Revolution #228, April 3, 2011
Len Weinglass—A People's Lawyer
From a reader who knew Len Weinglass
Leonard Weinglass died March 23 in New York, after an intense battle against recently diagnosed cancer.
After working selflessly for many decades as a people's lawyer, Len was 77 years young when he died. From his hospital bed, he was fighting to live: still working on cases, still eagerly attuned to news of uprisings rocking Egypt and the Middle East, still waiting for the coming spring breeze to warm his beloved New York City. There was still so much more he wanted to contribute to the people of the world.
Len's early life was quietly conventional. Having decided by the fourth grade to become a lawyer "to help people," there was law school, the Air Force, then settling into a community-based law practice in New Jersey. But in 1967 after yet another routine, racist murder of a Black man by white cops, the masses of Black people rose up for six days, lighting up the sky in the Newark Rebellion. Len had a front-row eyewitness view of the raw power of oppressed people when they refuse to accept their oppression. Years later, he reflected on that moment: "I didn't start out a radical, but the times and the people changed me. Maybe I had been waiting for something, not even knowing it, but then here it came...."
Len first found himself in the political spotlight a few years later, as defense co-counsel with William Kunstler in the historic Chicago 8 conspiracy trial. At the height of the war in Vietnam, mass antiwar protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention erupted into days and nights with several thousand youth defiantly staying in the streets despite brutal police attacks, chanting "The Whole World Is Watching!" The government put protest leaders and organizers on trial (the case of one defendant, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, was severed for separate trial—after he was physically bound and gagged in the courtroom for demanding his own legal rights!). But the defendants and their lawyers turned the whole case around. The defense went on the political offense! They seized the high ground by dragging the truth about the war into the courtroom, putting the government on trial for its crimes. Their bold example lifted the antiwar movement even higher, and modeled a new standard for how to defend against government repression.
Len Weinglass went on to work on some of the most cutting-edge political cases of the next 40 years. Dedicating himself to defending people who were fighting the power, Len was known by friend and foe alike as a brilliant, relentless courtroom warrior. He would leave no legal stone unturned in fighting to defend several generations of people—dissidents, truth-tellers, rebels, radicals, and revolutionaries. Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers case—the Camp Pendleton 14 (Black soldiers charged for fighting the KKK)—Iranian student revolutionaries. Native American activists Skyhorse and Mohawk, and Jimi Simmons. Jane Fonda suing Nixon; Weathermen; Angela Davis. Gibson and Justice (Black prisoners). Death penalty cases, prisoner cases. The case of the Macheteros (Puerto Rican independence movement). The LA 8 (Palestinian activists). These are just a few of the cases Len took on.
It always especially moved Len to see young people standing up against their own government's crimes, and he defended many of them too, including: U. Mass Amherst students for mass civil disobedience against CIA recruiters on campus in 1987. The "White Rose" anti-nuclear direct action in California. And young antiwar protesters who disrupted New York's "Yellow Ribbon" victory parade at the end of the first Gulf War.
Len was renowned for his skills as a trial lawyer. But he was also loved widely for his enormous, fearless heart. Here was someone who never sought personal fame or gain. Who gave his all—time after time, battle after battle—with passion and moral certitude, with insight and outrage, all drawing up from a deep well of respect and love for the people. He deeply believed everyone accused of a crime deserves a legal defense. But beyond that, he felt it was an honor to be able to assist people who step out to resist and fight against injustice, especially when the abuse comes at the hands of U.S. imperialism—and he was willing to take risks to uphold that honor, often taking on cases that were controversial or unpopular in even progressive circles.
There were the anonymous David and Goliath cases too: Anyone whose rights and dignity were being abused by the government, by corporate greed, by the police—by the system, any part of it! could come to Len, and find him ready to throw as much hard work and attention into their case, as he would for the most celebrated cases.
He stayed this course, living by his principles and never backing up or fading or selling out, even after the Sixties ebbed. Len kept going to the edge and pushing. When the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal reached him—Len did not hesitate to pour everything he had into defending this courageous revolutionary with his legal work and in travelling the world to take Mumia's case to the people. In 1992, days after the leader of the people's war in Peru, Abimael Guzman (Chairman Gonzalo), was captured and sentenced to death by the Fujimori regime, Len flew to Lima with a delegation of international human rights attorneys, demanding Guzman's full rights under international law. Len stayed with this case for many more years, including representing Guzman before the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights. In the weeks before his illness laid him low, and even while hospitalized, Len was preparing briefs in the case of the Cuban 5 (political prisoners in the U.S.), working on the WikiLeaks case of Julian Assange while also paying close attention to Bradley Manning's situation.
Beyond his 24-7-365 lawyer role, Len always involved himself deeply in political movements and issues beyond that. "I've always felt it was as important to know what the U.S. is doing in Guatemala, and what it did in Vietnam, as it is to know newly adopted rules on voir dire... if you work as a defense counsel in this country you should have the broadest possible understanding of the current and historical practices of your adversary." He marched, attended conferences, spoke frequently. He taught in formal classrooms (sometimes) and informal settings (every chance he got, from inner city classrooms in Oakland to prestigious universities). Len was a founding signatory of Refuse and Resist!, and later an early supporter of the World Can't Wait, Drive Out the Bush Regime.
Len Weinglass was a courageous and much beloved friend who leaves an inspiring legacy. His was a life lived on principle. He was determined to give a voice to justice and contribute to making a better world. He wasn't afraid of living for that and he invited everyone he met to come aboard for that journey.
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