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Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoAutumn 2007

Liz Fink ’67 with the Attica brothers and lawyers


Still Fighting

Elizabeth Fink ’67 says she was well prepared for her success as a civil liberties attorney—by both the Reed she loved and the Reed she loathed.

Fink has been at the center (or on the left, politically speaking) of a series of celebrated cases, most notably a civil trial stemming from the 1971 Attica Prison insurrection in New York. A lawsuit she doggedly pursued for three decades on behalf of inmates led to a $12 million settlement. As chair of the student judicial board and president of the student body at Reed, Fink says she learned how to wield power and leverage relationships. She can still cite details of several honor code cases and describe why she tilted the scales in favor of an underprivileged student who cheated, and why she threw the book at another who hid books on reserve to gain an advantage over classmates.

“I barred him from the library for four years,” she says with a laugh. “I think they modified that sentence.”

But Fink says another side of Reed steeled her for a lifelong pursuit of political rights and defense of unpopular causes. “It was an unbelievably sexist, male-dominated place,” she says. “Off the charts. Most of the women were terrorized at Reed. Once you have experienced that kind of terror at that age, you cannot duplicate it. Confronting the head of the FBI? Piece of cake. Facing down cops with submachine guns? Piece of cake. I never have been afraid of any of that and I have been in some hairy situations.”

She credits a longtime mentor and colleague, the late William Kunstler, for a third facet of her legal game. “Bill taught me to make everyone like you,” she says, adding “I’m much better at it now than he was.” She is close to Kunstler’s widow, New York attorney Margie Ratner, and works with their daughter, Sarah, also an attorney. An apartment overlooking New York Harbor in Brooklyn also serves as a law office more concerned with causes than retainers. “Paying clients,” Fink says, “pay for the non-paying clients.”

She maintains contact with several Reedies, especially Laura Stevens ’67 and Laura Tillem ’67, and returned for her 40th class reunion in June. She had visited Portland in 2005 for a convention of the National Lawyers Guild, the progressive legal organization that gave Fink her first position back in the ’70s in Buffalo, New York. That gig led her to represent Big Black (aka Frank Smith), an inmate leader during the tense five-day takeover at Attica that culminated in a police assault restoring order—at a cost of 38 lives. Black became Fink’s investigator and paralegal and accompanied her at her 20th Reed reunion. They had what Fink calls “a profound relationship” until his death from cancer in 2004.

More recently, Fink persuaded a judge to spare Lynne Stewart, the radical attorney convicted of conspiracy for passing messages for a terrorist client, of a lengthy prison term; and she convinced a jury to acquit Osama Awadallah, a San Diego State University student from Jordan, of complicity in the 9/11 attacks.

“In the middle of that case,” Fink says, “the prosecutor got so crazy with me he said I was jeopardizing the Republic. I took that to be one of the best compliments I have ever received. Jeopardizing the Republic. I think I’d like that on my tombstone.”

Edward Hershey is a former director of public affairs at Reed;
he covered the Attica uprising for New York

reed magazine logoAutumn 2007