William Kunstler's daughters make a case for him
In a new film, Emily and Sarah Kunstler reflect on the controversial
attorney's trials, including the Chicago Seven, and his legacy.
By Susan King
November 23, 2009
Emily and Sarah Kunstler's father was William Kunstler, the civil
rights attorney best known for representing the Chicago Seven antiwar
activists who had protested the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic convention.
The siblings are very much their father's daughters.
"We were raised with a sense of personal responsibility," says
31-year-old Emily Kunstler. "If we see an injustice, we speak out
against it and try to work to highlight it. We didn't know what way
we would accomplish this, but we knew that was going to be the path
our life took."
The sisters explore their relationship with their father, who died in
1995, and his legacy in the new award-winning documentary "William
Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe," which opened Friday at the Nuart Theatre.
"Our dad passed away when Emily was 17 and I was 18," says Sarah
Kunstler, 33, who is also an attorney. "At that age, we didn't really
have an adult relationship with him or an adult understanding of him.
Making this film really gave us that opportunity."
The sisters began discussing the film around the 10th anniversary of
their father's death. "We had been making advocacy films for people
in prison for about six years at that point," says Emily Kunstler.
"We started talking about his legacy and how it was important for us
and why we were doing the work we did and what our influence is. It
was the first time we started to talk about our work in respect to
the work he had done."
But Kunstler and his family often got death and bomb threats at their
New York house after he began representing such defendants as Larry
Davis, acquitted of shooting six police officers, and three of the
suspects accused of setting a truck bomb below New York's World Trade
Center in 1993.
"I think one of the most important things to a child growing up is
having a safe space," Emily says. "I think we definitely didn't have
that all the time. But now, having learned what we did about his
life, we have a different understanding of the work he did. It almost
seems that the small sacrifices we made in order for him to live the
life that he did seems really valuable now."
Especially when they interviewed Yusef Salaam, who was 15 when, along
with four other teenagers, he was charged with raping and beating a
female jogger in New York's Central Park. The soft-spoken Salaam
spent 6 1/2 years in prison until the real culprit confessed to the crime.
"There was no one standing up for him but our father," Emily says,
"who had the courage to stand up for him."
Both sisters recall that their father had a great sense of humor. "He
loved spending time with us," Sarah says.
"I think the way we benefited by being the second family, the second
set of children, is that he had slowed down a bit by the time we came
along," she adds.
"He wasn't traveling as much around the country. His office was in
the basement in our home in New York, which could be a bad thing in
certain ways but also a good thing. Emily and I would run down and
hang out with him and be near him any time we wanted."
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
The radical lawyer as star
By Wesley Morris
November 13, 2009
'William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe'' is indeed about the
radical-leftist attorney. But this engrossing and provocative
documentary is also about a tragic kind of liberal guilt. The many
cases Kunstler took until his death in 1995 - he defended the
defenseless (African-American victims of discrimination) and the
seemingly indefensible (alleged rapists, murderers, terrorists, and
assassins) - suggest a man whose political sympathies bordered on the
This became a real problem for two of Kunstler's daughters, Emily and
Sarah. They wrote and directed "Disturbing the Universe,'' and in it
wrestle with their father's incendiary taste in clients.
Emily and Sarah are the children in the second family Kunstler
started, with the civil rights lawyer Margaret Ratner in the
mid-1970s, after his years as a notorious champion of blacks,
radicals, Vietnam veterans, American Indians, and the inhumanely
housed men of Attica prison. The girls were proud of their father's
early fights. But the latter years of his career vexed them.
Kunstler kept his legal office in the family's Greenwich Village
brownstone, and, in agreeing to represent, say, El Sayyid Nosair, who
murdered the Israeli extremist politician Meir Kahane, the house
seemed to be under siege. Bullets would arrive in the mail. The girls
couldn't go out. "Why was I being punished for something my father
did?'' one of them wonders, courtesy of narration, in classic teenage fashion.
Using well-deployed archival footage, the filmmakers present a brief
history of their father, how he began his adulthood as a suburban
lawyer in 1950s Westchester, and found himself drawn to civil-rights
activism, then, by the late 1960s and his star-making defense of the
Chicago 8, to drugs and radicalism.
