Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Alexander Hoffmann, a lawyer who aided a generation of leaders on the
political left in California, including Cesar Chavez, the Black
Panthers and Lenny Bruce, died at his Oakland home Oct. 29 after a
long illness. He was 81.
Mr. Hoffmann, who emigrated from Austria as a child, became a
behind-the-scenes legal strategist for fellow radicals in the 1960s
and 1970s. He worked not so much in the courtroom as on the streets,
in backroom planning sessions and in prisons, where he served as a
communications conduit for Black Panther leader Huey Newton and
"He came up with inventive ways to argue, did research, and had
encyclopedic knowledge and a militant spirit about using the law to
further social change," said poet and activist Lincoln Bergman, a
"He became to me more than an attorney, more like a family member and
friend," said David Hilliard, an early Black Panther leader in
Oakland. He recalled how Mr. Hoffmann and his longtime partner,
broadcaster Elsa Knight Thompson, offered Newton their Berkeley
apartment as a safe haven after Newton was released from prison in
1970, when his manslaughter conviction for shooting a police officer
Mr. Hoffmann grew up amid political turbulence. His parents were
Jewish socialists who fled their native Vienna after the Nazis
occupied Austria in 1938, when Alexander, known as Sascha, was 10.
His father was a medic in World War I who opposed war and tried to
organize an anti-war movement of physicians in the late 1920s, said
Mr. Hoffmann's older sister, Ruth Hubbard Wald.
"Our childhood environment was very politicized, knowing we were in
danger and had to flee. Sascha was aware of that too," said Wald, a
retired professor of biology and women's studies at Harvard
University. Before the family fled, she said, she and her brother
burned their parents' socialist papers in the living room fireplace
to keep the Nazis from finding them.
Mr. Hoffmann took up left-wing politics as an undergraduate at UC
Berkeley, where he received a degree in economics in 1950.
After graduating from Yale Law School in 1955, he worked at Bay Area
universities and the State Bar before joining activist attorney
Charles Garry in the early 1960s, representing demonstrators against
the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Vietnam War, and
racial practices of hotels and auto dealers in San Francisco. Mr.
Hoffmann worked with Chavez during the United Farm Workers' grape
boycott in the late 1960s and helped Bruce fight obscenity charges
based on his comedy routines.
Hilliard said Mr. Hoffmann became involved with the Black Panthers in
their early stages in 1967, working on Newton's defense and later
visiting Newton in prison, relaying messages to his followers. He
played a similar role in the early 1970s when black militant inmates
organized a work stoppage in state prisons to protest conditions and
demand changes in sentencing laws.
"He stood as a fence between you and oppression and abuse," said one
of the strike leaders, the single-named Kumasi, who met Mr. Hoffmann
at San Quentin in 1970 while serving a sentence for murder. He said
the attorney successfully challenged restrictions on prison reading
material and even helped him get something to eat when the warden was
"Alex would have a candy bar in his briefcase, and every time the
guard turned his head, Alex would break the candy bar and give a
piece to me," Kumasi said. "He was very kind, a very warm spirit."
Mr. Hoffmann is survived by his sister and her children, Deborah Wald
of San Francisco and Elijah Wald of Los Angeles.
A memorial is planned in December or January.
E-mail Bob Egelko at firstname.lastname@example.org.