When Dad Defended Terrorists

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The film documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is about a remarkable man’s life and career: Kunstler, a defense lawyer, fought on the legal front lines of key civil rights and antiwar court cases in the ’60s and ’70s. The movie, directed by his daughters Emily and Sarah Kunstler, chronicles his unlikely trajectory from low-key family man to wild-haired radical, representing the Chicago Seven after the foment of the 1968 Democratic Convention. It also follows him as he takes on other less noble causes including that of avowed terrorist  El-Sayyid Nosair, who was convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the murder of Israeli politician Rabbi Meir Kahane. (See a full article about the film in the May-June Utne Reader.)

The movie manages to be several things at once. It is an ode to a father’s life, yet it dares to question his motives. It is a documentary, but also a biography of a firebrand lawyer and a family memoir. And it traces several pivotal episodes in U.S. social history without feeling like a lecture.

I spoke with Emily Kunstler in March in a phone conversation that Sarah Kunstler later joined–Sarah having been delayed by a court appearance as, yes, a defense attorney. They discussed their unusual childhood, their deeply ingrained sense of social justice, and their cinematic portrait of their dad:

Your father was at the epicenter of some of the biggest cultural moments in modern U.S. history. When did you begin to get a sense of his importance and fame?

“Well, I don’t think we understood it in a larger context until much later, but when we were kids we certainly had an understanding of how he felt about himself. You know, we remember going around the corner with him to buy all of the major newspapers so we could bring them home to see if he was in them. (laughs) Or turning on the family television in the kitchen to watch him on the local news. So we knew something was different–but you know, when you’re a kid, it’s your only experience. You have no basis for comparison. It just sort of felt normal.

“Also, when he would walk us to school in the morning, you know, which was five blocks from our home, it would take us half an hour to get there because every 10 feet someone would stop him. As kids it was more of a frustration.” (laughs)

You say in the film that “when he spoke about his past, he was like a hero from legend.” Did you and your sister also believe for a time that he was a hero? And when did doubt begin to creep in?

“Well, the stories of the work that he did during the civil rights movement or the antiwar movement were our bedtime stories. And I think like most young children, you have this sense that your parents are all good and can do no harm. And it’s this real moment, I think, in adolescence when you realize that your parent is a human being.

“But I think that experience was a little bit exacerbated for Sarah and I because our father lived so much in the public eye. It wasn’t just something that was happening privately in our home. You know, when he started taking cases that got a lot of negative public attention was when Sarah and I started to question the choices that he was making, because of the impact those choices were having on our family. I mean, particularly the cases that made our lives the most difficult were the Central Park jogger case, which was a big case here in New York and in part nationally. It was when race relations were really polarized and a group of five adolescents, black kids, were accused of brutally raping a white woman in Central Park. And it played on a lot of the fears and cultural stereotypes of that particular time. So our father ended up defending one of these young men, and it just–no one really understood why he made that choice. No one was really supporting him during that period. But for him, he really saw that case as a throwback to the rape trials in the South; he saw the Central Park Five as the new Scottsboro boys.

“It turns out in the end that his position was vindicated–they were all exonerated, actually, after my father passed away, sadly. But I think for him it wasn’t really about innocence, it was about standing up for the unpopular, and protecting the rights of someone who had been vilified in the media and convicted before they ever saw the inside of a courtroom. So that trial was difficult for us, and maybe even more so than that was his defense of El Sayyid Nosair, because we had protesters in front of our house for over four months. Coming and going as a kid, with that experience, was pretty heavy. You know, we had our windows shot out, my father received bullets in the mail, he had death threats regularly. We couldn’t walk to school by ourselves; we were escorted.

“The most important thing for a kid, I think, for a young adolescent, was to feel that they are safe in their own home. And we certainly didn’t have that during that period.”

At that point in your lives, did you ever wish your father had a low-key, uncontroversial profession?