The film argues that Kunstler's stardom was, in fact, a side effect
he came to enjoy. His public embraces of John Gotti and frequent
appearances on Phil Donahue's talk show bear this out. The notoriety
that came with defending men like Nosair and one of the black
teenagers accused in the Central Park rape trial appealed to him. One
colleague (and Sarah Kunstler's law-firm boss), Elizabeth Fink, says
Kunstler did take those cases for fame. Alan Dershowitz, in a room
with one of the Kunstler daughters, reluctantly says that her father
acted inconsistently with his principles. (In "The Most Hated Lawyer
in America,'' David Langum's very good biography of Kunstler,
Dershowitz's criticism is less polite.)
The fame argument is cogent enough. But Kunstler was also honorably
and dangerously compassionate. There's an anecdote in the film about
his decision to look up the family of the slain Japanese soldier who
charged at him with a bayonet during WWII. He told the parents their
son died a hero.
According to the film, social justice was at the heart of his legal
philosophy. He tried to instill in his daughters the idea that all
white people are inherently racist: They have all the power in
America, and the law is often used against minorities. Seeing a
non-white person in trouble, he gave them the reflexive benefit of
the doubt, regardless of the circumstances. This sense of liberal
guilt warped him. It's as if he wanted to punish a part of himself
for what his forefathers did.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Interview with Sarah and Emily Kunstler
by Peter Wong
Nov. 24‚ 2009
During the recent Jewish Film Festival, Beyond Chron talked with
Emily and Sarah Kunstler, the filmmakers behind the new documentary
"William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe" and daughters of the
Beyond Chron (BC): The younger generation sees [the Sixties] as
something not relevant to the present day. What would be your reaction?
Emily Kunstler (EK): A lot of young activists today idealize the
anti-war movement of the Sixties because it seemed clear, cohesive,
A lot of people thinks it's numbers, that it's bodies in the streets.
But there were 3,000 people in Chicago during the Democratic National
Convention. Due to the dramatic press, it became this enormous event.
At the start of the [Iraq] War, there were 500,000 people in the
streets of New York at the first protest. Maybe it's oversaturation
of the media, maybe it's the way it's recorded.
Sarah Kunstler (SK): We definitely wanted it to seem like a
continuity, that the activism that inspired those times is alive
today. This is part of a legacy, both Emily and my legacy as children
of a parent who was involved in social justice movements and all of
our legacies as people who inherited this country and these problems
to stand up.
BC: Your film seemed to play down your ambivalence between the social
justice work your late father did in the Sixties and his later cases
in the Eighties. Why did you decide to make it less a personal
documentary and more an objective documentary?
SK: Emily and I don't agree we played down that ambivalence. That
ambivalence is the core of this movie. It's what sends us on this
journey into looking at his life. It's not understanding the
continuity between who he told us he was and who he seemed to be.
It's both a personal and a historical documentary. It's not the type
of personal documentary where you see melodrama happening on screen.
But we are doing that psychological work by making this movie and
coming to the conclusions we came to.
It was a struggle trying to figure out how to put ourselves into the
movie. Were we making a personal film? Were we making a historical
film? The conclusion we came to was that there was no way to make
this movie without acknowledging who we are. We were not the people
to make a straight historical film. Unlike other films where children
investigate their parents, we had more political unresolved issues
than personal ones.
EK: It's also that he passed away. As adults, we have a more nuanced
view of the work that he did. But the film is from our perspective as
adolescents, when you're consumed with ambivalence and these
simplistic black and white questions and you want things to make
sense. Being teenagers was our starting point because we never had
the chance to have an adult relationship with our father. Every
moment we confronted him was in the film.
BC: Mentioning you were Kunstler's daughters opened doors for you.
Were people reticent with you because you were William Kunstler's daughters?
EK: It opened doors and also closed doors. For example, the surviving
prosecutor in the Chicago trial's given interviews to many other
people. But he didn't want to talk with the daughters of his dead foe
and speak ill of him, because that's all he had to say and that was
We wanted this to be an honest story from our perspective. To be
honest and respectful of the people we were interviewing, we felt we
had to be there. I'm sure there were things people didn't tell us
because we were his daughters. But I'm also sure there were things
people told us because we were his daughters. That was a compromise
we were willing to make.
SK: Early on, we were really worried that people were going to
sugarcoat the story for us. We spent a lot of time figuring out how
to ask the right questions, strategizing how to get the good dirt.
