Statement of grief at the death of Paul Chevigny (1935-2023)

Paul Chevigny had a huge influence on the organization and design of the litigation programs at Conectas

Foto: Bia Castelo Foto: Bia Castelo

The lawyer, professor and human rights activist, Paul Chevigny, left us last week. In 1987, Paul and Bell Chevigny came to Brazil for the first time to prepare a report on police violence, under the auspices of Human Rights Watch and the Center for the Study of Violence of the University of São Paulo (NEV-USP). Bell was a writer and professor of literature at the State University of New York, but with a long commitment to progressive causes. Paul was already a renowned professor of criminal law at New York University, and had authored the book Police Power, a classic about controlling police activity in the United States. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro appointed me, while still a student, as a translator for the couple’s travels around Brazil, giving me an enormous privilege. 

In 1964, the young Paul, educated at Yale and Harvard, abandoned a promising career as a lawyer on Wall Street to found a legal aid office for the black population of Harlem, after participating in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. In the following years, Paul Chevigny would become one of the most important and creative civil rights lawyers in the country, according to Aryeh Neier, the former president of the Open Society Foundation, in his book Taking Liberties: four decades in the struggle for rights. Paul dedicated his work specifically to issues of police violence and freedom of expression and opinion, developing pioneering litigation strategies aimed at stopping the indiscriminate use of force in the late sixties. He represented the Black Panthers, young people who burned the flag and refused to pay taxes in protest against the war in Vietnam, as well as ordinary prisoners and victims of police and prison violence.  

Paul Chevigny had a huge influence on the organization and design of the litigation programs at Conectas, and also on the various studies on abuse of coercive power by the police conducted by NEV-USP. He came to Brazil on numerous occasions. He generously shared his ideas and listened with great attention to our plans. He never came across as all-knowing or as an authority, only as a deeply committed colleague. Realistic, he explained all the difficulties that would arise from the implementation of a strategic litigation program at Conectas. At the end of a very disheartening day at work, I asked if we should postpone the idea and he replied: “of course not! This is urgent. If you don’t do it, who will? Just be careful with the well-being of the younger people,” looking at Eloisa Machado, a recent college graduate. 

But Paul Chevigny’s influence was not only in the field of strategic advocacy, but also in his stance with regard to human rights. Paul and Bell made an exceptional couple. His apartment on 112th Street in New York was frequented by poets, filmmakers, journalists, activists and friends from many countries. They were strictly liberal, in the American sense of the word. They defended a fair, inclusive society, but one where people could also exercise their freedom. He always advocated a non-selective policy in the field of human rights, as well as respect for the institutions that he often criticized. He never stopped having a strong dialogue with the police. In his analysis, the police were merely reproducing the violence, segregation and prejudices of society itself. As far as he is concerned, it was necessary to make reforms and train the police to align them to their key function, which is to enforce the law rigorously and impartially. The police were essential for combating crime. But they should not be the only ones responsible. In 2007, I was teaching a course on law and development at Fordham University. I took Paul to one of the classes, which addressed the issue of the rule of law in the Americas. A student asked who was most responsible for the decline in violence in New York: the chief of police, who reformed the police; the mayor, who started implementing a series of policies to keep young people in school; or the president, with his employment policies for the poorest Americans. Paul’s response: “probably all three. Not to mention the change in the criminal economy itself. The suppression of crack by cocaine was key…”. It was this holistic vision that enabled advances in social pacification.     

Paul was also an unpretentious activist. His obituary in the New York Times presents him as a kind of Detective Columbo, who, asking seemingly naive questions, was always ahead of the person on the other end of the conversation, without them being offended or even noticing. I remember a debate at New York University about his book The Edge of the Knife, which compares the efforts to control police violence in the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Haiti, and Brazil. At one point, a student quite forcefully points out an error in the book. Paul thanks the student and says he will correct the text in a future edition. A few minutes later, answering another question, he stops his reasoning, turns to the boy and says: “but with an error like that, the book will never make a second edition,” to the surprise of the audience.

This unpretentious attitude always generated some discomfort among his colleagues. In the 2000s, Paul decided to set up a human rights clinic with students and young professors. Some colleagues expressed their discomfort, claiming that he did not have the necessary training in the field of international human rights law, even though he was a notable civil rights lawyer. Paul did not hesitate, he started attending classes on international human rights law, going so far as to take the final exams, to the embarrassment of his colleagues. After completing the courses, he opened his clinic. 

Paul was also a Jazz lover. His relationship with music took on a new dimension in the 1980s, when he filed two lawsuits, representing black artists, against the city of New York, which was restricting the freedom of black musicians to express their art in certain regions of the city. From this experience emerged another classic in the sociology of law, Jazz and the Law, written by Paul. His relationship with art didn’t stop there. He was an excellent tap dancer. His only requirement when traveling was to have a space to tap dance.

Paul and Bell leave behind two daughters, Katy and Blue, great books, as well as a legacy of commitment to social justice and human rights. This is a statement for those who did not have the privilege of knowing them. 

Text written by Oscar Vilhena, founder of Conectas and currently a member of the organization’s Board of Trustees

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