“I think definitely. I don’t know how specifically we thought about it. We were definitely raised with a belief in right to counsel. We thought that everybody deserved a lawyer. We really felt that. I mean, we believed in innocent until proven guilty. We had an unusual education from a young age about the inner workings of the criminal justice system. But we didn’t know why our dad had to be that lawyer–especially when it made our family so uncomfortable. And he was an established attorney–I’m sure he could have found something else quite easily. (laughs) So yeah, it was less like a political difference that we had with him at that young age. It was more just not understanding why he would make choices that would put the family at risk.”

You say in the film that your father became “radicalized” by the Chicago Seven trial. Why did this event radicalize him?

“It was one of the first trials where politics were really brought into the courtroom. I think before that trial it was really the lawyer who would dictate how the trial would run, would impose their theory of the case. This trial flipped it on its head–our father teamed up with his clients, and they really directed the show, and he allowed them to put their politics on trial. So it was a revolutionary period in general, but it was also this sort of revolutionary concept in the courtroom, to try a case this way.

“He was in his 50s, and he completely embraced the hippie movement, the antiwar movement, and I think probably began to feel like himself for the first time during that period.”

Was it the way that trial played out, with Bobby Seale being bound and gagged in the courtroom, that radicalized him?

“Oh, yeah. It was that–it was the binding and gagging of Bobby Seale, it was utterly shocking to him. More than that, it was the assassination of Fred Hampton. I think that he really–he had seen the government participate in great harm in the past, but I think that moment really brought it home for him, to see that the government would really stop at nothing. I mean, he saw how they were trying to do it inside a courtroom, but to have that happen in the middle of the trial, in Chicago, was pretty heavy.”

“I mean, there’s the clip in our film of our father saying, ‘I killed him. I killed him. All of the white people of America killed Fred Hampton, because we stood by, racists all of us.’ I think he really felt that. He really felt like we’re all responsible for the world that we live in, and that if we’re not working to improve the situation we are complicit in it.”

When Sarah confronted your father on local television, what was the pretext of that interview? Did he know that she was going to confront him?

“You know, I don’t remember exactly how it happened. I think they asked him to be on a television show, and he just brought us with him to the show. And they thought it sounded like a fun idea. (laughs) So I think it was kind of casual the way that it all came together. I certainly didn’t know that she would confront him. But it’s not as if he didn’t encourage us to question him, and to question the world we lived in. We did all the time. He loved when we would show any interest in the work that he was doing, whether it was positive or negative. It wasn’t as if that was an unusual moment, but it certainly was unusual in the sense that it was broadcast to millions. (laughs) I think she was referring specifically to the Nosair case when she asked him that question, and you know, probably what she wanted to say was a lot stronger, but that was what she was able to ask. I believe she asked if he ever wanted to get out of a case once he committed himself to it.

“She also in that clip says that she’ll never become a lawyer.”

I was going to bring that up. So what happened?

“Well, I think we all say a lot of things when we’re 15 that maybe don’t remain true into adulthood. But we were raised with a sense of the importance of having a deep commitment to social justice, and the value of that, and the value of that work. We didn’t know how that would manifest in our own lives, but we knew that whatever paths we took, that would be our focus.

“So Sarah saw that a great way to be an advocate is within the legal system, and we also saw that a great way to be an advocate is through making movies. Sarah and I for the past 10 years have been making documentaries, short films, about injustice in the American criminal justice system.

“So, essentially, our father taught us how to use the media–our father taught us the importance of being a good storyteller, whether it’s with a video camera or inside a courtroom.”

Had Sarah previously confronted your father in private with the sort of questions that she raised in the televised interview?

“I think we would more ask questions about the cases he was taking and didn’t necessarily–I can’t remember a time. But I didn’t remember that happening until I saw the footage. So it’s hard to say. But we always gave him a hard time. I do remember that. I remember more a general theme than the specific moments.”

There are some moments when interview subjects are clearly a bit unnerved a bit that they are speaking to the daughters of someone they’re criticizing. Did you face difficulty in getting some of these subjects on camera and convincing them that you were making an even-handed film?

