Leonard Weinglass in History

Against the Current, No. 188, May/June 2017

Matthew Clark

Len, A Lawyer in History
A Graphic Biography of Radical Attorney Leonard Weinglass
By Seth Tobocman (Author & Illustrator);
Paul Buhle & Michael Steven Smith (Editors)
AK Press, 2016, 200 pages, $19 paperback.

LEONARD WEINGLASS WAS the consummate movement lawyer. A brilliant, handsome, Yale-educated attorney who could have lived in privilege and comfort, he chose instead a humble life devoted to the movement, defending some of the great leftwing activists of his time in court against prosecution — what he called “the machinery of the state.”

Following Weinglass’ death in 2011, radical comic book artist Seth Tobocman created Len, A Lawyer in History (edited by Paul Buhle and Michael Steven Smith) a graphic biography highlighting his life and work. Combining the fantasy and cheek of a superhero comic book with political art, Tobocman sketches a portrait of the protagonist and some of his most memorable cases.

First, the disclaimers. Much has been written of this legendary attorney by his friends, family, clients and accomplices in the struggle. I approach this biography as a young lawyer and activist who never met the protagonist, nor was even alive to follow much of his work in real time. I also confess that this is my first experience with the graphic novel as political expression, a medium Tobocman uses well to stir the heart and imagination in a way that mere words on a page cannot.

Tobocman charts Weinglass’ life from childhood to his early legal career and transition into a full-fledged people’s lawyer, representing the radical community of Newark, New Jersey in the fight for racial justice.

Following his full transition into an activist, Tobocman describes some of Weinglass’ most noteworthy cases — his defense of the Chicago Seven 1968 Democratic Convention protesters (alongside famed leftwing attorney William Kunstler), Pentagon Papers dissident Anthony Russo (colleague of Daniel Ellsberg), indigenous prisoner Jimi Simmons, student anti-CIA activists including Amy Carter, and the Cuban Five whose release from prison Weinglass sadly did not live to see.

Fittingly, Tobocman centers his story on the movement itself — the activists, the social conditions, the wider struggle — before getting into Weinglass’ vital but ultimately supporting role. This does not diminish the power of the lawyer — keeping activists out of jail is a very useful skill — but rather comports with Weinglass’ approach to his craft and his understated role in the movement.

Unlike many lawyers hungry for the spotlight, Weinglass was an attorney who understood the importance of putting his clients and the movement first, allowing them to take their politics into the courtroom, and weaving their politics into the legal defense in expert fashion.

During Weinglass’ defense of Jimi Simmons, an indigenous prisoner charged with murdering a prison guard, Simmons refused to appear for his trial in shackles. His decision was not merely trial strategy but a matter of integrity, a refusal to stand in chains before the government that had for so long oppressed his people.

After the judge rejected Simmons’ demand, Weinglass accepted his client’s wishes, spending over two years appealing the judge’s rejection, all while Simmons sat in prison. Weinglass lost on appeal, yet Simmons still refused to appear at trial in chains under any circumstances.

When Weinglass explained that he would surely be convicted if he refused to appear, Simmons explained that he preferred a death sentence before dishonor. In the end the judge backed down, and Simmons appeared at his trial not only unchained, but with his ceremonial pipe proudly beside him.

The Law and Power

Weinglass should be celebrated for his rich contributions to the movement and studied by attorneys, legal workers, law students, and activists to understand what it means to be a radical lawyer — a role filled with friction and contradiction.

Weinglass understood that law is not a neutral institution but a function of power — in his particular field of criminal defense, the prosecutorial power of the state coming down like a hammer on the activists he represented.

As a radical Weinglass also understood that power, not law, runs the world. If the law were rooted purely in justice rather than power, the rulers — the bankers, the purveyors of war, the CIA — would all be sitting in prison.

This was the crux of Weinglass’ defense of a group of protesters prosecuted for organizing against a campus CIA recruitment drive at the University of Massachusetts in the 1980s. Citing a university policy that prohibited criminal organizations from recruiting on campus, the student activists showed how the CIA was in fact a criminal organization that fomented coups and atrocities all over the world and should therefore be banned from campus.

Weinglass employed the necessity defense, arguing that the activists’ campus disruption was necessary to stop the criminal CIA. This defense allowed Weinglass and the activists to effectively “put the CIA on trial,” turning the courtroom into a public damnation of the CIA’s sordid record of criminal atrocities.

In other words, the state’s attempt to crack down on the activists allowed them to exponentially amplify their message — and, incredibly, it worked. The jury acquitted the activists. This is radical lawyering at its finest.

On the flip side of the power dynamic, a radical lawyer understands that the larger struggle for justice is won by organized, concentrated people power, not merely good legal arguments (although Weinglass shows that brilliant lawyering certainly helps). Challenging power often means challenging the law — in the streets as much as in the courtroom.

The Chicago Seven case, and the resultant space carved out by Weinglass and others’ legal battles over the right to protest, provides an excellent example. As the hostile judge in the Chicago Seven case illustrated when he cited heavy counts of criminal contempt against the defendants and their lawyers for openly flouting the judge’s authority, the courtroom is often the worst possible forum to seek justice.

However, for the prosecuted and the radical lawyer, it is a necessary battlefield, one chosen by the state. The radical lawyer must master this contradictory dynamic — playing by the rules of a fundamentally unjust system while representing those committed to the necessity of breaking the rules.

This conception of the law and social progress, which Weinglass’ work so poignantly illustrates, clashes with more conventional notions drilled into the minds of too many attorneys. Cloistered in the law library for too long, attorneys often come out thinking rights are won by well-reasoned arguments from anointed specialists, as if the logic of argument itself rather than the power of people in the street persuades the rulers of the merits of social progress.

Weinglass’ work, though vital to the movement, was inextricably bound up with activism on the ground. He understood that the horsepower of the movement goes best before the cart full of lawyers who can translate it into judicial results. The horse gives power to the cart. In the words of Karl Marx, “theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.”

The Movement Lawyer’s Role

Attorneys and legal organizations seeking to advance social change through the legal system should study Weinglass’ role in the movement. To this end, the protagonist’s characteristic humility — a rare quality among the legal profession — was not just a positive personality trait but a vital component of his genius as a movement lawyer. This was true not only in the larger strategic sense described above, but also in the tactical nuts and bolts.

In his defense of Jimi Simmons, Weinglass took on the difficult task of convincing an all-white jury in Walla Walla, Washington — a fairly rural area with a deep settler colonial history — to acquit an indigenous prisoner accused of murdering a prison guard. By spending his time with Walla Walla residents, approaching them with genuine interest in their lives, he was able to learn from and identify with their experiences, and persuade a jury to acquit his client.

This feat should be studied by lawyers and activists of all stripes, especially in the Trump era, where the need for leftwing engagement with conservative elements of the working class has never been greater.
As Tobocman further shows, Weinglass’ humility extended not only to potential jurors but also to fellow activists, who were often surprised at the openness and lack of pretention with which he sought collaborative input on case strategy, despite his well-earned reputation as a brilliant attorney. Weinglass was a model for working collectively in the struggle.

My only criticism of Tobocman’s great work is that I wish it were a few hundred pages longer. His storytelling and artistry would have been put to good use describing Weinglass’ acquittal of Angela Davis, his trailblazing representation of White Panther John Sinclair against warrantless government wiretapping, his defense of Mumia Abu Jamal (although, as Tobocman explains, he omitted this case out of respect for Jamal), and the long list of other activists he represented.

Nevertheless, this graphic novel provides a fitting tribute and introduction to this great movement lawyer. ¡Leonard Weinglass, presente!

March-April 2017, ATC 188