, as Baltimore erupted, Michael was a prisoner, confined to a solitary motel room. It was a very desperate time, and it pained him to the bone. King was dead. Mass demonstrations against the war were having no effect. And in Orangeburg, South Carolina, students participating in a sit-in against segregation had been shot by police.

Michael’s return to LDF in New York coincided with the Columbia University protest. The opportunity to join the movement was waiting for him. Striking students occupied campus buildings after the university refused to end its support of the Vietnam War and its plan to build a gym facility in Harlem’s Morningside Park. On the night of April 24th, when baton-wielding police arrived on campus to forcibly remove the students, Michael was standing on College Walk. He was shocked and angered that the university would make such a move. As the police marched through the gates in military formation, Michael had a choice: He could disappear into the milling crowd around the edges or join the line of people standing in front of Low Library to protect the occupiers. Scared to death, he linked arms with the other protesters singing “We Shall Overcome.” Michael was thrown to the ground and beaten by a baton-wielding cop. That night, 150 students were sent to the hospital, and 700 people were arrested. Michael, his body bruised, his voice hoarse from screaming, had made an ultimate decision and would never turn back: He had joined the struggle to make a better world.

That spring, he found his path, a way to link law with activism. Working with law school friends—Eleanor Stein, Gus Reichbach, others and me—and mentored by lawyers for the CCR—Morty Stavis, Arthur Kinoy, Bill Kunstler—and from the Guild—Mary Kaufman, the Lubell brothers, Bill Schaap and many others—he learned very quickly how law could be used as a political tool. The suit he helped bring on behalf of the striking students against the trustees was a political document setting forth the university’s collaboration in the war effort and its racist effort to build the gym. It didn’t matter that there was no chance it could win. It was a document that served the political aspirations of the protesters. He returned to law school. His life as an activist lawyer involved with the hopes and aspirations of his clients had begun.

AMY GOODMAN: What a magnificent birthday gathering this would be, if only the birthday boy were here to blow out the candles. But now it’s up to all of you to carry the torch. It’s through all of you and your work collectively that Michael is presente. In addition to his love of family, Michael had a long love affair with Latin America. He aided those who fought for Puerto Rican independence, and challenged U.S. covert operations against Cuba. He also helped congresspeople who wanted to enforce the War Powers Resolution, which prevents a president from going to war without the approval of Congress. He sued President Reagan and the U.S. government, along with its client generals and dictators, over mass killing operations in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Chile, representing their victims. Myrna Cunningham was one of his clients.

MYRNA CUNNINGHAM KAIN: Good evening. My name is Myrna Cunningham. I come from a very small village in the northern part of Nicaragua, Waspam, that borders with Honduras. I met Michael Ratner 33 years ago, when I came to the U.S. representing 12 Nicaraguans, men and women, who had been victims of the Contra revolutionary groups, supported by the U.S. government, trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan revolutionary government.

Personally, as a medical doctor, in December 1981, I was kidnapped by a group of Contra revolutionaries with a nurse in the hospital where I worked in Bilwaskarma. We were brutalized. We were raped. But we were able to survive, because the men and women from the community, where I worked for a medical doctor for over eight years, were able to save us.

Michael Ratner and the team of the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a case, Sanchez-Espinoza v. Reagan. And the case raised the question of citizens from other countries to challenge the U.S. government foreign policy because of the resulting human consequences. As plaintiff of the case, we were representing hundreds of Nicaraguans that had been affected because of that war. And together with our lawyers, with Michael and the other lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights, we were saying that when a nation pursue foreign objectives, it should be held accountable for the human consequences of those actions.

Legally, the case was not successful. But we have a lot of success that came from that case. Today, rape as a war weapon is penalized in international instruments of human rights. And that is an important victory for women all over the world that faces this situation in conflicts and in wartimes. Today, we have, as an inspiration from that case, a women organization, MADRE, that is, until today, supporting women from different parts of the world.

But I would say the main thing that we gained from that case is the friendship, the solidarity, the support of all of you and thousands of people in the United States that were able to support Nicaragua and prevent it from being invaded, but a lot of friends that, until today, you continue working with Nicaragua, but working with other people from different parts of the world. Michael, when I came that first time, he took me to his home. He took care of me. And through that support, through his careness, I can assure you that I went through an important healing process after being victimized. It was not only the relation of a lawyer. It was not a legal problem. It was the support that I received that gave me strength. I regained dignity as a woman. And until today, I am struggling all over the world for women that are facing that same situation.

In my culture, the Miskito indigenous culture, when someone dies, the whole community accompanies the spirit of that person to misri yapti, the house of our Mother Earth. And from that home, that person’s spirit and energy comes back every day, and they are with us. Today, I’m sure that Michael’s energy and his spirit is here today, and he’s reminding us that we should not stop. We should continue our struggle for justice. And we should continue the road that he started, that brings justice and dignity to everybody. So, thank you, Michael. Gracias, abogado mío, I always say. Mi abogado, thank you so much. La lucha continúa.

AMY GOODMAN: The year was 1991. Haitian President Aristide had been overthrown in a U.S.-supported coup. Security forces and paramilitaries killed thousands, while thousands more took to the high seas fleeing for their lives. The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted them and brought them to Guantánamo Bay for processing. Many were deported back to Haiti, where they faced death. Those who remained were then tested for HIV. If they tested negative, some were allowed into the U.S. But those who tested positive for HIV were held in limbo in the Guantánamo Bay prison camp.

RAYMOND BRESCIA: Good evening. My name is Ray Brescia, and I was fortunate, so fortunate, to be a student of Michael’s, with so many others who are here tonight. Where are you? Where’s the Team Haiti? Over here. Now, a group—some people had trouble getting tickets tonight, and we agreed that we would just have to crash the party, because Michael would have it no other way. But we all got in. But so, we worked together with Harold Koh to help close the HIV concentration camp on Guantánamo Bay back in 1993.

