BY MATT KENNY
1. Lynne Stewart, Present
On March 7, 2017,
less than four weeks after
the Blind Sheikh died,
Lynne Stewart, his former lawyer,
passed away after a long struggle with breast cancer
at seventy-seven years old.
Before she died
Stewart reflected on Omar Abdel-Rahman to the New York Times:
“he was the personification of an American hero.
I feel very strongly that he suffered.
He suffered unjustly because
he was convicted of a bogus crime.”
On January 17, 1996,
Abdel-Rahman was sentenced to life in prison
for seditious conspiracy against the United States.
At the center of the indictment was the “Day of Terror” plot,
in which followers of the Blind Sheikh were accused
of planning to detonate five bombs
in the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels
the George Washington Bridge,
the United Nations Headquarters,
and a federal office building in lower Manhattan.
included the conspiracy to bomb the World Trade Center
on February 26, 1993.
Following the sentencing,
Abdel-Rahman proclaimed his innocence,
declaring the trial as
“not only an attack on Muslims alone,
but it is an attack on the words of God.
I have not committed any crime except
telling people about Islam.”
Violence seemed to follow the Sheikh wherever he went.
the Sheikh had been accused
of inciting two major riots and issuing the fatwa
that led to the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
In the United States,
found himself in close proximity
to the deaths
of Afghan mujahideen fundraiser Mustafa Shalabi
and the American-Israeli hate activist Meir Kahane.
It was the word of Omar Abdel-Rahman
that touched this history of violence.
Abdel-Rahman was the spiritual guide of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya,
a revolutionary movement dedicated to overthrowing the secular Egyptian government
and replacing it with an Islamic state.
Nearly a decade after Abdel-Rahman’s sentencing,
on February 10, 2005,
alongside the Abdel-Rahman legal team’s
translator, Mohammed Yousry,
and al-Gama’a middleman Ahmed Abdel Sattar,
for providing material support to terrorists.
Stewart was accused of passing messages
from the Blind Sheikh to supporters in Egypt
while he was under Special Administrative Measures.
SAMs are directives
the United States Attorney General
may issue the United States Bureau of Prisons
“regarding housing, correspondence and visitors to specific inmates.”
It includes prisoners awaiting trial or being tried,
as well as those convicted,
when it is alleged
there is a
“substantial risk that a prisoner’s communications
or contacts with persons
could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons, or substantial damage to property
that would entail the risk
of death or serious bodily injury to persons.”
Stewart had signed agreements
to these procedures under both the Clinton and Bush
As the spiritual guide to al-Gama’a,
Abdel-Rahman’s communications with the outside world were absolutely restricted.
The only weapon Abdel-Rahman ever had at his disposal was his ability to communicate his vision
with the authority vested in him by his followers.
Stewart had spoken to a reporter who worked for Reuters in Cairo regarding Abdel-Rahman’s view
that al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya withdraw
from a cease-fire agreement with the Egyptian Government.
On April 9, 2002,
Attorney General John Ashcroft announced in New York City
that the Federal Government was indicting
Stewart, Yousry, and Sattar
for materially aiding a terrorist organization,
conspiracy to provide material aid to a terrorist organization,
defrauding the US Government, and lying to the US Government
under the 1996 Terrorism Act.
Stewart was arrested in front of her home
and brought to Manhattan’s FBI office
while her office was searched.
Three hours later she was locked up.
That night the Attorney General
went on the David Letterman Show
to tie Stewart’s case to the War on Terror.
His remarks were met with applause.
Letterman wanted him to sing a song.
Stewart’s supporters posted the $500,000 bail.
On June 13, 2003,
Judge John Koeltl asked prosecutor Christopher Morvillo
what distinguished political activities protected
by the United States Constitution
from criminal conduct in terrorism cases.
His answer was simply,
“You know it when you see it, your honor.”
The indictment included the revelation
that Stewart’s meetings with the Blind Sheikh in prison
had been recorded for two years before her arrest.
The explosive potential of this intrusion
into attorney–client privileges
meant that this trial could reframe what it meant for lawyers
to defend unpopular clients.
The duel between Stewart and Ashcrof
t had massive ramifications for civil liberties in the United States
and the chilling message from the government
was that the attacks on 9/11
had deeply altered America’s legal system.
