Interview With William York: Anarchist Lawyer

Nashville, Tennessee (TFC) – William P. York focuses his practice on civil rights litigation to vindicate the constitutional rights of immigrants, immigration appeals, the protection and defense of immigrant workers’ rights, including victims of human trafficking, advocating for immigrant victims of crime in the workplace, and civil litigation in state and federal courts (representing plaintiffs and small businesses).

Mr. York is a 2011 graduate of the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, where he earned his Juris Doctor and a Certificate of Concentration in Litigation with Honors.

Mr. York is a proud member of the National Lawyers Guild and is a founding member of the NLG’s Nashville chapter, which, to date, has focused its work primarily through public education and policy and legal reform on issues of homelessness, criminalization, and issues related to income disparities. Will is a member of the Guild’s Mass Defense Committee, Housing Committee, and Queer Caucus. He can frequently be found at various protests monitoring for First Amendment abuses on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild.

Prior to law school, Will was a prolific writer and the award-winning managing editor and senior reporter for his college’s student newspaper. Will earned numerous journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Southeast Journalism Conference, where he won the coveted “Best in the South” prize for best news reporting. Will brings his creative writing talents to work for his clients and drafts a wide array of pleadings and briefs in immigration court (including the Board of Immigration Appeals), state court, and federal court.

John: You are an anarchist and a lawyer. How did this happen? How does this help and hinder each other? In which ways is it a juxtaposition and in which ways does it fit perfectly?

Image Source: Jeff Meyer, Flickr, Creative Commons Anarchy Location scouting in the West Bottoms of KC.

Image Source: Jeff Meyer, Flickr, Creative Commons
Location scouting in the West Bottoms of KC.

William: I’m an anarchist because I believe in radical self-autonomy, personal liberty, and peaceful coexistence, and I oppose war, empire, and the economic system we find ourselves in. It seems odd to many that working in a profession so integrated into the justice system could harmonize with an anti-authoritarian political philosophy. I am an anarchist, and I believe that given favorable conditions, the state will wither away, or at the very least, become irrelevant. The ultimate “win” for an attorney is having a court decide in the lawyer’s favor (well technically, the client’s favor). That court victory comes bearing the imprimatur of the state. The attorney uses the state’s apparatuses to enforce the judgment, from using court orders to seize accounts or using the sheriff–and the sheriff’s legitimized violence or threat thereof–to execute judgment against the recalcitrant judgment debtor. Is that an inherent contradiction, given that the anarchist in me prefers the absence of such machinery to accomplish political goals? Absolutely. We all live in a culture of contradictions, because capital pervades all in our society. It is impractical, and indeed deleterious to the great humane struggle, to completely divorce oneself from capital. That’s why going off into a commune with no contact with the “real” world does not advance the cause. The state has a host of lawyers at its beck and call. Those lawyers stand at the ready to enforce its regulations, prosecute its crimes, defend it when its citizens claim it wronged them, and perform any host of ministerial duties. We have seen lawyers legitimize the use of torture, even within the past ten years. Where are the lawyers keeping the state accountable for its actions? We must exist too, or we cede that ground to the state. Radical lawyers must use the legal system–the same legal system used by the government–for the people. I am not saying that all worthwhile efforts in the struggle must involve the legitimization of the apparatus of the law, but I do believe that the law is one valid tool of betterment for the people. It is our clients who decide what they want to do. The lawyer counsels, advises, defends, and when appropriate, challenges the government’s reach for power. Working as a lawyer in this system acknowledges that the people, too, have power. Many of the state’s legal positions are value judgments, placing many interests, such as property rights, above human rights. Lawyers like me attempt to contribute to the conversation by urging that people, too, have rights. I disagree with many, if not most, of our laws. Many of my friends see me as furthering the goals of the evil empire. I sympathize with that position, but I try to remind those critics that I did not write the laws. Rather, I use the laws that exist–as defective and inadequate, or as overbearing and invasive of human freedom as they may be–to benefit my clients, who are the ones with the ultimate say-so in how I do my job. Do I look forward to the day when my career is obsolete? Of course, but no more so than we all do. I cannot imagine that in an anarchist society that the overwhelming majority of our jobs will be necessary, but that does not mean they do not have tremendous meaning not only for the people who benefit from them, but also from the practitioner herself. In short, if the government can have lawyers to do its bidding, the people deserve to be equally protected from a government gone too far.


