The Idealism of the Moment
Our bodies must always be wherever that struggle is. And the moment we forget that, the moment we become lazy, the moment we sit back, then the evil ones do their ordained tasks to us.
“The defendants were not that much older than me or Sarah, but it felt like worlds away.” Remembering her father’s defense of Yusuf Salaam, accused in the 1989 Central Park Jogger case, Emily Kunstler maintains her distance. Even if William Kunstler made clear to his girls his passion about his cases and the troubles he saw in the U.S. justice system, he didn’t exactly bring his work home. And so Emily and Sarah were able to grow up “worlds away” from the prejudice, unfairness, and hopelessness that afflicted so many of their dad’s clients, shaping their lives and their lack of options.
Still, as Emily and her co-director sister reveal in their film, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, he insisted that they were aware of injustice and understood its effects. “He told us that everyone deserves a lawyer, but sometimes we didn’t understand why that lawyer had to be our father,” says Emily, laying out the conundrum he embodied. Dynamic, charismatic, and obsessive, he was drawn to controversy and celebrity, taking cases that made headlines. But the hubbub that seemed to buoy him made his daughters worry—for their safety, but also for their father’s moral bearings.
Structured as Emily and Sarah’s quest to understand their father’s choices, how he came to his beliefs and whether he lost sight of them, the documentary also evokes an era when systems might be challenged and even changed. A one-time liberal lawyer who was “radicalized” during his defense of the Chicago 8 in 1968, Kunstler took on a variety of clients, from the doomed inmates at Attica to the American Indian Movement representatives who occupied Wounded Knee, from John Gotti to Yusuf Salaam. Kunstler took the case despite knowing that, as lawyer Ron Kuby says, “Everybody hates those kids.”
This case is a kind of tipping point in the documentary, for Kunstler’s eventual “obsession” with Salaam would prove worthy, at least in terms of justice. In fact, the kids convicted of rape that year were later proved innocent, and the legal system, so entangled with media and public hysteria, was exposed as wrongful. “I was very recognizable,” Salaam says now, “I was always on trial.” Emily frames the issue in explicitly personal terms: “I realized it was never about justice for dad,” she says, “He saw a kid who was convicted by the community and by his daughters.” Her father, she sees now, was instructing her every day of her life.
Like an essay designed to show what they’ve learned, the daughters’ film rehearses the most famous cases as lessons. When her father told her, as he did more than once, that “all white people are racist,” Emily concludes, “He meant that we are blind to the depth of our own prejudice and that as long as there is prejudice, there can never be any such thing as a fair trial.” This sobering premise shaped Kunstler’s career through various turns, beginning with the case that “radicalized” him, as Emily puts it. It was 1969, and Kunstler was 50 years old when he agreed to defend the Chicago 8, accused of inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention. With co-counsel Len Weinglass, Kunstler found in this “trial without rules” a new way to conceive the courtroom. As Judge Julius Hoffman’s day-to-day conflicts with defendants escalated—to the point that Bobby Seale was famously bound and gagged in the courtroom—Kunstler “would grow his hair long, experiment with drugs, and be sentenced to four years in prison for contempt of court,” Emily recalls.
The ground for Kunstler’s change had been laid before, even when he seemed a more conventional figure. After a stint in the Army and law school on the GI Bill, he was a member of the ACLU in New York City when he was called to defend Freedom Riders in Mississippi. Julian Bond remembers, Kunstler “gloried in appearing in these courtrooms. He saw it as a real challenge and leapt to the challenge.” He was also, Emily says, moved by the sight of the protestors taking risks, young men sitting at a lunch counters in a Jackson bus station, knowing they might be arrested or abused. She says, “My father told me he learned an important lesson that day, that all the talking in the world meant nothing. Only actions have meaning.”
The actions he took going forward included defending Daniel Berrigan in 1968, when he and eight other activists broke into a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland and burned the draft cards of young men about to be sent to Vietnam. The protest and the trial that followed, Emily narrates, “taught dad that a courtroom could be used for a moral purpose and to believe in a power greater than the law.” Further education resulted from the Chicago 8 Conspiracy trial, during which Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago police. When Kunstler spoke at Hampton’s memorial service, he summed up his lessons thus far: “I killed him,” the lawyer said, “All the white people in the United States” are responsible for this loss, he went on, as Hampton “was killed by the system that is resisting every voice of dissent and every wind of change.”
Kunstler determined to aid those voices and hurry that change, as much as he was able. He went on to negotiate with the doomed inmates at Attica in 1971. “I think dad was caught up in the idealism of the moment,” says Emily. “He wasn’t realistic about what the prisoners’ options really were.” That this episode turned out so badly—at least 39 people were killed, including guards and inmates—troubled Kunstler, who saw in it the predictable consequences of racism, the fundamental unfairness of a legal and penal system that regarded whole populations as inferior and expendable. “To this day,” Emily notes as she and Sarah visit the memorial to fallen officers at the prison site, “There is no mention of the 32 prisoners who lost their lives.”
Crushed by this outcome, Kunstler was somewhat healed by his experience at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Called in to defend Russell Means and Dennis Banks, Kunstler urged celebrities like Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando to support the defendants publicly, then argued successfully that the FBI suppressed evidence, among other things. “Wounded Knee helped make him whole again,” Emily asserts, even as her film turns to the cases that made her doubt her father’s sanity, including his defense of Larry Davis, who killed six policemen in the Bronx, and El Sayyid Nosair, who murdered controversial Rabbi Meir Kahane the Jewish Defense League founder Rabbi Meir Kahane.
While Kunstler’s daughters (and friends and colleagues, the film implies by selected interviews) could accept and even understand most of his “causes,” they were less sanguine when he defended Nosair. “I remember hearing my parents argue behind closed doors,” says Emily, before cutting to her mother, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, for confirmation: this case brought death threats and risk to the family. That family is only sparsely represented here, in snapshots and home movies showing the girls with dad, the girls with a dog. Mostly, the film presents the sisters’ struggles with their dad’s seeming loss of principle, premised on his loss of faith in the legal system, and his use of courtrooms as dramatic stages to “stand up” to oppression. Their emotional complications remain unresolved, which makes the film more compellingly messy than the usual biography.