Together, Stewart and the Justice Department
were pioneering new boundaries in the freshly born “war on terror.”
The scale of these questions
was not lost on the judge overseeing the case.
On July 22, 2003,
Judge Koeltl issued a seventy-seven-page opinion that
“the statute under which the charges were brought,”
the 1996 Terrorism Act, was
“unconstitutionally vague as applied
to the defendants’ conduct”
and dismissed the charges.
an angry and embarrassed Attorney General Ashcroft,
along with James B. Comey,
US Attorney of the Southern District of New York,
announced superseding charges against
Ahmed Abdel Sattar, Lynne Stewart, and Mohammed Yousry
on November 19, 2003.
The indictment read that
“after Abdel Rahman’s arrest,
a coalition of terrorists, supporters, and followers,
including leaders and associates
of the Islamic Group, al Qaeda, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad,
and the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the Philippines,
threatened and committed acts of terrorism
directed at obtaining the release
of Abdel Rahman from prison.”
The indictment continued,
“Abdel Rahman himself urged his followers
to wage jihad to obtain his release from custody.
For instance, in a message to his followers
recorded while he was in prison,
Abdel Rahman stated that
“It is a duty upon all the Muslims around the world
to come to free the Sheikh,
and to rescue him from this jail.”
New charges were added against Sattar,
alleging that with Abdel Rahman,
Sattar conspired to kill and kidnap persons in a foreign country.
Stewart and Yousry were charged with
“providing and concealing material support
to conceal and kidnap persons in a foreign country.”
The government wanted Stewart badly.
At the opening of the new trial in June 2004,
prosecutor Morvillo told the jury that Stewart
“used her status as a lawyer as a cloak
to smuggle messages into and out of prison.”
He charged that Stewart allowed the Blind Sheikh
“to incite terrorism.”
The prosecution showed the jury
video of Osama bin Laden
urging support for the Blind Sheikh.
On February 10, 2005,
Stewart, Yousry, and Sattar were convicted
after the jury deliberated for thirteen days.
The prosecution hoped that Stewart
would spend the remainder of her life in prison:
“…this sentence of 30 years
will not only punish Stewart for her actions,
but serve as a deterrent for other lawyers
who believe that they are above
the rules and regulations of penal institutions
or otherwise try to skirt the laws of this country.”
Stewart was shocked by the prosecution’s proposed sentencing;
she had signed agreements and knowingly broken them,
expecting a different punishment.
“It said on this piece of paper that breaking the S.A.M.s
could result in being cut off from visits.”
On October 16, 2006, Stewart was sentenced
to twenty-eight months in prison by Judge John Koeltl.
The sentence was viewed by the administration
as a frustrating setback.
Stewart was automatically disbarred.
She appealed the court’s decision and
on November 17, 2009,
the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
not only upheld the conviction
but also ordered that she be re-sentenced.
Once again, she returned to Judge Koeltl’s court
but this time the judge was ordered
“terrorism, perjury and abuse of her position as a lawyer”
into account in his decision on sentencing.
On July 15, 2010
seventy years old,
mother and grandmother,
was sentenced to one-hundred-twenty months in prison
by Judge Koeltl.
split-second of silence in the court the moment the words
“one hundred twenty months,”
left the judge’s mouth.
That silence was
devoted to converting
those months to years.
Five times the original sentence.
“A death sentence,”
said her husband, Ralph Poynter. The New York Times reported that
“a collective gasp went up from Ms. Stewart’s supporters,
who packed the broad high-ceilinged courtroom.
That was followed by a few shrieks and sobs;
some held their hands over their mouths.”
When asked to speak, Stewart answered,
“I’m somewhat stunned, judge,
by the swift change in my outlook.”
Regaining composure, Stewart lamented,
“I feel like I let a lot of my good people down.”
Friends, family, and supporters shouted:
“We love you!”
Stewart’s breast cancer,
originally diagnosed in 2006,
returned while she was in prison.
In early 2013 Stewart received chemotherapy in shackles.
Diagnosed with only eighteen months to live,
Stewart was granted a compassionate release
and left prison on December 31, 2013.
Aboveground and Underground
Stewart was a passionate “movement” lawyer.
Born and raised in Queens,
Stewart went to law school after her political awakening.
