June 2010 Archives

Bill Kunstler.jpg"Gentlemen, I have some information that may be of interest to you ... We have been having some trouble in our town with housing for Negros ... These Negros all have the same lawyer ... It looks like the same old Commie pattern" - 1961 letter in Bill Kunstler's FBI file.

Last week I learned who Bill Kunstler was for the first time. I went to college for four years, law school for three. I've worked as a public interest lawyer since 2006. But still I'd never heard of one of the most influential civil rights lawyers of the last 50 years until I saw the documentary his daughters made, "Disturbing the Universe."

Kunstler represented a string of high-profile defendants over the course of 30 years:

-- 1961 - represented Freedom Riders in Mississippi
-- 1969 - defended "Chicago 7"
-- 1971 - attempted negotiation between Attica prisoners and authorities before NY State Police stormed the prison and slaughtered 28 prisoners and 9 guards
-- 1973 - helped negotiate at Wounded Knee, later represented members of the American Indian Movement
-- 1989 - defended Gregory Lee Johnson's First Amendment right to burn the U.S. flag
-- 1989 - defended Central Park jogger rape defendants, who were later exonerated

Later, he represented the 1993 World Trade Center bombers and the Gambino crime family. His daughters believed that toward the end of his career, he lost perspective and looked for clients who were unpopular, no matter how they got that way.

Even so, the thread running through his career was the idea that when the government throws its resources at a high profile case against unpopular defendants, chances of a fair outcome are greatly reduced. And Kunstler believed the criminal justice system was just another symptom of a flawed society. If the criminal justice system, supposed to be the core of American democracy, was rotten, what did that say about American democracy? Kunstler's advocacy showed that the law, so often used as a tool of oppression, could be used for social change instead.

He never believed incremental change was enough. The cases he fought and causes he promoted advanced that change, but it was never enough for him.

Kunstler was clever enough to avoid the mistake of blaming the problems he saw on a particular leader or political party. Rather, he blamed systems, which is to say he held everyone responsible, including himself.

His goal was to flip the script. Instead of letting the government put his clients on trial, he used his cases to put the government on trial.

Below are my responses to Reform Immigration For America (RIFA)'s questionnaire to participants from my state in its campaign to promote pro-migrant immigration reform. In addition to my constructive criticism below, I should add that RIFA needs to listen more to the grassroots and incorporate feedback from local communities into national policy in a more structural, democratic way. I take this questionnaire to be an attempt to do something like that, but it is not nearly enough.

1. How has the politics around immigration moved in your state this year?

Some additional co-sponsors of Dream Act, some additional awareness of immigration among Philadelphia-area progressives. Also, some anti-immigrant movement sparked by AZ SB1070.

2. What action or tactic helped to move the issue the most with your Member of Congress?

Dream Act-eligible students contacting them directly.

3. What Organizations or players would you like to see more involved with the State Action Table?

Dream Act students.

General Questions:

1. Please identify your relationship to the state table: Are you a leader in the community, a c3 organization, local business, faith organization or labor organization?

David Bennion - Staff attorney at Nationalities Service Center (nonprofit), blogger, involved with Dream Act advocacy locally and nationally.

2. For how long have you been a member of the State Table?

Didn't really know I was ... Ali got me involved around the March 21 rally.

3. On a scale from 1-10, how would you currently rate your participation with the state table?


4. What works well? Which one thing is most important to you?

Dream Act works well and is most important to me.

5. What does not work so well? Which one thing do you most want to improve?

National strategy is a dismal failure. Back to the drawing board!

6. What is your assessment of the national campaign (strategy, messaging, mechanics, etc)?

My two chief complaints about RIFA are: (1) continuing to push failed CIR strategy and (2) not being honest with the grassroots about dismal political prospects of CIR and weak commitment of ostensible leaders in Congress to any immigration reform at all.

RIFA has assumed the role of abused spouse, taking whatever scraps Democrats offer it along with the cheating, lying, and manipulation. Stand up to Congress and they will respect you more!

If RIFA doesn't change its approach, I predict it will lose credibility with the grassroots and they will look elsewhere for leadership and organization, if they haven't already.

CIR strategy has utterly failed, the poll-tested messaging ("get right with the law, go to the back of the line blah blah blah") has utterly failed, relying on disinterested Democrats to push immigration reform forward has failed. No amount of phone banking and canvassing and rallies will transform a failed strategy into a workable one.

Incremental reform is the best option now, especially Dream Act. Long-term, RIFA should work on reframing fundamentals of the discussion in the same way FAIR and CIS did 30 years ago: (1) immigration is a human rights and workers' rights issue, not a law enforcement issue, (2) the immigration system doesn't work as the public assumes it does--"illegal" is an ever-expanding, malleable category created for political purposes, (3) immigration policy needs to be globalized to bring U.S. into 21st Century (per work of Rinku Sen). FAIR's arguments seem easier to grasp and more convincing to the public because they've spent the last 30 years building on existing nativist elements of U.S. historical policy/narrative and tearing down pro-migrant ones.

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