FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Legacy of Leonard Weinglass

by MATTHEW REISS

North Africa erupted in the final days of the life of renowned movement attorney Leonard Weinglass. As images of men and women filling the streets of Cairo scrolled across the television monitor in his hospital room, he pointed out to Tom Hayden exactly how many square miles of terrain this mobilized portion of mankind populated. Weinglass’s interest in that detail was hardly academic. It could be argued that, in his tie, Weinglass played as great a part as any lawyer or activist in preserving Americans’ freedom to do the same.

Weinglass won an astounding number of crucial criminal defense cases in a life’s work that inspired two generations of attorneys, many of whom came to bid him farewell May 13 at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

Colleagues, clients and friends called him dignified, dedicated and unimpressed by material reward. They emphasized his practical application of the Bill of Rights at a time when constitutional arguments draw derision in some U.S. court rooms. “A moral compass,” said Ramsey Clarke, “a man of noble principal.” “A lawyer who did his homework,” said Martin Garbus, “the best of a generation.” “Best on a jury panel,” said criminal defense attorney, Bob Bloom. “The best I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Tom Hayden.

Hayden should know.

After Weinglass was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1961 he opened a storefront law office in Newark, New Jersey. “Len had no political organizing background at that time,” said Stuart Ball, who assisted Weinglass on the Chicago Seven trial and later became his law partner. “He was just a regular practitioner.”

That was before Students for Democratic Society deployed organizers to U.S. cities to see if socialist theory could be put into practice in the land of the free. “The paradigm was overthrow the government by organizing in the communities,” said Ball. “I don’t want to make it sound militant, but that was their approach.” Hayden’s assignment was Newark.

“Hayden had constant run-ins with police,” said Ball, “and like any organizer, he needed to have a lawyer.” As attorney for SDS’s Newark Community Union Project, Weinglass defended poor Newark residents from eviction, helped reclaim a large parcel of city real estate through a tax payers suit, and defended organizers’ freedom to do their jobs. When police brutalized a black taxi driver in July, 1967, African Americans marched on the precinct. A riot ensued that lasted five days and brought the city to a standstill. It signaled a period of political cohesion among African Americans that culminated with the election of Weinglass client Kenneth Gibson as Newark’s first black mayor in 1970.

Ball concluded that in Newark the aims of SDS did, indeed, prevail. Weinglass apparently came to that conclusion too, as from that time forward, Weinglass engaged corporate America without hesitation on its home turf: in the courts, in the prisons, in the media, and in the Pentagon. Most notable are the Chicago Seven trial and the Pentagon Papers.

Five copies of the Pentagon Papers were generated by the Department of Defense. One for President Richard Nixon, one for Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, another for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, one for Congress, and one for analysts at the Rand Corporation. Congressman were only permitted to read it in the basement of the capital building under the scrutiny of two Marines.

The document foresaw Washington’s costly effort to bring Vietnam under U.S. government domination. Rand analyst Daniel Ellsberg decided he could not hide these plans from the people who paid for them. He was indicted for giving a copy to the New York Times.

Ellsberg explained in a video-taped testimonial at Weinglass’s memorial, that the outlook was not good for him in the early stages of the trial. Weinglass was displeased by the jury pool, and decided to raise an objection that would postpone the trial for several months, causing a new jury to be empaneled. During the delay, explained Ellsberg, Nixon’s ‘plumbers’ were arrested for breaking into the Watergate Hotel and were behind the break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrists’ office, seeking material with which to blackmail him. A subsequent obstruction of justice ruling led to Ellsberg’s acquittal. Ellsberg argues that Weinglass’s effort accelerated an end to the Vietnam war.

Attorney Michael Steven Smith said that Weinglass shared with Marx the idea that “for knowledge to be real it must be acted upon” and with “the great Jewish revolutionaries an optimistic belief in the solidarity of humankind.” Indeed, faced with unfavorable odds, often in the worst possible legal or political circumstances, Weinglass demonstrated an near-sacrosanct belief in the power of the citizen. “He was a humanist to the core,” said Hayden, who noted that it was fitting for the memorial to be held at the Society for Ethical Culture. “When human nature fights in the last ditch,” wrote the Society’s founder, Felix Adler, for what could have been this occasion, “when it is pressed against the wall,” “then human nature, by way of reaction, exhibits a power we call spiritual.”