Stewart’s practice brought her into the company
of a group of powerful activist lawyers
facing the twilight of the revolutionary movements of the 1960s.
Stewart was a librarian at a public school in Harlem,
where she met her future husband, Ralph Poynter,
a black teacher and union organizer.
A sheltered white woman from Queens,
what Stewart witnessed in Harlem
was not only the school’s deep inadequacy,
but American society’s systemic oppression of African Americans.
Poynter brought Stewart into the flourishing movement
for civil rights and
over the course of four decades Poynter and Stewart
would become the dynamic duo of New York’s activist community.
their activities came at a cost:
Poynter was fired for trying to organize parents
to confront the collapsing school system.
Afterward, Stewart and Poynter became central figures
in New York City’s revolutionary underground.
Stewart went to law school with an eye toward advocacy.
“Because I could come up against government,
on behalf of someone who didn’t really have the tools
or the wherewithal to do that
and yet I could still go home
and look at myself in the mirror.”
Poynter and Stewart spoke
of “aboveground” activism and the “underground” militancy
and it was the underground that came to define Stewart’s service.
Stewart described her beliefs in these terms:
“We said, if we can’t have the apples off of the tree,
we’ll chop the damn tree down.”
Every profile of Stewart
makes note of her personal warmth,
her gift for reaching the sympathies of a jury,
and her moral passion.
Her appearance was so unpretentious
it amounted to a form of reverse-pretention.
Stewart’s adversaries respected her
and her clients loved her.
These clients included
former Weatherman David Gilbert,
mob enforcer Sammy “the Bull” Gravano,
Colin Ferguson, the Long Island Railroad Shooter,
and Black Panther airline hijacker Willie Roger Holder.
Willie Holder’s hijacking of Western Airlines flight 701
still holds the record
for the longest-distance hijacking in American history,
flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco to New York to Algeria.
Whether they were black power activists or gangsters,
Stewart zealously fought for them.
Tributes to Stewart from former clients and activists
following her death
reveal the respect she earned.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, an activist and journalist
serving life in prison
for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner:
“For decades, she and her husband, Ralph, fought for
New York City’s political activists and revolutionaries, like the
Black Panthers and Young Lords—a Puerto Rican socialist collective.
But mostly, they fought for the freedom of the poor and dispossessed
of New York’s Black and Brown ghettoes.”
Jaan Laaman, member of the Ohio 7,
in prison serving a fifty-three-year sentence:
“For decades Lynne Stewart was a, if not the,
preeminent human rights, civil rights, peoples’ lawyer,
boldly fighting for justice, equality, and freedom
in many of the most important and widely reported cases in the United States.”
As antagonistic as Stewart was to “the system,”
she also believed that her role as an advocate
could change that system.
In a fascinating interview with Chris Hedges in the summer of 2016
about the deterioration of radical activism,
Stewart and Poynter
looked back on their sixty years of resistance.
Poynter and Hedges shared
a dark view of America’s future prospects.
Speculating on the result of America’s
ambivalent treatment of its disenfranchised people,
Poynter asserted that
“there is going to be death”
in the country’s inevitable turn toward revolution.
In their view it was unlikely
that American society had the ability to change course,
short of a massive violent uprising.
In the face of bleak evidence,
rising homicides in Chicago,
the militarization of the police,
the water crisis in Flint, Michigan,
the explosion of income inequality,
radical movements “defanged”
by a system
designed to seduce and oppress with startling completeness,
Poynter and Hedges had some justification for their pessimism.
Stewart stepped in,
even after more than four years in prison,
with a somewhat more hopeful outlook.
“I just want to end by saying that you know,
I do have high hopes, never ever giving up
because as someone once said to me in Berkley of all places,
they said you know, Lynne,
when we were in the fifties and we were out there
trying to get people signing petitions for the Rosenbergs
and they executed them
we really thought this is never going to change.
And then we had the sixties. So I feel the same way.
I look at it now and I say, can this ever change,
are we so caught up in this,
is this so much YouTube
and so little people actually communicating,
will it change?
And I have faith, it will change.
And it will come about the way it always does,
by people who are just fed up
and go out there and say I am going to fight for this,
fight for this because we are also,
as Ralph has just finished saying,
that it’s going to come by being nice and playing nice.
It’s never going to come that way.”
