Victories in resistance: Lynne Stewart and CeCe McDonald speak out
Minneapolis, MN – On Feb. 15, a panel called, “Victories in Resistance, Solidarity Against Injustice” was organized by the Minnesota Anti-War Committee (AWC) to celebrate newly-won freedom and to reflect on how to do political prisoner solidarity which builds our movements.
The basement at the Minnehaha Free Space was packed for an emotional discussion that was alternately jubilant and sobering. More than 50 people gathered to hear from Lynne Stewart and CeCe McDonald, both recently released from prison. Sabry Wazwaz, an Palestinian activist and AWC member also spoke, along with AWC-member Jess Sundin, one of the Midwest activists targeted by an ongoing FBI and grand jury investigation.
Sundin explained the motivations for the event, “In 2010, the idea that any of us could become a political prisoner became very personal for me and other members of the Anti-War Committee. As many of you know, we were the targets of a two-year undercover investigation. Our homes and office were raided by the FB, and we were ordered to appear before a grand jury in Chicago. When each of us refused to testify there – to serve as witnesses against each other, our movements or our allies abroad – we made that decision in spite of the very real threat of imprisonment.
“While it was painful, as we made arrangements for who would care for our children if we were taken away, we felt we had no choice. Our testimony could have endangered the very lives of people like Samer Issawi, leaders of the people’s movements we had met on solidarity trips to Palestine and Colombia. And while on the one hand, it’s a decision you make alone, we never stood alone – Lynne sent a solidarity statement to one of our early rallies. Delicious lasagna made by CeCe was served at a community dinner to support us. And thousands of people across the country – and the world – joined us in demanding an end to the grand jury. We had our own victory against that grand jury – out of 23 people called, not one testified. And out of 23 grand jury resisters, not one was jailed for refusing to testify. The threat against us was very real, and very personal. But so was the solidarity.”
The government claims it is investigating anti-war and international solidarity activism as a form of “providing material support to foreign terrorist organizations.” Long-time attorney, Lynne Stewart, was also faced a ‘material support’ charge, for her work defending an Egyptian cleric accused of terrorism.
Lynne Stewart, speaking via Skype, was greeted by audience cheers. First, she thanked supporters for writing her in prison and encouraged people to keep writing other prisoners. She said that letters are important acts of solidarity that keep political prisoners from being isolated and called each one “a poke in the eye against imperialism.”
Stewart, who is battling stage four breast cancer, credited the movement with getting her out before she was ready to die. She said it was through the tireless work of supporters that the U.S. government decided it was more destructive to keep her in prison than to release her. 45,000 people signed the petition demanding Stewart’s compassionate release. She highlighted the work of her husband, Ralph Poynter, for her release. In speaking of his relentless picketing of the White House during blistering heat in August she said “Everyone should have a Ralph, and everyone does when we have a movement!”
The audience was moved to see Stewart in her first Midwest appearance since her release from prison.
CeCe McDonald was also warmly greeted by the audience which was eager to hear her speak about her experiences just one month after being released from prison. In June 2011, CeCe McDonald fought off a racist, transphobic attack. She was sentenced to 41 months in a men’s prison for second degree manslaughter, despite clear evidence of self-defense. She is an international symbol of the resistance and resilience of trans women of color.
McDonald said that community support also helped her win an early release from prison. She was proud that the movement had sent a loud and clear message that trans women of color were not disposable. She gave special mention to the CeCe McDonald Support Committee, several of whom were present.
McDonald described how the struggle around her case moved her forward politically, “I learned about my history, about the history of powerful Black women like Assata Shakur and Angela Davis through this process. It made me open up my eyes and learn to love myself more… It was my duty to prove a point, that they couldn’t turn me into a statistic and it was the people in the community who helped me.”
Anti-War Committee activist Sabry Wazwaz shared the words of Palestinian political prisoner Samer Al-Issawi, written in a message to his supporters on Day 209 of his hunger strike, “I draw my strength from my people, from all the free people, from friends and the families of the prisoners who continue day and night chanting freedom and an end to the occupation.” Wazwaz added some experiences of his own family, Palestinians confronting Israeli apartheid.
After a record 266 days on hunger strike, Issawi won his freedom in December 2013. During Issawi’s hunger strike he became a symbol of the epidemic of unlawful detention of Palestinians with no charges or trials by the Israeli government. He would only end his hunger strike with a promise of freedom and the right to return home, tying his demand to the universal Palestinian struggle for that right to return to homes and land stolen by Israel.
These cases inspired international support and attention not only because of the extreme injustice faced in each case, but also because Lynne Stewart, CeCe McDonald and Samer Issawi all spoke from behind the prison walls, to demand greater justice for all.
Jess Sundin called on those present to continue to fight for more victories against injustices. “The government has used its investigation of us to target our friends and allies across the country. First was Carlos Montes, Chicano leader from Los Angeles – we beat back their attempts to imprison him.” At this point, the crowd interrupted with applause.
She continued, “And now we have Palestinian community leader Rasmea Odeh. We know her from Chicago’s Arab American Action Network, where she works with Hatem Abudayyeh, one of the main targets in our case. Rasmea is charged with immigration fraud. Allegedly, in her application for citizenship, she didn’t mention that she was arrested 45 years ago by an illegitimate Israeli military court. To describe her past as though she was a some kind of terrorist, legitimately and legally arrested by the Israeli government, covers up that Israel occupies Palestinian land and arrests and tortures Palestinians systematically and illegally.
“Supposedly an immigration case, this stems at least in part from the investigation against us. Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas, the lead prosecutor in our case, was at the courtroom, consulting with the assistant U.S. attorney who was presenting the indictment to the judge. The indictment against Rasmea reads more like one of his anti-terrorism cases than an immigration paperwork violation.”
Sundin urged action, “If the government wins its case against Rasmea, she faces imprisonment and deportation. We ask that all of you learn more about her story, and take action to stop the government from railroading her as part of its continuing repression of Palestinians and people who stand in solidarity with them.”
A collection was taken to support CeCe McDonald and to contribute to Lynn Stewart’s medical expenses. For information about how you could donate to help keep Stewart alive please go to: http://lynnestewart.org/.
The event was organized by the Anti-War Committee and endorsed by Communities United Against Police Brutality, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, MN Coalition for Palestinian Rights, MN Committee Against FBI Repression, MN Immigrant Rights Action Committee, Twin Cities Socialist Action, U of MN Students for a Democratic Society, Veterans for Peace (chapter 27), Welfare Rights Committee, and Women Against Military Madness.