This was originally posted on Gapers Block.
On Jan. 22, William Kuntsler: Disturbing the Universe, a documentary about the legendary left-wing lawyer, premiered to a sold out crowd at the Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Directed by William Kuntsler's daughters Emily and Sarah Kuntsler, the film looks at the life and cases of one of America's most controversial lawyers.
William Kuntsler fathered Sarah and Emily late in life, and when he died, they were still young, so the movie became a way for them to know their father in a more adult way. It became a way for them to shed the simple childlike images of their father, and come to know him in a complex way.
The sold out Chicago premiere was hosted by the Next Gen, the young lawyers group of the Chicago chapter of the radical National Lawyers Guild. The theater was filled with activists, lawyers and law students. The amazing thing about the showing was how many people in the crowd had met or knew William Kuntsler.
National Lawyers Guild Next Gen members Sarah Gelsomino and Robert Luderman at the Chicago premiere of Disturbing the Universe.
Any movie dedicated to a leftist with as much courage as Kunstler is worth watching. It will introduce him and the cases he worked on to a whole new generation of activists, law students and lawyers. The number of important generation defining, culture shaping, legal precedent setting cases he took is astounding.
National Lawyers Guild member Elizabeth Fink with Directors Sarah and Emily Kuntsler.
Kuntsler's clients included: freedom riders, who broke Jim Crow Laws in an attempt to integrate interstate bus travel; the Berrigan brothers, Catholics who used homemade napalm to burn draft cards during the Vietnam war; the Chicago 8, the hippies and yippies who demonstrated against the war outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the prisoners who revolted against inhumane conditions in Attica prison, the American Indian Movement supporters who occupied the town of Wounded Knee to protest against the treatment of first nation people; Gregory Johnson, who burned an American Flag as a protest outside the 1984 Republican Convention and led to a Supreme Court case legalizing flag desecration.
There have been many movies and books about the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial and the comedic antics of Abbie Hoffman, as well as the barbaric treatment of Bobby Seal, who was bound and gagged in the courtroom. However, the lack of attention paid to the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee and the prisoners revolt in Attica makes this movie's focus on those cases much more important.
The scenes of the Attica revolt were powerful. What was terrifying, though, was watching the massacre that occurred when Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the state police to suppress the rebellion, leading to the deaths of 39 people, including the 10 prison guards held captive by the prisoners. Later reports proved that all the guards had been indiscriminately slaughtered -- not by the prisoners, as the state initially claimed, but by the state police. The scene ended by showing the state police shouting "white power" in a primal victory cry, unveiling the truth of the American penal system.
The movie showed Kuntsler's provocative style. At one point singer Harry Belafonte discussed the AIM trial. Kuntsler had Belafonte and the actor Marlon Brando sit behind the AIM defendants. When Brando asked Kuntsler if this might be perceived as jury tampering. Kuntsler replied, "everything is jury tampering."
The movie included footage of Kuntsler in court and audio of some of his arguments. His winning Supreme Court argument in defense of the first amendment right to burn or desecrate the flag was quite powerful. He discussed how the first amendment was there not for the ideas we like, those never needed the protection of the first amendment, rather it was there for the ideas we despise and find reprehensible.
I question the film's attempt to separate Kuntsler's '60s and '70s era radicalism from his later cases once he settled down and attempted to raise his family in the Bronx. The film tries to portray his earlier cases as absolute right vs. wrong, civil rights vs. tyranny, peace vs. war, social justice vs. injustice. The film asks how someone who took those cases could take some of the clients that Kuntsler took in his later years.
Among the disputed clients: Larry Davis, a black man who was accused of killing six New York Police in a shootout; Yusef Salaam, one of several black teens accused of beating and gang raping a Wall Street accountant in Central Park; Palestinian El-Sayyid Nosair, who was accused of assassinating right-wing rabbi Meir Kahane; and John Gotti, the head of the Gambino crime family.
A sold out crowd gathers in the lobby of the Siskel Center after the Chicago premiere of Disturbing the Universe.
I feel that many of the cases he took in the Bronx era could be defended from a leftist perspective anyway. In the cases of Larry Davis and Yusef Salaam, the media immediately painted both of them as heartless murderers. What was the difference between these cases and the lynchings in the south of another generation?