Stewart’s vantage point
from her start
in the battle for civil rights,
the struggle against the Vietnam War,
to her professional arrival at
the withering of counterculture,
the explosion of the drug wars,
and finally her swan song in the midst of the War on Terrorism
made her witness to America’s darker currents.
She spoke to the National Lawyers Guild in 2003,
presenting her view of advocacy:
“For we have formidable enemies
not unlike those in the tales of the ancient days.
There is consummate evil
that unleashes its dogs of war on the helpless;
an enemy motivated only by insatiable greed—
The Miller’s daughter made to spin gold—
the fisherman’s wife:
all with no thought of consequences.
In this enemy
there is no love of the land
or the creatures that live there, no compassion for the people.
This enemy will destroy the air we breathe
and the water we drink
as long as the dollars keep filling up their money boxes.
We now resume our everyday lives
but we have been charged once again,
with, and for, our quests,
and like Hippolyta and her Amazons;
like David going forth to meet Goliath,
like Beowulf the dragon slayer,
like Quenn Zenobia,
who made war on the Romans,
like Sir Galahad seeking the holy grail.
And modern heroes, dare I mention?
Ho and Mao and Lenin,
Fidel and Nelson Mandela and John Brown,
Che Guevara who reminds us
‘At the risk of sounding ridiculous,
let me say that the true revolutionary
is guided by a great feeling of love.’
Our quests, like theirs,
are to shake the very foundations of the continents.
We go out to stop police brutality—
To rescue the imprisoned—
To change the rules for those who have never been able
to get to the starting line much less run the race,
because of color, physical condition,
gender, mental impairment.
We go forth to preserve
the air and land and water and sky and all the beasts
that crawl and fly.
We go forth to safeguard
the right to speak and write,
to join; to learn,
to rest safe at home, to be secure, fed, healthy, sheltered,
loved and loving,
to be at peace with one’s identity.”
When asked by Abdel-Rahman’s lawyer and
former Attorney General Ramsey Clark
to take the Blind Sheikh’s case
he told her,
“If you are a fireman and you walk by a fire
you must run in.”
“Something of a Folk Hero”
Before Omar Abdel-Rahman,
Lynne Stewart’s most famous legal battle was securing,
alongside infamous defense attorney William M. Kunstler,
the 1988 acquittal of Larry Davis,
a twenty-two-year-old black man,
for the attempted murder of nine police officers in 1986.
On November 19, 1986,
twenty-seven police officers surrounded
a Bronx building.
This was a year after
the New York Times, a little late to the story, first reported that a
“new form of cocaine, known as crack,
was on sale in New York City.”
These twenty-seven police officers assembled
outside of a home
with bulletproof vests, shotguns, and handguns.
Their purpose of the raid was
to question twenty-year-old Larry Davis.
Twenty days earlier
Davis was apparently a suspect
in an exchange of gunfire and subsequent car chase
with the police in the High Bridge section of the Bronx.
There was no arrest warrant for the raid.
The intercom broken, a tenant let the heavily armed squad in.
Fifteen officers took up positions outside the six-story tenement,
Twelve others went inside
Robert McFadden recounted the raid vividly
in the New York Times the following day:
“Six of these—
a captain, a sergeant, two detectives,
and two emergency service officers—
entered the three-room ground floor apartment
of the suspect’s sister, Regina Lewis.
Four adults and four children,
including Mr. Davis and his girlfriend
and infant daughter were in the apartment.
‘I heard a knock,’ Ms. Lewis recalled yesterday, ‘I was on the phone near the doorway.
I saw the knob turning and I
thought it was my sister.’”
She opened the door, the police entered with guns drawn
and told Davis’s sister and girlfriend
to take the children out of the apartment.
“‘Come out, Larry, you don’t have a chance—
we’ve got you surrounded.’
Blazing away with a shotgun and handguns
from a small bedroom where two babies lay asleep,
Mr. Davis wounded the six officers
as they stood in an adjoining living room.
Returning the gunfire in a shootout
in which 30 shots and eight shotgun blasts resounded,
the six retreated into a hallway.
In the ensuing confusion of bleeding officers,
screaming bystanders and gunfire,
who took cover behind a stairwell
and a corner of an L-shaped hallway,
apparently took their eyes off the door to the apartment
where Mr. Davis was hiding.