While from the outside Michael might have seemed to have been the lawyer’s lawyer, filing lawsuits, winning landmark cases, but he was so much more. Indeed, he never lost sight of the law as a means to an end and not an end in itself. Law was there as a tool to support movements for change. In short, Michael defined what it was to be a people’s lawyer.

So many from that group have gone on to follow in Michael’s footsteps to either become lawyers for movements themselves, to teach others to do the same, or to do both. One of the enduring lessons that Michael taught so many of us was to face the paradox of being a part of a justice system that so seldom seems to actually dispense justice. Indeed, Michael often lived that kind of a paradoxical life. He could be cynical, but he was never a cynic. He could be skeptical, but he never lost faith in a just cause. He worked as hard as anyone I have ever seen, and yet he always seemed like he was at play. He burned with a righteous fire, but he never burned out. He fought the hatred in the world, and he met it with love—love for his family, love for his friends, for his students, for his colleagues, for his clients and their causes. In a world where it all too often seems that might makes right, Michael believed what Abraham Lincoln said in this room over 150 years ago, which is right makes might.

He tilted at windmills—oh, did he tilt at windmills! But sometimes he actually knocked them over. Indeed, I think—I like to think of the Haiti case for Michael as an inflection point in his career. The first 20 years or so, two decades spent fighting unwinnable cases, yet he kept going, always believing. And then that moment came, early in the Haiti case, where we won a TRO, forcing the government to let us onto the base to meet our clients for the first time. Harold Koh asked Michael, “What do we do now?” Michael’s response: “I don’t know. I’ve never won one of these before.” But he’s been winning ever since.

Michael, if I could say one more thing to you, I would echo and repeat Harold’s question: What do we do now? So many of us have never known the fight for justice without you in it, without you leading the way. If you were hear, you’d probably laugh off the question in a self-effacing manner. You’d probably say something like, “Oh, stop it,” or, “Oh, go on. You don’t need me.” And it would be pure Michael, the people’s lawyer. We have to go on now without you, but we know you trained us well. And our memories and your spirit will continue to animate us as if you were with us still. Indeed, you would want nothing more from us than that we would continue the fight, continue to tilt at windmills, because sometimes, with pluck and love and patience and persistence and brilliance and fire, those windmills come down. For all that you have done for so many of us, we can never repay you, but we will do what we can through our commitment to the fight for justice you held so dear. Your legacy will live on. Your fight, our fight, will continue. And those windmills will come down. Thank you.

MICHAEL RATNER: Today, war, torture, disappearances, murder surround us like plagues.

DJAMEL AMEZIANE: My name is Djamel Ameziane. I was picked up in Pakistan and handed over to the U.S., imprisoned, tortured and held for about 12 years in Guantánamo without trial. Michael and CCR were among the few lawyers who cared that we had suffered this fate, and fought for our freedom. It’s a shame that I did not have the chance to meet Michael, but I know that he was behind the amazing work that was done, and because of it, I am a free man today.

MICHAEL RATNER: At first, when CCR began, we were the lonely warriors taking on the Bush administration at Guantánamo. Now we are many. Now we, just on Guantánamo alone, are over 600 lawyers, most from major firms of every political stripe. These lawyers have an understanding of what is at stake: liberty itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Nelson Mandela said it always seems impossible until it’s done. Michael lived in the universe of the impossible. But with intellect, courage and compassion, he got it done. Michael and CCR represented hundreds of people and organizations against government surveillance, the infiltration of peace groups and the targeting of protesters and whistleblowers. So it was only natural, when Chelsea Manning leaked thousands of secret documents, Michael reached out to WikiLeaks, which published them for the world to see. Michael represented WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who this week will mark his fourth anniversary holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. Michael would spend so many long hours, days at a time, with Assange in the embassy working on his case. Ecuador has granted Julian Assange political asylum, but he fears if he steps outside, he could ultimately be extradited to the United States and could face life in prison. Michael agreed and never stopped defending Julian Assange.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Michael started out his law career essentially as a liberal, believing in the rule of law and believing that the law was a means to obtain justice on average. But by the end of the 1960s, through experience in trying to apply the law to defend people, he had come to understand something that I’ve come to understand, which is the application of the law is primarily designed to ensure that existing power inequalities are reinforced—that is, to keep private property in the hands of the wealthy and keep some privileges which are accumulated by establishments in their hands. And that is the primary purpose of law and the primary purpose of the judicial system.

But nonetheless, one can hack the judicial system to do something it was not designed to do, which is to achieve justice. And he was a great and effective campaigner in doing that over many years and is a model for many young lawyers who have been inspired by him, and even a model, in some respects, for me. He was not someone who threw his life away or burned out too young. He lived a rich and full family life, and also a rich and full intellectual life in his fight for justice. So, I think we should celebrate Michael but also learn from the very positive example that Michael has set over more than 40 years of work.

WOLFGANG KALECK: Good evening, everybody. My name is Wolfgang Kaleck. I’m from Berlin. I’m heading the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, an organization co-founded by Michael. Michael was an internationalist in the best sense of the word, that meant for him, in the first place, to combat the use and the abuse of power of U.S. actors in, and very often outside, the U.S. And there was and there is no shortage of work for him and all the others in the same struggle, many of us here today—Vietnam, Nicaragua, Haiti and, during the last 15 years, Afghanistan and Iraq.

In this struggle, the two of us met, fighting against forced disappearance and torture of terrorism suspects. Together with Peter Weiss and CCR, we filed criminal complaints against Donald Rumsfeld and others in Germany 2004, 2006 and later in other European countries. And we did this against the very advice of established human rights lawyers, who feared that the use of universal jurisdiction laws against these powerful actors would result in a terrible defeat and a backlash of the law. Michael always had a very relaxed response to that: If these laws cannot be applied against the powerful, what are they made for? Moreover, it was one thing to challenge U.S. actions in the U.S., but it needs even more courage to file a criminal complaint against a ruling secretary before a foreign court. With his willingness to challenge power and to take risk, Michael was a big step ahead of other actors within the U.S., but also the international human rights and legal community.

