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Film Review

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Few attorneys have been more prominent and successful in the fight for civil liberties, civil rights, and social justice than William Kunstler. In the early 1960's he first helped defend the Freedom Riders in Mississippi, and became increasingly dedicated to the movement, defending Father Philip Berrigan, who protested the Vietnam War by burning draft records. But Kunstler came to national attention as the lead attorney defending the Chicago Seven in 1969, and turned the trial into a circus of sorts, attempting to put the government on trial for police brutality. He was threatened by Judge Hoffman, convicted of contempt of court and sentenced to three years in prison. Eventually that conviction was overturned, but he became famous (or infamous, depending upon your viewpoint) for his outspoken and flamboyant tactics. In 1971 he attempted to negotiate for the prisoners during the Attica, NY, prison riot, but was barred from the prison a day before the massacre of 39 prisoners and guards by the NY State Police. He never forgave himself for this, because he felt that he should have warned the prisoners that it was likely the state would over react. The archival footage is chilling. Two years later, Kunstler helped to mediate the Wounded Knee standoff between the government and the American Indian Movement, which ended with no deaths. He defended the burning of the American flag, and persuaded the Supreme Court that burning the flag was symbolic speech permitted under the First Amendment. So in a little more than a decade, Kunstler had dramatically changed the face of civil rights advocacy, which put him under FBI surveillance for many years. After his death, his daughters discovered that the FBI had rented the apartment across the street from their house in order to watch Kunstler and his clients.

But the second half of his career took a different path, especially in terms of who he defended. He defended a Bronx drug dealer who had shot and wounded six police officers during his arrest. Then in 1989 Kunstler defended the five black kids accused of brutally beating and raping a young woman, the famed Central Park Jogger. The crime, and one of his defense claims in particular, outraged New York: that the incident was consensual sex that had gone bad. He defended the man who killed the extremist Rabbi, Meir Kahane, and got a reduced sentence for gun possession. He defended John Gotti, the mobster, and foolishly was photographed embracing him outside the courthouse. Many of Kunstler's friends and admirers had long turned against him, convinced that his desire for publicity and notoriety had warped his original mission of defending the idealists and the well intentioned, rather than very bad people. Kunstler was unrepentant, stating that every one deserved a competent defense, but also basked in the notoriety. As one of his friends said: you either loved Bill or hated him; there was no in between.

Kunstler had two families, the first of which he left to marry an attractive young civil rights attorney. They married, and had two girls, Sarah and Emily, who grew up with their father's law practice in their basement. And had to endure picketing of their house, taunting by their schoolmates, and the fear that someone would try to hurt them. A fear which was not unfounded. Even as teenagers they became appalled that their father was representing some terrible people, and vowed never to become an attorney. But Sarah did become an attorney, Emily an activist, and both eventually became documentary film makers. Their documentary, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, is a short (85 minutes) but compelling and poignant look at their father, through news footage, home movies, and interviews with many notable people who knew their father. Most of the news footage is riveting. Even now, both daughters struggle to come to grips with the second half of his career in which he defended the truly bad. Although most were clearly guilty, he wasn't so sure about the Central Park Jogger boys. In 2002, seven years after Kunstler's death, their convictions were overturned because a convicted rapist confessed, and his DNA matched that recovered from the victim. The film has a very moving interview with one of the boys, now grown, who expresses his gratitude and respect for Kunstler. So we are left with a fascinating but still ambiguous view of William Kunstler. Still, he always did what he urged his daughters to do: be engaged and act. Disturbing the Universe is a fine, very accomplished film, and a must see for any attorney or anyone interested in recent American history. Screening at Opera Plaza now and for next week. Have a great Thanksgiving.

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