John: You mention we live in a culture of contradictions, one of those being ‘Land of the free’, with the highest incarceration rates (the U.S. has five percent of the world’s population, with 25% of its prison population). Can you talk a bit about the inherent racism in the prison industrial complex, war on drugs, and police tactics?

William: The profit motive corrupts. All of those things you mention–the prison-industrial complex, the “War on Drugs,” and the militarization of the police–are outgrowths of profit. In my first answer, I lamented that we live in a culture of contradictions because capital permeates everything. We now have the profit motive entering into one of the state’s essential “services,” incarcerating people. Corrections Corporation of America is headquartered here. How we accept the monetization of such a function is beyond my understanding. When the profit motive seeps into the mix, it is easy to think, “Okay, how can we maximize profit, and how can we make our revenues predictable?” It should not be surprising, then, that the answer includes essentially criminalizing people of color, establishing mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, putting dollars spent on weapons abroad into police weapons to use at home. Why does this happen? People who have been locked out of participation in our so-called democratic society end up being locked into prison cells because historically, people of color have had fewer substantive rights. People of color are essentially the low-hanging fruit for a system ensnared with monetary incentive. I don’t think every cop on the beat and corrections officer is preternaturally racist, but race absolutely factors into the capitalization of incarceration and policing, because to make money, someone has to suffer. It’s just easier to systematically make less-politically influential people suffer. And of course this cycle is self-perpetuating; the people whom we disproportionally lock up are the ones that then are barred from participating in the democratic process because we generally strip felons of their right to vote. I don’t think our drug laws have ever been about prevention or social ills; they’ve always been about race, and inevitably, class.


John: What sort of alternatives do you see as far as a way of creating a system that isn’t based on serving the interest of profit rather than people

William: Anything but the current system would be a good start. Of the choices that exist, I personally favor workers uniting and rendering the boss class superfluous. I’m open-minded to ideas.


John: You are affiliated with the National Lawyers Guild, would you tell us about them and why they are important to radicals?

William: The National Lawyers Guild is an organization made up of radical lawyers, law students, jailhouse lawyers like Mumia Abu-Jamal, and legal workers. We work for a fundamental reimagining of our economic and political systems in favor of a reorientation toward people and self-realization and away from monied special interests. We send envoys to Cuba and monitor elections. We have had many interests over the years, many of which got us into trouble with the Un-American Activities Committee. I’m personally proud that the House considered us a front for the Communist Party. The green hats indicate NLG Legal Observers, who watch out for protesters. They look for illegal police activities and document them. Then our members use the evidence gathered by the Legal Observers to seek favorable results in criminal defense or in civil rights cases. Their job is to watch the cops, since the cops are watching the protesters. This is a “who’s watching the watchmen” effort. The Legal Observers are part of NLG’s Mass Defense Committee. That’s a thing I enjoy about the Guild; there’s a place for every interest. Personally, I’m in the Guild’s National Police Accountability Project, which is restricted to plaintiffs’ lawyers only, the Queer Caucus, NextGen Committee, and the Housing Committee. There are working groups ranging in interests from military law to supporting the free-speech activities of online activists. All this comes with considerable risk though. One of our members is currently dying in prison because she dared to represent Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was accused of planning the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Lynne Stewart has terminal cancer, but the administration believes her last years are best spent sitting in prison as a stark warning against anyone who dares question the administration’s prosecution on the “War on Terror,” which this president falsely promised would be different from the Bush policy. It’s a true sign of the times when a Nobel Peace Prize laureate locks up terminally ill lawyers. Lynne believes that when faced with government accusation of crime, everyone within our borders deserves equal access to justice and competent legal representation.


John: What should someone do if they are approached by cops?

William: If you’re approached by the cops, there are only three things to say. Ever. No exceptions. “Am I being detained, or am I free to go,” “I do not consent to any searches,” and “I wish to remain silent. I want to speak with a lawyer.” Most of the time, people talk themselves into trouble with police officers, and people rarely, even the most eloquent, talk themselves out of trouble. Obviously you should talk to your own lawyer in a given set of circumstances, but as a general rule of thumb, talking to the police will not get you out of trouble, but it certainly can get you in trouble.