Michael’s place was the world, but not only as a forum to struggle or to file lawsuits. No, he was genially interested in the places he visited and the people he met. His fighting spirit, his experience, his personality were crucial when we decided to establish the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights back in 2007. And he was present—and I mean present in the very sense of the word—from the first moment when we founded the organization, during the critical first years. Until last summer, he never missed a single session of our board, which he chaired. But he was never, ever one of these leftist ego star lawyers. Instead, he was always willing to share his experience, open and honest, never claiming a special role for himself. And he had this kind of revolutionary patience and modesty. And it’s fair to say that we could learn a lot from him in this regard.

He was a one-man force multiplier, as David Cole described him. And he mobilized and inspired younger and older lawyers, not only in the U.S., but also in Europe. Just to give you two examples, Paolo Caroli, a 20-something ECCHR alumnus, wrote the first obituary to Michael in an Italian newspaper, “Dalle Pantere nere a Guantanamo,” “From the Panthers to Guantánamo.” And our advisory board member, Annemie Schaus, accomplished one of the most remarkable tributes to him so far: In the Free University of Brussels, they named an auditorium after him two weeks ago.

Our transnational community of radical political lawyers has lost one of its most central characters. But I lost more. I lost a great friend. In my last encounter with him, he told me that he had always loved to come to Berlin. But he did not talk about litigation and the more or less exciting meetings of our board. He meant the parties and exhibitions at our office. We will miss him. Thank you.

MICHAEL RATNER: I went to Germany to file the case with Wolfgang in November, and we filed it from a theater called the Babylon Theater, which would have been in old East Berlin. And it’s a—it was a site, actually, historic site, in East Germany, where fascists—antifascists fought against Hitler and were eventually, of course, liquidated. But it’s one of the most historic theaters in Berlin. And when we got there, we were shocked. First, on the marquee, it had a—big words, “Human rights against Rumsfeld,” which was a great feeling. Then, there were 150 press in the room. And I compared it to when we filed two years earlier, when we—you know, there were some press, but nothing—nothing like this. And, of course, it was a couple of days after Rumsfeld resigned, and I remember reading the entire New York Times’ six pages of material on Rumsfeld and the Iraq War, and not a word about his implementation of the torture practices and program of the United States. After we filed this case, there is no one who thinks about Rumsfeld, who doesn’t think about him as one of the people involved in setting up the torture program. And this is the good part, that if Donald Rumsfeld decides to go to Germany, he is taking a very high risk. The theory—the theory of universal jurisdiction is that there should never be a safe haven for a torturer, nowhere in the world.

This is Law and Disorder. Israel has always looked at Boycott, Divestment and Sanction as probably their weakest—their most vulnerable point, because Israel is not going to change from the inside. So, it’s as countries around the world and students and young people and others begin to get involved in boycotting, forcing corporations and others, investment bankers, to divest, and eventually sanctioning Israel for the Occupied Territories, in particular, but for the internal situation, as well, in Israel, they react strongly.

DIMA KHALIDI: Michael was always outraged about whatever was happening in Palestine on any given day. He knew the issue so well, but he was always trying to understand it better, reading everything, seeking opinions from friends and others, and always reaffirming his anti-Zionist position, the one he had arrived at after a very Zionist youth. Yet one of the things I remember Michael saying very often was, “What do I know?” It was often preceded by a very informed and reasoned and pretty strong opinion, of course, but it always threw me off. I mean, if Michael didn’t know, who the hell would, right? I’ve had the privilege of working with Michael over the last seven years or so, much less time than many of you. He made things happen. And he was increasingly dedicated in the later years of his life to making something happen to address the injustices against Palestinians.

My first experience working with Michael, after meeting him as an Ella Baker at CCR, was when he helped gather a group of superlawyers—Maria LaHood, Lenny Weinglass, Michael Smith, Richard Levy, Michael Kennedy—to think about how to stop the destruction of a historical Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem, where some of my own ancestors were buried and many other Palestinian Jerusalem families and historical figures. It made him livid—livid—knowing that the Simon Wiesenthal Center had the gall to build a so-called Museum of Tolerance on top of the graves of generations of Palestinians—of course, with the Israeli Supreme Court’s blessing. I was still pretty fresh out of law school, but I volunteered to draft a complaint to human rights bodies, asking them to intervene. Michael’s legal brain was amazing to witness. He contributed crucial strategic strategy—crucial strategic feedback on tough legal issues. There wasn’t any illusion that these human rights bodies could actually do anything, but Michael, true to his movement lawyering approach, was interested in the waves that we could make outside of the U.N., in the media, and bolstering opposition in the U.S. and in Palestine and Israel.

It was a couple of years later that Michael brought together another group, this time to think through what kind of legal work could be done here in the U.S. to confront Israel’s impunity. One would think, given his life’s work, that he would be focused on international accountability for human rights violations. But he was instead focused on what he saw happening in the U.S. to the growing numbers who oppose Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. This was in 2011, when students were being criminally prosecuted for protesting the Israeli ambassador to the U.S.’s speech at the University of California, Irvine; when Olympia Food Co-op board members were being sued for their vote to boycott Israeli goods; when students fundraising for the Gaza flotilla were being accused of supporting terrorism—all of this targeting what ought to be First Amendment-protected activities.

So, with Michael’s guidance and with the help of the Bertha Foundation, I started Palestine Legal. Four years later, we represent and advise hundreds of activists around the country who are facing backlash for speaking out for Palestinian rights. We’re needed now more than ever, as the movement for Palestinian rights grows and the attacks against it intensify. Legislatures in dozens of states are attacking our right to boycott. And people are being punished and maligned for expressing their views, called “anti-Semitic” and “pro-terrorist” for supporting Palestinian freedom and equality. Michael didn’t live to see Governor Cuomo’s executive order targeting boycotts of Israel last week. Let’s just imagine his reaction. Michael’s thinking was prescient. He recognized the urgent need to protect the right to dissent, and he understood what it would take to provide legal backing for a movement. He had done it before, after all, creating the Movement Support Network in the ’80s with CCR and the Lawyers Guild, that helped those being harassed and surveilled for supporting popular struggles against U.S. intervention in Central America.