Slipping out of his cul-de-sac,
the gunman entered the hallway,
went into a next-door apartment
whose lock had been shot off in the gunplay,
dropped 10 feet from a window into a rear courtyard,
vaulted a brick fence into an alley
and escaped unnoticed.
As the wounded officers were rushed
to Bronx-Lebanon Hospital
across the street,
a search of the 30-family building
and the surrounding area was conducted,
but no trace of the suspect was found.
In the apartment police found a 16-gauge shotgun,
a .32-caliber pistol and a .357 Magnum pistol.”
Humiliated, the NYPD deployed a bloodhound to search for Davis.
“Tunnels, bridges, airports and rail and bus terminals
were being watched
and a task force of heavily armed officers
wearing bulletproof vests
searched for known haunts of the fugitive…
It was the highest number of officers
shot in a single incident in memory.”
In the aftermath, it was revealed
that Davis was wanted for the murder of five men.
After a citywide manhunt lasting seventeen days,
police finally caught up with Davis
in the Twin Parks housing project.
Davis held a woman and her two children hostage.
The police learned this at one in the morning
and for the next six hours
they negotiated from an apartment
just down the hall
from Davis and his hostages.
At the start, Davis,
panicked, proclaimed he had removed the pin from a grenade,
but a long conversation about synthesizers with a savvy police officer
defused the tension.
At seven in the morning Davis surrendered,
escorted through the project hallways to cheers and clapping.
“As police searched him, they found one pocket full of loose
change and another with seven or eight pieces of candy, which
fell to the ground.” “Everybody grabbed for the candy,” said Ms. Arroyo, whose
family was never forced to flee the apartment. “I grabbed a
Tootsie Roll from the floor and put it in my pocket. A lot of
people grabbed them as souvenirs.”
Larry Davis had become a folk hero.
A Social Pharmacology of Smokable Cocaine
Only two and a half months prior,
on September 14, 1986,
President Reagan and the first lady
went on national television
to talk about cocaine.
The American landscape was faced with an array of challenges,
untouched by the artificial glow of the President’s sunny rhetoric,
and alongside his wife he sought to address one of them:
the War on Drugs.
Included in this paternal address
was a reminiscence of the glory days of World War II, America’s greatest hour:
“My generation will remember
how America swung into action
when we were attacked in World War II.
The war was not just fought
by the fellows flying the planes
or driving the tanks.
It was fought at home by a mobilized nation—
men and women alike—
building planes and ships,
clothing sailors and soldiers
feeding marines and airmen;
and it was fought by children
planting victory gardens and collecting cans.”
The President went on,
speculating about the dead of the Second World War:
“Never would they see another sunlit day glistening
off a lake or river back home
miles of corn pushing up against the open sky of our plains. The pristine air of our mountains
and the driving energy of our cities are theirs no more.”
On December 20, 1985,
the Associated Press published a report
by Brian Barger and Robert Parry
alleging that that Nicaraguan rebels in northern Costa Rica
were trafficking cocaine to finance their war
against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
The report accused the Nicaraguan Democratic Force,
and the Revolutionary Democratic Alliance
of using drug money to finance the war against the communists.
At the same time these groups were also
financed and supported by a secret operation
run out of Reagan’s National Security Council.
Five of the whistleblowers talking
to Barger and Parry were American mercenaries
who went down to Costa Rica to train the Contras.
Witnesses at the front in Central America
were in mortal danger.
Former Panamanian Health Minister Hugo Spadafora
was decapitated and stuffed into a US Mail bag
near the Costa Rica–Panama border.
The figure “F-8” was carved into his corpse;
the signature of a Panamanian hit squad.
Spadafora was murdered only days after talking to
a DEA official in the American Embassy in Costa Rica
about blowing the whistle
on corruption and cocaine in the Contra movement.
The Contras were a diverse coalition
of counterrevolutionary Nicaraguans
fighting the Sandinistas,
the leftist guerilla movement that assumed power
after the fall of the Somoza Dynasty.
Still stricken with Vietnam syndrome,
the United States remained allergic to military adventurism,
so the United States assumed the role of wealthy patron
for freedom fighters from Honduras to Afghanistan.
The soldiers in Reagan’s
global war against communism were not the American GIs
he so wistfully romanticized in his speech.
