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William Kunstler was born in New York City in 1919. He obtained degrees from Yale University and Columbia Law School he became a lawyer. Kunstler specialized in civil liberties law and his clients included Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, H. Rap Brown and the Chicago Seven.
Books by Kunstler included Politics on Trial (1963), Hall-Mills Murder Case (1980), The Disenchanted Island: Puerto Rico and the United States in the 20th Century (1992), Hints and Allegations (1994) and an autobiography, My Life as a Radical Lawyer (1994). William Kunstler died in 1995.
I met Martin Luther King in Nashville, Tennessee in 1961, and I had expected to see an Old Testament saint. He asked me to be his special trial counselor and I agreed. I don’t put Martin on a pedestal; I think that’s the wrong thing to do with him. He had some drawbacks. He was not decisive in many areas. But he was a man without malice, and he was a marvelous speaker. He could say things that in my mouth would be dross, you know, using all these hyperboles, "the silver sword of justice will cleft the hills of injustice and let the stream of righteousness pour forth," which I could never say, but which sounded beautiful when he said it. "I have a dream," all that type of rhetoric that he used is very effective. I was out to see him in April 1968 with a lawsuit he had asked us to formulate on behalf of the striking garbagemen in Memphis, when he was shot and killed, the shot in the neck that opened the whole side of his face.
When I heard that he had been killed, I wanted to kill. Boy, there was a rage in my heart that was second to none. It subsided, finally, but I can’t describe the feelings I had. He was such a symbol of goodness in the movement, that to have him slaughtered - and done really by the FBI, you know, they gave him such a bad rep - "He’s the greatest liar in America," said J. Edgar Hoover - that any nut would be stimulated by it, as was the murderer, James Earl Ray. So really, Ray may have pulled the trigger, but the one who loaded the gun was the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
William Moses Kunstler died on Labor Day at age 76 of a heart attack. But I assure you it was a purely technical matter. He never lost hope, and the heart he brought to his work was huge, and was never lost to paralyzing bitterness or cynicism. Bill’s good heart will go on beating in many of us for a long time to come.
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is Great History
On Saturday, September 5th, the Hamptons International Film Festival concluded its Summer Documentary series with a screening of William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe , produced and directed by Kunstler's daughters, Emily and Sarah. The film covers the life and career of the colorful, at times outrageous, and, often, highly effective attorney. Kunstler's career as a lawyer and activist spanned the civil rights movement in the early 60's, the legendary Chicago Eight case in 1968 (and beyond), the massacre at Attica and its aftermath and the American Indian Movement protests at Wounded Knee in 1973. His later career, almost exclusively as a criminal defense attorney, encompassed John Gotti, the "Central Park Jogger" case, Meir Kahane's assassin and "cop killer" Larry Davis, to name but a few.
This is a wonderful film and Emily and Sarah Kunstler have done a remarkable job in presenting their famous father in an honest, critical light. Kunstler's activities and predilections had a profound effect on his family, including an earlier marriage. Yet, Kunstler's life is a near perfect perspective from which to view the 1960's, 70's and 80's. The film is great history.
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe will premiere theatrically in November in select cities. Their website is www.disturbingtheuniverse.com and I encourage everyone to rush to see this movie and discover/rediscover the life and career of the brilliant William Kunstler. The Hamptons International Film Festival runs October 8th through 12th. For more information, go to www.hamptonsfilmfest.org.
Two other quick items. Thank you to those who corrected my mangling of Ted Kennedy's chronology. Yes, I had EMK running against Carter for the nomination in 1976. Or at least it sounded that way. I often write these things, bleary-eyed, at 1 AM. So, thank you for that correction.
Also, running for the Senate against Joe Lieberman would involve moving to Connecticut and I live in New York. I like New York. I have lived here all my life. My immediate family stretches from the Syracuse area to Nyack in Rockland County to Manhattan to eastern Long Island. I like Connecticut, but I'm not moving there. As for Lieberman, I was amused by his "Make my day" retort. Lieberman, who betrayed his party and whose leadership and ideas are so enervated and in need of replacing? That Lieberman channeling Clint Eastwood? Now that's funny. Ned Lamont in 2012.
The Trials of William Kunstler
MY LIFE AS A RADICAL LAWYER By William M. Kunstler with Sheila Isenberg. Illustrated. 414 pp. New York: Birch Lane Press/ Carol Publishing Group. $22.50.
IN an age when liberals and conservatives have largely weaned themselves of the hope that courts will serve as instruments of social change, William M. Kunstler continues to insist that law should be inseparable from politics. From 1969, when he flamboyantly defended the Chicago Seven, accused of conspiring to riot at the Democratic National Convention, to 1994, when he argues that "black rage" drove Colin Ferguson to murder six passengers on the Long Island Rail Road, Mr. Kunstler has represented a series of highly unpopular clients by questioning the integrity of the American legal system itself. At the age of 75, he has dictated his memoirs, "My Life as a Radical Lawyer," in which he calls himself, without apologies or false modesty, a defense attorney for the 60's generation.
It is hard not to be impressed by Mr. Kunstler's knack for making cameo appearances in some of the most politically combustible cases of the last 30 years. He defended the Freedom Riders in the 1960's, and he says that he was on his way to the airport to represent Lee Harvey Oswald when Oswald was assassinated by Jack Ruby. Mr. Kunstler then took up Ruby's case on appeal. He was a special trial counsel to Martin Luther King Jr., and after evolving from a liberal to a self-styled radical, he defended a number of Black Panthers charged with violent crimes, as well as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. More recently he has defended Islamic revolutionaries like El Sayyid A. Nosair, acquitted in 1991 of the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane, and three of the suspects in the World Trade Center bombing (Mr. Kunstler has since been disqualified from the bombing case for conflict of interest). He argued both flag-burning cases before the Supreme Court and defended Yusef Salaam, who was convicted of rape in the Central Park jogger case.
All of these cases, according to Mr. Kunstler, are political, but his definition of a political case turns out to be exceptionally broad: "Any time a black person is charged with a crime against a white law enforcement officer, I consider it political." The principle that has guided Mr. Kunstler's choice of clients, in other words, is not so much radicalism as racialism. And it is only a small step from his premise -- that "cases in which defendants are black are political" -- to his unsettling conclusion that all violent crimes committed by black defendants are inherently political crimes.
Mr. Kunstler makes no attempt to defend this theory in any detail: he simply asserts that "black rage," in the case of Colin Ferguson (who has yet to go to trial), "was a mental condition no different from the battered-wife syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder or the child-abuse-accommodation syndrome in that, in conjunction with mental illness, it gave rise to terrible acts of violence." The fact that the law has traditionally limited defenses of mitigation to immediate provocation suffered by individuals, rather than chronic oppression suffered by groups, does not interest Mr. Kunstler. But even as a racialist, Mr. Kunstler is hardly consistent. In 1991, for example, he helped to persuade an appellate court to retry two former Black Panthers who had been convicted of killing two policemen in New York City. The prosecution, he argued successfully, had relied on racial stereotypes in excluding blacks from the jury. Several pages later, Mr. Kunstler boasts that he relies on racial stereotypes in selecting his own juries.
