This book is a breath of fresh air. Reading Bill’s speeches genuinely awed me. They made me optimistic about the fight to regain our lost liberty. His speeches are as prescient today as they were when he gave them. His words place our struggle for a more just world in a historical context of struggle, and should make us all understand the obligation to continue fighting.
Bill’s words are truly inspiring and meaningful, not just with regard to the tumultuous period in which they were mostly written — the 1960s and 1970s, the height of the struggle for black civil rights and against the Vietnam War — but inspiring for today. His ideas are fresh and informed by his understanding of history. He connects the oppression present in the eras of Jesus and Socrates to the oppression underlying the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti; to the false prosecution of those who allegedly set the Reichstag fire; to the persecution of alleged communists in the United States; to the trial of the Chicago Seven, and the persecution of the Black Panthers. He sees oppression in the state killings at Attica, Jackson State, Kent State, Wounded Knee and the killing of Fred Hampton.
In challenging oppression, Bill never succumbed to pessimism. Rather, he viewed oppression within a context of struggle. His true heroes were those who stood up against oppression — whether it was colonists participating in the Boston Tea Party or Native Americans fighting to regain their ancestral lands. The fact that throughout history people have stood up against oppression is what called forth Bill’s optimism and solidified his belief that all who care about liberty have an obligation to act. These speeches call all of us to take action and to see ourselves as links in a great and historical chain of struggle.
A number of speeches in this book illustrate how Bill’s understanding of the role of law in the process of social struggle evolved. In his early days as a Westchester lawyer, and even when he represented Martin Luther King, Jr., he believed that law was a civilized means of settling disputes. He felt that whatever its shortcomings, the legal process was essentially a fair one and its defects could be remedied.
His thinking changed with the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial, which Bill called his personal Rubicon. After that trial, in which the trial judge sentenced Bill to more than four years for contempt of court, he no longer believed that law was a just system of settling disputes. Rather, from then on, law to him was a means of social control by the powers that be who were “determined, at all costs, to perpetuate themselves.” Bill believed the entire legal system was villainous.
In one of his many great speeches, Bill analyzed trials including those of Jesus, Socrates, Kent State, the Harrisburg Eight, Dr. Spock and the man accused of setting the Reichstag fire. To Bill, these trials were not just about a society ridding itself of its critics and revolutionaries, they were also about demonization. They were about fabricating enemies and terrifying the citizenry. Trials such as these provided a means for the state to become more and more repressive. People tolerated this repression because they were afraid. Bill was fond of describing the Orwell character, Goldstein, in 1984. As Bill said, Big Brother (the state) kept Goldstein alive as “an enemy of the state… to remind the people… that [Big Brother] was protecting them against this awful enemy, this fabricated enemy.”
Bill’s teaching regarding “fabricated enemies” is extremely relevant today. Today’s fabricated enemies are Muslims, people of Arabic ethnicity and immigrants in general. The U.S. government has used the attacks of September 11, 2001, to keep us in a state of perpetual fear and has implicated entire communities as “enemies” to do so. It has frightened the population and terrified the country. Then, in the name of making us safer, the state has done exactly what Bill said a state always does — repress dissent, legislate draconian laws, curtail our freedom and use the law as a means of social and economic control. The citizenry are willing to accept these measures, as they did in Germany after the Reichstag fire, because they are fearful. As Bill said, because people were afraid, the “people tolerated the noose until it was too late to move.” Bill believed that was happening in the 1960s and 1970s and he would certainly believe that is what is happening today.
Bill made a strong call for resistance to the repression he saw around him. lie called for “resistance to illegitimate, immoral, indecent and unjust authority.” He was willing to take risks himself, told people not to cooperate with the draft and told them to destroy the surveillance cameras photographing their demonstrations. Such resistance was swirling around him during this period. It ran the gamut from civil disobedience to burning draft records and even bombing the capital. Bill refused to condemn this resistance out of moral solidarity with the resisters. When students were called violent for their actions, Bill placed the blame squarely on the government and those seeking to hold back social progress. He asked who was committing the real violence in the United States and answered that it was not the students and the radicals. They were not bombing Vietnam; they did not kill Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers.