Reagan’s crusade against communism
would be a war run by intelligence officers and waged by proxies.
The foot soldiers in this effort were
fundraisers, spies, weekend warriors, public relations firms,
mercenaries, death squads, freedom fighters, holy warriors,
and drug traffickers.
The Contras’ abysmal human rights record and
an ill-conceived CIA operation that planted mines
in Nicaragua’s harbors
drove Congress to write the Bolan Amendment,
as part of a Defense Appropriations Bill,
which was signed into law by Reagan
on December 21, 1982.
The Boland Amendment strictly prohibited intelligence agencies
from providing military support
to groups for the purpose
of overthrowing the Government of Nicaragua.
When Congress cut off financing to Contras,
the White House chose to develop
off-the-books pipelines to support the Contras
and arms deals to the Iranians in exchange for hostages.
The Reagan White House’s attempts
to kill two birds with one stone
blossomed into a massive autonomous, interconnected covert war
that stretched from Afghanistan to Iran to Nicaragua.
Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Israel,
Panama, Argentina, Egypt, and Pakistan
were just a few of the nations woven into this “secret war.”
The fact that this war was completely privatized
meant that the players,
friends of the White House,
were getting rich off of airlines to fly weapons,
finder’s fees to facilitate arms deals,
and paramilitary training to rebels.
All of this money was made
in the pursuit of the Reagan White House’s policy objectives.
The chief operations officer of these pipelines
was a young National Security Council staffer and Marine
named Oliver North,
who looked like he walked straight out of central casting
for “American Hero.”
Bearing a sycophant’s gift for opportunism and social climbing,
young Oliver North found himself in the center
of what would become the largest political scandal since Watergate.
Wearing his Marine uniform,
North basked in the ire of Congress.
North, who knew how to play to a camera,
managed to keep a brave face.
drug traffickers had been a reliably opportunistic ally
in the Reagan Administration’s secret war
against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
professional keepers of secret pipelines,
were all too happy to offer their services
to score chips to cash when they needed them.
Veteran pilots highly skilled at evading US border security
would later tell Congressional committees
about how they were supplied unwatched corridors
back into the States.
The pilots testified that they assumed they worked for the CIA.
As reports of these arrangements began to appear in the media,
Oliver North started paying good money
to spy on journalists and discredit their sources
talking about the White House’s secret war.
Brian Barger and Robert Parry’s reporting was
an explicit threat to North’s enterprise.
Jack Terrell was a militant anticommunist member
of a mercenary group
called Civilian Military Assistance,
who went to Central America to fight the Sandinistas.
Jack Terrell was one of Brian Barger
and Robert Parry’s primary sources on the Contra/cocaine story.
Terrell told Barger and Parry that
he saw Contras commit
mass executions, arbitrarily murder civilians, and run drugs,
and he was ready to tell his story in Washington.
By this time, Oliver North
paid a former CIA agent
$4,000 a month
to smear opponents of the administration’s foreign policy.
Jack Terrell was one of this agent’s primary targets.
Glenn Robinette, North’s private security officer,
wined and dined Terrell hoping to keep him from Congress.
Terrell didn’t take the bait.
It didn’t matter,
the White House had
other levers on the whistleblower:
Terrell’s phones were tapped.
Apparently, Terrell said he could
“get the president”
over the phone and before long
the Terrorist Incident Working Group,
North’s own “security apparatus,”
was supplying the FBI with a report on Terrell,
while airplanes serving his arms pipeline
flew cocaine into the United States.
“America has accomplished so much
in these last few years,
whether it’s been rebuilding our economy
or serving the cause of freedom around the world. What we’ve been able to achieve
has been done with your help—
with us working together as a nation united. Now we need your support again.”
In the president and first lady’s unique joint address from the West Hall of the White House
Nancy and Ronnie spoke from a sofa,
the nation gathered before kindly grandparents.
“Drugs are menacing our society.
They’re threatening our values and undercutting our institutions.
They’re killing our children….
Despite our best efforts,
illegal cocaine is coming into our country
at alarming levels and four to five million people regularly use it.
Five hundred thousand Americans are hooked on heroin.
One in twelve persons smokes marijuana regularly.
Regular drug use is even higher among the age group eighteen to twenty-five—
most likely just entering the workforce.
Today there’s a new epidemic: smokable cocaine, otherwise known as crack.