Perhaps one misses the point of Mr. Kunstler's career by trying to discern a coherent philosophy. For his book suggests that he sees himself more as a legal performance artist, or a professional controversialist, than a civil rights lawyer in the conventional sense. During the Chicago Seven trial he refined what he calls the "political-legal defense" that he has continued to practice through his career. Its salient features include a tendency to wing it in the courtroom (Mr. Kunstler reveals that he "never found the time to study the Chicago case" before the trial began), a willingness to risk contempt charges by theatrically attacking the impartiality of prosecutors and judges ("Your Honor . . . I think what you have just said is about the most outrageous statement I have ever heard from a bench"), and a weakness for burlesque (on the witness stand in Chicago, Allen Ginsberg chanted "Om" for the defense).
Whether Mr. Kunstler has, on balance, helped or hurt his clients by his performances is hard to say. But he has clearly been stung by what he calls "the caricature of me which persisted for many years, that I was all bluster and not lawyerlike." And he repeatedly complains about colleagues who refused to trust him with important briefs or arguments because they considered him more of a showman than a rigorous advocate.
Mr. Kunstler's book is a loosely organized oral history of some of the most provocative trials of the last three decades, interspersed with gossip about his friends and enemies. At its best, it can be entertaining, but the challenge for a reader is to separate fact from fiction. In a remarkable disclaimer, Mr. Kunstler's collaborator, Sheila Isenberg, a journalist, confesses that "he sometimes adheres to a truth that is deeper than a factual one . . . if it serves a political purpose to gloss over or fudge a little." She adds that "purists are welcome to pick on the factual errors in these pages."
Some of the factual errors seem to be inadvertent. Mr. Kunstler remembers a Supreme Court oral argument, for example, in which "Justice Antonin Scalia went into a long discussion of the music he enjoyed as a Princeton student." But Justice Scalia never attended Princeton. The transcripts of the Chicago Seven trial also reveal that Mr. Kunstler's quotations are not always precisely recalled.
Some of the liberties Mr. Kunstler takes with the facts, however, are far less benign. In an especially reckless passage, he speculates that in 1972, William Rehnquist, then an Associate Justice, leaked a Supreme Court decision about wiretapping to President Richard Nixon days before it was officially released, leading Nixon to order the Watergate break-in to remove wiretaps that he knew would no longer be protected. Mr. Kunstler presents no evidence at all for this wild conspiracy, or for other, similarly implausible notions, like his theory that Meir Kahane was killed by a disgruntled follower to cover up a financial scandal. At several points in the book, in fact, he concedes that he is willing to fabricate in the service of his ideological agenda -- as he did at the Attica prison riots in 1971, when he impulsively, and falsely, told the prisoners that they would be given amnesty by North Vietnam. The cumulative effect of Mr. Kunstler's cavalier attitude toward facts and evidence is to make him an unreliable narrator.
Mr. Kunstler is refreshingly candid about his hunger for publicity. "You always want to be in the media, no matter what gets you there," he confesses. And compared to the current generation of self-promoting celebrity advocates, at least he has never been mercenary. He has devoted dark and lonely hours, many of them without pay, to the most difficult and unpopular cases. But there is something sad and emblematic about his evolution from the charismatic civil libertarian of the Lyndon Johnson era to the racial provocateur of today. His career is a metaphor for the polarization of racial politics in the United States over the last 30 years. And despite Mr. Kunstler's hyperbole ("Our society is always racist," he declares), the fact that his antics have been given a respectful hearing in courtrooms and newspapers for so many years is a tribute to the patience of the legal system he assails.
'William Kunstler' a riveting look at a controversial life
The personal is political, as the saying goes. Just ask Emily and Sarah Kunstler, the producers and directors behind the absorbing "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe." Both a memoir and a history lesson, the film looks back on their late father -- a crusading civil rights lawyer who later defended a host of unsavory characters -- with a combination of love, admiration and bafflement for the man he was and the career he forged.
The film, which was screened last October at the Woodstock Film Festival, airs Tuesday night on WMHT Ch. 17 as part of the PBS documentary series "POV."
William Kunstler's early career was unremarkable. As Emily recalls in narration, he was an "armchair liberal" who published a book on accident law and enjoyed the suburban sweet life with his first wife and kids. But in 1961, he got a phone call that changed his life -- a request from the American Civil Liberties Union to visit Jack Young. a lawyer working with Freedom Riders in Mississippi. He showed up and offered the regards of the ACLU. Young snapped: "(Expletive) that. I need lawyers."
So marked Kunstler's entry into the civil rights movement -- and his realization, as Emily recalls in narration, that "All the talking in the world meant nothing. It was the doing, the action, that had meaning."
Plenty of action followed. In the ensuing years, Kunstler represented the Catonsville Nine (1968 Catholic protestors who burned draft records to protest the Vietnam War) the Chicago Eight (1968 Democratic Convention protestors charged with inciting a riot) participants in the Attica prison uprising of 1971 and members of the American Indian Movement who seized the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, for 71 days in 1973.
Few lawyers were more radicalized in their beliefs, or more theatrical in the courtroom, than Kunstler. His daughters jam-pack their film portrait with archival sound and footage of seminal events of the last 50-some years, but they also throw in snapshots and home movies of the little girls and their wild-haired daddy. There are, as well, scads of interviews with surviving players and observers (the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, the Black Panther Bobby Seale a Chicago juror, an Attica guard).
The King of Controversy : Once, William Kunstler epitomized movement lawyers: fighting for civil rights, against Vietnam. He hasn’t changed much since then. But his clients have.
As he drove down a darkened highway into Manhattan one night, William M. Kunstler clicked on the radio and learned that he was dead.
“The body of famed radical attorney William Kunstler was found in his home this afternoon, an apparent suicide,” the announcer said. “We’ll be gathering reaction from the political world as this story develops.”
Intrigued, Kunstler turned up the volume and heard more details of his life and untimely death. The report was only corrected hours later, with the news that one of his nephews with the same name had killed himself instead.
“I guess they were guilty of wishful thinking,” Kunstler cracks, recalling the bizarre 1976 broadcast. “Some folks don’t hide it very well.”
It wasn’t the first or last time that America’s most prominent left-wing lawyer has been written off for dead. For years, his bushy sideburns and abrasive politics have seemed as dated as the 1960s themselves, his flamboyant courtroom style a throwback to earlier, more innocent times.
Once, Kunstler was the king of movement lawyers. Brash, self-serving and often brilliant, he epitomized a generation of white, middle-class attorneys who raised hell over civil rights, police brutality and the Vietnam War. Best known for his role in the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial of 1969, Kunstler joined with such lawyers as Charles Garry, Gerald Lefcourt, Leonard Weinglass and Ramsey Clark in a saber-rattling crusade against Fortress Amerika.
Now 75, Kunstler hasn’t changed much. But his clients have. He used to represent people like Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden--radicals with national followings--yet lately he’s become the pariah’s attorney of choice. A man who turns terrorists, rapists and murderers into political causes celebres.