Ultimately, what we realized is that we weren't making a Jerry
Springer-esque type of movie. Who might have held grudges?
EK: Who smoked a joint with him in a public bathroom?
SK: That kind of sensationalism didn't really matter. To focus on
those points would have weakened the overall story. It's the kind of
stuff that people don't like sharing about people who are gone. As
children, we want to hear the salacious stuff. I think the film's
better for not going down that road.
BC: One surprising interview was with the Chicago 8 juror, the
Republican woman who changed her mind about the government as a
result of participating in the trial. How did you find her?
EK: Randomly. We had a list of Chicago jurors who we thought were
still alive. The woman you're speaking about is named Jean Fritz. We
looked up Jean Fritzes in the phone book and just started calling
them one by one until we got the one who said "Yes, I'm the Jean
Fritz who was on the jury."
Jean Fritz's transformation really goes to the center of our father's
belief in this country. He had an interesting career in that he
worked within the jury system to change the jury system. He thought
if you could get in front of twelve people that they could see the
truth and be persuaded. He believed in humanity, that people given
the right information would do the right thing.
The film in large part is a story of transformation. Sarah and my
transformation, Jean Fritz's transformation … It doesn't matter what
life experience you had, there's still the potential for
transformation, to become inspired and socially active in their communities.
BC: That's very empowering, given the cynicism in certain leftist
circles [that] participating in the system somehow compromises your
moral purity. It sounds like your father rejected that idea. Is that
pretty much the point you were making?
EK: Yes. Otherwise, it becomes this intellectual pursuit. You can try
to imagine a different world and who would be in control. All
political people should certainly have a bigger plan. On the ground,
you still have to be active and work to create a better world than
the world we live in currently. I think that's one of the reasons why
Bill didn't identify with any particular political group or party.
Where his efforts were most needed were to empower people around him
on an individual level and hope to have a ripple effect on the greater society.
SK: Bill thought change happened both in the streets and the
courtroom. Both parts of that were indispensable. As a society, we do
not move forward without the street movement. The courts are always
latecomers to that process. No great decision in the civil rights
movement would have happened were it not for the movement on the ground.
BC: I liked the mention of the David statue that was in your father's
study. Let's say that David decided to take a shot at Goliath,
missed, and wound up getting killed by the giant as a result of it.
What would you say to a results oriented person that [David's]
actions were still worth doing even if he failed?
EK: What Bill did say to people was that there were more failures
than victories in this world, especially if you're working for social
justice. He told other lawyers who came to him dismayed that they
should keep their eye on the war. There are battles lost and won, but
there's this greater ideal in this war and consider that. He would
also say that there were no failures. As soon as he lost a case, he
would say "great, this gives us good stuff for the appeal." There was
always a next step.
In order to be our father, he had to be this optimist. Sarah and I
rarely remembered a day when he felt depressed. He was profoundly
affected by the tragedy that surrounded him, but in the sense that it
strengthened his determination.
BC: You made an enigmatic statement , "we loved our father's
extravagant greatness, but we also suffered his frailty." Could you elaborate?
SK: We had a myth and we had a human being. It's an interesting
experience to grow up with both. It's not that he tried to be an icon
around the house. He tried to exist on a human level and sometimes it
was actually hard to get him down to normal size. But we got to
experience the flesh and blood person: a father, a person who got
angry, a person who was afraid, a person who made breakfast. But I
don't think it's a unique experience that it happens to just someone
who's in the public eye. Maybe it was more extreme in our case.
November 19, 2009
A Roundtable with Revolution newspaper about the new film, William
Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, with Sarah Kunstler and Emily
Kunstler (filmmakers and two youngest daughters of Bill Kunstler);
Margaret Ratner Kunstler, progressive lawyer and Sarah and Emily's
mom; Michael Ratner, president of Center for Constitutional Rights,
an important legal advocacy organization cofounded by Bill Kunstler;
and Yusef Salaam, exonerated in a rape case known as "the Central
Park jogger case1"Yusef spent years in prison for a crime he didn't
commit. Bill Kunstler was his lawyer.
