Today, attorneys are disparaged, often with good cause. Most are considered to be part of the problem, enabling the system of capitalism, injustice and punishment to thrive. However, when I was a good deal younger, lawyers were often considered heroes. From fictional attorneys like Perry Mason to real life criminal lawyers like F. Lee Bailey, some barristers were larger than the cases they were working on and sometimes bigger than the law.
The arena of radical politics has its own such lawyers. Included among these legal “stars” were men like William Kunstler, Leonard Boudin, Charles Garry and Leonard Weinglass. Most of us involved in antiwar and antiracist political movements during these attorneys’ heyday were at least familiar with these names; and most of us considered them fellow radicals in our struggle for a more just world, because they were.
Unfortunately, their names and, more tragically, knowledge of their work is fading from history. This is why the just published graphic biography of Len Weinglass is so important. Titled A Lawyer in History, this work authored and illustrated by Seth Tobocman provides the reader with both thr story of a lawyer dedicated to justice and a history of the last fifty years. It is a story that includes radical anti warriors, Cuban spies, native American prisoners, the daughter of a US president, and others, both famous and otherwise. Weinglass is the common element in all their lives. Treasured for his legal skills, devotion to revolutionary politics, and his humility, this graphic biography does the man and his times justice.
After a brief presentation of Weinglass’s life as a child, an attorney in the US Air Force and then in a law firm, the reader is introduced to the situation in the city of Newark, New Jersey in the mid-1960s. Like many other urban regions in the US north at the time, the racism and poverty experienced by Newark’s Black population appeared in every aspect of their lives. From the police to the education system; from housing to employment, racist oppression was everywhere. In 1967, the city blew up after one too many instances of police harassment. Weinglass had been working with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) members in the city around another case. He joined with Black community members and the SDS members to get the National Guard off the streets. Afterwards, he helped these people change the way the city government related to the Black community. It is a process that continues to this day.
Next up is the case that is probably one of the two best known cases Weinglass worked on. That case is known as the case of the Chicago Seven (Eight). It was an attempt by the US government under the direction of President Richard Nixon to convict several antiwar and antiracist leaders on conspiracy charges related to the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in 1968. The trial was rigged from the very beginning, with the prosecution and judge refusing to allow defense witnesses to testify and evidence to be introduced. Given the fact that the defense knew it was a setup, they decided to use the courtroom as their forum. The result was not only a travesty, but a revealing look at the nature of justice in the United States. Its ugliest moment was when the judge had Black Panther Bobby Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom, reminding onlookers in the courtroom and around the world of the US legacy of racialized slavery.
Two other cases presented in this book which Leonard Weinglass was involved with also ended up indicting the system that originally brought the charges. The first of these cases was the 1971 case of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo for their publication of the documents detailing the US involvement in the war on the Vietnamese people known as the Pentagon Papers. The second such trial took place over ten years later in Amherst, Massachusetts after a series of protests against CIA recruitment on a college campus in that small city. Several protesters had been arrested, including the antiwar activist and Yippie Abbie Hoffman and the daughter of former president Jimmy Carter, Amy. The defendants wanted to use a necessity defense in their trial, claiming their illegal actions of sitting in and blockading buses was necessary to prevent the even greater illegal actions of the CIA in Central America and elsewhere. The defense worked and the jury found all of the defendants not guilty. It was a unique victory, especially in light of the fact that it is rare that a judge will even allow such a defense.
The case covered in this book that I found the most interesting was the case of Native American Jimi Simmons. Charged with the murder of an abusive prison guard, Simmons was at first hesitant to even consider hiring a lawyer, choosing instead to represent himself. It was only after the work of a couple activist women who organized a defense fund and convinced Jimi he would do better in court with a lawyer that Weinglass took the case. It would be one of his most challenging cases, but also one of his most rewarding, both on a professional and personal level. The presentation of both these aspects in this text is a testament to the power of Simmons’ story and the storyteller’s ability.
A Lawyer in History is an appropriate testament to Leonard Weinglass’s life and work. Known for his humility in a world where his colleagues were occasionally criticized for their love of the limelight, Weinglass seemed to understand that he was but one more actor in the odyssey of human history. Never afraid to stand up for his sense of justice, he also understood that it was a combination of diligence and fearlessness that would make his case. In a world where the law is designed to uphold the powers that be, Leonard Weinglass was able to mold it into a weapon to defend those on the other side of those powers. In the courtrooms he appeared in, Lady Justice always had her say, thanks to his representation.