“Everyone who participated in the film did so enthusiastically, even if they had reservations. I mean, there were people who refused to participate, period, and that was more of a difficulty. We realized early on that we couldn’t disguise who we were. We had this idea that we wanted to make this film with this sort of journalistic balance, you know, have this even split between the positive and the negative and have the audience decide for themselves. And then people started saying no to us. I mean, being our father’s daughters was sort of a blessing and a curse in this process, because it gave us tremendous access to a lot of people who wouldn’t have spoken to us otherwise, but it also closed some doors. So we thought, well, maybe we can send in our producer, who can do the interview, because people give interviews to other people, just not us. (laughs) But then we realized that it was important that people were speaking to us, that this was our journey and the most important criticisms and questions were going to come from us.”

Did you learn new things about your father, or reach new understandings about him, in the process of making the film?

“Definitely. Well, first of all we got to build an adult relationship with him, which is something that we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise. And I don’t think we’ll ever agree with every choice he made, but we definitely have a greater understanding of his motivation. I think toward the end of his life, when he was taking the cases that we were most critical of, he’d gotten to a point in his career where he really had absolutely no trust in the government and in the court system–at all. I mean, he had seen his friends assassinated, he had suffered many defeats. And some victories, but you know, he felt that basically the system just chewed people up and spit them out, and that the role for him to play was to stand up next to people who were either brutalized or ignored and make people pay attention to them in a different way, in the hopes that their rights would be protected.

“He really saw his unpopular clients as sort of canaries in the coal mine. He thought that rights were most likely to be violated when people were vilified, and that where their rights were violated everybody else’s rights could be violated, and that it would set a legal precedent for that to happen and continue to happen.”

Even when he took on questionable clients, it seems that it was still mainly about principle, not money. Is that your perception?

“Oh, it was never about money. Maybe it was about fame. A combination of fame and principle, I think. There were some cases that he took for money. When we were interviewing Jimmy Breslin–Jimmy Breslin’s been around in New York, covering a lot of our father’s work for years, so we asked him about the mafia cases, because Sarah and I were a little obsessed with those for a while. And he got really frustrated with us, because we were so interested in these mafia cases, but that’s what bought us sneakers, that’s what put food on the table–Larry Davis wasn’t paying. (laughs) He was a provider, and he did have to take some cases that paid. But none of his political work and most of his criminal work did not pay. Our family was primarily supported by his speaking engagements.”

There are a lot of  important historical moments in your film–the Freedom Riders, the Chicago conspiracy trial, Attica, Wounded Knee–that I’m afraid have fallen off the radar for a lot of Americans, or never made it onto their radar in the first place. Do you have some hope that your film provides a window into this history?

“We really hope so. It’s one of the reasons that we’re doing such a big educational push with the film, because the stories that you mentioned are not typically taught in public high schools across the country. And if they are mentioned, they spend like an hour here or a day there and it’s not really part of the history. So we’ve been working to put together together some educational companion material and are really trying to get the film in any way we can in the hands of high schools, colleges, and law schools across the country.”

Frankly, it educated me a bit to be reminded of these episodes in history.

“It helps to see it all together and to draw connections between those movements. At the very least our father’s life is a great storytelling vehicle for these major moments in American social history of the last 60 years. He moved in and out of these worlds.”

What do you think your dad’s reaction would be to your film?

“I mean, he was his own favorite subject, so I think in that sense he would be happy about any film that focused on him. But I think that he would love that we made the choice to commit four years of our lives to getting to know him better and understanding him–and in a sense sort of bringing him back to life, and bringing his story to generations of people that have never heard of him. So I think he’d be thrilled. I think he would have loved to be at all of our Q&As across the country.

“His favorite thing was talking to young people, and inspiring young people, and really motivating people to make choices in their own lives, to take personal risks to stand up for what they believe in. So hopefully this movie will continue to do that for him.”

You’re doing Q&As across the country?

“Yeah. We’ve been in over 35 film festivals; we opened theatrically in over 25 cities. So in the last year there’s been a lot of travel with the film.”

What were some of the common themes at the Q&A sessions?

