Revolution Online, November 19, 2009

Revolution Interview

A Roundtable with Revolution newspaper about the new film, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, with Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler (filmmakers and two youngest daughters of Bill Kunstler); Margaret Ratner Kunstler, progressive lawyer and Sarah and Emily's mom; Michael Ratner, president of Center for Constitutional Rights, an important legal advocacy organization cofounded by Bill Kunstler; and Yusef Salaam, exonerated in a rape case known as "the Central Park jogger case1"—Yusef spent years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Bill Kunstler was his lawyer.

The Revolution Interview is a special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.

Revolution newspaper had the opportunity to sit down with the filmmakers of and key participants in an important and moving new documentary about William Kunstler, a radical lawyer who stood out for his courage and daring, and whose legacy people need to learn from and carry forward. It opens in select theatres across the country Friday, November 20. This film needs to be seen and supported.

Here's the synopsis: "In William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe filmmakers Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler explore the life of their father, the late radical civil rights lawyer. In the 1960s and 70s, Kunstler fought for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. and represented the famed 'Chicago 8' activists who protested the Vietnam War. When the inmates took over Attica prison, or when the American Indian Movement stood up to the federal government at Wounded Knee, they asked Kunstler to be their lawyer.

"To his daughters, it seemed that he was at the center of everything important that had happened. But when they were growing up, Kunstler represented some of the most reviled members of society, including rapists and assassins. This powerful film not only recounts the historic causes that Kunstler fought for; it also reveals a man that even his own daughters did not always understand, a man who risked public outrage and the safety of his family so that justice could serve all."


Revolution: Could you begin with what made you want to make this film?

Emily Kunstler: Sarah and I were having a lot of conversations around the 10th anniversary of our father's death. We had been making advocacy films for people in prison for about 7 years. And we were seeing some impact. But, we came into filmmaking through our activism. So we were thinking about our role, and whether that was the place for us to make the greatest impact. Thinking about our influences. We were thinking about history, and the way people learn from history. And the way that, as a culture, we don't seem to be learning from history today. So we began for the first time really, in our lives, to think about the work we were doing in respect to the work that our father had done. We thought about recording the voices of people that he worked with, of sharing these stories, and talking about issues we felt were so important to us today and were being ignored. The civil rights movement at that time, and currently, is being looked on as sort of a bygone chapter. And we reward ourselves as a culture for accomplishing things without thinking about the work that is still left to be done. And our father would always talk about all these monuments erected and these streets being named after people that used to be on the FBI's most wanted list, and it frustrated him to no end, because at the same time, all of the rights that he and so many other people worked for, were being taken away. So we really wanted to make a movie that would remind people of their personal responsibility in maintaining those rights, and trying to get more civil rights and a more balanced society.

Sarah Kunstler: When we were making this film, we didn't know what the political climate would be when we finished the film. And, for a while, that was a source of anxiety for us because we worried: will this film still be relevant in a post-Bush world? If there is a Democratic president, are we still going to have the same concerns? And when Obama was elected, a lot of the rhetoric we started hearing is that we have now moved post-race. And that having a Black president means, in a kind of coded way, that we don't have to talk about race anymore, that Black people in America have reached the ultimate pinnacle so there is no more racism. And what we realized was that this notion that there aren't still these unhealed wounds and inequalities in this country, just because there is a Black man in the White House, and we don't have to talk about race anymore, was so potentially dangerous and that making a film that dealt with race and racism in the criminal justice system, was all the more important.

Revolution: When you, Yusef, Michael, or Margie, heard that they were going to do this film, and what the initial conception was, how did you guys see what impact it could have? What did you all think of that?

Michael Ratner: I was very excited. Partly, having lost my father when I was young, I was glad to see Sarah and Emily dealing with the loss of their dad when they were young also.

But Bill was, for young lawyers growing up in the sixties, the most important lawyer in the United States. And the most influential. The one that made a whole generation of lawyers think it might be worthwhile engaging in social struggles in the courts and outside of the courts. One lesson was that you had to be outside the courts as well as inside the courts. And that is certainly a critical lesson that has been taken forward, still with great struggle, with many lawyers who say, "Well we don't want to offend the court, we want to agree to this and that," and the lesson for me and other lawyers is that's not what you do. You take your struggles outside the courts. I remember one of the things is you don't call the judge "Your Honor," so even today, I would never call a judge "Your Honor," I would say "judge." And when I hear people say "Your Honor," it just makes my skin crawl.

The other part of the film that I thought was going to be important... Bill to the last day of his life, felt that the racial divide in this country was the critical divide... And he lived that through his life. And I think that is a lesson that just because we have a Black president doesn't mean that it's over.