John: What sorts of alternative tactics would you think could be employed as far as restitution for injustice in an anarchist society rather than putting people in cages? Are there other means of dealing with detrimental behavior besides prisons and hangings? Obviously some acts are horrendous and while as anarchists we know the state and capitalist system carry out and exacerbate inhuman actions, we know that their will always be negative societal outliers. How do we critically intervene and use de-escalation to prevent these things on a communal level and how do we deal with these things when they do happen?

William: Individually. Part of the problem we have in contemporary criminal justice is, while trying to fit the offender into one box or another, ignoring the community aspect of corrections. We see it as a great accomplishment for justice that a law describes a certain set of bad behavior, and there is a set punishment for this type of crime. Some less-competitive societies attempt to reconcile the offender to the victim, all while also attempting to repair the harm done to the community at large. Our current system focuses on the perpetrator while really giving little voice to the victim and no voice at all to the community. We tend to view crime as an individual aberration rather than a community problem. That is a very Ayn Rand way of looking at the world, and it’s one I reject. Anthropologists may have some better examples, but a step in the right direction is embracing traditions like “restorative justice” and other more integrative approaches. This is a foreign concept when you view the criminal process as one of retribution and incapacitation, thanks to Jeremy Bentham. Most of the problems with crime are caused by perversions of power, and if we critically analyze the institutions that reify power, we can approach more communistic problem-solving.


John: We’ve heard a lot of call from various places for a revolution. We may hope to beat a lot of these problems by challenging the status quo through protest and other nondestructive forms of direct action, but when it comes to ecocide and stopping things within a time frame (just a few years by some estimates), do you think our tactics must change? And how do you see us finding a line between what is worth fighting for and how? I.e. If we know 500 million people will die by 2050 does that make revolutionary action justified? And to what means do the tactics leading into a revolution affect the society it brings forth?

William: We have heard a lot about revolution because it is ultimately inevitable. The system, as we have constructed it and continue to support it, is not sustainable. Contrary to apparently popular belief these days, Russell Brand will not save us. One lesson that I learned the hard way in 2008 was that Barack Obama can’t save us either. I am agnostic when it comes to tactics. I don’t care how this change comes about, but it is increasingly obvious that some change is absolutely essential if we are to continue to inhabit this planet. I support those who get things done, but I don’t have some magic solution, or some special tactic that is somehow superior to all others. One thing that the Arab Spring has taught us is that we must be flexible and open minded to an array of choices when it comes to tactics. I just don’t have a preference. It’s an interesting question to consider whether tactics shape the society to come after those tactics are utilized.

I strongly believe that violence only begets more violence. Not only is it futile, but it also engenders resentment and destruction. We who believe that change must come must dedicate ourselves to radical peace. We must embrace peace in all we do and serve as ambassadors for nonviolence. People sometimes despair that change through protest is slow, but anything that is worth its salt takes deliberation and careful progression. It is a powerful symbol to peaceably dissent, and when and if the government or the oppressor retaliates with violence, the public at large must then wonder why the demonstrator’s message is so harmful to the oppressor, and it further exposes the oppressor to condemnation for using the tool it knows the best, violence. Dr. King appropriately told us that only love can conquer hate and only love can conquer war and violence. It is true. We must stand as a stark contrast to the violence surrounding us. Yes, times feel desperate, but that only means, in my opinion, that we must be as urgent as ever in dedicating ourselves to creativity, not destruction. Honestly, protestors lose credibility when windows are smashed, so why would we want to do something that is not only destructive but also pointless? The revolution I envision involves exposing the superfluousness of the state and its apparatus. We can only do that by showing the world our better nature, a nature of mutual respect—even for our “enemies”—of kindness, nonviolence, and mutual aid. We show we have the superior ideas by appealing to reason. The spectacle of the scaffold has gone on long enough, and if we are to build our own future, it must be one of construction, not destruction, love, not hate, and dialogue, not fighting. Really, the hippies—for all their faults—were onto something when they proclaimed that change comes from peace, not force or violence. The latter things are used to control others. The former—peace—is the mark of cooperation. I believe we must live now as we wish to live under the new system we hope for. That includes living an absolutely peaceful life. I have taken up Buddhism in the past few years, which has helped me greatly to find calm amid the noise and haste.


John: It’s the small acts, right? Zinn knew his revolutions. So where do you stand on the recent events with whistle blowers from a legal standpoint and how would you assist a similar case, if you were a Chelsea manning type individual’s lawyer?

