[Marxism] [SUSPICIOUS MESSAGE] Elizabeth Fink 1945-2015

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 27 14:00:07 MST 2015


NY Times, Dec. 27 2015
She fought the government with fierce abandon.
By Sara Corbett

On a summer day in 1974, Elizabeth Fink walked into a small legal office 
in Buffalo, having borrowed her mother’s car and driven 400 miles from 
Brooklyn to present herself for a new job. She was 29 and a year out of 
law school. The job at Attica Brothers Legal Defense — a shoestring 
operation set up to help inmates and former inmates of Attica state 
prison after the infamous prisoner rebellion there — offered room and 
board but no pay. As a career choice, it was interesting but obviously 
unsustainable. She planned to give it two weeks.

Sustenance, however, comes in many forms. On Fink’s first day of work, 
she met the executive director, a man called Big Black. His real name 
was Frank Smith, but nobody used it. He was 6-foot-2, weighed about 300 
pounds and was just out of prison, having served 15 years for robbing an 
illegal craps game in Brooklyn. He had a commanding presence and a smile 
that was genial, despite all that Attica had done to him.

The Attica uprising began in early September 1971, when frustration with 
poor prison conditions boiled over into rebellion. Roughly a thousand 
prisoners rioted and locked several dozen staff members and civilian 
contractors in cells as hos­tages. Organizing themselves politically, 
they drew up a list of demands — better medical care, less solitary 
confinement and more fresh fruit, among other things. But negotiations 
stalled fast, and the reprisal, when it came by order of Gov. Nelson 
Rockefeller, was a horror. Four days into the revolt, helicopters 
blasted tear gas over the yard while state troopers and National Guard 
soldiers in gas masks opened fire on the unarmed prisoners, unloading 
4,500 rounds of ammunition in less than six minutes. In the end, 33 
inmates and 10 hostages were dead. ‘‘The shooting just seemed to go on 
and on,’’ a hostage would recall. ‘‘You could hear people crying, people 
dying.’’

Afterward, Big Black was beaten and tortured for six hours. He was 
forced to lie naked on a table while vengeful law-enforcement officers 
insulted him with racial slurs, hit his genitals and burned him with 
cigarettes. They put a football beneath his chin and told him that if he 
let it drop, he would be killed. He recalled that day in the 2001 
documentary ‘‘Ghosts of Attica,’’ saying that for years he wept whenever 
he tried to talk about it — that what he felt most was ‘‘disappointment 
in the world, disappointment in people.’’

Scores of other inmates experienced similar torment. Men were stripped, 
beaten, sodomized, forced to crawl over glass. Hearing their stories, 
Elizabeth Fink began to understand something about disappointment in the 
world. It couldn’t be reversed, but possibly it could be countered. 
Ditching her two-week plan, she ultimately became lead counsel for a 
$2.8 billion civil suit filed in 1974 against the State of New York on 
behalf of more than 1,200 victims of Attica. She then worked on the case 
for the next 26 years.

Leaving Buffalo, Fink opened a law office in Brooklyn, hiring Big Black 
as her paralegal. He hadn’t finished high school, but he knew how to 
read people, how to connect. And he was stubbornly persistent, the same 
way she was, a quality that came in handy as the civil suit dragged on. 
Any time someone referred to Big Black as her employee, Fink would issue 
a correction. ‘‘We’re partners,’’ she would say.

Raised on Long Island, Fink was introduced early to the injustices of 
the day. Her parents belonged for a time to the American Communist 
Party. Her mother, Sylvia, was an activist, crusading against racial 
inequity. In the 1950s, the family drove annually to Miami for a 
vacation, stopping at diners for meals. Sylvia Fink would order food and 
then pleasantly ask whether the restaurant served black people. When the 
answer was ‘‘no,’’ she would order her children to their feet, and they 
would all march out. ‘‘We didn’t eat a lot on those drives,’’ her 
daughter recalled.

In her legal dealings, Elizabeth Fink could be fractious and 
loud-voiced. She had a near-photographic memory and gave eloquent, 
off-the-cuff speeches. She showed her disregard for arrogant prosecutors 
by spreading her belongings wantonly across their tables in the 
courtroom and by ‘‘accidentally’’ bumping up against them. She was 
irreverent and outrageous and, much of the time, madly effective. She 
took on cases other lawyers wouldn’t touch, spurred by the belief that 
the United States government often overreached, violating the rights of 
those who dared criticize it. She represented Black Panthers, members of 
the Puerto Rican independence movement. She represented a radical lawyer 
named Lynne Stewart, who was jailed for passing messages to the 
followers of an Islamic cleric, and Jeremy Hammond, an activist who 
hacked the email records of a private intelligence company and fed them 
to WikiLeaks. When an agitated opposing lawyer accused her of 
‘‘jeopardizing the Republic,’’ Fink took it as a compliment. ‘‘I think 
I’d like that on my tombstone,’’ she said.

Photo illustration by Craig Cutler for The New York Times
At her apartment in Brooklyn, where she lived alone with her dog, she 
read mystery novels, smoked pot and played jazz extra loud. Her guest 
bedroom often housed one ex-convict or another, old clients who came to 
visit. Lawyering, she believed, went beyond paperwork and court 
appearances and had little to do with getting paid. She bought books for 
inmates and drove their families to prison visits. She once cooked a 
lobster dinner and smuggled it into a New York City prison beneath her 
clothes, past security guards, to serve a clandestine birthday meal to 
an old Black Panther, who by then had spent more than a decade in jail.

The injustice of Attica galled her all along. Many of her plaintiffs in 
the suit died as they waited for resolution. Others were racked by 
nightmares and flashbacks; by addiction, anxiety and injuries that still 
ached after decades; by homelessness and joblessness and a lifelong 
inability to trust others. It’s all there in the court documents, a sad 
catalog of the aftermath. When the case was finally settled in 2000, 
Fink and Big Black tracked down hundreds of the Attica brothers, 
chartering a bus from Manhattan to take many of them to the court. After 
hearing testimony from about 200 former inmates, a federal judge meted 
out an $8 million settlement in amounts ranging from $6,500 to $125,000 
per inmate, concluding that they had been treated ‘‘like garbage.’’

Fink understood the victory to be hollow. She had sustained the Attica 
brothers through one of the lengthiest civil cases in New York State 
history, but there was no reparation that would dislodge the 
disappointment from all those men’s souls. ‘‘I don’t see anything that’s 
going to make me forget about what happened in 1971,’’ Big Black said at 
the time. ‘‘You can give me a billion, trillion, zillion dollars, but 
it’s not gonna happen.’’ He died of cancer four years later.

Fink continued on, visiting countless inmates inside American prisons, 
her heart wrenched every time. Many clients were locked in solitary 
confinement — so lonely that she scheduled four-day visits with them, 
knowing they would need to spend two days connecting on a human level 
before they could get to the legal work at hand. ‘‘I am totally burned 
out,’’ she told Michael Hull, a filmmaker and family friend, earlier 
this year. But then she brightened, recalling a visit she made to a San 
Francisco penitentiary to see two clients. A prison lieutenant, she 
said, had watched her embracing the inmates and later pulled her aside. 
Fink let out a bellowing laugh, an old defiance flaring as she described 
the lieutenant’s shock: ‘‘He said, ‘You hug them?’ … I said, ‘Yeah, and 
I kiss ’em too. … I do every time.’ ’’



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