Jan Susler does not like to talk about herself. She makes it very clear at the beginning of the interview. A civil rights lawyer, Susler says the limelight is reserved for her clients, who are also her friends. “I want this to be about Oscar López Rivera,” she explains, referring to the Puerto Rican political prisoner whom she represents.
But I insist.
Jan Susler has been practicing law for the past 39 years. She specializes in prisoners’ rights, police misconduct, and civil rights, and has worked at the firm People’s Law Office in Chicago since 1982. She was born in the United States, in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in a small town about three hours south, in a predominantly Jewish community with her mother, father, and siblings.
She has dedicated most of her professional career to representing Puerto Rican political prisoners: men and women who have fought for the island's independence from the United States.
She may be from Chicago, but many Puerto Ricans claim Susler as one of their own. And now, once again, like during the 1990s, she is at the forefront of a protracted battle, advocating for the immediate release of Oscar López Rivera, a 72-year-old man, who in May will have served 34 years of a 55-year sentence in US prisons, convicted of seditious conspiracy and related offenses.
These are urgent times, but Susler agreed to give me an interview and talk a little bit about herself, but more about her clients and friends.
Global Voices (GV): Why did you want to become a lawyer?
Jan Susler (JS): Partly it was because I had this great example with my dad. We always had dinner as a family, and he would come home and talk about his work. He was a general practitioner in a small town. He was antiracist and liberal in his views, and helped start the legal aid office. He understood that when you live in an unequal society you have a role to combat that. My mother also did that in her own way, she was an activist. She had a Masters in Education, was a teacher, and fought to have schools that offered the same education for all children, no matter where they were from.
Also, I come from a place that was very anti-semitic, Jewish people were not allowed to be part of the country club, etc. During Christmas in the public schools, they had a lot of religious stuff, and I was disturbed by that because I knew that there was a separation of church and state. I refused to participate in these activities, and became an advocate.
The other piece was somewhat of an accident of birth. I am a baby boomer, so I graduated from high school in 1967, a very hot time in the world. I remember sitting on the couch with my father and watching the Democratic Convention of 1968, and him saying “Oh my God, there is a police riot, they are beating people up.” So I am also very much a product of my times. When I was in college, there were army tanks. One of the things that inspired me a lot was seeing the resistance of the students on campus.
One other element is that of being a woman. My mother had a college degree, and she could not find work when she divorced my father [her biological father]. She all of sudden was dumped on the streets, and had to figure out a way to support her two children, me and my sister. She always told me I had to support myself and not depend on anyone.
GV: How did you decide to specialize in political prisoners and inmates’ rights?
JS: When I graduated from high school I knew I wanted to do civil rights work. There was a legal clinic that provided services to prisoners in Southern Illinois, and I thought this would be a great way to contribute, and they were mostly Black people and people of color. This was a very racist part of the state. It was in that job that I got involved with the Puerto Rican independence movement and political prisoners. I was in the National Lawyers Guild, a very progressive organization. In 1980 the first wave of Puerto Rican political prisoners was arrested, and two of them were sent to a prison where I was doing my work. Michael Deutsch called me and said that he had two clients who were very far from their community, and said: “I need you to go there and see them.” That was in September 1980. They were Luis Rosa and Carlos Alberto Torres.
GV: How did that relationship with Puerto Rican political prisoners develop?
JS: It just grew, many of them were imprisoned in Illinois. And then many of them thought I should move to Chicago to be closer to the Puerto Rican community. Then I moved to Chicago, became part of the People’s Law Office, and became closer to the Puerto Rican community, the family of the prisoners, and I started traveling back and forth to the island.
GV: Do you feel like an adopted Puerto Rican?
JS: Some people say I was born in the wrong place. I love the Puerto Rican people, and the country. I respect and admire the amazing resistance of the people in the face of hundreds of years of colonialism, and I feel very loved and embraced. I feel very privileged to be able to have this amazing, close relationship with the Puerto Rican people. I am very blessed.