Michael was a guiding force on Palestine Legal’s board, always concerned with making sure that we could sustain the work through the tough fights ahead, and always making time, even while representing Julian Assange and advising Edward Snowden and traveling around the world. As a board member, two things stood out about Michael. He was very straightforward. There was no time to beat around the bush. He wanted the report yesterday, if possible. And he pushed us to get it done, knowing what an important document it would be. Of course, he was the one who coined the phrase that would become the report’s title, “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech,” to describe the kind of suppression Palestine activists are facing. Brilliant.

But he was also always very encouraging. I had a chance to see Michael a week before he passed, just before he went back to the hospital. He wasn’t up for talking much. He was pretty exhausted. But he was still asking very pointed questions. And he made a point of saying several times, “You’re doing great. You’re doing great.” He sent many notes to that effect, as well, often in the subject line of an email. Those few words always meant a lot coming from Michael, because he wouldn’t say it if he didn’t really think it. Michael was a mentor to me, as he was to many young people, not in the traditional sense of a mentor, not in the “I’ll teach you the ropes” kind of way. His “What do I know?”s were not only a product of his vast humility, they were also a sign to those of us looking to him for the answers, telling us that we had the answers as much as he did, that he had confidence in our judgment and abilities. It will be a difficult road ahead without Michael a thoughtful and encouraging email away, but I feel strength in knowing that he felt proud of Palestine Legal’s work. Palestine Legal is now one of his many legacies, and we’re determined to carry it on, making sure that people can keep speaking truth to power, as Michael always did.

VINCENT WARREN: My name is Vince Warren. I’m the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We cannot rest. We cannot stop. We cannot be equivocal, because the stakes are far too high, and people’s lives are on the line. Each of us has within us the potential to enroll ourselves on the side of right and justice. Each of us has the potential to risk everything in support of change that will make a real difference in people’s lives. But before we can meaningfully and principally walk the long, arduous, thankless and risky path, we need to find the freedom that we believe in in ourselves.

That was both the first lesson and, after many more, the last lesson that I learned from Michael. The first time that I set foot in the Center for Constitutional Rights was in 1992 as part of the Ella Baker student program. And as a young law student, I was really intimidated. And I was right to be intimidated. The Center had an extraordinary history of fighting the largest battles, of being politically aligned with the most progressive movements. And I was just a law student. I didn’t know anything. But even amidst all of the chaos and the urgency that is CCR, I saw, through Michael’s leadership, that CCR was also a place where even young, freshly minted lawyers could try their hands at a case they never dreamed someone would have the chutzpah to do, where they could embroil themselves in the pressing issues of the day and hold, with great sanctity, the worst nightmares and the wildest dreams of the client.

As an Ella Baker, in my time as a young lawyer on the CCR board, I was in awe of Michael. His networks of people across the world were vast. The trust he shared with the most radical and vulnerable people was unparalleled. And his ability to divine the right legal strategy for the most intractable and impossible of problems was simply legendary. I wanted to follow him. I wanted to work with him. I wanted to do what he did. But I didn’t know if I could do it as me. Michael took a tremendous interest in me, and I, frankly, could not understand what he might see in me, as compared with all of the amazing and talented people who came to CCR. But, of course, the value of mentorship is to see something in someone that they don’t see in themselves.

He and I spent a lot of time together talking about politics more than cases. And I think this was because he sensed that I was getting a very good legal education and development, but he wanted to invest in my political development. But that was Michael, right? The two were never separate for Michael. Both needed to be honed. Both needed to be honored. Both needed to be nourished. Both needed to be developed. But the law could never trump politics. Politics would always have to come before the law, because the rules that supported injustice had to be broken, and the raw, naked power that oppressed people must be stopped. And Michael showed me that when handling big political cases—he told me the following thing. He said, “You know, most people think you’re crazy when you file them. Most people think that you wasted your time when you lose them. And some people think you’re a hero when you win them. But none of that matters. It’s all beside the point,” Michael said. And he showed me that our clients are the hero, for those of us in the legal field will never suffer what they went through. He told me that the only people that are crazy are the ones that continually don’t see how far things will go if you don’t try to stop it. And he told me that it’s a waste of time to try to ask politely for the vectors of power to please kindly change what they’re doing, because, as Frederick Douglass, who I am very honored and proud to be standing on the same stage that he once stood on as he said that “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.”

So when I became executive director, Michael and I would meet at the Washington Square Diner on West 4th Street. We’d meet really early in the morning. He was usually coming back from tennis. We would sit in the back, and we would start talking. And it was here that we first discussed the idea of a larger, more in-depth lawyer training program than the Ella Baker Program, the Bertha Justice Institute, and which, with thanks to the partnership of the Bertha Foundation, now trains young lawyers and law students across the country and across the world in the art of movement and people’s lawyering. Now, a core part of the training of the Ella Baker Program and the Bertha Justice Initiative was to wrestle with the question of how do we know when our work really makes a difference, even when most people think it won’t, even when everybody says it’s impossible, and even when the powers are so large, you would have to be a crazy fool to try to go against them. And Michael’s answer to that question was always the same thing. If you ask him, “Does this work make a difference?” he’s like, “Are you kidding me? Of course it makes a difference. I’d hate to see what—where things would be if we didn’t do something.” And the students that came through these programs, armed with that guidance and wisdom from Michael, have been recruited to work in places as far-flung as Guantánamo and Ferguson, Missouri.

