Fight the power

Civil rights attorney Sussman to open city office and help locals take on ‘elites’

by Jesse J. Smith
May 12, 2011 03:44 PM | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Michael Sussman.
Michael Sussman.
Fresh from his victory on behalf of three city employees who sued the city for sexual harassment, crusading civil rights attorney Michael Sussman said that he plans to open a satellite office in Kingston and help start a grass-roots political movement to take on entrenched interests.

In an e-mail circulated this week, Sussman announced that his Goshen-based firm, Sussman and Watkins would open a branch office at 101 Hurley Ave. The building also houses the Workers Right Law Center, a progressive public-interest law firm, and Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, which provides civil legal assistance to low-income people. On Wednesday, May 18 at 6:45 p.m., Sussman wrote, he would host a public meeting to solicit ideas for new grass-roots initiatives in Kingston.

“This may involve lawsuits, political action, direct actions or some combination of these strategies and others,” Sussman wrote. “Public meetings and public education may be part of the strategy. We will need to identify those issues which are priorities for all of you and the community.”

Sussman, a media-savvy Harvard Law School graduate, has a long history of civil rights and political activism going back to 1981 when he kicked off a decades-long legal action to force the City of Yonkers to desegregate schools and housing. In the 1990s, he represented members of a minority political faction in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Kiryas Joel who claimed persecution and harassment by the prevailing political order. Sussman has also fought a number of high-profile legal cases on behalf of alleged victims of police misconduct including the family of Danroy Henry, a Pace University football player who was shot and killed by Westchester County police while driving away from an altercation outside a Thornwood nightclub in October 2010.

“He has a tremendous reputation as far as civil rights litigation and other progressive causes,” said Milan Bhatt, executive director of WRLC, which is leasing space to Sussman’s firm. “We hope to have a strong partnership. We kind of share the same agenda.”

Sussman said that he had decided to lease the space in part to better serve clients in the U.S. Court Northern District, which encompasses upstate New York. But, he said, he also wanted to help forge a coalition to empower local residents who may feel shut out of the current political order. Sussman, who founded the progressive Orange County Democratic Alliance and ran an unsuccessful campaign for Orange County Executive in 2001, said that his decision to branch out was influenced in part by testimony given the sexual harassment trial where three women who worked for the Department of Public Works described an atmosphere of favoritism and lax oversight.

“Hearing the testimony that I heard and meeting the people that I met I feel that there is a pretty glaring need for some organization to take advocacy seriously and empower people in the city who have not been served by government,” said Sussman. “My perception of Kingston is that it’s pretty much a closed shop.”

Community activist and former Kingston NAACP President Ismail Shabazz said that he was looking forward to Sussman’s new initiative. Shabazz said that he routinely handed out Sussman’s intake questionnaires to victims of alleged police misconduct and was currently lobbying the firm to take on the case of Raymond Snyder, an alleged gang member who was shot in the head by an Ulster County sheriff’s deputy following a car chase through Kingston last month.

“This stuff has to stop,” said Shabazz. “Hopefully, now the police will know that somebody’s looking over their shoulder.”

But Sussman said that he did not plan to take on a leadership role in a potential political movement. Instead, he said, he would serve as a facilitator to help connect local activists with legal and political tools to effect change.

“There is a problem up and down the Hudson Valley where you have elites in communities, frankly in some cases for generations, which are out of touch with the needs of the community,” said Sussman. “But they still have the power.”
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