And I guess, the third is, to be incredibly bold in what you do. To take on the hardest issues. To use the press. To take on social movement issues. If you look at the Attica prison struggle, at Wounded Knee, Chicago, each of those are really people's struggles, and Bill wound up defending people that were really trying to change things. And that is, unfortunately, a lesson that is lost on most of us today, on most lawyers. That is really the role of a political lawyer, a radical lawyer, to defend movements that are trying to make social change. So that is what I was hopeful this film would bring out.

Yusef Salaam: In being a part of [this film], it caused me to gain a deeper understanding of where I fit in, in the whole scheme of things. I wasn't just some type of strange occurrence. My case was part of a larger dynamic going on, and, when I look back now, I'm actually happy. One, to be able to have been a part of this, and two, and this is going to sound probably strange, but I don't think I would give my experience back, you know. That experience made me who I am, and it also made me think differently about everything.

A Film About Transformation

Revolution: What do you want people to get out of it? The film works on different levels, and you were talking about your personal journeys, but also there is a challenge that you are posing through it, can you talk about that some?

Emily Kunstler: I think that in large part it is a film about transformation. It's about our father's transformation, it's about our transformation, it's about Yusef's transformation. It is about Jean Fritz,2 you know, this juror in Chicago's transformation. It's about Michael Smith's transformation, the prison guard at Attica.3 And everybody, and that we are all capable of changing our perspective. Exposed to the right set of circumstances, and to the right information, we can go into something feeling one way, and come out a different way. And for my father that is sort of the fundamental theory of the jury system. That you can bring that kind of information to 12 people in a room, and they can come out of it feeling differently, or put their feelings aside, and actually make a choice based on what they are hearing. So that's humanity for you. We hoped for people to see this film and realize they can make changes in their own lives, and that they can effect change in the world. Our father was fifty years old when he had his second transformation, and so, we can all live a thousand lives, and should strive to, and should have the courage to be open to change everyday.

Sarah Kunstler: He was an interesting person, because he was the principal architect and embellisher of his own myth. He had his own creation myth of how he came to be, and how he became a fighter for justice, and a fighter against racism, and he told the story to everyone who would listen. So when you go around making a film about him, you end up hearing the same story from 50 or 100 different mouths. Which is the story of a man who lived in Mamaroneck, NY, and commuted to the city, who had a fairly ordinary law practice with his brother, who one day, out of the blue, received this phone call that transformed his life. It was a call from the director of the ACLU, asking him to go South to tell a lawyer who was representing the Freedom Riders in Jackson, Mississippi that the ACLU stood behind him. And that going there, seeing the struggle first hand, and watching as five determined young people got off a bus and walked into an onslaught of police, watching that kind of passion, that dedication, and that courage was what utterly changed him. That is the first of several transformations he goes through in our film. And the first of several mythologies he shared with Emily and I, and anyone that got within two feet of him.

It is an interesting thing making a film about a person who has such an established mythology. It's a little bit intimidating, 'cause what do you do with a myth? And what are you looking for? Are you trying to preserve the myth? Are you trying to attack the myth? What happens when you meet the real people? Do you lose the myth? That is part of the interesting thing for Emily and I in telling our own story and making this film our story. And it is ultimately our story about our father's life.

Revolution: This brings me to the question of the big contradiction you are wrangling with in the film. I'm wondering if you guys could talk more about the transformation you all went through, and how Yusef's story impacted you guys in particular.

Emily Kunstler: What is the basic question of the film? What is the exploration? We're at a very different place today, than we were when we started. The film doesn't start at our perspective today. It starts at our perspective when we were teenagers, when he was still alive at the end of his life. It never represented our adult perspective and that doesn't represent our perspective at the end of the film.

Sarah Kunstler: It is interesting 'cause a film captures a certain point of your life, and a certain place in your thinking. These are conversations about legacy, and about how to lead your life, and about personal responsibility, and what choices to make. These are conversations you have every single day, and that you are constantly evolving with. So it's an interesting thing, to make a film, or I guess write a book, or to do anything where you explore those notions, because it becomes this fixed sense of what you were thinking at that moment.

Michael Ratner: When Bill takes Yusef's case, right, I think you have a reaction in the film, right? Where you say, "What is our daddy doing? What is Bill doing?" And then after Bill dies, Yusef is exonerated. So I would ask you – what does that make you think, not only about the legacy of your dad, and what you think about your dad today, now that you know that; what does it make you think of what kind of cases people ought to take, or what does it make you think of the state, or any of that.

