Saturday, September 26, 2015

Elizabeth Fink (1945-2015)

Elizabeth Fink was an attorney who spent her entire career defending and fighting politically-charged cases, especially against the abuse of power by state and federal authorities. She never suffered any delusions about the innocence and/or righteousness of her clients -- not that some weren't innocent and/or justified -- but she fully recognized how stacked the system is against them, and struggled relentlessly to tilt that system back toward justice. As she said, "justice is what everyone deserves and no one gets." And it should be noted that she was exceptionally effective in the courtroom: as Laura Stevens put it, "Liz had outstanding results in her work, winning case after case that was a loser for almost anyone else." Persistent too: "This applies to Attica not on the facts, which were compelling, but on the process, which would have defeated most people before the first 20 years expired."

Liz died on Tuesday, September 22, at age 70, in Brooklyn. She had increasingly dire kidney and heart problems, which forced her to give up her practice a couple years ago. In her last week she was approaching renal failure, and had a hemodialysis shunt installed. She took a short walk on Sunday and fell, possibly breaking her hip. In the hospital, her heart stopped. Laura Stevens, a dear friend ever since college, had spent the previous week with Liz (this is from a personal letter):

Through the whole week we were together, we had a good time with each other, talked for many hours, but her condition was awful. She had the beginning of renal failure . . . Her heart condition also exhausted her, so she couldn't walk any distance. Across the street was the maximum. She had a few comfortable hours a day in the later afternoon.

She didn't want to die, still being interested in "what comes next." She didn't want to live this way either, and was facing medical care she didn't want and didn't have confidence in. They can leave you worse off; we've all seen that, and she was truly wary. She still read voraciously, and listened to music with relish. She played it very loud, being very hard of hearing, but it gave her great pleasure. . . . I was always impressed with how much she took away from it, insights she'd have about the music and things that had been said on the program.

She is survived by her brother, photographer Larry Fink, and by numerous friends who miss her dearly.

The following pieces will give you a quick guide to her career (although each misses much):

Liz grew up in a left-wing family in Brooklyn, keeping a equally committed but less doctrinaire version of her family's politics. (I know little about her father, who died before I met her, but her mother -- I knew her as Sylvia Kleinman -- was always involved in something political, notably the Gray Panthers. She once walked off Charlie Rose's show because she didn't think he was taking her seriously.) Liz went to Reed College and graduated in 1967. That's where she met "the two Lauras" and they remained lifelong friends -- Laura Stevens, introduced above, and Laura Tillem, who later met and married me. In 1971, the Attica prison revolt was murderously put down on orders from NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The state's first instinct there was to prosecute prisoners, among other things charging them with the deaths of the nine prison guards who had been held hostage and were shot and killed by the invading troops. When Liz graduated from Brooklyn Law School, she joined the defense team, helped get the charges dropped, and filed suit against the state, resulting in several trials and the settlement in 2000. She stuck through the entire ordeal. Even in her last days she was working on organizing her archives and trying to force New York to release still-secret documents.

I first met Liz shortly after Laura Tillem and I got together. We were living in Boston, and Liz came up frequently -- the "Ohio 7" sedition case was tried in Springfield, so Liz stayed there for the duration of the trial. (Some info here: "the longest and most expensive trial in the history of Massachusetts, . . . When the trial ended with no convictions, it also turned out to be one of the most controversial -- and highly criticized -- trials . . ." -- I remember that we talked at great length about what a staggering waste of public resources the trial was. As I recall the amount of money the government wasted was about five times the capitalization of the start-up company I was working for at the time.) After the trial, she came to Boston less, but we went to New York more. We met up once at her mother's house in New Jersey. On a couple occasions Liz and her mother rented a house way out on Long Island and invited lots of their friends out. Once we flew to Portland for a Reed Reunion -- that was the first time I met Laura Stevens. When Sylvia died we dropped everything and drove to Brooklyn. (A few months earlier Sylvia closed up the NJ home and moved into an assisted living apartment in Brooklyn.) When we moved to NJ, Liz came out many times, including to one of my notorious birthday dinners. After we moved to Wichita, Liz and Laura Stevens stopped on a cross-country drive. We were staying at Liz's when 9/11 happened, and I wound up staying there a month. As Liz's health declined, Laura made several trips to New York to help out. I only made one, in May 2014, at a point when she was doing relatively well.