And after all the incredible work on Guantánamo, Michael was known to compare the story of the Guantánamo work winning in court, followed by rollbacks in Congress, to that of Sisyphus, who, in mythology, was eternally damned to keep rolling an enormous rock up a steep hill at great effort and exertion, only to have that same rock roll back down the hill, only to have to roll it back up again. However, there was more to this comparison than Michael let on, because to hear the story of Sisyphus told in the usual manner, here’s what we’re told about him. He was an untrustworthy man and a cheat. He thumbed his nose at the gods. He didn’t follow the rules. And he got what was coming to him: an eternity of futility. But to hear Albert Camus tell the story, Sisyphus was a hero. He was a hero precisely because he didn’t follow the rules. He was a hero because he refused to let the gods dictate the lives of how—the lives of how mortals should be lived. And, in fact, Sisyphus put death himself into handcuffs and escorted him to jail, as the legend goes.

Michael taught his students and taught me that there is no power too big to be put into handcuffs. And like Sisyphus, we should not be afraid to slap those handcuffs on, no matter what the cost. The rock is still here. Michael is no longer with us. Who among us is going to be enrolled to move that rock back up the hill? As Camus says, and I quote, Sisyphus teaches us that the higher fidelity that negates the gods and—sorry, “Sisyphus teaches that the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes”—Sisyphus—”that all is well, [because] the universe henceforth without a master seems neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

Happy birthday, Michael.

CASSIDY REGAN: [singing] They wouldn’t hear your music
And they pulled your paintings down
They wouldn’t read your writing
And they banned you from the town
But they couldn’t stop you dreaming
And a victory you have won
For you sowed the seeds of freedom
In your daughters and your sons

In your daughters and your sons
In your daughters and your sons
You sowed the seeds of freedom
In your daughters and your sons

Your weary smile it proudly hides
The chainmarks on your hands
As you bravely strive to realize
The rights of everyman
And though your body’s bent and low
A victory you have won
For you sowed the seeds of justice
In your daughters and your sons

In your daughters and your sons
In your daughters and your sons
You sowed the seeds of justice
In your daughters and your sons

They taunted you in Belfast
And they tortured you in Spain
And in that Warsaw ghetto
Where they tied you up in chains
In Vietnam and in Chile
Where they came with tanks and guns
It was there you sowed the seeds of peace
In your daughters and your sons

In your daughters and your sons
In your daughters and your sons
You sowed the seeds of peace
In your daughters and your sons

And now your music’s playing
And the writing’s on the wall
And all the dreams you painted
Can be seen by one and all
And now you’ve got them thinking
And the future’s just begun
Because you sowed the seeds of freedom
In your daughters and your sons

In your daughters and your sons
In your daughters and your sons
You sowed the seeds of freedom
In your daughters and your sons

In your daughters and your sons
In your daughters and your sons
You sowed the seeds of justice
In your daughters and your sons.

LIZZY RATNER: Hi. Wow. I’m Lizzy Ratner, and I’m one of the two people lucky enough in this world to call Michael my uncle. Two years ago in May, Michael sent out an email to our family, one of those regular messages our semi-nuclear crew often got from him. “Remarkable day. Extremely moving and interesting,” his email began. “We walked to the gravesite. It’s in the part of the cemetery where they buried the first set of concentration camp victims. Elias Spet, our great-uncle, was one of these.”

Elias Spet. We had only learned of him a few months before, but Michael had become fascinated by him in the way that only Michael could. Michael visited the home in Berlin where Elias Spet lived before he was taken by the Nazis to Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp. Michael visited Sachsenhausen. He visited the cemetery. And then he visited a stonemason to order a new grave—sorry, and then he visited a stonemason to order a new gravestone to replace the existing, badly weathered one. Michael also ordered two Stolpersteine, or memorial blocks, to be placed in front of his house, where—in front of the house where Elias and his wife Emma had lived before the Nazis killed them.

Michael had a habit of going deep, following the trail of his preoccupations all the way to their fascinating conclusion. Still, I wondered about the intensity of this one, about Michael’s commitment to affirming the life of a man he had never met. It’s true, I think, that the Holocaust glowed like a kind of microwave background in his life reflecting back his earliest consciousness of the human ability to do terrible things to other people. And Elias Spet’s story was certainly a burning example of that. But was that it? Was it also that the two men were linked by a shared birthday—today, June 13th—that Michael was himself newly a great-uncle to a boy who, by pure happenstance, was named Elias? Or was it all this and something else, as well?

When Michael’s daughter Ana was bat mitzvahed years ago, she began her speech with one of my favorite opening lines of all time: “I don’t believe in God, but I believe in family.” We all loved that line—Michael most of all, I think—the boldness, the whiff of rebellion, the way it captured our fierce, fierce devotion to each other. But recently, I’ve begun to think it captured something else, as well. While it’s true that my family is, for the most part, a secular bunch, people of the here and now, that hasn’t stopped us from practicing what I can only describe as a kind of ancestor worship. We revere our ancestors, hallow them, aware that, but for them, we would not be here. And but for them, in some physical and even metaphysical way, we would not be who we are. Our most intense worship has always been reserved for Michael’s parents, Harry and Anne, who died young, but loomed enormous over our lives, like two powerful, if imperfect and very short, deities, gods of generosity, humanism, irreverence and wit. But it wasn’t just them. Great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, Elias Spet—they’re stories became our stories, founding myths for us to draw on, learn from and live up to.

Michael is one of the ancestors now, a member of the pantheon of those who came before. In life, he was my political sage, mentor, cheerleader and a person I simply adored. In death, he is my guide and example, at once absent and more consciously present, challenging me to be bold when I want to play it safe, reminding me to seek out principle and hold fast to it, urging me to build community, be curious, be rigorous, expansive, dedicated and always, always to go for the joke. I’m so glad you all clapped there, because that means you really knew Michael.

I’m still figuring out exactly how to honor Michael the ancestor. But several days after he died, I sat in his office with my son, the other Elias in this story, who is now six and sitting right over there, surrounded by all the artifacts of Michael’s extraordinary journey. Elias said of his great-uncle, “We have to tell people about Michael, so they will know what he did. And then they have to tell people, who have to tell more people, who have to tell more people, who have to tell more people. And that way, what he did will go on forever.” Tonight, you have heard so many remarkable stories about Michael. This is my contribution, and I hope you’ll share them all. Thank you.