On the other hand, I am not Puerto Rican, and I feel that the not Puerto Rican adds a dimension of the work, for example you would not be interviewing me. Some people think how unique and exceptional it is that a person from the US is working on this, but I don’t think it should be an exception. After all it is my government that is colonizing Puerto Rico, and why aren’t more people offended by that relationship that is not only anti-ethical but it violates international law. At the United Nations Decolonizing Committee I am only one of few US people who speaks out for Puerto Rico, and I think that US people have an obligation to speak out for the injustices the government commits.
GV: These are cases that heavily depend on public opinion. What are the differences between both battlefields: the courts and public opinion?
JS: The Puerto Rican independence movement and the movement in support of the political prisoners movement are two different things. The independence movement is heavily involved in the campaign to release the prisoners, but the campaign is much broader. This involves a very rich working experience to have both. Oscar and other political prisoners took a very strong position when they were arrested in the Chicago cases, and said they rejected the court’s jurisdiction to try them as criminals because of international law. In law school you don’t learn how to represent people like that (laughs). They don’t teach you how to do creative lawyering when you are working with people who don’t want to go to court.
For example, when Alejandrina Torres was put in the underground torture chamber called the women’s high security unit in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1986. She would not sue in the US courts to challenge her prisoner conditions. So how can you be her lawyer when she won’t let you go to court? She still has legal rights, but you have to figure out how to be a lawyer creatively. This takes you to different forums, international tribunals, to conferences, the UN Decolonization Committee, all sorts of wonderful experiences and places that you advocate in, in a nontraditional way you learned in law school.
In the process, you become part of a movement, and with political prisoners this is very important because they are part of the movement. Your sensitivity to what your client wants, and your sensitivity to what the movement wants helps you develop into a more responsible person, and a more responsible attorney. The activism piece in combination with the legal avenues that are available is how public opinion gets formed.
GV: Who is Oscar López Rivera for you, besides being your client?
JS: I will give you one example: my goddaughter just went to Puerto Rico for her bachelorette party, and she sent me back a picture of an image of Oscar on the streets of Old San Juan. She said: “His face is pasted everywhere!”
I see him as bigger than life, a person who has inspired people to come together. When you are faced with someone who is a legend in his own time…I went to see him recently, and we are in the sitting room, and I am talking about the Summit of the Americas [in Panama, from April 10 to April 11]. There is lots of chaos in the sitting room. I am sitting with this man in a prison where he does not belong, and I am telling this man that his case is an issue in Panama. It is the combination of the mundane of being in the sitting room, the vending machines, realizing that he will be stripped after my visit, and at the same time this very man is being talked about among heads of state.
GV: How do you see the possibilities of Obama offering clemency to Oscar López Rivera before leaving office?
JS: Sometimes people ask me: When is Oscar coming home? And I say, that depends on the work we do, not only the lawyers. Obama needs to make a political decision, and it needs to be politically convenient to his party. And we need to make him understand that this is convenient for his party. He has been one of the most stingy presidents in modern history in giving commutations and pardons. He has been heavily criticized for this. He said recently in an interview that he understood that he needed to do that more. This is good news.
I am hoping that our work continues to be as consistent and creative as it has been, so we are relentless in keeping Oscar visible, because our window is closing. We have to make it known that we need Oscar home.
GV: Tell me something we might not know about Oscar López.
JS: He is somebody I have learned from a lot, not like a teacher, but when you share life experiences with someone that you care about, you grow. And I have grown enormously from my privileged relationship with him.
He probably does more pull ups and push ups and crunches than many of the youngsters around him. He takes very good care of himself, because he knows his jailers will not. He takes a lot of responsibility for what he eats, which is very difficult in prison, and even harder because he is a vegetarian. He is very disciplined. He understands how valuable time is. He has his own agenda, read, exercise, eat; he corresponds with many people. He is an autodidact, and he has a memory that is frightening. He never forgets anything he reads, he never forgets anything, he can talk about the history of Egypt, about volleyball (she laughs). He understands the world in a very complex way. He is a font of knowledge. Yes, so why is he in prison? He is a resource to the country, to Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico is being robbed of that resource.