Emily Kunstler: Well, I think it is an important life lesson. I think it is one a lot of people can learn from. There is this rush to judgment. And we oversimplify things. We see things from a child's perspective. In black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. This is the way the criminal justice system is digested for public consumption. People are kept very removed from that part of society. We don't have cameras in most courtrooms, eyes inside the prison, people are very removed from that part of society. And the small bits that come out are through this media filter, that tells you Yusef is terrible. Him and his friends are a wolf pack wilding in the park—and you have no other information. And what's there left to think? The media hype around that case was so intense, during the trial and the conviction. And there are people today that still don't know that he was exonerated. Because the media attention around his release and his exoneration was so minimal.

So that's the information that you have to go on. In a sense we are all guilty of that, and we should all be very conscious of that, and make sure we question the information we are getting. And you know, try to find the best source, because it is too easy to make those snap judgments. And anything that is that easy is never right.

Yusef Salaam: I was thinking about the media filter... If people watch TV, some part of their day is watching the news. And the news is telling people—probably 75% of these terrible things that have happened in the world, since this morning or since this evening or something like that. And… some of it is very biased. And some of it is given to you, in such a way, where they are making you have their opinion. You know, you're not coming into it with a level head saying well, is this, "is this real?" Like "are they telling me the truth?" Or you know, you're looking at it as this is a real story, this is the reality of what happened. What really goes on!

The Moment of Choice

Revolution: At a certain point in the film, you said Bill's struggles became your struggles. Can you talk about that in relation to what impact you want the film to have?

Yusef Salaam: The part in the film, where I say his struggles became my struggles was talking about being an activist. Being a part of the solution, as opposed to part of the problem. And being part of the problem could just be, "I don't wanna do anything, I don't want to, you know, leave me alone," it could be something very, very subtle... but trying to actually effectuate change, trying to be out there, wanting to be in a better world, and unfortunately, a lot of times it's revolutionary acts that cause that. "Power concedes nothing without a demand." You have to at some point in life make a choice as to where you want to be in life. What role you wanna play. When I think about Bill Kunstler, the role that he played was such an important role, because he could have just sat back and lived a normal life, but that wasn't him. He had a burning, a desire... something in him that made him be a freedom fighter, be a revolutionary person, be an activist, be a person who is active in the struggle.

And that part caused me to look at my whole case from a different perspective, and then realize that I have a role to play now. I can't just sit back and do nothing.

Sarah Kunstler: We have to talk about the David story here... One of the stories that Bill told that was most important to Emily and I was the story of when he first saw Michelangelo's statue of David. He was a teenager traveling in Italy. And he was standing there looking at it. And an old man comes up to him… and he says, "Do you know why this statue of David is important?" It's a statue of David with the rock in one hand, and the sling over his shoulder; and, according to this man, it is the only depiction of David before he throws the stone at the giant Goliath. So he is standing there in this moment where he is deciding whether or not to stand up and take action, or to quietly walk away. And it's the idea of the insurgent, the disempowered who is about to decide whether or not to challenge the big power. And to Bill that story was really resonant cause it was this moment that he felt everybody faced. This moment of choice, whether or not to stand up and take action or to quietly blend into the crowd and do nothing.

Particularly when he spoke to young people, he would talk about this moment. Because he wanted young people to be ready for those moments in their life that were going to demand that kind of courage, and for them to be able to summon the courage to do what was needed when the time came. That story is one of the main reasons why Emily and I made this film, because to us it was so powerful and so empowering that we could have these moments and that anyone could have these moments, and that all of us had this agency to stand up and do something important. We wanted to make a film that would make people feel that way, and make people feel like they wanted to do something. And, you don't have to be Bill Kunstler to have that kind of moment.

These moments don't always come when people are looking, sometimes they come when nobody's looking. And it's about having that strength of character, and strength of belief, in small moments in your life—and in big moments of your life. And to always be realizing that you are making that choice, and that you are choosing to stand up or not to stand up.

Emily Kunstler: I think we started this film feeling like when Dad told us the story of David, he was talking about himself. That he was David, and that he had those moments of choice in his life. But through the process of making this film, I don't think that he necessarily saw himself as David. I think he found Davids in the world to associate himself with. And it was the Davids that he found, like Yusef, and others that gave him strength to continue the work that he did. Towards the end of the film he became our David, but it really wasn't about him. It was about protecting those Davids, and allowing those Davids to continue to struggle. And to be empowered and to be out of prison.

Revolution: Michael, you talked about learning from Bill's taking a stand, and then actually going out and fighting using his example, particularly at CCR.

Emily Kunstler: This brings us to Michael's transformation.