REBBIE RATNER: OK, next up. So, I’m the other lucky half of—the other niece. And for the past 44 years, Michael has been my most amazing and adored uncle.

When Michael was first diagnosed last summer, it was absolutely unimaginable that we would be standing here today. A few days before the diagnosis, he had been throwing up, so I emailed him to check in. He emails back: “It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Soon you’ll be able to see my six pack.” Always his humor slayed me. Many of his jokes and gestures, I carry on internal repeat, and I would add this one to my roster—until that Saturday, when my dad called and told me the news, though we didn’t yet know the specifics.

I was in upstate New York that weekend, and I was beached on a bed, in what had years ago been the living room, googling brain tumors and praying to the god I only believe in during horrible moments that it would be the most benign of a not very benign physiological event. I knew how lucky we had been to have everyone in my immediate and immediate extended family still around, with the painful exception of my mother’s sister, and I had hoped we could keep kicking the can of inevitable loss down the road.

Anyway, there I am on this bed, marveling at the irony of how one of my fonder recent memories had played out on this very spot a few years back. We’re all upstate. My dad and Michael, two grown men in their late sixties, are lying on this bed, side by side, like some prepubescent kids passing a phone back and forth. “Mzo”—that’s what we call Michael—”look at this!” “No!” Michael would say, incredulous and his hand smacking against his mouth. “Bzo, that’s unbelievable!” I imagine this might not have been so different from how they rolled back in their childhood when sharing a bedroom. I was being given a window into that elusive thing we don’t usually get to witness of our parents, but I got to witness often, as I watched all of my father’s and his brother and sister’s relationships unfold very regularly. So I was being given a window into their childhood.

I took a break from my frantic googling. I wander into the kitchen, and the table is still cluttered with a recent meal. And that table, too, holds a specter of a recent memory that is simple, but adored. We’re eating a meal, which is considered—which consists of foods that serve, according to Michael, in the highest manner, as vehicles for ketchup. He does. It’s true. It’s incredible to behold. Karen is sitting between Michael and my dad. “Mzo”—this is my dad—”pass the ketchup.” And then, a minute later, “Bruce, could you hand me the ketchup?” This goes on for about half the meal, with Karen transferring the ketchup back and forth. And then, finally, Karen says, “Could you two just like sit next to each other? I’ve been spending the whole meal passing the ketchup between you both.”

All right, hold on. So, I know these are seemingly small and insignificant events, but they are also ones of deep familiarity and intimacy. They happen, and they get appreciated when you know someone so well that their movements, words and actions speak to a level of comfort so wide and so deep, that if you’re lucky enough, you catch their specialness in the moment, you hold onto it, you marvel at the mastery of love playing out in its most quotidian of ways. With Michael around, just as with my dad, I felt more at home.

Michael didn’t have kids until I was 16. Thank God he met Karen, and they gave me the absolute best cousins in the world. But for the first 16 years, he was the other significant surrogate parent figure in my life—except that he didn’t yell at me. It’s true. I love you, but it happens. It happens. It’s how you discipline—how you teach a kid. Anyway, OK, it’s not fun. Not fun. OK. So, it’s Michael—so, as Michael, surrogate of mine, it was he whose counsel I ended up seeking for my own world events, albeit of a more internal and less newsworthy nature than the ones he grappled with in his work. It is Michael whose existential considerations I sought when struggling with interpersonal issues—romantic, work or otherwise. And it is Michael who I called when my dad and I had a potentially serious rift, and I needed his opinion on how to proceed.

There are any number of reasons I sought Michael out. But at base, I think it’s because he spoke from a place of being able to deeply understand the experience of the other person. Michael was a master at relationships. Many people are here tonight because of Michael’s fierce commitment to fighting for human dignity against systemic odds. But I don’t think he would have been so effective, had one fundamental element not been in consistent play underneath it all, at very least for me, but, I imagine, for many, and we’ve heard this. And that fundamental element, perhaps a part of the impossibly close, is love.

ANA RATNER: Hello. I’m Ana. I’m Michael’s daughter. And I want to start just by thanking my mom, who has been staying up night after night, so that all of us could be here. And this is incredibly meaningful for all of us. So, thank you, Mom.

And so, I’ve been looking back at notes I wrote throughout the last nine months while my dad was sick. There’s one called “things to remember about this time.” I wrote it at a point when Michael was so sick, he could barely stand up from his chair. The first part of the note describes a week where I had a bad cold, and every time my dad saw me, he would say, “Poor Ana, I hate seeing you feeling bad.” He would go on to say just how the energy that Jake and I had made him so happy, that us being in the room with him made him feel better. I know that his extreme empathy, which often made it hard for him to sit through certain sad movies, played a huge part in the work that he dedicated his life to.

Many people tonight talked about Michael as a lawyer and an activist. But, of course, I want to talk about Michael as our dad. I think about the work he was doing my whole life, its global impact and importance to so many movements and individuals, and then I think about the family dinners that Jake and I were forced to attend every single night at 5:00. It makes me wonder if there were maybe two Michaels—one who was in Cuba talking with Haitian refugees detained at Guantánamo and one who spent every night reading books to me about animal emotions or benevolent witches while we ate bags and bags of salt-and-vinegar potato chips.

These past nine months, we’ve also been watching a lot of our home movies, which we’re all incredibly lucky to have a journalist for a mother, because every moment was documented. And the one thing that comes across more than anything is that, as a family, we were constantly playing. Michael would throw us over his head into the air, all of us yelling until we were exhausted. We would dress up for our Gloria Estefan family dance parties in red capes, which on their off time were velvet banners embroidered with Lenin’s face that hung above our dining room table. Jake would hold a scepter, which doubled as a caraca [phon.], given to Michael from Coroma, Bolivia, to thank him for returning sacred textiles.