It is an explosively destructive and often lethal substance which is crushing its users.
It is an uncontrolled fire.”
The camera turned to the first lady,
poised, eyes tracking the text she is to read.
“As a mother, I’ve always thought of September as a special month,
a time when we bundled our children off to school,
to the warmth of an environment in which they could
fulfill the promise and hope in those restless minds.
But so much has happened over these last years,
so much to shake the foundations of all that we know
and all that we believe in.
Today there’s a drug and alcohol abuse epidemic
in this country,
and no one is safe from it—
not you, not me,
and certainly not our children,
because this epidemic has their names written on it….
Our job is never easy
because drug criminals are ingenious.
They work every day to plot a new and better
way to steal our children’s lives,
just as they’ve done by developing this new drug, crack.
For every door that we close, they open a new door to death.”
On July 26, 1986,
Oliver North wrote a memo to the National Security Council entitled
“Terrorist Threat: Terrell.”
In addition to allegedly threatening the president’s life,
“Terrell has appeared on various television ‘documentaries’ alleging corruption,
human rights abuses,
attempts by the resistance and their supporters.
Terrell is also believed to be involved with various
congressional staffs in preparing for hearings and inquiries
regarding the role of U.S. Government officials
in illegally supporting the Nicaraguan resistance.”
Ronald Reagan read the memo about Terrell.
In the middle of August
Terrell took two days of polygraph examinations
conducted by the FBI and the Secret Service
to determine if he was a threat to the president.
Terrell was never charged with a crime.
One of Terrell’s media contacts,
Brian Barger, called the police
when he realized his home was being watched. The police learned that
two individuals rented an apartment across the street and monitored the journalist’s home.
By the time Ronnie and Nancy
gave their cocaine speech from the White House,
his Justice Department’s criminal division
Senators John Kerry, Richard Lugar, and Claiborne Pell’s
“for information on more than two dozen names
of individuals connected to the contra operation
and suspected of drug trafficking.”
There was some soul searching
in the Justice Department on the issue:
“I must confess I was concerned.
I was concerned not so much that
there were going to be hearings [about contra-connected drug trafficking].
I was concerned that we were not responding
to what was obviously a legitimate congressional request.
We were not refusing to respond in giving explanations
or justifications for it.
We were seemingly just stonewalling
what was a continuing barrage of requests for information.
That concerned me to no end.”
After Nancy finished offering her solution
to the degradation of the United States of America
by drugs and alcohol
the camera turned to the president.
“In this crusade, let us not forget who we are.
Drug abuse is a repudiation of everything America is.
and human wreckage
mock our heritage.
Think for a moment how special it is to be an American.
Can we doubt that
only a divine providence placed this land,
this island of freedom,
here as a refuge for all those people on the world
who yearn to breathe free.”
On July 9, 1986,
United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York,
Ben Baer, the Chairman of the Federal Parole Commission,
and New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato
dressed up like “drug addicts” to go buy some crack.
Giuliani wore sunglasses and a Hells Angels vest.
D’amato wore a ball cap and windbreaker.
Baer wore a clean white painter’s outfit.
Agents from the Manhattan office of the DEA
drove them separately uptown to 555 West 160th Street playing
“rock music loudly.”
Baer rolled up in a car
with out-of-state plates and nearly got charged
an out-of-towner’s rate of $40.
Baer played the elderly “crack-head” for the dealer.
Baer claimed he bargained the man down to $15.
The story goes
that Giuliani and D’Amato each bought two vials of crack for $20.
Baer managed to get his two vials for $15.
This gesture of cultural tourism
was a publicity stunt for the campaign to re-elect Senator D’Amato
and was organized by local DEA agent Robert Stutman.
Seemingly the only one really enjoying himself,
Giuliani was the most ridiculous looking of the three tourists.
“We need emergency action,”
he announced blandly,
touching his vest.
This anthropological expedition
sought to prove that New York City
had what amounted to an open-air drug market.
D’Amato was hawking a crime bill in the senate
calling for mandatory prison terms without parole for crack dealers
“30 heavily armed drug enforcement agents
and undercover police officers
stood ready to move in
if the expedition took a violent turn”
The crack was phony.
Arrests were promised.
The Bronx, Manhattan, and Long Island District Attorney’s office
presented a heady series of charges against Larry Davis.