It’s brought him new life in the ‘90s, as well as scathing criticism. Indeed, Vanity Fair dubbed him “The Most Hated Lawyer in America,” and there’s no shortage of pundits who call him a hypocrite. But Kunstler couldn’t care less.
“My agenda is the same as 25 years ago,” he insists. “It’s just that these are rougher times and the folks I deal with now aren’t the same.”
In recent years, Kunstler has handled clients ranging from El Sayyid Nosair--the man accused of murdering Rabbi Meir Kahane--to Larry Davis, a black man charged with killing four men and wounding six New York cops. He defended Yusef Salaam, one of several youths who participated in the rape and attack on the Central Park jogger, and he represented mob killer John Gotti.
This fall, he’ll defend Colin Ferguson, a Jamaican immigrant who killed six people and wounded 19 in a wild shooting spree on the Long Island Railroad. Kunstler plans an insanity defense and has sparked a national controversy by suggesting that “black rage” triggered Ferguson’s attack.
“Ever since the Chicago trial, I realized that America’s criminal justice system is bankrupt,” says Kunstler, his trademark bifocals perched on a mane of unruly hair. “My focus is on people who can least defend themselves. On African Americans, on followers of Islam, who are on the margins of society. These folks have a constitutional right to a lawyer like anyone else.”
Until recently, he represented three of 13 men charged with plotting to blow up the United Nations and other New York City landmarks. Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman--the alleged ringleader--has sought his services, as have three of the four Muslims convicted earlier this year of bombing the World Trade Center.
The New York conspiracy trial might have given him his biggest platform yet. But U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey removed Kunstler’s law firm from the case last week, citing a conflict of interest. Two defendants he once represented in the matter now have different attorneys, Mukasey ruled, and it would be ethically difficult for the lawyer to cross-examine them as witnesses.
Kunstler, who expected the decision, blasted Mukasey for caving in to government pressure, adding: “The state has wanted to kick our asses off this case so bad, they could taste it. They just can’t keep up with me.”
He’s come a long way from his days as a quiet suburban attorney, and Kunstler celebrates the odyssey in “My Life as a Radical Lawyer” (Birch Lane Press), a provocative new autobiography. As he sees it, there’s an ideological line running from the streets of Chicago in 1969 to the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
The argument baffles many friends, who view Kunstler’s evolution with dismay. Yet they seem just as concerned for the future of progressive politics. What happened to him, in a sense, reflects the lack of direction on the American left.
“He’s a mirror of the times, because the ‘60s was an era of hope and change,” says Lynn Stewart, an attorney who’s worked with Kunstler. “As that disappears you get involved with things that aren’t as pure. You make excuses and see political righteousness in cases where it’s not quite so clear.”
It hasn’t made him rich. Kunstler could have cashed in on his celebrity but instead earns $100,000 annually, working out of an office in his Greenwich Village home. Along with Ron Kuby, a ponytailed 37-year-old disciple, he handles many cases pro bono and only rarely takes on cash-rich clients.
“There is no need to say, ‘Who is Mr. Kunstler?’ ” wrote Mohammed Salameh, one of four men convicted of bombing the World Trade Center, in a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals asking that Kunstler be named his lawyer. “He is as a mountain on the ground. I think all lawyers are kids compared to him.”
Outside New York City, however, Kunstler has fallen off the media radar screen. These days, some folks are amazed he’s even alive when they run into him, reacting as if they’d seen a ghost. Tall, garrulous and still bristling with indignation, he remains every prosecutor’s worst nightmare: a smooth-talking lefty who gets maximum press for his political clients.
“Bill Kunstler has never been effective by the standards of the Harvard Law Review,” says Norman Dorsen, former chief of the American Civil Liberties Union. “He’s been very effective, however, as a radical lawyer. You just want to tell him that it’s not 1969 anymore. People can’t live in a time warp.”
Yet it’s unavoidable, when his very name conjures up a trip down memory lane: To the South, where he bailed out freedom riders. To Chicago, where his seven clients were acquitted of conspiring to disrupt the 1968 Democratic convention. To Attica, where he counseled inmates during the 1971 uprising. To Wounded Knee, where he joined Native Americans in a tense standoff with FBI agents.
His friends and clients in those years read like a Who’s Who of change and upheaval, including Lenny Bruce, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the Berrigan Brothers and Jack Ruby. Even his worst enemies concede Kunstler’s place in the history books.
But he can never get enough recognition. By his own admission, the aging lawyer has an insatiable craving for approval, even from strangers.
“How did I do?” he asks a frail woman in a wheelchair, who’s just heard him talk about crime prevention at a Connecticut event. “Was I OK today?” Seconds later, he asks the same question of other startled listeners.
Narcissism is an occupational disease among lawyers. Yet Kunstler has a conflicting impulse as well--an instinct for controversy that offends many. The two spirits have been at war in him for years, with disastrous results.
“There’s an odd hunger in him,” says ACLU colleague Henry Schwarzchild. “I don’t think Bill has any ideology as such. But he has a powerful need to make waves, to constantly get in your face. And he pays the price.”
Since 1980, Kunstler has received a stream of death threats and obscene calls. Gunman have fired at his office and demonstrators have marched in front of his home. He’s been beaten up, jailed and cited by judges for contempt.
By now, friends wonder why he bothers. Kunstler is a cultured man who writes sonnets in his spare time and brings his wife breakfast in bed. He has two teen-age daughters from a second marriage, a busy lecture schedule and a film career with credits in movies by Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Ron Howard.
Shouldn’t he begin to close down the office early and relax?
“It’s time to say goodby,” says a New York State Supreme Court judge, who dismisses Kunstler as an anachronism. New York Daily News columnist Jim Sleeper calls him a “public fraud” over the Ferguson case, and Bronx Dist. Atty. Paul Gentile attacks him as a racist for excluding whites from criminal juries.
“This man ran out of causes a long time ago,” says attorney Alan Dershowitz, a frequent critic. “And he’s veered into dubious areas.”
As the attacks mount, friends stress Kunstler’s integrity. Gerald Lefcourt, once a prominent left-wing attorney and now a criminal defense lawyer, says his colleague had it easier 30 years ago, when the issues were simpler.
“He was doing God’s work,” Lefcourt says. “It was important.”
But memories are short. Some Jewish critics suggest that Kunstler, who is Jewish, has deliberately sought out Muslim terrorists as clients. They’re angry that he got Nosair acquitted in the 1990 murder of Meir Kahane, suggesting he couldn’t possibly believe his client was innocent.
“Listen,” Kunstler snaps, “they called me a nigger-lover down south when I worked with civil rights activists, and now up north they call me a self-hating Jew. Believe me, this is one Jew who loves himself.”
On that much, most agree. Kunstler’s vanity is legendary, and it fills the chapters of his new book. For 609 pages, the author lets his enemies have it.
He calls Dershowitz reprehensible for representing Leona Helmsley, and criticizes John and Robert Kennedy as power-mad, saying their deaths were in some ways good for the country. Angered that Marlon Brando removed him from the legal team defending his son, Christian, Kunstler ridicules the Los Angeles attorney who replaced him--Robert Shapiro, now representing O.J. Simpson--as “a wheeler-dealer . . . not really a trial lawyer.”