As we got older, our relationships changed, and we all had to learn what it meant to be in a family of adult children with adult parents. My dad and I would talk about this, about how he never felt like he had this opportunity, since both his parents had died when he was young. He was nervous that he didn’t know how to do it, to be the father of grown children. But he definitely did. We talked about everything. He would make fun of me for drinking kombucha and always dating musicians. We would talk about the deer and bear he caught on his critter cam that he tied to trees in the woods upstate. It was always the first thing he would do when we got up there, is run into the woods and untie the camera from the tree, run home, plug the chip in, and then go through the probably thousands of photos—mostly leaves falling. Sometimes there would be like a squirrel, and he would make sure to email it to every single person in our family. And we would talk about—he helped me with my applications to grad school, down to every last detail, going with me to London to my interview, helping me edit all my papers—and then, of course, what types of activism would best bring on the revolution. And, of course, he was still my dad, but he also became my best friend.

At his 70th birthday party, I read a speech to him that included a part about an avocado pit that Jake, him and I had planted 19 years ago, when I was seven and Jake was nine. The pit is now a full-size tree. It’s about six feet tall and lives at our home in Greenwich Village. It spends summers in the backyard and then comes inside for the winter. After Michael got sick, he spent most of the day sitting in the living room, where the avocado tree was overwintering. Often when we were talking, our conversation would turn to our shared concern for the health of this tree. Thinking about it now, his concern was in part concern for me, and mine for him. The tree’s leaves were drying and falling off. It really didn’t look good. One day, in desperation, Michael ordered a sun lamp in order to revive it. When the light arrived, I installed it, while he directed me from his chair. Every morning, when he came upstairs, the first thing he did before he sat down was walk over to the tree and turn the sun lamp on. The tree thrived under his care, and we both became optimistic. The tree had returned to health. I think about this tree as something we shared from my childhood until the day he died. It’s a symbol of the love he had for us, as well his excitement for life and all living things, down to the smallest fish. The day before his final hospitalization, the tree was moved to the backyard, and the sun lamp stayed in the living room, shining brightly on a papier-mâché cactus. The last thing that I heard him say before he died was a classic Michael Ratner joke that made fun of all of us for trying to grow this inanimate object.

When I remember him, of course, I remember his incredible legacy, that will live on in all of us. But I also remember that, as important as his work was, he put Jake, Elena, Karen, Lizzy, Elias, Rebbie, Bruce, Ellen and me before all of it. And that is what made him so special. It is easy for one to become overwhelmed by the state of this world, especially as an activist fighting every day to change it. But if there is one thing that Michael can teach all of us, it is that the most important thing you can do in this world is be there for the people—and plants—you love. Thank you.

JAKE RATNER: So, growing up with Michael and Karen as parents was joyful, it was affirming, it was loving. But it was also unique. On the day I was born, as all the other babies were being wrapped in pink and blue blankets, my dad swaddled me in a blanket with big block letters across it that said, “The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola.” It’s true. Then, next to me, he placed a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s book Memory of Fire, and he snapped my first baby photo. This was going to be a different kind of childhood.

By age five, I would often climb up on the back of a chair and take down a wooden gun from the shelf that had ”FMLN” painted on it—the Salvadoran revolutionary guerrilla movement, for those that didn’t laugh—and I would parade around the dining room in my pajamas. On birthdays, we would take down a Palestinian keffiyeh from the coat rack, and I would wrap it around my eyes, and we would take turns whaling at a piñata. Around the holidays, the mantlepiece in our living room became a tapestry of taped-up holiday cards, just beneath the Emmy my mom won for a documentary about hard metals disease. And I seemed to be constantly getting passed between revolutionary leaders and political icons, somehow winding up in the arms of President Aristide from Haiti or Daniel Ortega, or sitting on the knee of Muhammad Ali.

But honestly, that was all just the backdrop. The real memories I have are the hours upon hours that my parents played with us. For as much as my dad spent working furiously, he dedicated his life to us even more, if that’s possible. He would take us on long walks through the woods or hatch baby ducks in our city bathtub or dig for ancient treasures in abandoned house foundations in upstate New York. It was all just at the same time with the chitter-chatter of grown-ups talking about the history of freedom struggles from around the world. Just even tonight, I was talking to someone, and they told me a story about when they were working together on Haiti, and they would hold intense meetings to decide what the next move would be. And so, all seated around a conference room, I—I was probably about—I guess this was—I was about three or four—would crawl out from underneath the table. And my dad would say, “Jakey!” and stop the whole meeting and get down on the floor to play with me.

By the time my dad had his own kids, he actually had a large following of youngins who would trail him wherever he went, so much so that some of them became concerned when his first kid was on the way—that’s me. In his wedding speech, standing next to my very pregnant mom, my dad says, “One of the children came up here and asked—and asked me, 'Michael, now that you're having your own kids, will you love us any less?’ And so I just want to say to all the children here that I love each and every one of you very much. And, no, I will never love you any less.” He had a natural gift for connecting with young people, an ability to share in their curiosity of the world, spouting off facts on any topic they threw his way, and a silliness and a joyfulness that endeared them. Ask any kid here under the age of 12 what my dad’s real name is, and they’ll tell you—

AUDIENCE MEMBERS: Mr. Cool!

JAKE RATNER: Mr. Cool. And yet, he would also take them seriously. He would ask about what was happening in their lives, ask their thoughts about the state of the world, and listen deeply to all they had to say.

So I think, between this profound humility and his dedication to us, it wasn’t until I was a lot older that I began to realize who my dad really was. One day, on the way home from school at age 13, I walked by a yellow New York Post news box, and there, pushed up against the glass, was the front page with a photo of my dad. And in big bold letters across the top, the headline read, “Lawyer for Terror.” So, I promptly took it home and pinned it up against my—above my bed and displayed it to all my very confused friends.

