Human Rights: June 2010 Archives
"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.