Beyond gossip, the book relates Kunstler’s own story in rich detail. Born into a family of doctors, he grew up in Manhattan, the oldest of three children. Unlike his quieter siblings, he was always the extrovert.
Tellingly, the rebellious boy tried to befriend blacks, but was forbidden by his parents. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, won the Bronze Star in World War II and got a law degree from Columbia University.
By 1948, Kunstler had married Lotte Rosenberger, a childhood flame, and the couple had two daughters. Soon, he formed a law practice with his brother, Michael, and the two made a living handling wills and estates.
It all changed in 1961, when an ACLU friend asked Kunstler to stop in Jackson, Miss., on his way home from a Los Angeles trip. Civil rights protests were erupting, and the Freedom Riders--a group of activists trying to integrate bus systems in the Deep South--were being sent to prison.
Kunstler went to offer moral support. But he stayed longer than expected, rocked by his encounter with racism. He drifted away from his law practice and became more politically involved. Eventually, Kunstler served as counsel to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and he helped form the Center for Constitutional Rights, a pioneering advocacy group in New York.
His star was rising, but the Chicago Seven case put him on the map. When prosecutors failed to win a conspiracy conviction, Kunstler got much of the media credit.
Imagine a trial where one defendant is gagged, another hurls Yiddish curses at the judge and the prosecutor attacks his rivals as homosexuals. It happened in Chicago, after Kunstler and others turned the proceedings into political theater. When the dust settled, there were contempt sentences for all, including a four-year prison penalty for Kunstler. He was later cleared.
“Bill’s always shown great courage,” says attorney Leonard Weinglass, who worked with Kunstler on the Chicago trial. “And when you think that he was once a Hubert Humphrey liberal who dabbled in politics, the change is amazing. His cases are the stuff of history.”
Kunstler’s autobiography lists them all, but its most revealing passages focus on his personal life. With painful honesty, he recounts the sexual infidelities that led to the breakup of his first marriage in 1973.
“Young women pursued me, most likely because I was something of a celebrity and, the more well known I became, the more aggressive the woman got,” he writes. “For someone with my vanity and ego, it was gratifying.”
Kunstler married his second wife, attorney Margaret Ratner, in 1975. He speaks effusively about her, saying she has made him more considerate. Asked about his first wife, Kunstler says he and Lotte have “a very decent relationship.” She, however, offers a different view.
“His belligerence on behalf of what he believes is sincere,” the former Mrs. Kunstler suggests. “But it’s also exaggerated, because he wants to impress people, too. . . . He has this incredible need to be understood and liked. And I don’t think he’s all that mature at 75. That part of him is suspect.”
So is his memory. In her introduction to Kunstler’s book, co-writer Sheila Isenberg says the lawyer told her stories about himself that turned out to be untrue. In many cases, she adds, “he is the principal embellisher of his own myth.”
At 6 on a cool Monday morning, Kunstler is heading for Hartford, Conn. It’s Law Day and the man who has been slapped with more contempt citations than he cares to remember will be a featured speaker before 22 judges.
“Can you believe this?” he mutters outside his office. “It’s kind of strange. But if they want me, they want me.”
They want him at 10 a.m. sharp, and Kunstler is known for being late. This morning he wants to be on time and his chariot awaits--a beat-up van with a canoe on top that looks like a hippie bus from 1967. Inside, it’s a mess.
The driver, a young law student and ardent Irish Republican Army sympathizer, has a bumper sticker taped to the roof that reads: “Strip Search the Queen.” Almost immediately, Kunstler starts yakking.
“Will you get to the goddamned point!” he barks, as the driver tries to cut in with a long, complicated joke. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
Not when Kunstler wants the floor. Seizing an opening, he starts a daylong, stream-of-consciousness rap that’s almost impossible to interrupt.
It begins with the Patty Hearst case, which Kunstler brings up for no apparent reason, then skips to the time he hugged Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. Digressing altogether, Kunstler recalls a dinner with John Gotti and then describes the girls he made love to during a 1936 trip to Spain.
As the van chugs into suburban Westchester County, he complains about his former home, saying: “Not one black person lived in my town. It was unreal.”
When his van reaches the Hartford courthouse, Kunstler is greeted by John Brittain, a black law professor. He recalls how the New York lawyer helped bail out Freedom Riders. Long before most whites discovered civil rights.
“Bill is special,” Brittain says, hugging him. “We don’t forget.”
Inside, Kunstler sits on a dais in a courtroom. It’s a bizarre sight that grows more incongruous when 22 black-robed judges file in, solemnly nodding at the long-haired lawyer. Amazed, he nods back.
“No one here should dispute this man’s commitment to justice, even though we may not agree with him,” says Matthew Gordon, a local lawyer who helped select Kunstler as the day’s speaker.
Casing the crowd, Kunstler gives them a polite tongue-lashing. He notes that Law Day is a counterpoint to May Day in socialist countries. Then he blasts corrupt officials--including judges--who “set up” innocent blacks.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room with so many judges without wanting to hide,” he jokes. “But it’s OK, I can get out of here fast.”
Kunstler rushes out of the courthouse when the speech is over, heading for his next appointment 50 miles up the road. He’s representing Moonface Bear, the Golden Hill Paugeesukq tribal chief, who is battling state officials over the right to sell cigarettes tax-free on a reservation.
“Wait!” says Gordon, running up to Kunstler. “Can I come too?”
It’s a painful moment: Gordon, a middle-aged lawyer with a ‘60s hangover, would like nothing more than to climb into Kunstler’s magic bus. He’ll call his secretary. He’ll clear his schedule. He’ll get to touch Indians.
“Maybe I could follow you . . , " he says, his voice trailing off. “Or maybe we can do it next time.” The two shake hands and Kunstler’s van rolls north.
Lost in thought, he begins shuffling anxiously through legal papers.
“Now what the hell are we doing up there on the reservation today?” he grumbles to himself. “I don’t really know what the program is yet.”
It’s a recurring complaint about Kunstler. During the conspiracy trial, critics say, his rhetoric was compelling, but he didn’t do his legal homework. The lawyer remembers it differently, and his war stories are surreal.
Like the time he called Paul Krassner, editor of the Realist, to the stand. Unbeknown to the defense team, the witness had taken a megadose of LSD before appearing. Here’s how Kunstler describes the encounter:
“Tell the jury when you came to Chicago in 1968,” he asked.
“I was born in Albany,” Krassner answered.
Perplexed, Kunstler asked: “What did you do in Chicago?”
“I was on the high school football team,” Krassner responded.
By now spectators were stirring. Kunstler asked a final question: “When did you leave Chicago?”
“I told you, I was on the football team,” Krassner answered.
At this, Abbie Hoffman whispered: “He’s freaked out! Sit him down!”
Thinking quickly, Kunstler slammed his hand down on the lectern and boomed: “Thank you, Mr. Krassner! No further questions!” As if his witness had delivered the most damning testimony in the trial. The prosecution team, which hadn’t been paying attention, impatiently waved Krassner off the stand.
