The Debra Evenson Venceremos International Award is presented on an annual basis as a national Guild award to honor outstanding international legal work, legal solidarity, international advocacy, and justice beyond borders, in the tradition of Debra Evenson. Former Guild President Debra Evenson was a leading expert on Cuba’s legal system, a law professor and a pioneering advocate of international solidarity in legal work.
The recipient of the annual award is selected by the Steering Committee of the International Committee and is presented annually at the NLG Law for the People Convention. This year, the award went to Free Gaza board member and attorney, Audrey Bomse. Here is her speech on August 5, 2016.
These are exciting times for political activists and revolutionaries. There are large numbers out in the streets fighting for $15 minimum wage, for immigrant rights, prison abolition, against climate change and globalization (TPP), and of course for Black Lives Matter. And I’m delighted to watch the change in public perception and action.
I’ve been a radical lawyer since 1980. But I’ve been a political activist much longer, since high school, when I was a member of Fair Play for Cuba. These two aspects of my life have not always been compatible.
When I worked at the New Jersey Office of Inmate Advocacy in the late 80s and early 90s, I became the Queen of class action prison conditions litigation, challenging the horrendously overcrowded, unhealthy, dangerous conditions inside their jails and prisons. I won thousands and thousands of dollars in fines for every prisoner locked up above capacity. Eventually, they built new jail and prison additions and even some new jails and prisons. But the thing about prison beds is that they don’t remain empty for long, and the prison population soared. So rather than being part of the fight against the prison-industrial complex, I helped feed the mass incarceration binge.
But I learned from this experience and went on to help establish the Prisoner Self-Help Legal Clinic, located at Seton Hall Law School and made up of former prisoner paralegals, lawyers and law students. Rather than trying to impose my leadership and expertise, I became part of the prisoner rights movement. After all, that’s the role of movement lawyers: to build the power of the people, not the power of the law.
When I moved to Palestine in 2001, I spent years writing alternative reports, giving presentations and filing complaints to various UN bodies, particularly on the issues of Palestinian political prisoners and torture. I eventually realized that the problem with the agencies I was appearing before, such as the Committee against Torture, the Special Rapporteurs, even the Human Rights Council, was not that they didn’t know about the human rights violations and war crimes committed by Israel; they did. The problem was that they didn’t have the power to do anything about it. And the bodies that had the power, such as the Security Council, didn’t have the political will.
And I began to see that more than the human rights perspective was necessary. What was needed was mass resistance to Israeli colonialism, apartheid and to neoliberalism. The many international NGOs working in Israel/Palestine brilliantly exposed individual human rights violations, but didn’t condemn the cause of these violations, i.e. the Israeli occupation of Palestine. They focused so much on the trees that they couldn’t see the forest.
Many of the leaders of the organized mass Palestinian resistance movement had become professional heads and staff of human rights NGOs. It’s what Arundhati Roy calls the NGO-ization of resistance. Which is not to say that there aren’t awesome NGOs, both in Palestine and in the US, doing amazing work.
But I learned that THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE FUNDED. And, by the way, there’s a fantastic book with that title, edited by Incite: Women of Color Against Violence.
Around this time, I heard about some “crazy“ folks in the Free Gaza movement, who were planning to challenge the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza in small fishing boats, and they made it into Gaza on August 22, 2008, almost 8 years ago. I realized that their direct action did more to put the issue of Gaza on the map then I had in years working for NGOs. So I joined Free Gaza and became part of the next successful trip to Gaza in October of that year.
But direct action often comes with personal costs, and upon my return to Israel, I was detained for four days, two of them in solitary after I demanded to speak with my consular representative (which I had a right to do under the Vienna Convention). And then I was deported; losing my job, my home, my friends (and my bank account for almost two years).
I went on to become Free Gaza’s lawyer and eventually did some work with the legal team representing the victims of Freedom Flotilla I before the UN Human Rights Council [Fact-Finding Mission], the International Criminal Court and the criminal court in Turkey. Israel’s pattern of war crimes, as well as its impunity, were made clear to the whole world when its naval commandos attacked unarmed civilians. What this experience taught me was that if I was truly interested in bringing about transformative change, I had to do more than just legal work. I needed to engage directly in the struggle for economic, social and political justice.
Because, after all, THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE LITIGATED. .
Of course, I’m not alone in joining the political struggle and engaging in direct action. Many of you in the room have done the same. NLG lawyers and law students have participated in hunger strikes, picket lines and civil disobedience, often risking arrest.
At the risk of sounding dogmatic or old-fashioned, I want to end with a relevant quote from Chairman Mao:
“There is great disorder under heaven. The situation is excellent.”
Thank you and VENCEREMOS [WE WILL WIN]
__The award was given in the name of Debra Evenson, 69. She was a leading expert on the Cuban legal system and a former professor at DePaul University and died of complications from lung cancer on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011 at her home in Chicago, said her niece Rebekah Evenson. After leaving DePaul in the early 1990s, she took a position with the New York-based law firm of Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman, which has represented the Cuban government since 1960, said Michael Krinsky, a partner in the firm.