Michael Ratner: Not just mine... I get comments about what I said in the film when Bill took [El Sayyid] Nosair's case,4 or the '93 World Trade Center cases, or some of those cases involving, you know, alleged terrorist acts, and they were no longer in the tradition of Center for Constitutional Rights, of which Bill was a founder, or in the tradition of what we thought was the political kind of law that we were doing, whether it was representing Attica, or the civil rights movement, or indigenous Indian movements. We wondered about it. And we were critical. Why is Bill putting his talents to that?

But in that perspective, myself and scores of other attorneys in the Center, Bill's institution, are representing a tremendous number of Guantánamo detainees, alleged terrorists post-9/11. And so, it gave me a different perspective on what Bill was doing then. It really helped me to understand Bill's incredible, more than skepticism about the state. And what the state represented, and what it represented particularly against people... who the state put up as pariahs, and everybody tried to get the state to focus on those people, and their anger on those people.

We've certainly seen that post-9/11 completely. Almost every one of our clients has turned out to be a "pariah" client, that is completely innocent of anything. If Bill were around today, he would be taking those cases, he would be in the forefront. He would be representing probably the heaviest guys in Guantánamo, right now.

In relation to Yusef's case, Bill brought Yusef's case to the Center. Bill wasn't Yusef's trial lawyer, but he came in at the sentencing for Yusef, and he said to the Center, I want the Center to come in here and represent Yusef. And the Center turned it down. Partly the film explains a little bit, the atmosphere in the city, which is always the atmosphere that you're going to get in these cases. Full-page ads asking for death penalty for the Central Park people. Assuming they're dead guilty. From the mayor to everyone else. And I think part of that infiltrated into the Center. And it didn't have Bill's sense of the injustice of the state at that point. Part of it had to do with the feminist movement at that point, about representing people accused of rape, although considering that Bill came out of a Southern experience, where a rape charge was the classic thing you did against a Black man, that is pretty shocking when I go back and think about that. And it led directly to turning down Yusef's case, and Bill even got held in contempt in those cases, and even then the Center didn't take the contempt cases. Morty Stavis, the cofounder with Bill, took that. But he took them just separately and eventually went to the court of appeals on Bill's contempt. I forgot, what the language he used in the courtroom was a disgrace to the bench. Bill was making some argument about Yusef's sentence, and the judge tried to shut him up. And Bill just says "You're a disgrace to the bench!" And the judge held him in contempt when Bill said that.

…When the post-9/11 cases, and Rumsfeld said "we're going to pick up the worst of the worst, and we're not going to give them any rights, and we're going to take them to an offshore penal colony." We're sitting at the Center, well, I saw that and I said I think we're going to represent the first people that go, that are picked up. Because this is just beyond anything that is acceptable in any society that calls itself, at all civilized. And there was some debate in the Center. And at that point, I took the pages out of Bill's biography, and he has two or three pages about when the Center turned down Yusef's case, and I circulated them to everybody, and I said, this was our founder, this is what we have to learn... as Bill said, on more than one occasion, "All states are bad, some are worse than others." And I think we were, for Bill, we were living in the "worse than others." …That is the lesson, and we still get that throughout. I think it is a lesson that is particularly post-9/11, but it was certainly, in the South, you knew all the time. But since 9/11 that is everywhere. It is everywhere around us.

The Fight in the Courtroom and the Struggle in the Streets

Revolution: This brings me to a question, for you guys as lawyers. Part of what Bill talks about at different parts of the film, and it goes on all the way through, actually from the civil rights, to what he learned from Daniel Berrigan, and came all the way through, was the lawyering and the fight in the court, as well as, how it relates to the fight in the streets. In the section on the civil rights movement, you make the point that he respected people who were breaking the law to change the law. And then in the Catonsville 9 section, he talks about the moral fight in the courtroom and then in Chicago, bringing the sixties into the courtroom.5 This was part of a larger movement in society, but Michael made the point earlier, Bill was at the forefront of that. Could you guys talk about, as lawyers, how that changed, your overall perspective?

Margaret Ratner: We were very lucky, when there was a domestic movement in this country. I mean, as lawyers, and as activists, and as human beings. When that was happening, whether it was the civil rights movement, or the multiple movements going on in this country, we were really lucky to be able to represent people participating in those movements. And it changed and maybe we got older, but the whole protest movement changed, and there wasn't enough room for the kind of social protest that there was, earlier on. Now it's much more complicated, and much more difficult. The students who participate now in the protest movements, I have the utmost respect for because it seems to me it's much more difficult because the alliances are much more difficult, the issues are not as clear, and the whole situation is more complicated. It's not as easy as it was in the '80s and the '90s. It's much more difficult because you have this whole kind of assertion of post-racial society, which is so ridiculous, so it's just much more complicated and much more difficult to draw the lines and to participate directly. I just think we were really lucky as attorneys and as activists. Luckier than people are now, cause it's harder, it's really harder. And that is why I think this film is important because, given how hard it is now, people have to be encouraged in a different way to participate, and they have to be reminded of our history and how we were able to do things, and how we were able to organize, and encouraged to do their own thing in a new way.