The murder of four drug dealers,
attempted murder of nine police officers,
and weapons possession.
On November 20, 1988,
Davis was acquitted of the attempted murder of nine police officers.
The jury also acquitted Davis
of six counts of aggravated assault
in the wounding of six of the officers.
He was convicted of six counts of criminal possession of a weapon.
The District Attorney is described as having slumped into his chair staring straight ahead
as “not guilty” was said fourteen times.
William Kunstler and Lynne Stewart convinced the jury
that the police raid was
“staged to mask an attempt to assassinate Mr. Davis
for his knowledge of police drug corruption”
and that he
“quite properly fired in self-defense.”
In three trials over the course of two years
only the weapons possession charges stuck to Larry Davis.
The humiliation of the DA’s office was in large part
due to Kunstler and Stewart’s genius as defense attorneys.
In the trial for the murders of the four drug dealers
Kunstler and Stewart successfully argued
that Davis was being framed
by the police
in order to justify the gun battle in the housing project.
On December 15, 1988,
Davis was sentenced to five to fifteen years for weapons possession.
At his sentencing, Larry Davis spoke for twenty-five minutes:
“There is no justice for the African-Latino people,
I was supposed
to be on page twelve of the News—
Black Youth Killed By Police.
Instead, I wound up on page one
because I refused to die.”
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association demonstrated outside the courthouse carrying signs reading
“We Bleed—Davis Walks”
“Lar-ry, Lar-ry, wait’ll he shoots you;
the Fire Department will respond!”
The police demonstration ended with fifty police officers
shutting down traffic at the Grand Concourse and 158th Street.
The police had been on trial as much as Davis had.
Tensions between law enforcement and the community it served
were at an all-time high after two decades of high crime
in the five boroughs.
Earlier in 1988,
a twenty-two-year-old police officer was murdered
with five shots to the head
in his patrol car in South Jamaica, Queens.
The death of Eleanor Bumper in 1985,
an elderly and emotionally disturbed
black woman shot
in her home
with a shotgun by a police officer,
served to escalate racial tension in New York City.
Counter-protesters shouted at the officers,
“What about Goetz? That son of a bitch got only six months!”
Bernie Goetz was a white man who had gone
on a Saturday afternoon shooting spree
on a downtown bound 2 train
between 14th Street and Chambers
injuring four young black men, paralyzing one for life.
Labeled the “Subway Vigilante,”
Goetz envisioned himself as an insurgent
on the front lines of New York City’s criminal rulers.
“Crack literally changed the entire face of the city.
I know of no other drug
that caused the social change that crack caused.
You can’t name another drug that came close….
For just $5 to $10, you could get it again and again.
New cash flows, new organizations grew from the street up.”
It would not be until 1991
that the DA’s office would finally get the man
who had so profoundly humiliated them.
Larry Davis was convicted in the murder
of Raymond Vizcaino, who was killed by a gunshot
through a closed door on August 5, 1986.
It was in this landscape,
of freedom fighters and drug epidemics,
of paternal and cynical politicians,
that Larry Davis became
“a hero to some and a pariah to others.
a symbol of murderous drug wars
and for others, a symbol of widespread mistrust of the police.”
Davis said of Lynne Stewart:
“Everyone thinks Kunstler beat the case.
Lynne Stewart beat the case.”
Figure 1: Matt Kenny, Untitled (Blind Sheikh Press Conference), 2020
Figure 2: Matt Kenny, Untitled (Basement of the World Trade Center), 2020
Figure 3: Matt Kenny, Untitled (Lynne Stewart), 2020
Figure 4: Matt Kenny, Untitled (Arrest of Larry Davis), 2020
Figure 5: Matt Kenny, Untitled (Rudy in costume), 2020
Matt Kenny was born in 1979 in Kansas City and raised in New Jersey. He studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. After graduating, Kenny moved to New York in the first week of September 2001, just prior to the terror attack on the World Trade Center. Since 2013, Kenny has exhibited work with Halsey McKay Gallery and The National Exemplar, along with projects at 55 Gansevoort and Cooper Cole Gallery in Toronto. This text an excerpt from his book, Coercive Beliefs, that was originally published in 2017 by the National Exemplar and is accompanied by a series of new drawings executed in 2020, during quarantine.