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Martin Stolar, 81, civil rights attorney and surveillance foe

BY THE VILLAGE SUN | Martin Stolar, a leading civil rights attorney and unwavering advocate for justice, died on July 1 at age 81. Throughout his life, Stolar championed the rights of protesters and fearlessly confronted injustices within the legal system.

He spent his early years in Upstate New York, born in Syracuse and raised in Rochester. He earned his law degree from New York University School of Law, going on to a career that would be marked by landmark cases and profound impacts on civil rights.

Early in his career, Stolar represented 21 members of the Black Panther Party who had been surveilled by law enforcement and accused of an alleged plot to blow up police stationhouses. In a surprising decision, all the defendants were found not guilty.

Stolar became a vocal opponent of unlawful government monitoring of political activists. He helped create and then, for the rest of his career, championed the Handschu agreement, or decree, which limited police surveillance, including police videoing protesters without their consent.

John Penley, a former East Village activist and news photographer, recounted how Stolar’s intervention led to the Manhattan district attorney dropping charges against him.

“I was photographing a squat eviction on E. Fourth Street when a cop jumped me, knocked me down and arrested me,” Penley recalled. “When Josh Whalen started yelling at the cop, he did the same to him. Stolar had a private legal investigator canvass the block for witnesses and he found an attorney who lived there, saw the whole thing, and after Stolar sent his statement to the D.A., the charges were dropped. Man, was I happy about that since if you get convicted of assaulting a cop, it causes you problems forever, not to mention going to jail on that conviction.

“Stolar was a hero to me from then on,” Penley said, “and Ron Kuby’s comments about him in The New York Times were so true.”

Kuby told the Times, “Marty was one of the last of an amazing generation of movement lawyers who stood with demonstrators, protesters and dissenters for decades as they fought for a more just world.”

Beyond his court wins, Stolar’s impact resonated deeply within the legal community and beyond. He was a mentor to young attorneys and was the president of the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. While heading the guild, he defended pro bono hundreds of protesters arrested during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York.

In 2014, he represented Occupy Wall Street protester Cecily McMillan in her high-profile trial, in which the then-New School student was accused of felony assault against a cop.

More recently, in the summer of 2020, as The Village Sun reported, Stolar represented arrested Black Lives Matter protesters who said police and F.B.I agents had interrogated them about their political associations and activities — asking, for example, if they were members of antifa or anarchists.

Again, the Handschu agreement was central to the matter. Over the decades, Stolar and a group of other civil-rights attorneys hashed out the guidelines with the New York Police Department on what kind of questioning and surveillance are allowed of protesters and activists, as well as reporters and others.

The other attorneys include Franklin Siegel, Paul Chevigny, Jethro Eisenstein and Arthur Eisenberg, the executive counsel of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Their effort started when they were in their 20s and 30s with the class-action lawsuit in 1971 on police infiltration of the Black Panthers. That case was eventually settled in 1985, leading to the Handschu agreement.

As Stolar explained, “It’s the guidelines on how the N.Y.P.D. can investigate First Amendment activity — political, private and religious, press.

“If it’s pure political conduct, you can’t investigate it,” he said. “If it’s criminal conduct, go ahead and investigate it. If it’s a mixture, you need authorization — you need an ‘investigation statement.’

“The bottom line,” he said, “is they have to lay out some specific reason for conducting the investigation.”

After the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attack, police surveillance of Muslims became an issue — and was challenged by Stolar, among others.

“If you want to put an undercover into a mosque,” he said, “you need a specific criminal reason — [some] articulable criminal activity.”

As for police questioning BLM protesters four years ago, he said back then, “You’re under no obligation to answer their questions. Just pedigree information — name, address, date of birth. You have to identify yourself, but that’s it. Otherwise, you keep your mouth shut and you’re totally within your rights. If you open your mouth and you lie, you may be prosecuted.”

The Times reported that weeks before his death, Stolar “was on an organizing call about defending Columbia University students who had been arrested for protesting the Gaza war” and “was also offering advice on defending climate protesters arrested after targeting Wall Street banks for financing fossil fuel projects.”

Martin Stolar was predeceased by his partner, Veronika Kraft, with whom he had two daughters who survive him, Danya Henninger, a journalist, and Tamar Kraft-Stolar, co-founder of the Women & Justice Project. He is survived by his wife, Elsie Chandler, a defense lawyer, as well as two grandchildren and two brothers, Michael and Jeffrey.


  1. BarbaraR BarbaraR July 10, 2024

    A good man. A very good man.

  2. redbike redbike July 9, 2024

    Thanks for the thoughtful and thorough appreciation of Marty Stolar’s life and work.

    I was — once — a member of an audience listening to Marty inform us concerning the legal rights and limits accorded to public demonstrations. “Handschu” was but one part of Marty’s work. It was and is a clear example of the hypocrisy and duplicity of the NYPD. It *wasn’t* an “agreement”; or, more accurately, it wasn’t anything with which the NYPD ever had any intention of complying. It was merely moving goalposts, which the NYPD continued — and continues — to contest.

  3. John Penley John Penley July 9, 2024

    Stolar also represented Scott Sturgeon, lead singer of the legendary East Village punk band Leftover Crack, when he set off a mini riot by throwing donuts at cops at the 9th Precinct, which became known as the “Donut Riot.” Jefferson Siegel reported on this story.

  4. John Penley John Penley July 9, 2024

    Stolar also represented Randy Credico when Credico got into an all-out war with Roger Stone, which Lincoln Anderson reported on.

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