Sarah Kunstler: If what happens inside the courtroom is allowed to stay inside the confines of the courtroom wall, then it will never be justice. And if court decisions are allowed to happen in a vacuum, we will almost always certainly have the wrong result. And that at any moment in time it's important to have a street movement. It's important to have press. It's important for these issues to feel like issues that matter to all of us. For us to feel like the rights of the accused, the rights of people on trial and how they're diminished impacts all of our rights. If we lose that perspective and we say there is an us and a them and we don't care about the criminal defendants because these are the other, then we all are losing something and we're getting to a very dangerous place.

Yes, these are different times, but I think that whatever time we're in, the link between the street and the courtroom is crucial. And that the link between the courtroom and our everyday lives is crucial. And if we stop caring and feeling like these things are connected, then we're going down a very dangerous road.

Michael Ratner: When Marge and I were young lawyers, it was just everywhere in the streets, and the idea that someone would sit in their office and think the courtroom was the place you could make social change... it would be laughable for most progressive lawyers. Today, what I think has changed is there's a lot of lawyers who don't go to the G20, or the RNC, or the Democratic Convention and represent people and do that work, and they think they can be in a courtroom or in an office and actually make change, and I think that's not the case. What this film really is good at saying is you have to be out in the streets with your clients and representing people making social change. And that's a lesson that every law student and every person ought to hear. It's really critical.

Revolution: Emily and Sarah, you talk about growing up with the fear of repression from very early on. And it's something Margie talks about in the film. As kids, you experienced it on a very visceral level. As you grew up to understand more what that's a part of and you take a stand at a certain point later in the film and you talk about how it's not just about us.

Emily Kunstler: It's a hard question because for kids, the most important thing is to create a safe space. And it was impossible for my father to do that. Were it not for our mother and the role that she played in our lives, we wouldn't be the people we are today. She really made it her mission to keep us out of the public eye, to make sure we had a normal childhood and a protected childhood, and always felt loved and safe, in an environment where it was almost impossible to do that. But through the process of making this film and meeting Yusef and seeing the commitment that our father had and the choices that he made and the lives that he impacted, it makes mine and Sarah's sacrifice seem really inconsequential in terms of the sacrifice that our father's clients made, that Yusef made, and the work that he did to help other people's children that we really feel today was definitely worthwhile. I also have to add that I think that a healthy degree of fear and distress of the government is not a bad thing, and I'm actually grateful for that education that I had. You know, maybe it was something I couldn't understand when I was 8, but I'm glad I'm still a person that asks those questions today.


WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE was released in theaters on November 13 at Cinema Village in New York City and is opening on November 20 in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Berkeley, D.C. and Seattle with more cities to follow. The film will be broadcast on PBS on the award-winning documentary series P.O.V. in the Spring/Summer of 2010.

For more information on the film, including screenings and show times in your area, please visit

1. The "Central Park Jogger Case" arose from an incident in 1989 when a 28-year-old white woman, an investment banker, was raped and beaten while jogging in Central Park in New York. Five Black and Latino youth were arrested, charged, and wrongfully convicted of the crime, serving between 7 and 13 years in jail before they were exonerated in 2002. [back]

2. Jean Fritz was a Republican juror in the Chicago Conspiracy trial, one of four who held out for acquittal on all charges. She is interviewed in the film. [back]

3. Michael Smith, 21 years old at the time of the 1971 Attica prison rebellion, was on of the guards held hostage by the prisoners. He was shot five times by the state police when they stormed the prison and massacred and brutalized the prisoners. He is interviewed in the film. [back]

4. El Sayyid Nosair is an Egyptian-born American citizen, convicted of involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990. [back]

5. Daniel Berrigan is a Jesuit priest who was active in protests against the Vietnam war and with 7 others started the Plowshares Movement, an anti-nuclear weapons movement that became well known during the 1980s for militant actions in which they were accused of damaging government property (nuclear weapons). Berrigan was one of the Catonsville Nine, Catholic activists who went to the Draft Board in Catonsville, Maryland, in May 1968, took 378 files of people drafted into the U.S. military, poured homemade napalm over them, and set them on fire. Kunstler was the lead defense lawyer in their trial. [back]

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