I spent time with John Lennon only once. It was at his and Yoko’s apartment on Bank Street in the West Village of NYC sometime in the early 70’s. I went to see him and Yoko with my law partner Margie Ratner. We had been asked to discuss with them the case of Michael X, a Black Power leader from the U.K. Michael X had left the UK and returned to Trinidad. While in Trinidad, where he was living on a commune, a police raid discovered two bodies and Michael X was accused, and many believed wrongfully, of murder. Prior to his arrest he fled to Guyana, but was eventually extradited, stood trial and was sentenced to death in Trinidad.
John and Yoko had known Michael X in the U.K. and had given him some support including the posting of bail for an alleged crime in the U.K. A friend of John and Yoko’s had contacted us and wanted us, along with the well-known radical lawyer Bill Kunstler, to get involved in helping save his life. I think they were firmly convinced of his innocence, but in any case, they stood firmly against the death penalty. What I recall on the issue of Michael X’s innocence was that at the time Michael X was in Trinidad Eric Williams was the Prime Minister. Williams was more like a dictator then an elected Prime Minister. (He ruled the country from 1956-1981.) He saw Michael X as a troublemaker and a rival and probably had him framed him for the murders. Williams, who at one time had been progressive, was an absolute ruler and supposedly had even banned some of his own more radical books. So Margie and I were visiting John and Yoko to discuss what could be done to save Michael X’s life.
The apartment was a modest one. I think it was a downstairs/basement floor in an old narrow village brownstone. It was dark. We spent most of the time with Yoko. John was in the back bedroom. We had an animated conversation with her about Michael X and her knowledge of him from London. Yoko wanted to do whatever she could to save his life. We hit on a couple of strategies. One was to begin a defense committee, which would be made up of prominent people. The other was to send Margie, Bill Kunstler and me to Trinidad where we could visit Michael X, get some publicity and help in a clemency campaign. After about a half an hour, John joined us. He was somewhat quiet but, he, like Yoko, talked about Michael X and his disbelief in his guilt. He and Yoko said they would pay all our expenses and I think a fee on top. Margie and I readily agreed.
As it turns out I could not go to Trinidad, but Margie and Bill did. Margie came back shocked by her visit. Michael X was jailed in a stinking, filthy cage in which he could not stand up. Despite their visit, the attendant publicity and a powerful defense committee, clemency was denied and Michael X was hanged in May 1975.
I never met John again, but I did travel to Iceland for John’s birthday memorial in 2006 where on behalf of the Center for Constitutional Rights I received the LennonOno Grant for Peace from Yoko Ono. I gave a short acceptance speech focusing on the excesses of the so-called war on terror:
These are dark and difficult times. War, torture, detention without trial and gross human rights violations sadly characterize much of our present circumstances… We have seen a return to the spying tactics of a generation ago, when John Lennon was hounded by the U.S. government for advocating peace.
(I wish I could say that things have changed: they have not.)
We concluded our visit by taking a small boat to an island where the Imagine Peace Tower was to be built. Yoko walked in circle where the tower was to stand and then our group and fifty or so Icelandic school children sang “Imagine.” There was not a dry eye.