It’s a great story. Except it’s not quite true.
In his memoirs, Krassner admits taking LSD, yet recalls a completely different exchange. The official transcript provides a third version.
“These are details,” says Kunstler, asked about the discrepancies. “I mean, the man was stoned out of his mind. That’s all you need to know.”
With a shudder, the van comes to a halt on a dirt road in rural Connecticut. Easing his big frame out, Kunstler greets Moonface Bear, an unsmiling, solidly built man who welcomes him to the small reservation.
Wandering down a forest trail, the lawyer outlines his client’s case. But then he’s overwhelmed by the past. There had been a tense confrontation here last summer between Native Americans and police, he explains, and violence seemed imminent.
“This place,” Kunstler says, “had the smell of Attica.”
In September, 1971, some 1,500 inmates at a prison in Upstate New York seized 42 hostages, demanding improvements in living conditions. Kunstler and others were called in to help mediate the crisis.
When talks stalled, state troopers stormed Attica, killing 29 inmates and 10 civilian hostages. It was the bloodiest prison disaster in American history.
The memory is crystal clear. Or is it? In Kunstler’s book, he recalls a dramatic moment when he told inmates that they weren’t going to get a better deal than the final offer made by state negotiators.
Tempers flared in the prison courtyard, then subsided. In the aftermath, he writes, New York Times reporter Tom Wicker--who was also called in to mediate--came up to him and whispered: “Bill, you’ve saved all our lives.”
It’s a great story. Except it isn’t quite true.
Wicker never said those words because he wasn’t in the courtyard at that moment. He was 10 miles away in a motel bar, according to his own book, “A Time to Die.” He does, however, credit the attorney with great courage.
“I thought we were in danger of dying at one point,” Kunstler says, heading for court with Moonface Bear. “That’s what I remember.”
The next morning, Kunstler is in Manhattan federal court. He’s seeking permission from a three-judge panel to represent three of the men convicted in the World Trade Center bombing. A trial judge had refused the request and Kunstler attacks his decision, saying: “It makes the law look like an ass.”
After a testy hearing, the panel also denies his plea, saying Kunstler could face a conflict of interest between these new defendants and others he represents. Angered, the lawyer strides outdoors to a phalanx of TV cameras.
“The United States government is putting Islam on trial,” he says. “We’re going to fight them all the way.”
Three hours later, he jets to Ohio for the 24th anniversary of the shooting of four students at Kent State University. It’s an emotional event, and Kunstler’s eyes fill with tears when he recalls how the families still grieve.
“They never got over this,” he says. “Neither did I.”
But there’s no time for nostalgia. As he speaks the next morning, Kunstler is in yet another courtroom, waiting for a client to be sentenced. Solomon Mengstie, a black Ethiopian Jew, was convicted of armed robbery and faces up to 25 years in prison. He and others robbed two people of $9.99, but friends say Mengstie is a soft-spoken man who simply fell in with the wrong crowd.
“I never saw a person who inflicted so little pain and is about to receive so much pain,” Kunstler tells the court. “To some he’s just another black man going in. But this system is filled with racism.”
The judge listens impassively, then gives Mengstie 5 to 11 years. Kunstler makes his way out of the crowded courts building, stifling a yawn.
“I’m beat,” he says, suddenly looking every one of his 75 years.
Back in the office, Kunstler is on the phone with Ferguson, the Long Island Railroad gunman. The lawyer rolls his eyes, as partner Kuby watches intently.
“I know, Colin. . . . Listen to me . . . Colin, please,” he begs, as the client shouts about jail conditions. Soon, Kunstler loses patience and delivers his message: It would be good for Ferguson to appear on “60 Minutes” in the fall and speak to an audience of millions.
“Just be yourself, Colin,” Kunstler says. “That’s all you have to do.”
Kuby, in a playful mood, jumps to his feet.
“Yeah, Colin,” he says, spraying the room with imaginary gunfire. “Just be your usual wacky self.”
It’s getting late, and Kunstler steps outside for fresh air. He rubs his eyes and a visitor asks if he has a headache. The answer is automatic:
“When Charles Garry, the radical lawyer, was dying, they asked if he had a headache,” he says. “And he said: ‘I don’t have headaches. I give them.’ ”
Kunstler laughs, but he can’t steal another man’s epitaph. What he has in mind for himself is more cinematic: A dramatic trial summation, perhaps, then a fatal collapse at the lectern. He’ll breathe his last on the evening news.
“What a story!” he says, with a vainglorious grin. “Now that’s an obituary I can live with.”
Kunstler, William M.
A hero to some, an enemy to others, William M. Kunstler, was known for his extreme radical views of the antiwar and antidiscrimination movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Committed to social justice and social change, his practice and success in law has given him a formidable reputation, contributing to the effects of counterculture development in the United States.
Kunstler’s progressive beliefs in the struggle against inequality and injustices have been a character trademark that he has carried through out his personal life and career. Identifying with his association to the less fortunate, in his book, Kunstler writes: ‘‘I developed a concern for people who seemed to be in a weaker position and who needed my help’’ (Kunstler, 56) Kunstler was an impassioned man for the minority.
Graduating from Yale Law School in June 1941, Kunstler went on to pursue a brief career in the military, where he would be employed as a cryptographer decoding overseas messages for the military. Kunstler remained in the military for four years and ended his term as a major.
Shortly after returning home, Kunstler and his brother Michael began a small family law practice in 1948, Kunstler & Kunstler. In 1950, William Kunstler went on to teach law at New York Law School, where he ironically was asked to draft a will for a friend’s associate, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Kunstler’s eventual nemesis.
The 1960s brought with it a wave of oppression and discrimination to the country. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was in hot pursuit of political rights activists, the Black Panther Party was driving violence- provoked riots, the antiwar movement was in full swing, and the government was targeted for precipitating civilian massacres and mass blood baths.
In October 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover issued warrants for the arrest of eight political rights activists who were all charged with conspiring against the Federal antiriot statute. Among the eight prosecuted were Abbie Hoffman, who was the founder of National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), Dave Dellinger, Bobby Seale, a Black Panther chairman, and student, Lee Weiner. Kunstler was asked by Abbie Hoffman, one of the leaders of ‘‘Yippie,’’ a youth international party whose purpose was to spur political upheaval, as defense lawyer. Kunstler’s ability in tact to outfox a politically crafted and manipulated jury and judge using humanist expression was a talent he would continue to use and become known for through out his career.
February 18, 1970, the Chicago trial ‘‘turned out to be a monumental victory’’ (Kunstler 36). Defendants had been acquitted of charges, ultimately demonstrating to the country, nationwide, that the power of justice lay in the people. Among those who did receive sentences and fines were Abbie Hoffman and Dave Dellinger with a penalty of five years in prison and a $5,000.00 fine. The jury ultimately could not deny the defendants’ expressions and beliefs in political freedom. Their exhibition of refusing to be silenced in the courtroom for what they believed in contributed to their release.