Revolution newspaper had the opportunity to sit down with the
filmmakers of and key participants in an important and moving new
documentary about William Kunstler, a radical lawyer who stood out
for his courage and daring, and whose legacy people need to learn
from and carry forward. It opens in select theatres across the
country Friday, November 20. This film needs to be seen and supported.
Here's the synopsis: "In William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
filmmakers Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler explore the life of
their father, the late radical civil rights lawyer. In the 1960s and
70s, Kunstler fought for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. and
represented the famed 'Chicago 8' activists who protested the Vietnam
War. When the inmates took over Attica prison, or when the American
Indian Movement stood up to the federal government at Wounded Knee,
they asked Kunstler to be their lawyer.
"To his daughters, it seemed that he was at the center of everything
important that had happened. But when they were growing up, Kunstler
represented some of the most reviled members of society, including
rapists and assassins. This powerful film not only recounts the
historic causes that Kunstler fought for; it also reveals a man that
even his own daughters did not always understand, a man who risked
public outrage and the safety of his family so that justice could serve all."
Revolution: Could you begin with what made you want to make this film?
Emily Kunstler: Sarah and I were having a lot of conversations around
the 10th anniversary of our father's death. We had been making
advocacy films for people in prison for about 7 years. And we were
seeing some impact. But, we came into filmmaking through our
activism. So we were thinking about our role, and whether that was
the place for us to make the greatest impact. Thinking about our
influences. We were thinking about history, and the way people learn
from history. And the way that, as a culture, we don't seem to be
learning from history today. So we began for the first time really,
in our lives, to think about the work we were doing in respect to the
work that our father had done. We thought about recording the voices
of people that he worked with, of sharing these stories, and talking
about issues we felt were so important to us today and were being
ignored. The civil rights movement at that time, and currently, is
being looked on as sort of a bygone chapter. And we reward ourselves
as a culture for accomplishing things without thinking about the work
that is still left to be done. And our father would always talk about
all these monuments erected and these streets being named after
people that used to be on the FBI's most wanted list, and it
frustrated him to no end, because at the same time, all of the rights
that he and so many other people worked for, were being taken away.
So we really wanted to make a movie that would remind people of their
personal responsibility in maintaining those rights, and trying to
get more civil rights and a more balanced society.
Sarah Kunstler: When we were making this film, we didn't know what
the political climate would be when we finished the film. And, for a
while, that was a source of anxiety for us because we worried: will
this film still be relevant in a post-Bush world? If there is a
Democratic president, are we still going to have the same concerns?
And when Obama was elected, a lot of the rhetoric we started hearing
is that we have now moved post-race. And that having a Black
president means, in a kind of coded way, that we don't have to talk
about race anymore, that Black people in America have reached the
ultimate pinnacle so there is no more racism. And what we realized
was that this notion that there aren't still these unhealed wounds
and inequalities in this country, just because there is a Black man
in the White House, and we don't have to talk about race anymore, was
so potentially dangerous and that making a film that dealt with race
and racism in the criminal justice system, was all the more important.
Revolution: When you, Yusef, Michael, or Margie, heard that they were
going to do this film, and what the initial conception was, how did
you guys see what impact it could have? What did you all think of that?
Michael Ratner: I was very excited. Partly, having lost my father
when I was young, I was glad to see Sarah and Emily dealing with the
loss of their dad when they were young also.
But Bill was, for young lawyers growing up in the sixties, the most
important lawyer in the United States. And the most influential. The
one that made a whole generation of lawyers think it might be
worthwhile engaging in social struggles in the courts and outside of
the courts. One lesson was that you had to be outside the courts as
well as inside the courts. And that is certainly a critical lesson
that has been taken forward, still with great struggle, with many
lawyers who say, "Well we don't want to offend the court, we want to
agree to this and that," and the lesson for me and other lawyers is
that's not what you do. You take your struggles outside the courts. I
remember one of the things is you don't call the judge "Your Honor,"
so even today, I would never call a judge "Your Honor," I would say
"judge." And when I hear people say "Your Honor," it just makes my skin crawl.
The other part of the film that I thought was going to be
important... Bill to the last day of his life, felt that the racial
divide in this country was the critical divide... And he lived that
through his life. And I think that is a lesson that just because we
have a Black president doesn't mean that it's over.
