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The Legacy of Leonard Weinglass

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.

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