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Workers Vanguard No. 1158

26 July 2019

Right to Counsel Under Threat

#MeToo Witchhunt Snares Black Harvard Law Professor

In May, black Harvard law professor Ronald Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, were stripped of their positions as faculty deans of the university’s Winthrop House residence hall in retaliation for his having joined the legal defense team of Harvey Weinstein, the former Hollywood mogul accused of serial sexual assault. This reprisal capped a semester-long campus #MeToo vendetta against Sullivan, who was simply practicing what is taught in every law school in the country—the accused are legally innocent unless proven guilty and everyone has the right to an attorney. This right applies no less to the unsavory Weinstein. Many of Sullivan’s colleagues at Harvard Law School and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers sided with him, pointing to the chilling effect on attorneys everywhere if one is deemed morally guilty by association with a client. But for the #MeToo crowd, to be accused of a sex offense is to be guilty of it, never mind due process and the presumption of innocence.

The Harvard Black Law Students Association denounced the “racist undertones” of the campaign against Sullivan, who was removed from his post after he left the Weinstein defense team, citing conflicts with his teaching schedule. Campus feminists had launched a petition, staged protests and vandalized the Sullivan family’s home, claiming that he “does not value the safety of the students.” In so doing, they made a target of a black attorney known for representing victims of racist police terror and frame-ups. Among these were: the family of 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose killing by Ferguson, Missouri, cops in 2014 fueled the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, a black Harvard student brutally beaten by the cops, and thousands wrongfully imprisoned in New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.

Sullivan himself noted of the calls for his removal as a Harvard residence hall dean: “It is not lost on me that I’m the first African-American to hold this position.” Attempts to link Sullivan to the alleged crimes of his former client are no small matter in a society founded on chattel slavery and maintained on the structural oppression of the black population, with the vast majority forcibly segregated at its bottom. Black people are a race-color caste: no matter how rich, famous or accomplished, capitalist America brands them for their skin color. Black athletes, entertainers and academics commonly face harassment and racist targeting. Ten years ago, well-known black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for trying to enter his own home a few blocks from campus.

False accusations of violating the purity of “white womanhood” have long been used as the racist rallying cry for the lynchings of black men like 14-year-old Emmett Till, or to railroad them to prison. The very right of those accused of rape to their counsel of choice was won in a landmark Supreme Court case involving nine black youth known as the “Scottsboro Boys,” who were framed up beginning in 1931 for rapes that never happened. This high court ruling was issued amid mass protests organized by the American Communist Party to demand their freedom, and as a result of the efforts of its legal defense arm.

Given this history, it is an outrage that the Association of Black Harvard Women accused Sullivan of working to “embolden rape culture” on campus. This is patently ludicrous and further belied by the fact that, as one of Sullivan’s former students told the Boston Globe, he had advocated for her and other student victims of sexual assault, offering to handle their cases free of charge. This track record doesn’t matter for the campus feminists, though.

Sexual violence is an expression of the degraded status of women in capitalist society, where they are enslaved in the institution of the family, the main source of women’s oppression and a crucial prop to the system of exploitation. The #MeToo torchbearers trivialize such violence by conflating the horrific crime of rape with unwanted advances, bad dates and regrets after consensual sex. Far from helping to make women safer, the feminists seek to strengthen the powers of the capitalist state—the biggest and most brutal abuser of women—to regulate personal behavior. It is precisely the repressive state apparatus that enforces the subjugation of women, particularly poor, working-class, black and other minority women, who suffer from lack of access to abortion and general health care, low-paying jobs and other hardships.

#MeToo mob justice, which has destroyed careers and lives through “trial by media,” would tar defense attorneys as “accomplices after the fact.” This crusade is a threat to everyone’s rights, including the right to legal counsel. Such attacks often begin by denying them to some vilified group. Witness the “war on terror,” which was directed first against Muslims, and then extended to black activists, trade unionists and leftists. In 2006, leftist lawyer Lynne Stewart was railroaded to prison on charges of material support to terrorism for providing legal representation to Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was imprisoned on conspiracy charges stemming from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

In the end, those who will pay the most are working people, against whom the capitalist state machinery of repression is aimed—the police, courts and prisons all exist in order to defend the rule and profits of the tiny class of exploiters. In an Atlantic article on Sullivan (14 May), staff writer Conor Freidersdorf observed:

“Harvard’s decision may deter ambitious young lawyers from undertaking the defense of any potentially controversial client, including indigent men who stand accused of rape or sexual assault. That raises the odds of wrongful convictions, especially among the poor. Harvard grads are relatively unlikely to be affected.”

Anti-Sex Frenzy and Bourgeois Institutions

Sullivan’s persecutors whined that his providing counsel to Weinstein was so “trauma-inducing” that Sullivan was unfit for the dean’s in loco parentis job of babying 400 college students. Such complaints partake of the neo-Victorian climate on campuses, where feminists and the authorities have demonized a lot of consensual casual sex and infantilized women as mere victims in need of protection by the campus patriarchs with more cops, safe spaces and trigger warnings. Even before #MeToo, any semblance of due process on campuses for those accused of sexual harassment and assault had already been torn to shreds thanks to the kangaroo court system set up under Title IX.

Sullivan was also denounced by his #MeToo inquisitors for having spoken in defense of black Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer, who was subjected to two different Title IX investigations for supposedly engaging in “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” a very elastic and subjective charge. In an interview for the RealClearInvestigations article “Harvard, the NY Times and the #MeToo Takedown of a Black Academic Star” (29 January), Sullivan stated: “This process has been deeply flawed and deeply unfair,” adding: “It shows what the current [#MeToo] movement, some blood in the water, and good coaching [of witnesses] can produce” (brackets in original). On July 10, the university suspended Fryer for two years and barred him from the research lab that he created.

The Harvard administration is certainly no defender of women. As the number one think tank for U.S. imperialism, Harvard has as its mission educating the scions of capital, war criminals to be and the future administrators of an economic order in which the oppression of women and black people is materially rooted. In 2005, then Harvard president Lawrence Summers opined that women lack the “intrinsic aptitude” for science and engineering. Summers personifies what Harvard is all about. After he received a PhD from the university, he went on to become president of the World Bank, an instrument of U.S. imperialism for pillaging dependent countries, and later a top official in the Clinton and Obama White Houses, where he helped put the squeeze on workers and the poor at home.

An elite training ground for the children of the bourgeoisie and its trusted agents, Harvard was built on the backs of slaves. The riches amassed from slave-traders and slaveowners were the seed money for its current $37 billion endowment. It was only two years ago that the crest of a notorious slaveowning family who endowed Harvard Law School was removed from its seal. When student activists covered the crest with tape in 2015, racist yahoos defaced the portraits of black tenured faculty, including that of Sullivan. Harvard and all other private universities should be nationalized and made tuition-free, their doors thrown open to working-class, black and Latino youth.

The campaign against Sullivan underscores how feminism as an ideology reflects the concerns of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women who want a seat at the table of power and prestige with their male counterparts. Women’s liberation from domestic servitude and sexual violence, as well as class exploitation, can begin only with the shattering of the capitalist order through socialist revolution. The seizure of power by the multiracial working class, led by a Leninist vanguard party, would also set the stage for the emancipation of black people, with a workers government providing decent jobs, as well as free, quality, integrated housing, health care and schools for everyone. The barbaric heritage of slavery would be buried once and for all.

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