And I guess, the third is, to be incredibly bold in what you do. To
take on the hardest issues. To use the press. To take on social
movement issues. If you look at the Attica prison struggle, at
Wounded Knee, Chicago, each of those are really people's struggles,
and Bill wound up defending people that were really trying to change
things. And that is, unfortunately, a lesson that is lost on most of
us today, on most lawyers. That is really the role of a political
lawyer, a radical lawyer, to defend movements that are trying to make
social change. So that is what I was hopeful this film would bring out.
Yusef Salaam: In being a part of [this film], it caused me to gain a
deeper understanding of where I fit in, in the whole scheme of
things. I wasn't just some type of strange occurrence. My case was
part of a larger dynamic going on, and, when I look back now, I'm
actually happy. One, to be able to have been a part of this, and two,
and this is going to sound probably strange, but I don't think I
would give my experience back, you know. That experience made me who
I am, and it also made me think differently about everything.
A Film About Transformation
Revolution: What do you want people to get out of it? The film works
on different levels, and you were talking about your personal
journeys, but also there is a challenge that you are posing through
it, can you talk about that some?
Emily Kunstler: I think that in large part it is a film about
transformation. It's about our father's transformation, it's about
our transformation, it's about Yusef's transformation. It is about
Jean Fritz,2 you know, this juror in Chicago's transformation. It's
about Michael Smith's transformation, the prison guard at Attica.3
And everybody, and that we are all capable of changing our
perspective. Exposed to the right set of circumstances, and to the
right information, we can go into something feeling one way, and come
out a different way. And for my father that is sort of the
fundamental theory of the jury system. That you can bring that kind
of information to 12 people in a room, and they can come out of it
feeling differently, or put their feelings aside, and actually make a
choice based on what they are hearing. So that's humanity for you. We
hoped for people to see this film and realize they can make changes
in their own lives, and that they can effect change in the world. Our
father was fifty years old when he had his second transformation, and
so, we can all live a thousand lives, and should strive to, and
should have the courage to be open to change everyday.
Sarah Kunstler: He was an interesting person, because he was the
principal architect and embellisher of his own myth. He had his own
creation myth of how he came to be, and how he became a fighter for
justice, and a fighter against racism, and he told the story to
everyone who would listen. So when you go around making a film about
him, you end up hearing the same story from 50 or 100 different
mouths. Which is the story of a man who lived in Mamaroneck, NY, and
commuted to the city, who had a fairly ordinary law practice with his
brother, who one day, out of the blue, received this phone call that
transformed his life. It was a call from the director of the ACLU,
asking him to go South to tell a lawyer who was representing the
Freedom Riders in Jackson, Mississippi that the ACLU stood behind
him. And that going there, seeing the struggle first hand, and
watching as five determined young people got off a bus and walked
into an onslaught of police, watching that kind of passion, that
dedication, and that courage was what utterly changed him. That is
the first of several transformations he goes through in our film. And
the first of several mythologies he shared with Emily and I, and
anyone that got within two feet of him.
It is an interesting thing making a film about a person who has such
an established mythology. It's a little bit intimidating, 'cause what
do you do with a myth? And what are you looking for? Are you trying
to preserve the myth? Are you trying to attack the myth? What happens
when you meet the real people? Do you lose the myth? That is part of
the interesting thing for Emily and I in telling our own story and
making this film our story. And it is ultimately our story about our
Revolution: This brings me to the question of the big contradiction
you are wrangling with in the film. I'm wondering if you guys could
talk more about the transformation you all went through, and how
Yusef's story impacted you guys in particular.
Emily Kunstler: What is the basic question of the film? What is the
exploration? We're at a very different place today, than we were when
we started. The film doesn't start at our perspective today. It
starts at our perspective when we were teenagers, when he was still
alive at the end of his life. It never represented our adult
perspective and that doesn't represent our perspective at the end of the film.
Sarah Kunstler: It is interesting 'cause a film captures a certain
point of your life, and a certain place in your thinking. These are
conversations about legacy, and about how to lead your life, and
about personal responsibility, and what choices to make. These are
conversations you have every single day, and that you are constantly
evolving with. So it's an interesting thing, to make a film, or I
guess write a book, or to do anything where you explore those
notions, because it becomes this fixed sense of what you were
thinking at that moment.