Kunstler would go on to represent many more significant individuals who have brought liberation to the justice system. Among them, Martin Luther King Jr., Lenny Bruce, El Sayyid Nassir (accused of murdering Rabi Meir Kohane), Marlon Brando’s son, and Malcom X. In addition, Kunstler’s fervor for seeking cases that involve obstruction of civil rights included those of convicted felons, namely the inmates of Attica Correctional Facility in New York.
September 1973 would mark another notch for the public rally for the war against civil injustices. One thousand two hundred inmates composed of a group of Latinos, African Americans, and whites protested the injustices and abuse of prisoners by the Administration in the institution. Public company included Congressmen, politicians, news people, and newspapers. The public was interested, and the country would witness another atrocity of maltreatment by the justice system.
According to Kunstler, who was nominated acting representative, the inmate party was surprisingly democratic about their deliberations and demands, one of which was amnesty from criminal prosecution. Tension was rising, and state troopers were shooting at inmates to control hostilities. Helicopters loomed above the facilities, and police officers were blaring orders over loudspeakers. On September 13, Governor Nelson Rockefeller issued commands to inmates, ordering the group to lie down and no violence would come to them. At that moment, state troopers rushed in scattering thirty-two-caliber bullets into both inmates and hostages, killing forty-three people, ten of whom were innocent bystanders. Millions of Americans watched the brutality of the police force, witnessing insurrection being counterbalanced by blatant and criminal acts on the part of the government. Kunstler’s voice raises the question of government control over insurgency in the country, yet also expresses the government’s inability to deal with and solve criminal behavior. As he has indicated, the crime rate is increasing and institutions are on the up rise around the country.
Kunstler worked with civil rights activists and pursued political agendas that reflected his passion for liberation. He has gone down in history for helping those with vision to speak openly and without fear toward the justice system. Among other civil rights groups Kunstler supported were Gay Rights activists, Islamic political leaders, and Hispanic minorities.
Before he died at age 76, Kunstler’s last speech given at The School of Architecture and Planning, State University of New York, clearly expresses who he was and what he has endowed to the country: ‘‘We sit here today in the comparative freedom of this institution and, yea, I’ll say this country for the moment (though I don’t believe it, too much), but I will say it, because of better men and women than we who went down in the dust somewhere in the line. They died or rotted in prisons, were expatriated, but they kept going. They were the Ishmaels of their time and our time’’ (Jackson).
William Kunstler: The Lawyer Who Disturbed the Universe
Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School. His latest book is The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad (McFarland, 2010).
In 2009, filmmakers Emily and Sarah Kunstler unveiled a documentary at the Sundance Film Festival about their father attorney William Kunstler which is finding its way into some theaters this year. This fascinating film deserves a wider audience as it engages the historical legacy of the 1960s over which Americans continue to clash. Kunstler was called &ldquothe most hated and most loved lawyer in America&rdquo by the New York Times, and his clients during the 1960s and 1970s included civil rights activists, the Catonsville Nine, members of the Black Panther Party and Weather Underground, inmates at New York&rsquos Attica prison, Russell Means and Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement, and the Chicago Seven (initially eight). In the 1980s and 1990s, Kunstler seemed to retreat from his activism and radicalism defending such figures as crime boss John Gotti, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, El-Sayyid Nosair for the murder of Jewish Defense League leader Rabbi Meir Kahane, Larry Davis accused of shooting six police officers in the Bronx, and Yusef Salaam for the 1989 Central Park jogger rape and assault case. It is these later trials which introduce an element of ambiguity into what is for the most part an admiring portrait of their father by the filmmakers.
Emily and Sarah Kunstler were a product of Kunstler&rsquos second marriage to attorney Margaret Ratner (who agreed to be interviewed for the film) after the flamboyant attorney had gained national prominence in the Chicago Seven trial. It appears that this film project began when Emily and Sarah were school children, interviewing and photographing a parent whom they recognized was a famous person. By all accounts, Kunstler was a loving father whom the girls adored for his dedication to the struggle for civil rights and justice during the 1960s. The girls, however, began to doubt their father during the 1980s when his choice of unpopular clients seemed to depart from this radical politics of the 1960s, while placing the family under considerable strain and stress from angry demonstrators outside the Kunstler home. The young women could not understand why their father was defending murderers and rapists rather that civil rights activists and political prisoners. Had their father succumbed to a cult of personality as one of his critics Alan Dershowitz suggests in an interview? To answer this question Emily and Sarah Kunstler traced the life of their father in the documentary Disturbing the Universe.
Kunstler was born in New York City on July 7, 1919 to a middle-class Jewish family. His father was a physician, and Kunstler was educated at Yale and Columbia Law School. During the Second World War, he served with the Army in the Pacific and was decorated for action under fire. While he often entertained his friends and family with war stories, his World War II experience convinced Kunstler that he could never support U. S. military intervention in another war. But overall, Kunstler&rsquos post World War II career was unexceptional. He married and began a family in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York, practicing small business law and offering some support to liberal Democratic Party politics. He was involved with the American Civil Liberties Union and challenged segregated housing.
His life, however, was changed by a 1961 trip to the South and his defense of Freedom Riders and other civil rights activists. Kunstler was an outspoken critic of American racism, who constantly challenged himself and his daughters to be aware of their white privilege in a fundamentally racist society. Kunstler&rsquos growing reputation as a defender of radical causes led the Chicago Seven, accused of crossing state lines to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention, to tap him as their attorney. The trial further radicalized the attorney. The decision of Judge Julius Hoffman to have Black Panther defendant Bobby Seale gagged and bound to his chair led Kunstler to assume a more activist role both inside and outside the courtroom. The sparring between Kunstler and Judge Hoffman culminated in Kunstler being sentenced to four years for contempt of court&mdasha sentence which was overturned on appeal. Following the trial, Kunstler was an influential figure on the national stage speaking at college campuses and earning the ire of J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He could not go home again to Westchester County and took up residence in Chicago, starting a second family in the 1970s.
Kunstler&rsquos reputation and negotiating skills, however, could not prevent the massacre of prisoners and guards during the 1971 Attica prison uprising. The attorney pleaded in vain for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to negotiate rather than storm the prison, and the filmmakers describe Attica as one of their father&rsquos greatest disappointments. He enjoyed greater success defending leaders of the 1972 American Indian Movement take over of the Sioux reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota gaining dismissal of the charges against Russell Means and Dennis Banks due to governmental misconduct. Making clear their admiration for their father&rsquos role in defending the Attica and Wounded Knee uprisings, the filmmakers made pilgrimages to these sites to honor the struggles of William Kunstler. Emily and Sarah Kunstler also celebrated the father&rsquos arguments before the Supreme Court in the Texas v. Johnson case (1989), which upheld flag burning as protected free speech.
But as young girls, the filmmakers struggled to understand their father after the family moved to New York City in the 1980s. Kunstler&rsquos success in securing an acquittal of El-Sayyid Nosair in the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane produced angry demonstrations by the Jewish Defense League in front of the Kunstler family apartment. Emily and Sarah also wondered why their father would defend a gang rapist such as Yusef Salaam who was convicted in the notorious 1989 Central Park jogger assault.