In the mid-1970s, Bill was accused of condoning the murders of John and Robert Kennedy. Bill answered that he had never condoned their murders, and was grieved by their deaths. Bill believed that their assassinations happened “because its [America’s] leaders have plotted and used those means against others.” He pointed out that the United States had engaged in invasions, brought death and destruction to hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Vietnam and taught a generation of Americans to murder. Bill’s effort to connect violence in the United States with U.S. violence abroad was not popular. In fact, an attempt was made by a bar association to discipline him for these very ideas.
This unwillingness of a society to see the connection between the violence it practices against others, and the violence visited upon it, is highly relevant today. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, some brave critics sought to examine the reasons such violence might have occurred. They argued that one must understand the role of the United States, particularly in the Middle East, to truly get at the roots of September 11. They pointed to U.S. support for dictatorial regimes and its support for Israel in its inhuman policy toward the Palestinians. These critics were called traitors and practically drummed out of the country.
Bill would have been especially articulate regarding the draconian cutbacks in our civil rights that are now occurring under the guise of fighting terrorism. Ironically, some of Bill’s speeches on resistance were preserved for us courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), our national political police force. The speeches were obtained through Sarah Kunstler’s Freedom of Information Act request. The Freedom of Information Act was a victory of the 1960s. Today, an edict of Attorney General John Ashcroft has closed this window of democracy and obtaining these papers would be difficult, if not impossible.
Bill would have surely seen the current repression by Attorney General Ashcroft, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and others as the hallmark of a police state. He was particularly concerned with the whittling down of the fundamental protections of the Bill of Rights, particularly those embodied in the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments. He gave a wonderful talk about these rights and the government efforts in the 1960s and 1970s to eviscerate them. (See Chapter One: Public Ethics and the Bill of Rights).
Bill’s comments about the importance of these protections are especially relevant today, during this time of resurging repression. We are facing the most sustained and deepest assault on liberty that we have ever seen. Bill would have been everywhere, rousing us all to fight on and oppose the government in every way we can. Bill would have been out there fighting to protect our First Amendment right to dissent and to do so free from government surveillance. He would have condemned the broadened FBI guidelines that allow spying on political and religious activists, the arrest of demonstrators all over the country, the surveillance programs to gather all kinds of information on everyone living in the United States, and the TIPS program asking us to report the “suspicious activities” of our neighbors, making spies of us all.
Bill would have been shocked by the wholesale violations of the Fourth Amendment, which was designed to protect us from illegal government searches and arrests. Under the Patriot Act, the government can now go to a secret court and wiretap people for purposes of prosecuting crimes; no longer is “probable cause” needed for such wiretaps. The warrant protections of the Fourth Amendment have been eviscerated. Normally, law enforcement officials need probable cause that one has committed a crime to effectuate an arrest and keep one in detention. That is no longer the case. People can now be detained indefinitely, without probable cause and without a trial. That is occurring to hundreds of people in Guantanamo, to “enemy combatant” U.S. citizens held in military brigs in the United States and to hundreds of noncitizens detained after September 11. The majority of these people never even get to test their detentions in a court.
Trials of those accused of “terrorism” are a mockery of any judicial system that wants to call itself fair and just. The Fifth Amendment requires due process of law. Bill was already condemning its loss and pointed to Supreme Court cases that said it was perfectly all right to have a lawyer and a trial that do not meet high standards, just so long as you have a trial. What would he have said today about the military commissions carried out without juries, rules of evidence, and with no appeal except to the president who designated the defendant for such a “trial” in the first place?
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a lawyer and a jury trial for criminal defendants. Bill already thought that that amendment was “pretty well up in smoke.” Today the situation is far worse. Lawyers defending alleged terrorists can be routinely wiretapped without the government getting any authority from any court, even a secret court. The government has denied lawyers to those in Guantanamo and enemy combatants held in the United States. The government has struck the Sixth Amendment from the constitution and so far the courts have willingly gone along.
Yet, despite this awful state of affairs, Bill would have been optimistic. He would have implored us to fight on, not to give up hope and to defend those the government has set its sights on. He would not have stepped out of the fray. He would have also understood that the battle for a just society would not be won in the courtroom, and that all of us have an obligation to resist — to resist illegitimate authority. As Bill so eloquently admonished: “The struggle to maintain human liberty and to resist oppression and tyranny is the perennial obligation of all who understand its necessity.”