“It brought some of the most interesting people out of the woodwork. We’ve had former FBI agents come to screenings. We’ve had clients of our father’s, long-lost relatives–it’s been really a mix. It’s interesting, because our father, although he toward the end of his life was deeply suspicious of the government, he always had faith in the jury system. He always had faith in people, in humanity, and he really felt if you exposed people to a truth that they could change their mind, they could evolve and come to a different conclusion. So we hope that our film can reach people on a similar level, that people can come to it–I mean, our father is someone who provoked extreme feelings in everybody. People liked him or they hated him. And we hope that this film will help people get a nuanced view, and maybe have their own transformation in their thinking.

“We’ve experienced this with audience members. People have really been grateful that we were able to tell such a balanced film from such a personal perspective. I think the greatest fear is that being his daughters, we wouldn’t be able to do that. But Sarah and I felt like it almost gave us the power to do that, because if we can be critical and we can raise questions, then we can raise questions that other people can’t. And in doing that we give the audience permission to have their own questions and to see shades of gray–to not have to see things in these broad strokes.”

[At this point Sarah Kunstler joins the conversation.]

Sarah, what type of law do you practice?

Sarah: “I practice primarily criminal law in federal court in Manhattan.”

When did you decide it was OK to become a lawyer? On television as a girl, you said you’d never become one.

Sarah: “I think at that point, for Emily and I, we just wanted to be nothing like our dad. We wanted to forge paths that were completely independent of his. So saying we weren’t going to be lawyers, we were going to be people who act, was like ‘We’re going to have independence from you and do our own thing.’ But at the same time we learned social responsibility from our parents. We were imbued with a sense that we still have that it’s our responsibility to go out into the world and fight for justice and make change, and I think that somewhere along the way I figured out that being a lawyer was a way to do that. I mean, I could do it on my own, separately from him. I don’t know exactly when I decided–it was definitely long after he had died. I know that I applied to law school around the time that Emily and I made a film about a racist drug bust in Tulia, Texas.

“Our first film exposed a racist drug bust that imprisoned over 20 percent of the black population of this town in the Texas panhandle. … How a town that tiny needed 46 drug dealers is beyond me. But it ended up that the basis for their arrest was the work of one undercover officer whose story and credibility kind of unraveled.

“They initially received sentences of 99 to 300 years in prison–Gov. Rick Perry eventually overturned all the convictions. Emily and I made a documentary about it that helped expose the injustice. It was simultaneously kind of the beginning of our film career and part of my decision to go to law school and be a lawyer. To me, the two things are linked–they’re both different forms of advocacy. They’re different ways of telling a story and bringing a truth either to an audience or to a jury, and trying to right a wrong. It led me to pursue social justice work as both a filmmaker and a lawyer.”

Emily, you say in the film that you and Sarah have “always been a team.” Did making this film and digging deeper you’re your shared family history bring you closer?

Emily: “Oh, definitely. I think Sarah and I have never been as close as we are now. It’s a very difficult and painful process in any artistic endeavor–and having gone through that with my sister was a really wonderful experience. I mean, it’s not always peaceful here. There’s screaming, there’s yelling, we’re very emotional like our father was, but at the end of the day we always end friends, and it’s very important for us not to sustain conflict. And you know, it’s great, because who can you trust more than your sister who’s been your co-conspirator since birth? So we really had complete trust in the other one throughout this process.”

It’s clear from the film that you were already playing with film and media as kids. Did either of you have early inklings that you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Sarah: “You know, we didn’t remember making those videos until we were amassing material to make the film. But when I look at that, what I see is two little girls engaging their father in the way they see him engaging with the world–and also making fun of it. I think more than anything else it kind of shows our awareness of The William Kunstler, and a kind of humor at who that person was.”

Emily: “In addition to the stuff that’s in the film, we always had recording devices, we always had cameras, we were always interested in documenting things. There’s one photograph in the film where we each have like three voice recorders and a camera, so I think it’s definitely something that we were interested in. So I definitely can see a common thread of interest from that period. And all of his major press conferences he did on the front stoop of our house. So we saw how important it was to communicate a message to the outside world, and what kind of power that gave you. I think we definitely took that to heart, and you can see that in the work we do today.”

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe will be shown on the PBS documentary series POV starting June 22, and it is available on DVD from New Video. www.disturbingtheuniverse.com.

Image by Jesse Ferguson.

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