Democracy Chasers in a Badly Injured Nation

GALVIN: You know, so much of the time we’re lost. We say, “Please, God, tell us what is right. Tell us what’s true. There is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless…” We become tired of hearing people lie. After a time we become dead. A little dead. We start thinking of ourselves as victims. (pause) And we become victims.

– Lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), closing argument, The Verdict (1982)

Considering that 43% of Congress is comprised of lawyers and, according to at least one source, a goodly number of that percentage are alcoholics in various stages of recovery — climbing on the wagon, and then falling off, only to be picked up, like any package that mysteriously falls off a truck, by corporate mob figures and re-sold at a discount to a riffraff who deserve them — is it any wonder that they spend their time legislating like ambulance chasers?

Nevertheless, every once in awhile they get their law suits dry cleaned and go to bat for the Little Guy, which is just about everyone in America these days, and pass a law that helps the ones who elected them (reluctantly, and because there were no better evils available), such as Glass-Steagall, the Tricky Dick-driven EPA, and the Civil Rights Act. But da Glass ish now smashed; they went after the EPA like the swan went after Leda; and the CRA has been feloniously assaulted. Hell, Ralph Nader may live to see seatbelts scofflawed out the window.

And what’s more, beginning with the Clintons (lawyers), there’s been a rollback of all the minimal social safety netting (think FDR) that’s left a modicum of decency for truly down-and-out Americans. Left, Right, the feet of fascism on the move. One recalls how the two ‘extremes’ always came together in the end, such as at the end of Boston Legal episodes. The Left talking about how much they secretly love the Right, then coming out with it, putting into law, as it were. It’s all a moot court in Congress.

Luckily, not all lawyers are evil (Nader’s a lawyer) or drunk (Nader’s sober), and there is still a small, but expanding cadre of lawyers willing to fight, nay, rage against the dying of Liberty’s light. The stakes are high. It’s all on the line.

In his introduction to Lawyers for the Left: In the Courts, In the Streets, and On the Air, Michael Steven Smith makes clear what we’re facing and what lefty lawyers are doing, or have done, to fight the fight. “Ultimately, the social gains the American people have won since the 1930s are on the chopping block,” writes Smith, referring principally to the New Deal. One thinks of the constant pressure on Social Security Trust Funds in the last few decades to release its monies (some of it already misappropriated) back into the wilds of Wall Street capitalist predation.

This deconstructive privatization of democracy and the usurpation of the rules of law that send common people for a loop, while creating loopholes for the rich, is part of some kind of master plan we haven’t seen yet. No conspiracy theory; they do it in broad daylight. Take the Citizens United ruling that privileged corporations over citizens, and of which dissenting Justice Stevens wrote that it was “a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government.” Citizens United was just the beginning. Smith writes,

Funded by the Koch Brothers and other billionaires and wealthy supporters, the extreme right’s goal is to ‘dismantle the administrative state’ and take away every social benefit that political movements have earned since the 1930s.

These machinations are not new developments.

As Smith sees it, this horrific development — this meanly lost “last best hope of Earth,” as old Abe put it, was inspired by the wildly successful 1973 coup d’état in Chile, an event itself inspired by Dr. Kissinger Aphrodisiac’s oft-quoted rhetorical statement posed before a security meeting in the early 70: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” Similar sentiments have been expressed at home, most recently when Tio Bernie was offering up democratic-socialism. Realpolitik married to neoliberalism. No wonder Hillary loves Henry, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning war criminal. Hey, we’re an Empire now.

But it was in the aftermath of the calculating takedown of Chilean democracy that the benefits unfolded for American elites; they seem to have come away with vision thang. Smith writes,

As a model, the right looks to its success in advising Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet. To prevent us from fighting back, they have restricted democracy with voter suppression, the gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and extensive gerrymandering since the 2010 census.

So, in essence, we’re a Banana Republic now, and though the dictator they had in mind doesn’t look like the current harangutan in the Oval Orifice, he spouts similar shit. And, as Greg Palast, in concordance with Smith, recently detailed in his new book, How Trump Stole 2020, they stole 2016 and they’ll do it again, if we let them.

Michael Steven Smith has been around the block a few times — chasing the ambulance a wounded Democracy has been seen careening away in, all too often, the victim of domestic abuse. Smith is an attorney, a former board member at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and a longtime member of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). Nobody knows better than Smith how the rule of law is the cornerstone of civilization, promising Everyman his day in court to face an accuser, and guaranteeing electoral representation in a government for and by the people. Smith brings in good buddies — Heidi Boghosian (Foreword) and Jim Lafferty (Afterword) — for what you could call opening and closing arguments to the reader. Smith is most well known for helping edit  Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA.

