Revolution Online, November 18, 2009

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William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

From a reader:

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is a damn good documentary about a legendary people's lawyer and great defender of the oppressed, civil rights activists, radicals and revolutionaries.

Kunstler's daughters, Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, have made this biographical film about their father's life, told through the lens of their own struggles to appreciate his life's work. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, has received much critical acclaim, and is now hitting theaters across the U.S. this month.

The film very powerfully captures on screen some of the historic moments the revolutionary upsurge of the 1960's, when millions in the U.S. yearned to change the world in fundamental and revolutionary ways. It brings to life through Kunstler's story and through the voices of many participants in those movements and battles a lot of what is now really "stolen history"—events the rulers of this country would prefer be forgotten. We see the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention Chicago—the government's murder of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton—the Attica prison uprising—Wounded Knee. These are all "inconvenient history" for the American ruling class.

Bill Kunstler too comes to life, as someone who was both impacted by the revolutionary currents then sweeping through society in the U.S. and the world—and was deeply influenced and transformed by the defendants he represented. We see how his understanding of U.S. society, the law and the courts, and of the meaning of justice was transformed and radicalized.

In the early 1960's, Bill Kunstler was an ordinary "armchair liberal" attorney in private practice. But he was searching for more—and more certainly came when he answered a call to assist with legal support for the Freedom Riders, Black and white civil rights protesters daring to challenge racial segregation in the South. Kunstler was moved by the courage of the Freedom Riders, "breaking the law, to change the law" and risking arrest and brutality at the hands of police and white mobs.

By the late 1960's Kunstler was representing activists protesting the war in Vietnam. This included the Jesuit priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan who, along with 7 others, had broken into a government office in Maryland. The Catonsville Nine dragged the draft board files outside the building and publicly burned them. They knew they would be charged with destroying government property, but they saw their criminal trial as an opportunity to explain their beliefs about the war to the jury and the world. From this trial, Kunstler learned that the courtroom could be used as an arena to expose the immorality and injustices of the system.

But this film isn't just about the past. It raises deep questions and challenges for people today. This society is full of notions that people can't change and won't do anything except out of narrow self interest—for example, the idea that people are just the way they are, so middle class and more privileged people will not risk anything to fight the system because they are too bribed by their privilege. But here was William Kunstler—who saw other people putting themselves on the line, and stepped forward to join them.

In 1968 millions of Americans saw live TV coverage from Chicago, when thousands of anti-Vietnam War protestors outside the Democratic National Convention were attacked by police and National Guard troops. Eight activists including Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale were charged with conspiracy to riot and Bill Kunstler became their lead counsel. The trial of the Chicago Eight galvanized even more of the determined protest and resistance of that generation than it was intended to suppress. When Bobby Seale protested in court being denied legal representation, the judge ordered him to be chained and gagged—for many people then and now, that image of a Black revolutionary bound and gagged in an American courtroom, is one of the most enduring and iconic images of the 60's.

For their relentless defense during this historic trial, Kunstler and his co-counsel Leonard Weinglass were found guilty of contempt of court. Kunstler's sentence of forty months was the longest contempt sentence ever received by an attorney in U.S. history. Kunstler's defiant response: "I am in a way proud to be convicted because I think too long lawyers have been immune to the slings and arrows that oppress their clients, and I think it important that at least some lawyers now feel the oppression that their clients feel."

Unforgettable footage—some of it never before publicly seen—floods the screen. We see a dynamic 21 year old Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton speaking at a rally—shortly before he was murdered by Chicago police and the FBI, who shot him to death as he lay asleep in his bed.

We go inside the 1971 Attica prison uprising in upstate New York where thousands of prisoners rose up and took over the entire prison. The prisoners in America were becoming influenced by the revolutionary currents pulsing through U.S. society. The Attica prisoners were especially outraged by the murder of Black revolutionary prisoner George Jackson three weeks prior and by racist and degrading conditions at Attica. And they revolted!

Kunstler was called to the prison as a negotiator for the inmates. Bill told his daughters later about having to confront his own middle class prejudice and fears about these prisoners—but when he came to see theirs as a courageous and organized stand for their rights, and stood with them, those sentiments were transformed into respect and love. After three days of negotiations Governor Nelson Rockefeller sent armed troops, police and guards to drown the Attica rebellion in blood. Thirty-two prisoners and nine hostages and were killed.

The legacy of the Attica uprising is of tremendous importance. Asking why don't more people know about the history of the Attica prison uprising is like asking why do people know so much about the crucifixion of Jesus and not about the crucifixion of Spartacus, the rebel slave leader in ancient Rome. You watch this film, and are struck by how conscious and organized the Attica prisoners were. And it makes you think about the more than two million in U.S. prisons today and the importance of prisoners in any movement about fundamental societal change.

In 1973 Kunstler was called into action again, this time to defend leaders and activists with the American Indian Movement for their heroic takeover of Wounded Knee to protest the treatment and oppression of indigenous people by the U.S. government. Kunstler assisted in the negotiations on behalf of the Native Americans and was the attorney for AIM leaders during their criminal trial after the siege. Again, Kunstler's legal strategy was to put the government on trial for what it had done to Native Americans. The defendants and Bill won the trial, exposing the governmental misconduct and oppression of the Native Americans.

Through these fiery years, Kunstler is shown growing, changing, learning more and more and giving his heart to the struggles of the times—especially where the outrage of national oppression was at the fore. He carried on with many criminal defense cases including the defense of Larry Davis, a Black man accused of shooting six police in the Bronx. And again, when Kunstler represented Yusef Salaam, one of five Black teenagers who, in an atmosphere of racist mob hysteria, were railroaded on false charges in the so-called "Central Park jogger" rape case. Yusef Salaam and all the other defendants in the case were eventually exonerated.

In 1989 Kunstler again took a case that caught his eye because it concentrated political speech and protest against the government. Kunstler represented revolutionary Gregory "Joey" Johnson, arrested for burning the American flag at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas. Kunstler argued the flagburning case before the U.S. Supreme Court. But he also leapt into the controversy over this case by speaking publicly everywhere he could at law schools, protests, and in the media.

Joey Johnson has said about the film, "I think this film is very good. Especially for its ideological challenge that people make their lives be about living for something larger than themselves and making whatever sacrifices it takes for that. And through the example of Bill's life there is a call for people to take a stand in the face of real odds and to stand with those under attack from the system. I was proud to be part of the film. I definitely felt a real affinity with other activists and criminal defendants that Bill represented. When you are a political defendant, you want an attorney that has your back politically. And who respects you politically, even if they do not agree with everything you say or do.

"Bill saw a lot of the hypocrisy that the America flag flies over in the U.S., and for that matter the farflung American empire. And he hated the hypocrisy, all the ‘liberty and justice for all' talk when he knew otherwise: his experiences in the South with segregation and civil rights, knowing that this same flag was carried by the Seventh Calvary when they massacred the Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee. And the same flag that was stenciled on the planes that bombed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"So I could say these things when I spoke out about the case, and with Bill Kunstler I had an attorney who empathized with my views and respected defiance against the government."

The film brings complexity, questions about sticking to one's principles, and also a lot of humor to this telling of a lawyer who found his life's mission in "disturbing the universe." The New York Times once named William Kunstler "the most loved and hated lawyer in America."  The people did love this rambunctious, courageous fighter for justice—as much as the powers that be did hate him. This is a movie not to be missed.

Check it out.

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