The film, however, concludes on a less ambiguous note when in 2002, seven years after Kunstler&rsquos death, the state of New York moved to overturn the conviction of Yusef Salaam and others following the confession and DNA confirmation of the true assailant. The innocence of Salaam led the filmmakers to reevaluate their father&rsquos last years, perceiving a degree of continuity in Kunstler&rsquos belief that every defendant deserves a vigorous defense and that we cannot always trust the government to fairly administer justice.
Thus, the film concludes on an affirmative note of reconciliation and appreciation for the courage of Kunstler in defending many of society&rsquos outcasts. Most of the witnesses interviewed for the film are supportive of Kunstler including many of his former defendants such as Bobby Seale, Tom Hayden, Russell Means, Gregory Lee Johnson, and Yusef Salaam. For much of the film, the chief voices of dissent are the filmmakers questioning whether their father tainted his legacy in his final years. After expressing such doubts throughout the film, Emily and Sarah Kunstler embrace the legacy of their father, concluding that he challenged a universe which needed disturbing. It would be interesting to observe how Kunstler would react to arguments that accused terrorists be prosecuted outside the traditional legal process and not be allowed access to the courts.
WILLIAM KUNSTLER — TO HEAR KUNSTLER TELL IT, ANYWAY
Jeffrey Sweet, an award-winning playwright who brings to his genuine passion for history real gifts for humor and lyricism, has set himself an almost impossible task in in his new play, KUNSTLER, now starring Jeff McCarthy in a production at one of the 59E59 theaters. In this two-hander, Sweet brings back to this world perhaps the most flamboyant legal firebrand of the 1960s — one William Moses Kunstler, who, answering the call of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Berrigan brothers, and other progressive heroes of the time, fully lived up to the implications of that reverberating middle name.
The challenge Sweet has set himself is to outline the most important passages in a highly provocative life employing only two actors. So, as the theatrical event begins — recreating Kunstler giving an autobiographical lecture at a law school — we hear the daunting offstage voices of incensed protesters, who obviously hate Kunstler and wish he had never been invited to speak. But the members of this mob (who have just lynched Kunstler in effigy) are never given the chance to make clear what has caused them to become so angry. We then see Kunstler lecture, presenting the story of his life, not to those protesters, but to us — people who immediately become highly sympathetic to him. He loosens us up with a few opening jokes (“What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 70? Answer: Your Honor”) and we’re on his side from there on out.
Another County Heard From
It is only in the final section of the play, when Kunstler has completed his presentation to our applause, unmarred by any hostile interruptions, that Kunstler finally has to deal with a critical voice. The law student hosting the occasion — in private — lists her very serious reservations about his career, and he seeks to answer her. This is obviously the closest the evening comes to a conventional display of conflict, and it is also one of the most successful parts of the evening. The law student certainly has valid points to make. A defense lawyer does have the obligation to defend, on principle, the most despicable people in the world, as Clarence Darrow defended the child-killers, Leopold and Loeb. But the lawyer doesn’t have to hug such clients in public, as Kunstler hugged John Gotti. (While Sweet doesn’t mention it, Kunstler himself was a member of a criminal gang as a young teenager. Perhaps, in hugging Gotti, Kunstler was hugging that part of himself he left behind when he went on from gang life to become Phi Beta Kappa at Yale College, win the Bronze Star as an Army officer in World War II, and earn his law degree at Columbia.)
For the bulk of the play, however, it is just Kunstler himself, without any opposing voice, narrating a number of his most crucial cases as he experienced them from his own point of view. Some of these memories — particularly, Kunstler’s role in the life-or-death struggle to find a peaceful outcome when the prisoners took over Attica — are so dramatic and moving that they become thrilling theater even presented in this one-sided manner. Sweet takes us into the realm of real tragedy as he forces us to contemplate how the horrors of prison life, year after year, ultimately issued in the violent response of the Attica mutineers. But a lot of the cases Kunstler takes us through would have been more compelling if Kunstler throughout had been forced to cope with a rebellious and rambunctious audience. Give Sweet half a dozen actors to scatter among the audience members, calling Kunstler’s recollection of events into question and forcing him to justify his most controversial choices, and you might really have something.
Kunstler was certainly willing, not only to party hard with the left-wing rebels he was defending, but to go to prison with them, if necessary. (Kunstler left the Chicago Seven trial facing a contempt sentence of over four years.) What an audience of law students might have called into question, however, is whether Kunstler was willing to give his beloved clients the hard, unromantic work of truly thorough preparation for trial to go along with all that showboating. Or, to give another instance, when Kunstler points out that, following the bloody repression of the Attica revolt, inmates were tortured by the prison staff, a hostile audience could point out the tortures inflicted by the inmates during the brief moment when the prisoners were in control. Kunstler makes a big deal out of the fact that a former Attorney General of the United States, Ramsey Clark, was denied the right to testify for the defense at the Chicago Seven trial. A hostile audience could have forced Kunstler to clarify what specific, legally relevant evidence Clark could have provided. Was Clark — the sitting Attorney General at the time — personally present when Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were making their plans for the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago? One doubts it. Certainly, Clark could have stated that his legal assessment of the case differed from that the current Attorney General, who was a Nixon man. But is it proper for a witness to offer legal advice to the judge?
A Winning Production
Sweet is fortunate to have the vital and charismatic Jeff McCarthy, who was recently such a splendid Don Quixote for the Barrington Stage’s MAN OF LA MANCHA, to charm the audience as Kunstler. McCarthy is, however, fourteen years younger than the man he’s depicting, and looks even younger. Kunstler was about to succumb to heart failure, and perhaps more could be done to make McCarthy appear sunken and frail. Nambi E. Kelley certainly conveys the brains, elegance, and discipline of the law student who gets to confront Kunstler but, again, we could see more clearly that she is surprised to hear herself saying what she’s saying, but that she just can’t help but let it pour out of her, as her passion overwhelms her reserve.
The scenery and lighting (by, respectively James J. Fenton and Betsy Adams) are both handsome and varied. Special note should be given to the way in which Will Severin’s music and sound design carry us in our hearts from one of Kunstler’s battlegrounds to another. Particularly effective is an enigmatic grinding noise beneath our feet, that at first calls to mind the sound of the god Mars abandoning Antony in Shakespeare’s ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, but eventually proves to be prophetic of the heart trouble that will fell the hero.
KUNSTLER runs in New York until March 12, 2017 , and will also open for previews May 18 as part of the Barrington Stage’s season in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
KUNSTLER by Jeffrey Sweet, directed by Meagen Fay, and presented by The Creative Place International in association with AND Theater Company at Theater B, 59E59 Theaters.
ROBERT GULACK holds an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, where he studied with Mamet and Kopit. He studied law at Columbia and Yale, earning his JD from Yale Law School. He is the author of numerous plays seen in NYC, including CHURCHILL IN ATHENS, SIX HUSBANDS OF ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, and the award-winning ONE THOUSAND AND ONE. As an actor, he appeared in a recent NYC staged reading of Jeffrey Sweet’s THE ACTION AGAINST SOL SCHUMANN.