In listing all these encounters, I can't help but feel like I'm bragging, but really I count myself as incredibly lucky. I've heard that when Laura and I first got together, Liz's only question was whether I was "smart enough" for her. I'm pretty sure I passed muster, but really, the most imposing intellect I've ever encountered was Liz's. She read more than anyone I've ever known, comprehended it all, was always incisive in her critiques, and could speak eloquently and poignantly without ever losing your interest. She was, in short, dazzling. One regret I have is that I never saw her in a courtroom, one of the few places where such rigor may prove decisive. A greater regret is that she always resisted my pleas to write. I would have been satisfied had she found a scribe to follow her around and jot down stories (like Ralph Leighton did for Richard Feynman). Terrific stories, thousands of them. If we're lucky, her friends will recall many of them, but too many are already lost. She may have been right that she could never write as well as her favorite writers, but her voice deserves an oral legacy as rich as, well, the other bard who passed this week, Lawrence Peter Berra.

But that was just one of many facets to this remarkable person. I'd like to close by quoting several memories that people have written to her Facebook timeline.

Gideon Oliver [Sept. 22 at 11:04pm]:

I loved Elizabeth Fink very much and was lucky to have her as a mentor and friend. Beyond that, I don't have words about this yet.

Gideon Oliver [Sept. 22 at 11:35pm]:

Starting at :45 - Elizabeth Fink on the courthouse steps, spitting fire and speaking truth to power: Woman linked to Al-Qaida won't answer attempted murder charges in US.

Lamis Deek [Sept. 23 at 2:11am]:

She was also more beautiful than she knew, more beautiful than the world wanted her to be. Good night dear Elizabeth Fink.

Nancy Alisberg [Sept. 23 at 8:02am]:

So sad to hear of the death of Elizabeth Fink. Friend, mentor, neighbor.

Cynthia Skow [Sept. 23 at 9:07am]:

The world lost a true warrior for justice yesterday and I lost a hero. Elizabeth Fink, rest in power!

Lamis Deek [Sept. 23 at 11:53am]:

Few, far too few, people lived with the integrity Elizabeth Fink did . . . her love was active, full and given to those who need it most in ways that really count. Her life, her practice was ruled by the most important rules "if you're OK, I'm OK" and "Dare to struggle dare to win." She was a school unto herself.

Farewell fallen comrade and teacher.

Fahd Ahmed [Sept. 23 at 1:14pm]:

I'm not big on hero-izing people.

But Elizabeth Fink was one of those people who changed me forever within a few minutes.

I was lucky to have been trained to be a lawyer "on your own terms" (ie. don't let the system define who you are and what you do). But I really learned what it meant within a few minutes of meeting Liz, and definitely the first time I saw her in court. From how she walked about, where she scattered (very intentionally) her belongings, how she talked to court officers and judges, etc. Absolutely outrageous woman. And I absolutely loved it.

It was a measured "fuck you and your whole damn system" approach, while making sure to keep the client at center. Tremendous fierceness against the system and tremendous love and care for the people.

A genuine peoples lawyer who understood the nexus of her work with mass movements.

It was an honor to know you, and to work with you. And I forever take what I learned into all of my work beyond lawyering.

You and your fire will be missed.

Pat Rowbotton [Sept. 23 at 2:53pm]:

Liz fought hard with brilliance and creativity. Saw the Ohio 7 to freedom - no one ever fought as hard or won as much.

Meg Handler [Sept. 24 at 10:06am]:

'Dare to struggle; dare to win.' - Elizabeth Fink

This week, we lost one fierce lady. Liz was tough, brilliant and funny and she committed her life to fighting social injustice. I knew Liz thru her brother Larry. She was like family to me. When 800 of us were wrongfully arrested during the RNC in 2004, and I was asked if I had a lawyer who could be called, I said Liz Fink. It turned out Liz and a few other civil rights lawyers were already down in the courtroom arguing for our release. At that moment I knew I was in good shape, that myself and the other wrongfully arrested, would be taken care of. It took 10 years . . . and in the end, it did get taken care of. 10 years was nothing for the likes of Liz, she fought for the Attica inmates for 25 years. She always fought the good fight. She will be missed by many.

Susan Slovak [Sept. 24 at 11:28am]:

She was always gutsy and brave, even in high school. I so admired her integrity and intelligence, even then. She will be so very very missed.

Gideon Oliver [Sept. 24 at 5:27pm]:

Elizabeth Fink accepting the proclamation and a key to the city of Venice, Italy, for the return of Silvia Baraldini. From Michael Deutsch's article "Frank and Liz" published in the National Lawyers Guild - NYC Chapter 2006 Spring Fling Journal. PRESENTE.

Gideon Oliver [Sept. 24 at 5:35pm]:

Elizabeth Fink talking about the Ohio 7 trial and a whole lot more - "Hundreds of law enforcement personnel from across the Northeast came to campus and protested the event the evening it took place. . . ." - h/t Michael Deutsch: Part 4 "The Great Sedition Trial" issues from the trial 11.12.09.

Rachel J-s [Sept. 25 at 12:41am]:

My mom's best friend Elizabeth Fink died this week. I knew her my whole life, from vivid memories of her not letting me win at monopoly when I was 6, to giving me the keys to her apartment when I moved to New York City when I was 20. She was insanely generous with me and many other people, a wealth of historical knowledge about the American left, and taught me about serious, delicious food, before foodie was a term. I really can't quite believe she won't be opening her apartment door, suggesting something amazing for lunch and telling me to take her dog for a walk, the next time I'm in Brooklyn.

Debbie Hrbek [Sept. 25 at 7:10am]:

Please watch, and share, this powerful presentation by my mentor, the wonderful Elizabeth Fink, who died on Tuesday. Such an inspiration to young lawyers about the importance of fighting the good fight. [Second link to Part 4 "The Great Sedition Trial" issues from the trial 11.12.09.]

Gideon Oliver [Sept. 25 at 3:54pm]:

Long, amazing, and worthwhile interview w/ Elizabeth Fink from Black Panther doc "What We Want, What We Believe" posted to Robert Boyle's page - It's amazing to hear Liz talk about Dhoruba Bin-Wahad - this is history everyone should know, and just a ton of Liz being Liz - YouTube.

Carmen Jeannette Levasseur [Sept. 25 at 9:30pm]:

Liz Elizabeth Fink drove my sisters and I to and from family visits for years. She was a grounded force in a time of chaos. She always let me sit in front.

Bobby Quackenbush [Sept. 25 at 9:45pm]:

"Jeopardizing the Republic. I think I'd like that on my tombstone." - Elizabeth Fink

Ben Feinberg-Gerner [Sept. 25 at 11:35pm]:

Elizabeth Fink at her finest: fiery, passionate, deeply funny. Ever the watchwoman for the Constitutional protections we all have -- even when our government would rather overlook them in the name of policy or expedience.

The details of the case in question make her speech a bit tricky to follow, but what matters here in the underlying message and Liz's passion for justice. [Third link to Part 4 "The Great Sedition Trial" issues from the trial 11.12.09].

Edward Hershey [Sept. 26 at 2:05am]:

Usually glad to see The New York Times quote a passage of mine but not this time because it is at the end of Elizabeth Fink's obituary. I met Liz in Buffalo in 1974 when I covered the trial of 2 inmates charged with inciting the Attica Prison insurrection. She was on the defense team. She returned for her 40th Reed College reunion and I profiled her in the alumni magazine Still Fighting]. She was true to her principles every step of the way.

Finally, here's a recent photo, from an interview Mike Hull filmed:

Elizabeth Fink 2015

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