In the case of El-Sayyid Nosair, a Palestinian who stood trial for shooting a racist, anti-arab rabbi, the movie quotes a derider of the Palestinians, Alan Dershowitz, in wondering why a left wing Jew like Kuntsler would defend the man. The answer is obvious to those who are informed about the occupation of Palestine, and the racism hurled against Palestinians, but not so obvious to an apologist for torture like Dershowitz. Dershowitz actually produced boos and hisses at the Chicago premiere -- no doubt from Chicago activists who remember Dershowitz's role in denying tenure to Norman Finkelstein.
Besides, the movie details how Kuntsler was vindicated on many of those later cases. Yusef Salaam was acquitted based on DNA evidence, El Sayyid Nosair was found not guilty based on a lack of witnesses, and Larry Davis was found to be acting in self defense.
The one client who may seem hard to defend based on leftist ideals is mafia don John Gotti. Why would Kuntsler defend the head of a mob family? Was it just for a paycheck? Doubtful, Kuntsler only took cases he believed in. However, even if Kuntsler didn't find common ideological ground with Gotti, he could have found other reasons to defend Gotti. People remember Clarence Darrow for defending labor leaders and teaching evolution, but he became famous for defending the millionaire murderers Leopold and Loeb. Johnny Cochraine, might be remembered for defending millionaire celebrity wife beaters, but he worked on dozens of civil rights and police brutality cases; even some Black Panther members were his clients.
In the end, this separation shows how hindsight is 20/20. To the directors, seeing their father take controversial cases when they were little girls, they didn't understand how this was the same kind of case as civil rights cases from the '60s. However, if they had been living with their father in the '60s, maybe they would have felt the same fear that they felt as he defended Yusef Salaam.
The cases Kuntsler took often had personal impacts for him. Kuntsler spent time in prison based on contempt of court charges during the Chicago 8 trial, and after he defended the El Sayyid Nosair, Jewish activists would rally every day outside of his Bronx home, calling him a self-hating Jew and a traitor.
Many attorneys in the crowd testified to how Kuntsler inspired them to join the legal profession. DePaul University Law Professor Jim Cavise discussed the AIM trial in 1974 and how Kuntsler asked Cavise, straight out of law school, to find a case that would allow the elders and medicine men to hold a ceremonial drum session before court opened. Cavise found a case, and Kuntsler held a hearing where he argued the case like it was Supreme Court law. They were successful and for the rest of the trial, before every court appearance, a ceremony was held. Cavise also described some of the strategy sessions where a peace pipe would be passed, claimed that it was "a mind expanding experience for all of the lawyers."
Cavise told another story from the AIM trail. During opening statements AIM members started raising hell and were dragged out kicking and screaming, "as they were being dragged out Bill stood up and started calling the judge every single name in the book, and of course what happened was that Bill was dragged out of the courtroom too. Later on I said, not that it was the wrong thing to do, but what made you jump up?" Kuntsler told Cavise, "There's no way that someone's going to drag my clients out of the courtroom without dragging me with them."
Many of the law students in the audience were wondering how to become an
activist lawyer like Kuntsler. The movie showed how even Kuntsler did not start as a radical lawyer. He began as a run of the mill lawyer, and even authored a book, The Law of Accidents. Many students wanted to know how to go from that to representing radicals.
As NLG member Elizabeth Fink said, "You have to want to do it, have to not be afraid. Wake up every morning choosing it." The movie discussed Kuntsler's admiration of Michelangelo's David statue. It is one of the few art pieces that display David before he throws the stone at Goliath, before he made his entrance into history. It is the moment where David has to decide whether to throw the stone or not. Whether to take a risk or to disappear back into the crowd, with no one the wiser. Kuntsler believed in those David moments.
Loyola University law student Susie Bucharo said the movie and Kuntsler's life and work "was definitely inspiring. It's easy to feel in law school like you have to go with the flow and not challenge things." She continued, "The law only deserves that respect if it's worth that respect. What this movie teaches us is that some laws ought to be challenged. It's a different way of approaching this profession."