Photo Credit: Jeff McCarthy, Nambi E. Kelley. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
When Sarah and I decided to make a film about our father, we did a Freedom of Information Act request for his FBI file. Six months passed. One morning, without fanfare, a large plain file box arrived filled with thousands of partially blacked-out pages. The first entry was a letter from a concerned citizen in Westchester, New York, written in 1961:
"Gentlemen," the letter begins, "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 . The lawyer's name is William Kunstler."
The letter led us to Paul and Orial Redd, and a chapter of our dad's story that we knew nothing about.
In the 1950s, William Kunstler had a general law practice in New York City and lived on a suburban cul-de-sac in Portchester, New York with his first wife Lotte and their daughters, Karin and Jane. Dad and Lotte became involved with the local chapter of the NAACP and friends with the Redds, who founded the chapter in 1954.
In 1961, Paul and Orial were looking for an apartment in nearby Rye, New York. Their daughter Paula was five years old, and Orial was pregnant. The family was living in a small one-bedroom apartment in a house owned by Orial's uncle.
After being denied an apartment in an all white housing development, the Redds fought back. They enlisted the help of my dad and Lotte, who obtained evidence of the landlord's discriminatory practices by shilling -- Lotte went to an open house posing as a potential tenant and made sure that the apartment was available the Redds went in immediately afterwards and were told that it was not. Dad and another lawyer named Paul Zuber fought the landlord's discrimination in the courts and through the Westchester Human Rights Commission. Eventually the Redds won their home.
Dad hated racism and dedicated his life to fighting against it. But he also identified as a racist. He taught Sarah and I that as long as we benefited from the privileges that came with our white skin, we were a part of the problem. At school, Sarah and I were taught about the civil rights movement as if it was as a bygone chapter of our history. At home, Dad spoke of the racism he saw every day in the courtroom. Civil rights leaders, he told us, where only honored when they were safely dead. While there were streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in cities across this country, scores of black men were rotting in a state or federal prisons.
When Sarah was in the 5th Grade, she interviewed our father for a school report on the transatlantic slave trade. A few years ago, we found an old audio recording of the interview. Sarah asks him about the history of slavery in America, but the conversation quickly moves into the legacy of slavery in the criminal justice system. At one point, Sarah asks Dad if he thinks the courts are racist. He tells her that the courts are a part of the white power structure, and that their function is to put away people of color.
This is what it was like to be William Kunstler's daughters. Dad raised us with a profound sense of injustice in the world, as well as with the understanding that it was our responsibility to stand up against it.
Sarah and I were at the Sundance Film Festival premiering our film, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, during the inauguration of President Obama. On Main Street in Park City, Utah, we were dismayed to hear people talking about how the election of a black president meant that we had "moved beyond race." Dad would have been horrified. In a nation that still bears the scars of slavery, civil war, Jim Crow, lynchings, riots, and the assassinations of countless black leaders and activists, racism is alive and well. It doesn't go away when one person of color is elected to higher office, even when that office is the highest in the land. And if we stop talking about it, we ensure that it will never die.
Sarah and I interviewed Paul Redd for our film in September of 2007. He was still living in the same apartment that he had won over forty years before. And much to our surprise, his was still the only black family in the complex. "I remember some lady was telling me that it takes time," He told us. "And I said you want me to wait for something that you've been enjoying all of your life? And it looks like I'm going to die before blacks ever achieve total freedom and equality."
Paul Redd died on January 8, 2009. He was 80 years old. Mr. Redd lived long enough to cast a vote for President Obama, but not long enough to be a part of the dialogue and fight that rages on. That is left to all of us.
Sarah and Emily Kunstler are the directors of William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, a documentary film about the life of their father, the late radical civil rights lawyer.
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe opens on Friday, November 13 at Manhattan's Cinema Village (22 East 12th Street between Fifth Avenue and University Place) and at Boston's Landmark Kendall Square (1 Kendall Square), with a national expansion to follow.
Radical Lawyer’s Appeal (and Rebuttal)
For William Kunstler, the wild-haired, radical civil rights lawyer with the raspy voice who became a left-wing political star in the late 1960s, Michelangelo’s statue of David symbolized how he saw himself. A photograph of the statue that morphs into a drawing of David twirling his slingshot is a recurrent image in the crisply made, largely admiring documentary “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.” To him, it embodied the moment everyone faces at some time or other when one has to stand up to injustice or keep silent.
A refresher course on the history of American left-wing politics in the 1960s and ’70s as well as an affectionate personal biography of Kunstler, “Disturbing the Universe” was directed by Sarah and Emily Kunstler, his two daughters from his second marriage. Although the film, with its home movies and family reminiscences, portrays him as a heroic crusader for justice, it is by no means a hagiography of a man who earned widespread contempt late in his career for defending pariahs.
The metamorphosis of Kunstler, who died in 1995, from armchair liberal to middle-aged hippie revolutionary reflected the volatile political climate of the era. A general-practice lawyer who lived in Westchester County, he became involved in the civil rights movement through a local housing lawsuit in 1960 the following year he flew to Mississippi at the behest of Rowland Watts, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, to support the Freedom Riders.
Later he defended the Catonsville Nine Roman Catholic activists, including Daniel and Philip Berrigan who burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War. He achieved national notoriety as the lead counsel in the theatrical trial of the Chicago Seven, who were accused of conspiracy and inciting to riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
It was the events surrounding that trial that radicalized Kunstler, the film says. He was outraged by the treatment of the Black Panther activist Bobby Seale, the eighth defendant, whose trial was severed during the proceedings and who was bound and gagged in the courtroom after hurling invective at Judge Julius Hoffman.
Several weeks later the fatal shooting of the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in his bed by Chicago police further incensed Kunstler. The film includes an excerpt from an angry speech in which he denounced all white people (including himself) as racists.
He had his first major setback in September 1971 as a negotiator and lawyer for inmates at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York who seized the prison to demand better living conditions. After armed state troopers stormed Attica, killing dozens, he blamed his own idealism for his reluctance to tell the inmates what their options really were. Kunstler’s successful negotiation of a standoff between American Indians and the United States government at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973, was a personal redemption of sorts.
The critical turning point for Kunstler’s reputation was his 1986 defense of Larry Davis, a Bronx drug dealer accused of shooting six police officers. He lost more of his support after the 1991 acquittal of his client, the Egyptian-born terrorist El Sayyid Nosair, for the murder of the militant Rabbi Meir Kahane, the Jewish Defense League founder and Israeli politician. That brought picketers to the Kunstler home, and Emily, who narrates the movie, recalls that she and Sarah pretended they didn’t live there when they returned from school.
Other signs that Kunstler had grown overly fond of the spotlight were his defense of a cat for “crimes against humanity” in a mock television trial and his embrace of the Mafia chieftain John Gotti in front of the courthouse press corps. A loss of perspective and an inflated sense of self-importance: all too often these are side effects of stardom, whether in Hollywood or in the legal profession.
Disturbing the Universe
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler written by Sarah Kunstler directors of photography, Brett Wiley and Martina Radwan edited by Emily Kunstler music by Shahzad Ismaily produced by Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler, Jesse Moss and Susan Korda released by Arthouse Films. At the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. This film is not rated.