When I was 14, I heard there was going to be a student walkout to join a major march against the Iraq War in Union Square. Probably more interested in a good excuse to skip out, I convinced a few friends to go with me and head to the march. And there, to my shock, was my dad, on stage and speaking to a crowd of thousands, with an intense passion and a righteous anger, that I had never seen before, at the unjust killing of so many, justified with a manufactured fear. And to this day, I feel like I’m still finding out who he was.

When I got the news that my dad was sick, I took the next flight to New York, and I moved back into my parents’ home. My sister moved in, too. It was the first time in a decade that we were all back together under the same roof. The house just teemed with life, all of our normal rhythms suspended so that we could spend every day together. And while there were so many moments when we were drained and my dad was beyond exhausted, every time my sister and I would come into the room, he would rouse, and a huge smile would light up across his face. He would ask us about our days, wanted to know what we were thinking about and feeling, and what we thought of what was going on. We shared so many beautiful memories these last nine months, knowing that we had to make the most of whatever time we had.

I’ve always known that my parents were at the heart of a big, beautiful, progressive community that spanned across the country and even around the world. But seeing this community come together these last few months has been remarkable. The living room of our home became a salon, where journalists and lawyers and organizers would come together, sharing stories of decades of work done in community. The doorbell seemed to be constantly ringing. One night, I heard it ring, and I groggily shuffled downstairs in my socks to open the front door, and standing there was Judge Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish judge that indicted the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. I tried to keep his eyes up from my socks.

Those months, though, they turned into an incredible history of my dad’s life, with all of us perched on the couch, getting to listen to story after story that he told, hanging on every word in a way we had never before. Like how he decided to go to Nicaragua and gather the testimonies from survivors of a massacre that was carried out by U.S.-supplied mercenaries. And when he arrived, he was handed a machine gun, and he was taught how to shoot it. And he was driven up into the mountains, where mortar shells were exploding all around him. Or how he tracked down dozens of sacred textiles that had been stolen from a Bolivian village. And when he was finally able to get them back, he flew with the textiles to La Paz, only to step off the plane to see 30,000 people there waiting to receive them.

Hearing the way he told these stories still with so much passion so many years later or watching him muster all his energy to call Julian Assange on a cryptophone from his reclining chair, I’m just left with such awe as to how he was able to sustain it all these years. But he always said the key was not doing it alone. He said you need to build a community of people all around you who can share in this work together. And he did.

When I think about all the ways that my dad still lives on in me, I know there are so many of these profound lessons that he’s instilled in us, so many stories that will continue to inspire us and inspire me to keep going. But I’m also left with all his humor, his quirks, his terrible jokes. From my dad, for example, I learned some pretty great card games, like 52 pickup, which he called cowboy poker: “I let ’em loose, and you round ’em up.” When we were young, he taught us that your nose could be stolen off your face with a quick swipe, and you’d have to beg him to get it back; that poisonous Amanita mushrooms were best destroyed with a big stick while yelling, “Kill it before it multiplies!”; and, as Rebbie said tonight, so you know it’s true, that all food is just really a vehicle for ketchup; but, more than anything, that you won’t make it past the despair if you don’t laugh constantly. And he did. He laughed, and he joked, and he kept all of us laughing when we needed it most. As I’ve been looking through family photos this last month, in most of them he’s laughing.

But when he’s not laughing, he’s looking at us with pride. Photo after photo, whether it’s Ana at one of her art shows or me at a Coalition of Immokalee Workers protest, he’s just glowing with pride. And this love and this pride that he felt for us was also how he felt for the next generation. It wasn’t just his kids he helped bring up, it was the Ella Baker interns at CCR, family friends’ kids thinking about law or movement building, my friends who saw him as their political mentor. He taught us his knowledge. He took pride in our modest accomplishments and always expressed a sense of hopefulness, even in the darkest days of this country and even in the darkest of his own.

When he got one last moment to speak to a group of movement activists and young people, he kept repeating, over and over again, “I am not pessimistic at all.” But it was not naïveté. He knew things that were going in an increasingly terrifying direction, but he saw this community of people committed to carrying out this work. He saw young people picking up the torch. He watched as movements were on the rise. He believed they could only grow stronger. He believed they could turn the tide. And he believed in us. Thank you.

MICHAEL RATNER: Be warned: We are at a tipping point, a tipping point into lawlessness and medievalism. We have our work to do. For each of us, the time for talking is long, long over. This is no time for compromise, no time for political calculation. As Howard Zinn admonishes us, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.

KAREN RANUCCI: ¡Michael Ratner, presente! His spirit lives on in each of us. And as his family, we feel confident, because we know this room of people, we know all the people that he’s influenced, that our work is cut out. We’re going to continue our struggles to save this planet and to create a just world. And so, Michael will be there for us, with us, but it’s up to us now. So, thank you all for being here. And we want to hear from you. Many of you have been sending us photos, wonderful stories, and we’ve put them up on a Tumblr site. And thanks to our dear friends—Anthony Arnove, Hannah Lane, Roy Singham and all the dear friends of ThoughtWorks, who have built an archive site to Michael, where future generations will be able to know his story and to be inspired to go forward.

So, at this point, I want to be joined by some in this community. Come, guys. Come on. Where’d you go? Come on. And we want all of you to join us in Michael’s favorite song. All right, where’s the slide?

AUDIENCE: [singing] Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise, ye wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation:
A better world’s in birth!
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us;
Arise, ye slaves, no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations:
We have been nought, we shall be all!
’Tis the final conflict;
Let each stand in his place.
The International Union
Shall be the human race!
’Tis the final conflict;
Let each stand in their place.
The International Union
Shall be the human race!

We want no condescending saviors
To rule us from a judgment hall;
We workers ask not for their favors;
Let us consult for all.
To make the thief disgorge his booty
To free the spirit from its cell,
We must ourselves decide our duty,
We must decide, and do it well.
’Tis the final conflict;
Let each stand in his place.
The International Union
Shall be the human race!
’Tis the final conflict;
Let each stand in his place.
The International Union
Shall be the human race!

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