Michael Ratner: When Bill takes Yusef's case, right, I think you have
a reaction in the film, right? Where you say, "What is our daddy
doing? What is Bill doing?" And then after Bill dies, Yusef is
exonerated. So I would ask you what does that make you think, not
only about the legacy of your dad, and what you think about your dad
today, now that you know that; what does it make you think of what
kind of cases people ought to take, or what does it make you think of
the state, or any of that.
Emily Kunstler: Well, I think it is an important life lesson. I think
it is one a lot of people can learn from. There is this rush to
judgment. And we oversimplify things. We see things from a child's
perspective. In black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. This
is the way the criminal justice system is digested for public
consumption. People are kept very removed from that part of society.
We don't have cameras in most courtrooms, eyes inside the prison,
people are very removed from that part of society. And the small bits
that come out are through this media filter, that tells you Yusef is
terrible. Him and his friends are a wolf pack wilding in the parkand
you have no other information. And what's there left to think? The
media hype around that case was so intense, during the trial and the
conviction. And there are people today that still don't know that he
was exonerated. Because the media attention around his release and
his exoneration was so minimal.
So that's the information that you have to go on. In a sense we are
all guilty of that, and we should all be very conscious of that, and
make sure we question the information we are getting. And you know,
try to find the best source, because it is too easy to make those
snap judgments. And anything that is that easy is never right.
Yusef Salaam: I was thinking about the media filter... If people
watch TV, some part of their day is watching the news. And the news
is telling peopleprobably 75% of these terrible things that have
happened in the world, since this morning or since this evening or
something like that. And… some of it is very biased. And some of it
is given to you, in such a way, where they are making you have their
opinion. You know, you're not coming into it with a level head saying
well, is this, "is this real?" Like "are they telling me the truth?"
Or you know, you're looking at it as this is a real story, this is
the reality of what happened. What really goes on!
The Moment of Choice
Revolution: At a certain point in the film, you said Bill's struggles
became your struggles. Can you talk about that in relation to what
impact you want the film to have?
Yusef Salaam: The part in the film, where I say his struggles became
my struggles was talking about being an activist. Being a part of the
solution, as opposed to part of the problem. And being part of the
problem could just be, "I don't wanna do anything, I don't want to,
you know, leave me alone," it could be something very, very subtle...
but trying to actually effectuate change, trying to be out there,
wanting to be in a better world, and unfortunately, a lot of times
it's revolutionary acts that cause that. "Power concedes nothing
without a demand." You have to at some point in life make a choice as
to where you want to be in life. What role you wanna play. When I
think about Bill Kunstler, the role that he played was such an
important role, because he could have just sat back and lived a
normal life, but that wasn't him. He had a burning, a desire...
something in him that made him be a freedom fighter, be a
revolutionary person, be an activist, be a person who is active in
And that part caused me to look at my whole case from a different
perspective, and then realize that I have a role to play now. I can't
just sit back and do nothing.
Sarah Kunstler: We have to talk about the David story here... One of
the stories that Bill told that was most important to Emily and I was
the story of when he first saw Michelangelo's statue of David. He was
a teenager traveling in Italy. And he was standing there looking at
it. And an old man comes up to him… and he says, "Do you know why
this statue of David is important?" It's a statue of David with the
rock in one hand, and the sling over his shoulder; and, according to
this man, it is the only depiction of David before he throws the
stone at the giant Goliath. So he is standing there in this moment
where he is deciding whether or not to stand up and take action, or
to quietly walk away. And it's the idea of the insurgent, the
disempowered who is about to decide whether or not to challenge the
big power. And to Bill that story was really resonant cause it was
this moment that he felt everybody faced. This moment of choice,
whether or not to stand up and take action or to quietly blend into
the crowd and do nothing.
Particularly when he spoke to young people, he would talk about this
moment. Because he wanted young people to be ready for those moments
in their life that were going to demand that kind of courage, and for
them to be able to summon the courage to do what was needed when the
time came. That story is one of the main reasons why Emily and I made
this film, because to us it was so powerful and so empowering that we
could have these moments and that anyone could have these moments,
and that all of us had this agency to stand up and do something
important. We wanted to make a film that would make people feel that
way, and make people feel like they wanted to do something. And, you
don't have to be Bill Kunstler to have that kind of moment.