William: Whistleblowers don’t happen by accident. The government causes whistleblowers when it substantially overreaches its bounds. I’m not saying the government has natural bounds, because the existence of the state itself is unnatural. However, whistleblowers come about when the conscience is overborne by communitarian ideals. I don’t mean to channel Nietzsche. With these extraordinary government disclosures, such as Chelsea Manning’s or Edward Snowden’s, we see a side of government that is nasty, that we want to ignore. But this state monitors us, and the vast majority of hipsters are complacent accepting that as long as they can continue to download torrents. I naturally embrace whistleblowers, because government should not be working in secret, if it is to be accepted as legitimate by anyone. From a broader perspective, the decisions we make about governing ourselves should be made by us, and certainly not in secret. One unique thing about the United States Constitution, setting it apart from most other constitutions in the world, is the founders’ deep and abiding appreciation of freedom of expression. I’m not saying all these property owning, white men were good people, or that the revolution was not in many ways tainted by bourgeois concerns, but they did a good job when they wrote the First Amendment. In the United States, it is unconstitutional to prevent the publication of these secrets, except in quite rare circumstances, such as in disclosing actual troop movements. Historically, that’s because the colonists had a deep disrespect for England’s licensing scheme. It was one of the earliest examples of money in politics. If the Crown did not like what your paper said, or had some vested monetary interest in not having your side of things published, the government would simply not give you a license to print. In First Amendment jurisprudence we call this a “prior restraint. “Prior restraints” are unconstitutional. So while the government does not like it, The New York Times has an absolute right to publish these state secrets. The act of espionage, the government may lawfully prosecute. So I suppose the neoliberal justification is that we benefit, in a utilitarian sense, while still frowning on the unlawful access or disclosure, and shunt the weight of the crime onto the shoulders of one person. I don’t believe that is ethical. We have a law already on the books called the False Claims Act. We actually give money to whistleblowers who expose government wrongdoing. I’m not sure these giant disclosures are doing anything but that.


John: How do you see various forms of art as influencing radical discourse or even shaping and framing it? How has radical art altered your perspectives?

William: That’s the question of whether life imitates art or vice versa. I like art the most when it is aspirational, when it shows us what is possible from the shards of what is. Of course, art, like anything, can be capitalized. Capital seems to invade everything. Look at music today. I may be woefully out of touch, but what is Miley Cyrus doing? A lot of people buy into commercialization, which is more than consumerism. It’s a theological concept almost, this fetishism with commercialized expression. It’s a hipster complex, more or less, this cosmological drive to purchase status or power. Capital has a way of doing that. And it’s bad art that Wall Street pushes. Thomas Kinkade is the most popular visual artist in America. I appreciate the sensory expressions of people and communities with a sense of community and perspective. A lot of hip-hop artists have a lot of insight on our surveillance state and police accountability. Latino art is inspiring for the almost phoenix-like vigor with which so many families hope while being torn apart by militarized, commercialized border enforcement. The poets of Eastern Europe used words to seep through the cracks in the Iron Curtain. Postmodern artists expressed the sense of a generation just like the Modern artists like T.S. Eliot. Art has a lot of potential to make commentary and shape dialog. I think creative direct actions are artistic. Think about what ACT UP was able to accomplish through distributed art-making-as-protest.


John: What do you think about experts and so called natural leaders within an anarchist or horizontal setting?

Wiliam: “Expert” is probably a term of art with a lot of different meanings. Some people have natural interests in things, and some people pursue those interests. That makes an expert, more or less. And because of some accomplishment or deep knowledge, we collectively, through whatever institutions we accept as legitimate, acknowledge these people as experts in a field. I think that is very different from the things that make a “leader.” By contrast, we should probably be critical of the things that suggest one characteristic or another makes a good leader. There aren’t likely many natural leaders. It seems more likely that our institutions of power reflect what our political and economic situation is, with patriarchy and all that, telling us what a “leader” should be. It’s probably wise that we try to be mindful of what characteristics seem to say, “that person is a leader.”


John: Specifically, what do you think radical communities can do to more effectively  fight patriarchy?

William: I think it’s simple, that yes, patriarchy furthers worker exploitation, and the reverse is probably true too. Activists can be just as guilty about perpetrating patriarchy without realizing it. I suppose that’s the theme to the manarchist meme. One thing that people and groups can do is announce safe spaces and affirm themselves as a safe space for expression.


John: Thank you so much for your time! Anything else you want to say to our readers?

Here is some Nashville anti-surveillance music which William recommends.