By Arthur Z. Schwartz
I was touched by death too many times this past month. On April 29, Reverend Daniel Berrigan died at age 95; his life as our nation’s conscience had affected me as a young man looking to make sense of the War in Vietnam, and as an adult who saw him as an example of personal courage and self-sacrifice. And then a lawyer named Ramon Jimenez, who died at 67, after he took his Harvard degree and spent 40 years being a people’s lawyer in the South Bronx. Some called him a “voice for the voiceless,” a phrase he might have rejected as self-aggrandizing. The poor and powerless, he knew, have perfectly fine voices. Ramon and I bonded after appearing together on the Barry Gray Show back in 1978, on New Year’s Eve. Gray tried to kick us off the air and his fill-in host, Bob Lipsyte, refused. And then another giant died, Michael Ratner, who at age 72 had shaken the conscience of the world, representing the prisoners at Guantanamo whom the rest of the world didn’t want to see. And, since so few of us knew that he was a local guy, a neighbor, I have to chime in on his glowing obituaries.
Michael Ratner, who so few knew was the brother of Bruce Ratner, one of NYC’s premier developers, made a career out of suing the powerful. He sued Ronald Reagan for funding the contras in Nicaragua, and for invading Grenada, he sued George H. W. Bush for invading Iraq without Congressional authorization, and Donald Rumsfeld for torture. He sued the FBI for spying on activists and the Pentagon for restricting coverage of the Gulf War. In his most important victory, in a case called Rasul v. Bush, the Supreme Court declared that Guantanamo detainees had a right to seek judicial review of the legality of their detention as “enemy combatants.” Michael was the catalyst and brains behind countless lawsuits launched out of the Center for Constitutional Rights, but rarely took the role of lead counsel, letting others get credit.
I got to know Michael best, however, as a dad. His son, Jake, was on a Greenwich Village Little League team I managed for six years, joining my son Jake. I never got Michael to coach, but he would watch, amazed that I got Jake to play some pretty decent baseball, eager to return season after season. And he was helpful when the Little League brought the lawsuit which won the field on Pier 40.
Michael lived on Washington Place, and loved Washington Square Park. And I can now reveal that he was the financier of a lawsuit over the final plan for the park. The lawsuit lost, but one of his key ideas was implemented nevertheless—the low fence around the Park, which keeps it from ever being a space cut off from passersby, like Gramercy Park.
All three of these men made the world a better place. The world will miss them. So will I.
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the President of Advocates for Justice, a Public Interest Law Foundation.