|Profiles in the Law
Every Thursday morning bright and early, radio station KBOO features Portland attorney Alan Graf on 'Voices from the Edge.'
Graf co-hosts the talk show on 90.7 FM with state Rep. Jo Ann Bowman, discussing current political and legal issues. Recent topics have included the special legislative session and the Portland Police Department. It’s a perfect blend for Graf who calls himself a 'people’s lawyer.'
The radio show is an outgrowth of 'Law-squawk,' another program Graf started about six years ago as a way to demystify the law for lay people. 'Because I’m a political animal, Law-squawk became part political and part legal.' In the past, Graf served on the KBOO board of directors as a director and as president of the board. He does his radio show pro bono just as he also represents political protesters, tree sitters and street musicians for free.
'From a personal standpoint a lot of what drives me is I’m a German Jew, and my dad and his sister escaped in 1939.' Graf never knew his grandparents because they never left Germany alive. His dad went back to fight the Nazis and when the war was over, he was able to visit concentration camps to look for family members. He only found his brother, Graf’s Uncle Joe, and brought him to the United States. 'It’s part of my history that I’m sensitive to abuses of power,' Graf explains. 'That’s why I represent the disabled, the disenfranchised, the poor and the meek.'
Graf presently is a sole practitioner focusing primarily on Social Security law. His practice involves administrative hearings and federal court appeals. He formerly was a part of the firm Swanson, Thomas & Coon and also had a sole practice in the early 1990s. Along with fellow attorney Tim Wilborn, Graf co-wrote program handbook materials to accompany the May 2001 OSB seminar 'Perfecting the Social Security Disability Claim.' Their materials 'include everything a lawyer needs to know to practice Social Security law,' according to Graf.
His expertise in Social Security law lead to his founding and presently co-chairing of OSCCR, Oregon Social Security Claimants Representatives. He also is a member of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association and chair of the policy board for the Portland chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild. He is a graduate of Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College with an environmental certificate.
The heart of Graf’s legal practice lies in his pro bono work. On his office wall behind his desk is a picture of deceased reggae musician Bob Marley and a photo of Graf with Ralph Nader. 'Both are my heroes in different ways because both are advocates for the rights of the people.' As part of his pro bono legal work, Graf participated in the Mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force. He co-authored the 80-page Majority Report on Police Accountability.
Graf strongly believes in the First Amendment right to free speech, but he also doesn’t condone people hurting others or damaging property. He represents protesters in mass legal defenses as part of the National Lawyers’ Guild. One result of these mass defenses was that the police backed down from their former level of confrontation with political protesters. 'It is a kinder, gentler street out there as a result of our litigation,' Graf says.
'I see a lot of value in peaceful civil disobedience because that’s how a lot of our laws have come into place,' he says, adding that such disobedience dates back to the Boston Tea Party. 'I’m honored to have the tools of a lawyer to represent the people. It’s part of my family heritage.'
Another part of his defense of First Amendment rights involves representing street musicians. 'As a result of my work, the streets of Portland are fairly safe for street musicians from harassment.' Graf plays guitar as well in a band called Mahayana. He also defends tree sitters, and says the last tree sitter he represented reminded him of a modern day Rosa Parks. 'Someone who would put their body in harm’s way driven by their ideals is my idea of a heroine.'
In addition to being one of Portland’s 'people’s lawyers,' Graf, who wears his hair in a pony tail, calls himself 'a hippie lawyer.' He tries to follow singer Elvis Costello’s saying, 'What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?' In fact, he lived on a hippie commune for 12 years and met his wife there. Graf has been married for 27 years to Jane Graf and has a daughter Maria, 24, adopted in Guatemala, and a 17-year-old son, Banah.
Ultimately, Graf believes lawyers need to look at upholding justice for the people, and think about what happens if it’s lost. 'I think lawyers should incorporate the way that Native Americans look at the consequences of their actions for seven generations,' Graf says. 'How are things going to look seven generations from now?'
Linda Campillo is a Portland-area free-lance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2002 Linda Campillo