Essentially, Lawyers for the Left sandwiches introductory and concluding sections, including a brief appendix on law in a socialist society, around a couple of dozen edited transcripts of Lefty Lawyers talking shop on an internet show called Law and Disorder Radio. The website is an excellent resource for finding links and topics that can connect resisters to What’s Going Down. The shop talk is between notable activist lawyers, past and present, who have put it all on the line at some point in their careers to defend clients arrested by overzealous security functionaries for exercising their constitutional rights. Among the conversing lawyers are Michael Ratner, William Kunstler, Michael Tigar, Jim Lafferty, Leonard Weinglass, Ramsey Clark, Abdeen Jabara, Holly Maguigan, Jan Susler, and Leonard Boudin.

Such lawyers have been and are at the forefront of defending clients who challenge the State apparatus and corporate crimes directly affecting public well-being. They were there for the Chicago 8 (Chicago 7, after Bobby Seale, bound and gagged, was removed for an equal but separate trial). They were there for Abbie and Amy years later as they successfully employed the necessity defense in making the trial about CIA criminality in Central America. They were there for the attempted cover-up and attempted scapegoating at Three Mile Island’s partial nuke meltdown. They have Julian Assange’s targeted back. They continue to fight for Leonard Peltier’s release and Native American justice. They were there for Angela Davis. They fought for SDS when it was infiltrated by feds.

And they’ve helped remind us that the Gitmo prisoners, who continue to languish in Cuba, still waiting for a speedy trial’ years later, are human beings — by fighting for the FOIA release of the art of Abu Zubaydah and others, as well as the poetry of the Low Value Detainees (LVD). In fact, Marc Falkoff put out a book of poetry on their behalf — Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak. Listen to some of these poems being read aloud here. And Falkoff describes how he went about eliciting the poetry from LVD at Gitmo in an essay titled, “Conspiracy to Commit Poetry.” America is a conspiracy-driven country.

In her foreword, Heidi Boghosian, a former executive director of the NLG, who fights to slow the steady erosion of first amendment processes, wrote cogently of the battle ahead:

America is in a constitutional crisis. A haughty executive branch flaunts the rule of law. Nine jurists comprise a politicized Supreme Court that churns out cases along party lines. Lawmakers have lost what little backbone they had. Meanwhile, locally, law enforcement officers seem to gun down African American men and boys with complete impunity. It’s no wonder that the public has lost faith in the justice system. Our system of checks and balances is in disarray.

Given the momentum for change coming out of the latest murder of a Black man — almost gratuitously — this could be the year we begin rebuilding America or we watch whole thing slide into the sea and disappear, like some Atlantis legend.

Along with interesting conversations between reminiscing comrades about glory days, there are also bits and pieces of anecdotal remembrances that are humorous and oddly revealing about an era. Smith relates what happened on 9/11:

…I was living with my wife Debby and my talking parrot Charlie Parker one block from the World Trade Center. If the building had fallen over instead of in on itself it would’ve flattened us. We spent the night in the dark without a phone, electricity, or water…We put Charlie in his traveling cage and started walking through the ash towards Greenwich Village to stay with our friends Michael Ratner and Karen Ranucci. Charlie kept saying to everybody we encountered, “It’s OK, It’s OK.” But it wasn’t OK.

It recalls Polly soothing Crusoe for god-knows-how-many years, “Poor Crusoe,” but, in this instance, Charlie Parker keeled over in his cage sick from smoke inhalation.

Smith also recounted the story about the time when the FBI infiltrated the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) through its COINTELPRO operations in 1961. They sued the FBI and many years of litigation later, says Smith, they won and “it accomplished something unprecedented in American history. It won the first citizens’ case against FBI spying and disruption.” But more importantly, says Smith,

The case remains extraordinarily important today. It protects the right to legally advocate socialism as crucial to countering capitalism’s threat—both nuclear and ecocidal—to life on the planet.

But such surveillance and disruption of activist groups has returned with a vengeance in the post-9/11 ramping up of the IKEA-ready surveillance state. As Smith expands in greater detail elsewhere, the fact is, we’re all suspects now, and we need to fight back.

Another court victory that Smith alludes to is the so-called Necessity Defense victory that took place in Northampton, Mass., on April 15, 1987. Led by Leonard Wineglass of Chicago 7 fame, defendants, who included a lasthurrahing Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter, convinced a local jury that their disruption of a CIA recruitment effort at a local public university, for which they were arrested, was an effort to stop the criminal activity of the CIA in Central America. An ex-CIA agent testified against the Company he once kept, Daniel Ellsberg rang some patriot bells, and Lefty Lawyer Bill Schaap (included in this collection) convincingly argued that the CIA, at that time, was out of control. In an excellent Boston Phoenix account of the trial, Weinglass summed up the proposition the defendants were forwarding to the jury: “By ending recruitment, they helped to take a step to ending illegal activity.” Not Guilty!