In 1969 attorney William Kunstler called on Weinglass to help defend the Chicago Seven, organizers of demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Faced with a capricious judge, a difficult jury, and an unfavorable media atmosphere, Kunstler agreed with the defendants, Abbey Hoffman in particular, that the trial needed to dramatize the message of those demonstrations. Weinglass, said Hayden, “teased the message out of Hoffman.” He “produced, directed, and wrote the script.” Hoffman’s eloquent closing statement sealed the jury’s acquittal on conspiracy charges of Hoffman, Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Daniel Berrigan, John Froines, Rennie Davis and Lee Weiner.

In a period when constitutional protections are deeply eroded, criminal defense practice muted by mandatory minimum sentencing, and lawyers who adopt democratic movements or ideologies, less prominent, Weinglass clients and contemporaries emphasized that he will be sorely missed. Yet the ideals he followed may prove an enduring legacy. “Everyone’s replaceable,” said Hayden, “by standing on the shoulders of those who came before.”

Matthew Reiss is a journalist based in New York.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

Weekend Edition
August 26, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Louisa Willcox
The Unbearable Killing of Yellowstone’s Grizzlies: 2015 Shatters Records for Bear Deaths
Paul Buhle
In the Shadow of the CIA: Liberalism’s Big Embarrassing Moment
Rob Urie
Crisis and Opportunity
Charles Pierson
Wedding Crashers Who Kill
Richard Moser
What is the Inside/Outside Strategy?
Dirk Bezemer – Michael Hudson
Finance is Not the Economy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Bernie’s Used Cars
Margaret Kimberley
Hillary and Colin: the War Criminal Charade
Patrick Cockburn
Turkey’s Foray into Syria: a Gamble in a Very Dangerous Game
Ishmael Reed
Birther Tries to Flim Flam Blacks  
Brian Terrell
What Makes a Hate Group?
Andrew Levine
How Donald Trump Can Still be a Hero: Force the Guardians of the Duopoly to Open Up the Debates
Howard Lisnoff
Trouble in Political Paradise
Terry Tempest Williams
Will Our National Parks Survive the Next 100 Years?
Ben Debney
The Swimsuit that Overthrew the State
Ashley Smith
Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution
Andrew Stewart
Did Gore Throw the 2000 Election?
Vincent Navarro
Is the Nation State and Its Welfare State Dead? a Critique of Varoufakis
John Wight
Syria’s Kurds and the Wages of Treachery
Lawrence Davidson
The New Anti-Semitism: the Case of Joy Karega
Mateo Pimentel
The Affordable Care Act: A Litmus Test for American Capitalism?
Roger Annis
In Northern Syria, Turkey Opens New Front in its War Against the Kurds
David Swanson
ABC Shifts Blame from US Wars to Doctors Without Borders
Norman Pollack
American Exceptionalism: A Pernicious Doctrine
Ralph Nader
Readers Think, Thinkers Read
Julia Morris
The Mythologies of the Nauruan Refugee Nation
George Wuerthner
Caving to Ranchers: the Misguided Decision to Kill the Profanity Wolf Pack
Ann Garrison
Unworthy Victims: Houthis and Hutus
Julian Vigo
Britain’s Slavery Legacy
John Stanton
Brzezinski Vision for a Power Sharing World Stymied by Ignorant Americans Leaders, Citizens
Philip Doe
Colorado: 300 Days of Sunshine Annually, Yet There’s No Sunny Side of the Street
Joseph White
Homage to EP Thompson
Dan Bacher
The Big Corporate Money Behind Jerry Brown
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
DNC Playing Dirty Tricks on WikiLeaks
Ron Jacobs
Education for Liberation
Jim Smith
Socialism Revived: In Spite of Bernie, Donald and Hillary
David Macaray
Organized Labor’s Inferiority Complex
David Cortright
Alternatives to Military Intervention in Syria
Binoy Kampmark
The Terrors of Free Speech: Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act
Cesar Chelala
Guantánamo’s Quagmire
Nyla Ali Khan
Hoping Against Hope in Kashmir
William Hughes
From Sam Spade to the Red Scare: Dashiell Hammett’s War Against Rightwing Creeps
Raouf Halaby
Dear Barack Obama, Please Keep it at 3 for 3
Charles R. Larson
Review: Paulina Chiziane’s “The First Wife: a Tale of Polygamy”
David Yearsley
The Widow Bach: Anna Magdalena Rediscovered
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail