From South Africa to Palestine

— an interview with Claudia Morcom

CLAUDIA MORCOM SERVED as a Wayne County (Michigan) Circuit Court judge from 1983-1998. In all, she spent twenty-six years on the bench, beginning in Workers Compensation Disability Court. She has been actively engaged in civil rights and human rights work throughout her life, beginning with attending rallies for the Scottsboro frameup victims in her childhood. She worked with SNCC and the National Lawyers Guild in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi.

Now retired from the bench, she serves on the Open Justice Commission of the Michigan State Bar, whose purpose is to inform the public about access to the courts regardless of race, sexual orientation, disability, nationality or gender. She hosts a Saturday morning “Hastings Street Jazz” program on the educational radio station WDTR, 90.9 FM.

Judge Morcom participated in the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa, returning home just before the September 11 attacks. This past August, she visited Israel and the Occupied Territories with a delegation from the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL). Shortly after the September 11 anniversary, Judge Morcom spoke with David Finkel, from the ATC editorial board, to reflect on these experiences.

Against the Current: Had you been to South Africa before the WCAR? How much of the country did you get to see, and in what capacity did you attend the conference?

Claudia Morcom: I hadn't been there before (although I had been scheduled to be an election observer). I was only in Durban, since I was at the conference the whole time -- I was the lead delegate for the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, of Berkeley, California, and also a delegate for the IADL.

ATC: Certainly the timing couldn't have been more unlucky, since the conference disappeared from the radar screen on September 11. As you look back, what do you see as being its lasting value?

C.M.: It was meeting with the people from all over the world, sharing the problems they have with cultural racism and xenophobia, all the difficulties that are similar to those we have in the United States. And we have a shared concern with repressive measures that are being taken, not only by political authorities but by other forces, within each individual nation.

We were all upset that the United States didn't send high-level representation, and even those U.S. minions who did come walked out. All the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) from the United States were especially upset -- just as they are now over the current snubbing of the UN Environmental Summit.

And now Bush is taking this unilateral position that we alone will decide what nations are a “threat,” and take a first strike leading to war against Iraq or other nations he calls the “Axis of Evil.”

ATC: It seemed clear to me that the U.S. government was very happy to have the excuse for walking out of WCAR, over the debate on identifying Zionism with racism, because they wanted to short-circuit any serious discussion on reparations for slavery and colonialism.

C.M.: Yes. One of our (IADL) delegates, Sir Anthony Gifford from London's Queen Bench, wrote an important article on the legal and moral basis for reparations. He was presenting a workshop on behalf of Meiklejohn. (See IADL website: www.iadllaw.org.)

The United States is afraid of any precedent for reparations for slavery; but we already have the repayment to the Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

In 1952 the Federal Republic of Germany reached agreement with Israel for the payment of $822 million, limited to the cost of resettling 500,000 Jews who fled the Nazi-controlled countries; Austria made payments totaling $25 million to survivors of the Jewish holocaust. In 1981 a U.S. claims tribunal was set up to make awards for thousands of claimants whose property had been expropriated. There are several other examples of this type of reparations.

I was concentrating on getting our declaration and statement into the record, but never got in because we were among the last organizations scheduled to make presentations, the agenda was delayed and we had to go back. So what we did was to print up the IADL declaration and distributed it to the delegates and NGOs.

ATC: Where would you say was the real life of the conference -- inside the official sessions, outside among the NGOs, or both?

C.M.: We only had two passes into the official sessions for our whole delegation, so we alternated going in. Every morning there was a huge lineup to obtain the daily passes, with a five-stage procedure and very heavy security.

But it was important that there were interactions among all the NGOs.

I think there was an interface -- perhaps not as close as we might have wanted -- between the inside and outside. Mary Robinson [at that time the chief UN human rights officer--ed.] would come and address the NGOs almost every day. She was open to all questions and didn't try to deflect them. At the sessions where she appeared there were microphones in the audience, so questions could come directly from the floor.

She was wonderful, not subject to dictates from the United States; that's why they got rid of her, in my estimation. She was more of a mediator, who would listen to all sides and could understand the positions of the parties.

ATC: Then you came home . . .

C.M.: I left on the 8th of September, I think the conference ended on the 9th. I was still in bed, recovering from the thirty-hour trip, when the news of the World Trade Center towers being hit came in.

ATC: And it was as if the conference never happened?

C.M.: Right. It wasn't until three weeks later that the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights asked me, John Conyers and some others from the trip to speak.

ATC: Were you able to make any observations on the social complexities of post-apartheid South Africa?

C.M.: Only a few. My workshop was supposed to be on the day and exact time that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would be addressing the delegates. We wound up being bussed over to a separate down<->town location in Durban, a quite run-down area, which really cut down on the workshop participation.

I didn't get to go to other places. But I stayed with an Afrikaner family, who had converted their lavish home to a bed and breakfast. When they picked me up at the airport, they asked if I'd like to have dinner with their family.

So we sat and talked, and the husband told me how he was raised to dislike and distrust Blacks. He was trying very hard to make his own difficult attitudinal change, and not pass this indoctrination on to his sons.

He told a story of asking his youngest son, on the second day of school, how many Black and Indian children were in his class at school, and the boy had no idea what he was talking about and didn't respond. But the next day, he came home and told his father how many Blacks and Indians were in his class.

The boy had been oblivious to the differences in his classmates, until his father asked the question. That night the father said he hoped he had not made a mistake by pointing out the racial differences. He sincerely regretted it if he had raised the distinction in his son's mind.

The World After 9/11

ATC: So let's talk about September 11. We're just past the anniversary. What would you say are the two or three most dramatic changes we've witnessed since 9/11?

C.M.: There's the fact that this administration has violated so many treaty agreements and conventions, subverted the civil rights of the citizens of this country, and is leading us into a war not just against the terrorists of September 11 but other nations of the world and innocent victims, especially children.

At the end of July I attended the convention of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, where Herbert Aptheker, who's now 88 years old, said the current period was worse than the era of McCarthyism -- the abuses of power, the mass manipulation, 1200 detainees in Guantanamo and people held incommunicado in the jails of New York and New Jersey without being charged or being allowed to see an attorney or their families.

One attorney, Lynne Stewart, was indicted by a Grand Jury at the Attorney General's request for her representation of an alleged terrorist. It flies in the face of all our Constitutional guarantees -- especially attorney-client privilege, because they videotaped her consultations with her client and used that against her.

Not only the Executive branch, but also the Department of Justice are usurping the legislative powers of Congress. There have been several lawsuits against Attorney-General Ashcroft and the Justice Department, brought by a coalition of civil rights and human rights groups and attorneys.

One of the so-called immigration judges (who aren't actually judges at all), overturned a judicial ruling granting bail for a detainee. It was not in his jurisdiction to do anything like that. There's a use of this so-called “state of war” to cover a vast overuse of presidential power. Hopefully the American people aren't going to be duped.

I think one of the things we need to do is that every neighborhood organization, church or local political unit needs to write to the Congress and the President to say that we don't want war, against Iraq or anybody else. There are many voices out there who feel that way, but that feeling needs to be organized and communicated.

Palestinians in Detention

ATC: Most recently, you went to the Middle East to investigate detentions in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

C.M.: Back in April, the Arab Lawyers Association, an affiliate of the IADL, wrote a letter to the IADL president and board, outlining the conditions of the seven thousand Palestinian detainees. Many of these are held incommunicado -- very much like our 1200 prisoners in Guantanamo and the United States.

The letter indicated all the violations of various human rights and UN declarations. Amnesty International, along with other human rights organizations, has investigated and seen the conditions under which people are being held.

The Arab lawyers asked for attorneys and judges as international observers, and called for a conference to be held in Cairo. Groups from twenty-two countries responded to the appeal.

The conference was three days in Cairo, after which we went on to Tel Aviv airport, Ramallah, Jericho and Jerusalem. The detainees were being held in tents and compounds, without air conditioning or protection from flies and mosquitoes, inadequate water or rations, torture and repeated interrogation without counsel, conditions which Amnesty International identified as inhuman.

The only prisoners we could directly visit were the six political prisoners held in Jericho by the Palestinian Authority. [These men, accused in the killing of the Israeli Tourism Minister, are being held under the terms of settlement of Israel's siege of the Arafat compound in Ramallah in April, 2002--ed.].

Four have been sentenced and two are awaiting sentencing. The conditions there are relatively good; they had air conditioning and reading material and could visit with each other. (Their relatives can't visit them due to all the road blockages and closures.)

We weren't officially invited to meet with any Israeli legal organizations, but we did have contact with attorneys Lea Tsemel and Allegra Pacheco. They told us the impossible conditions under which they and Palestinian lawyers work.

The lawyers are unable to meet with their clients ahead of time. They don't know what time their cases will come up and must wait all day until their cases are called, which creates an impossible situation for their own private practices.

They can't see the secret files maintained on their clients, they have no time to prepare the case, argue the facts or present witnesses. Lawyers are strip-searched and there are no bathroom facilities, and the so-called judges are military reservists in collusion with the prosecutors.

We wanted to know what help we could give these lawyers on the ground. We are going to send observers to some trials, to raise money for the attorneys who are actually representing some of the detainees, and to assist them in preparation of their defenses or appeals, if and when we are asked to do so.

ATC: What's your outlook for the future on this anniversary? What do you find to be pessimistic and/or optimistic about in particular?

C.M.: I am pessimistic about the fact that Bush, this man who wasn't elected by the people, is continually promoting war against other nations. I'm heartened that there's going to be mobilizations of public opinion in the next several months in Washington D.C. and that members of Congress are speaking out about his unilateral position. We need to compel this President to understand, and to show the world community, that people in the United States want peace.

ATC 101, November-December 2002