Speaking of the Chicago 7 trial, Wineglass was there, too, along with fellow Lefty Lawyer William Kunstler. During that thought-crime trial (intentions were criminalized and interrogated), defendants played with the daft judge, who the defendants described as “Mr.Magoo.” Yippees Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin came dressed in judges robes one day, and when told to remove the garments were discovered to have police garb on underneath. Marx Brothers shtick. Even Wineglass had some fun at the judges expense. Smith explains,

Someone had mailed [Weinglass] a vegetable substance, and he immediately called its receipt to the attention of Judge Julius Hoffman. “What are you telling me for?” remarked the obtuse judge…“Do something with it yourself.” “I assure you, your honor, that I will personally burn it tonight,” responded Bill.

Resistance needn’t be all friction; have some fun, kids.

Another time Smith recalls his early Detroit days (where he started out as a “poverty lawyer” for VISTA). Smith recalls that when he got there,

I found myself a little apartment for fifty bucks a month on Willis Avenue. Formerly, it had been a whorehouse. It was across the street from the Willis Showbar, a topless joint. I could glance out the window and see a neon sign blinking on and off twenty-four hours a day: “Welcome Delegates, Welcome Delegates.”

Ahh, the American electoral process. College babes pole-dancing for tuition, and, afterward, sitting in the lap of uxury, liebfrauleinmilch freeflowing, followed by pol dancing. Afterward, says Smith, “I joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1968.”

Smith converses with Michael Tigar, a legendary figure of jurisprudence. He asks Tigar about current concerns for Executive overreach:

SMITH: …Even at the time of the founding of our country and the writing of the Constitution, there was a fear that the executive branch of the government would be too powerful because the president controlled the military. Are the powers of the executive larger now than they were in the ’60s?

TIGAR: Your concern about what the founding fathers thought is exactly right. Patrick Henry opposed adoption of the Constitution because he said if your chief executive be a man of address and he comes at the head of his army, will Mr. Chief Justice make him give bail? So, he understood the problem.

Such concerns have never been deeper, as we have in office an Executive and Commander-in-Chief who shoots from the hip, and actively considers pardoning himself.

Tigar continues on, elaborating on the most significant concern among global citizens, after Covid-19 and climate change — mass surveillance, and the balance between privacy and national security. He tells Smith:

TIGAR: Here we get this massive surveillance and the first thing we know about it is that it is everything, they’re collecting everything. Second thing we know about it is, it’s secret. This is a secret process. You can’t even know what they’re doing. But, what we do know they’re doing is, they’re sneaking some of that information off to law enforcement people who are using it to prosecute folks and to make untraceable the illegal sources of the information. Second, they’re using it to program drone strikes, which have killed thousands of civilians despite their claims about accuracy.

It is these secret processes that are an anathema to democratic ideals and practices.

More germaine to more recent events, Smith includes a conversation he had with Bruce Wright, a retired New York City judge, and author of Black Justice in a White World, who explained how, after fighting against tyranny in WWII, he got disgusted by a fellow soldier’s inquiry:

Like many black Americans, Bruce Wright found the City of Light less oppressive, deserting the army on his way back to America from European combat, making the decision en route when a white officer looked at his medals and then, looking straight at him said, “I didn’t know they allowed niggers to fight.”

He joined the ranks of other disaffected Blacks, such as James Baldwin and Dexter Gordan, more comfortable with living in Paris than coping in America.

Margaret Ratner Kunstler, the late William’s widow, is a New York-based civil rights attorney. She was the educational director at the Center for Constitutional Rights and she’s the author of Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in Twenty-First Century America. Kunstler has championed women whistleblowers (with a book) and currently represents Sarah Harrison, who accompanied Edward Snowden to Hong Kong. Says Kunstler,

She released a statement that I thought was so brave and bold, explaining why she had done what she did…I don’t believe that rule of law and democracy are compatible with capitalism. As long as the means of production are not in the hands of the people who do the work, there will be injustice and inequality in the world.

And such growing inequality and injustice get at the heart of the matter.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder in 1994 of the Partnership for Civil Justice Legal Defense and Education Fund, picks up on this theme and suggests that such systemic failures will hopefully be the motivating factors behind a new generation of activists of democratic-socialist activists demanding change. She reminds the reader (and Abbie used to say it):

…all social change, all historical change in the United States that has made a difference for people, has come from below. It has come from popular movements and popular struggle, not because the politicians decide to give people rights, but because there is that feeling that the people are demanding them and that they are going to force it to happen.

Or, as Abbie used to say, “Democracy is not something you believe; it’s something you do.”

We should have fears, as the 2020 presidential election nears, when we hear that Bush reality-monster Karl Rove is now on board the Trump train, and that Larry Summers wants to hoarsely whisper in Biden’s ear. It’s time for Lefties to get their asses in gear and help these lawyers pick up the pieces of democracy as they fall out of the ambulance, and try to re-assemble Lady Liberty, legislative piece by legislative piece, like Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, and bring to life, again, a facsimile of her former self, a house-trained modern Prometheus. It’ll be a patchwork monster that’ll probably drive us all to drink.

But what are you going to do? Some of us still carry a torch for Liberty.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.