These moments don't always come when people are looking, sometimes
they come when nobody's looking. And it's about having that strength
of character, and strength of belief, in small moments in your
lifeand in big moments of your life. And to always be realizing that
you are making that choice, and that you are choosing to stand up or
not to stand up.
Emily Kunstler: I think we started this film feeling like when Dad
told us the story of David, he was talking about himself. That he was
David, and that he had those moments of choice in his life. But
through the process of making this film, I don't think that he
necessarily saw himself as David. I think he found Davids in the
world to associate himself with. And it was the Davids that he found,
like Yusef, and others that gave him strength to continue the work
that he did. Towards the end of the film he became our David, but it
really wasn't about him. It was about protecting those Davids, and
allowing those Davids to continue to struggle. And to be empowered
and to be out of prison.
Revolution: Michael, you talked about learning from Bill's taking a
stand, and then actually going out and fighting using his example,
particularly at CCR.
Emily Kunstler: This brings us to Michael's transformation.
Michael Ratner: Not just mine... I get comments about what I said in
the film when Bill took [El Sayyid] Nosair's case,4 or the '93 World
Trade Center cases, or some of those cases involving, you know,
alleged terrorist acts, and they were no longer in the tradition of
Center for Constitutional Rights, of which Bill was a founder, or in
the tradition of what we thought was the political kind of law that
we were doing, whether it was representing Attica, or the civil
rights movement, or indigenous Indian movements. We wondered about
it. And we were critical. Why is Bill putting his talents to that?
But in that perspective, myself and scores of other attorneys in the
Center, Bill's institution, are representing a tremendous number of
Guantánamo detainees, alleged terrorists post-9/11. And so, it gave
me a different perspective on what Bill was doing then. It really
helped me to understand Bill's incredible, more than skepticism about
the state. And what the state represented, and what it represented
particularly against people... who the state put up as pariahs, and
everybody tried to get the state to focus on those people, and their
anger on those people.
We've certainly seen that post-9/11 completely. Almost every one of
our clients has turned out to be a "pariah" client, that is
completely innocent of anything. If Bill were around today, he would
be taking those cases, he would be in the forefront. He would be
representing probably the heaviest guys in Guantánamo, right now.
In relation to Yusef's case, Bill brought Yusef's case to the Center.
Bill wasn't Yusef's trial lawyer, but he came in at the sentencing
for Yusef, and he said to the Center, I want the Center to come in
here and represent Yusef. And the Center turned it down. Partly the
film explains a little bit, the atmosphere in the city, which is
always the atmosphere that you're going to get in these cases.
Full-page ads asking for death penalty for the Central Park people.
Assuming they're dead guilty. From the mayor to everyone else. And I
think part of that infiltrated into the Center. And it didn't have
Bill's sense of the injustice of the state at that point. Part of it
had to do with the feminist movement at that point, about
representing people accused of rape, although considering that Bill
came out of a Southern experience, where a rape charge was the
classic thing you did against a Black man, that is pretty shocking
when I go back and think about that. And it led directly to turning
down Yusef's case, and Bill even got held in contempt in those cases,
and even then the Center didn't take the contempt cases. Morty
Stavis, the cofounder with Bill, took that. But he took them just
separately and eventually went to the court of appeals on Bill's
contempt. I forgot, what the language he used in the courtroom was a
disgrace to the bench. Bill was making some argument about Yusef's
sentence, and the judge tried to shut him up. And Bill just says
"You're a disgrace to the bench!" And the judge held him in contempt
when Bill said that.
…When the post-9/11 cases, and Rumsfeld said "we're going to pick up
the worst of the worst, and we're not going to give them any rights,
and we're going to take them to an offshore penal colony." We're
sitting at the Center, well, I saw that and I said I think we're
going to represent the first people that go, that are picked up.
Because this is just beyond anything that is acceptable in any
society that calls itself, at all civilized. And there was some
debate in the Center. And at that point, I took the pages out of
Bill's biography, and he has two or three pages about when the Center
turned down Yusef's case, and I circulated them to everybody, and I
said, this was our founder, this is what we have to learn... as Bill
said, on more than one occasion, "All states are bad, some are worse
than others." And I think we were, for Bill, we were living in the
"worse than others." …That is the lesson, and we still get that
throughout. I think it is a lesson that is particularly post-9/11,
but it was certainly, in the South, you knew all the time. But since
9/11 that is everywhere. It is everywhere around us.
