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Essays from "activist lawyer" William Kunstler
They put their politics on trial

Review by Lee Wengraf | October 17, 2003 | Page 9

William Kunstler, Politics on Trial: Five Famous Trials of the 20th Century. Ocean Press, 2003, 130 pages, $9.95.

OVER FIVE decades, William Kunstler made his mark as one of the leading radical defense attorneys in the country. He represented those at the front of the fight for social justice, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1,200 Attica Brothers. But Kunstler, who died in 1995, likewise saw himself as part of that movement, an "activist lawyer" defending those who had the system stacked against them.

The new book, Politics on Trial offers selections from his 1963 book ...And Justice for All, bringing together five major cases in which political convictions and social change stood at the crossroads. The five chapters focus on Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scopes "Monkey Trial," the Scottsboro boys, the Rosenbergs and the historic ruling on school prayer.

In all five, the government tried to heighten repression and cement conservative ideas in the courts, even putting defendants on trial for their lives. As Kunstler makes clear, for Sacco and Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs, the politics of the defendants were explicitly under fire.

Arrested at the height of the red scare of 1919-1920, prosecutors targeted Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti because of their politics. Their trial for robbery and murder marked one of the century's greatest miscarriages of justice. Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death in 1927.

As in the Sacco and Vanzetti case, Kunstler's rendering of the Rosenberg trial shows without a doubt that they faced execution for their membership in the Communist Party, not for alleged crimes of Soviet espionage. Paltry evidence and perjured testimony doomed the defendants, Julius and Ethel, who maintained their innocence until their deaths in 1953. They refused to answer questions about their political beliefs and party affiliation, not allowing their politics be put on trial.

The chapter on the "Scottsboro Nine"--nine Black young men and boys aged 13 to 20, sentenced to death in Alabama for allegedly raping two white women--is the best in the book. The state-sponsored lynching that passed for a "trial" shows in no uncertain terms how far the racist courts will go to execute Klan-style justice. But as Michael Smith points out in the introduction to this chapter, "The mass campaign eventually saved their lives.

"When the courtroom is far from neutral, the battle for justice must be fought in the streets as well. African Americans and whites together, mostly members of the Communist Party...said a fair trial was impossible and mobilized mass pressure." Winning the freedom of nine men from Jim Crow justice is one of the highlights of 20th century struggle.

The introduction to Politics on Trial--written by Karin Kunstler Goldman, Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith--puts Kunstler's legacy in the context of the post-September 11 assault on civil liberties. This history, they declare, must serve as a warning of the lengths those in power will go to intimidate and suppress dissent.

"Fear is again afoot...Today, 'antiterrorism' has replaced anticommunism of the 1950s and the anti-immigrant scare the ideology in service to reaction." As they lay out, Attorney General John Ashcroft has gone on the offensive, with secret military tribunals, deportations and the PATRIOT Act. But occasionally, the cautionary words from the introduction's authors overlook lessons found elsewhere in the book: that opposition to the government's attempts to silence us has been the key to slowing down their assault.

Kunstler was a radical who declared the law "is nothing other than a method of control created by a socioeconomic system determined, at all costs, to perpetuate itself by all and any means necessary." His book's unswerving dedication to those who fought for justice and its portrait of dissent on trial makes for crucial reading as we take on Bush and Ashcroft's assaults today.

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