Kunstler, William M.

A hero to some, an enemy to others, William M. Kunstler, was known for his extreme radical views of the antiwar and antidiscrimination movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Committed to social justice and social change, his practice and success in law has given him a formidable reputation, contributing to the effects of counterculture development in the United States.

Kunstler’s progressive beliefs in the struggle against inequality and injustices have been a character trademark that he has carried through out his personal life and career. Identifying with his association to the less fortunate, in his book, Kunstler writes: ‘‘I developed a concern for people who seemed to be in a weaker position and who needed my help’’ (Kunstler, 56); Kunstler was an impassioned man for the minority.

Graduating from Yale Law School in June 1941, Kunstler went on to pursue a brief career in the military, where he would be employed as a cryptographer decoding overseas messages for the military. Kunstler remained in the military for four years and ended his term as a major.

Shortly after returning home, Kunstler and his brother Michael began a small family law practice in 1948, Kunstler & Kunstler. In 1950, William Kunstler went on to teach law at New York Law School, where he ironically was asked to draft a will for a friend’s associate, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Kunstler’s eventual nemesis.

The 1960s brought with it a wave of oppression and discrimination to the country. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was in hot pursuit of political rights activists, the Black Panther Party was driving violence- provoked riots, the antiwar movement was in full swing, and the government was targeted for precipitating civilian massacres and mass blood baths.

In October 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover issued warrants for the arrest of eight political rights activists who were all charged with conspiring against the Federal antiriot statute. Among the eight prosecuted were Abbie Hoffman, who was the founder of National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), Dave Dellinger, Bobby Seale, a Black Panther chairman, and student, Lee Weiner. Kunstler was asked by Abbie Hoffman, one of the leaders of ‘‘Yippie,’’ a youth international party whose purpose was to spur political upheaval, as defense lawyer. Kunstler’s ability in tact to outfox a politically crafted and manipulated jury and judge using humanist expression was a talent he would continue to use and become known for through out his career.

February 18, 1970, the Chicago trial ‘‘turned out to be a monumental victory’’ (Kunstler 36). Defendants had been acquitted of charges, ultimately demonstrating to the country, nationwide, that the power of justice lay in the people. Among those who did receive sentences and fines were Abbie Hoffman and Dave Dellinger with a penalty of five years in prison and a $5,000.00 fine. The jury ultimately could not deny the defendants’ expressions and beliefs in political freedom. Their exhibition of refusing to be silenced in the courtroom for what they believed in contributed to their release.

Kunstler would go on to represent many more significant individuals who have brought liberation to the justice system. Among them, Martin Luther King Jr., Lenny Bruce, El Sayyid Nassir (accused of murdering Rabi Meir Kohane), Marlon Brando’s son, and Malcom X. In addition, Kunstler’s fervor for seeking cases that involve obstruction of civil rights included those of convicted felons, namely the inmates of Attica Correctional Facility in New York.

September 1973 would mark another notch for the public rally for the war against civil injustices. One thousand two hundred inmates composed of a group of Latinos, African Americans, and whites protested the injustices and abuse of prisoners by the Administration in the institution. Public company included Congressmen, politicians, news people, and newspapers. The public was interested, and the country would witness another atrocity of maltreatment by the justice system.

According to Kunstler, who was nominated acting representative, the inmate party was surprisingly democratic about their deliberations and demands, one of which was amnesty from criminal prosecution. Tension was rising, and state troopers were shooting at inmates to control hostilities. Helicopters loomed above the facilities, and police officers were blaring orders over loudspeakers. On September 13, Governor Nelson Rockefeller issued commands to inmates, ordering the group to lie down and no violence would come to them. At that moment, state troopers rushed in scattering thirty-two-caliber bullets into both inmates and hostages, killing forty-three people, ten of whom were innocent bystanders. Millions of Americans watched the brutality of the police force, witnessing insurrection being counterbalanced by blatant and criminal acts on the part of the government. Kunstler’s voice raises the question of government control over insurgency in the country, yet also expresses the government’s inability to deal with and solve criminal behavior. As he has indicated, the crime rate is increasing and institutions are on the up rise around the country.

Kunstler worked with civil rights activists and pursued political agendas that reflected his passion for liberation. He has gone down in history for helping those with vision to speak openly and without fear toward the justice system. Among other civil rights groups Kunstler supported were Gay Rights activists, Islamic political leaders, and Hispanic minorities.

Before he died at age 76, Kunstler’s last speech given at The School of Architecture and Planning, State University of New York, clearly expresses who he was and what he has endowed to the country: ‘‘We sit here today in the comparative freedom of this institution and, yea, I’ll say this country for the moment (though I don’t believe it, too much), but I will say it, because of better men and women than we who went down in the dust somewhere in the line. They died or rotted in prisons, were expatriated, but they kept going. They were the Ishmaels of their time and our time’’ (Jackson).

MARIA STILSON

References and Further Reading

  • Bernstein, Dennis, and Julie Light. ‘‘The Life and Times of William Moses Kunstler: Interview by Dennis Bernstein and Julie Light.’’ http://zena.secureforum.com/Znet/ zmag/articles/oct95bernstein.htm
  • Jackson, Bruce. ‘‘Bill Kunstler’s Last Great Speech: Public Ethics and the Bill of Rights’’. http://buffaloreport.com/ articles/030427kunstler.html. Online. October 1995.
  • Kunstler William M., and Sheila Isenberg, eds. My Life as a Radical Lawyer: William M. Kunstler. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1994.
  • WGBHArchives. http://main.wgbh.org/saybrother/programs/ sb_0416.html

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