The Fight in the Courtroom and the Struggle in the Streets
Revolution: This brings me to a question, for you guys as lawyers.
Part of what Bill talks about at different parts of the film, and it
goes on all the way through, actually from the civil rights, to what
he learned from Daniel Berrigan, and came all the way through, was
the lawyering and the fight in the court, as well as, how it relates
to the fight in the streets. In the section on the civil rights
movement, you make the point that he respected people who were
breaking the law to change the law. And then in the Catonsville 9
section, he talks about the moral fight in the courtroom and then in
Chicago, bringing the sixties into the courtroom.5 This was part of a
larger movement in society, but Michael made the point earlier, Bill
was at the forefront of that. Could you guys talk about, as lawyers,
how that changed, your overall perspective?
Margaret Ratner: We were very lucky, when there was a domestic
movement in this country. I mean, as lawyers, and as activists, and
as human beings. When that was happening, whether it was the civil
rights movement, or the multiple movements going on in this country,
we were really lucky to be able to represent people participating in
those movements. And it changed and maybe we got older, but the whole
protest movement changed, and there wasn't enough room for the kind
of social protest that there was, earlier on. Now it's much more
complicated, and much more difficult. The students who participate
now in the protest movements, I have the utmost respect for because
it seems to me it's much more difficult because the alliances are
much more difficult, the issues are not as clear, and the whole
situation is more complicated. It's not as easy as it was in the '80s
and the '90s. It's much more difficult because you have this whole
kind of assertion of post-racial society, which is so ridiculous, so
it's just much more complicated and much more difficult to draw the
lines and to participate directly. I just think we were really lucky
as attorneys and as activists. Luckier than people are now, cause
it's harder, it's really harder. And that is why I think this film is
important because, given how hard it is now, people have to be
encouraged in a different way to participate, and they have to be
reminded of our history and how we were able to do things, and how we
were able to organize, and encouraged to do their own thing in a new way.
Sarah Kunstler: If what happens inside the courtroom is allowed to
stay inside the confines of the courtroom wall, then it will never be
justice. And if court decisions are allowed to happen in a vacuum, we
will almost always certainly have the wrong result. And that at any
moment in time it's important to have a street movement. It's
important to have press. It's important for these issues to feel like
issues that matter to all of us. For us to feel like the rights of
the accused, the rights of people on trial and how they're diminished
impacts all of our rights. If we lose that perspective and we say
there is an us and a them and we don't care about the criminal
defendants because these are the other, then we all are losing
something and we're getting to a very dangerous place.
Yes, these are different times, but I think that whatever time we're
in, the link between the street and the courtroom is crucial. And
that the link between the courtroom and our everyday lives is
crucial. And if we stop caring and feeling like these things are
connected, then we're going down a very dangerous road.
Michael Ratner: When Marge and I were young lawyers, it was just
everywhere in the streets, and the idea that someone would sit in
their office and think the courtroom was the place you could make
social change... it would be laughable for most progressive lawyers.
Today, what I think has changed is there's a lot of lawyers who don't
go to the G20, or the RNC, or the Democratic Convention and represent
people and do that work, and they think they can be in a courtroom or
in an office and actually make change, and I think that's not the
case. What this film really is good at saying is you have to be out
in the streets with your clients and representing people making
social change. And that's a lesson that every law student and every
person ought to hear. It's really critical.
Revolution: Emily and Sarah, you talk about growing up with the fear
of repression from very early on. And it's something Margie talks
about in the film. As kids, you experienced it on a very visceral
level. As you grew up to understand more what that's a part of and
you take a stand at a certain point later in the film and you talk
about how it's not just about us.
Emily Kunstler: It's a hard question because for kids, the most
important thing is to create a safe space. And it was impossible for
my father to do that. Were it not for our mother and the role that
she played in our lives, we wouldn't be the people we are today. She
really made it her mission to keep us out of the public eye, to make
sure we had a normal childhood and a protected childhood, and always
felt loved and safe, in an environment where it was almost impossible
to do that. But through the process of making this film and meeting
Yusef and seeing the commitment that our father had and the choices
that he made and the lives that he impacted, it makes mine and
Sarah's sacrifice seem really inconsequential in terms of the
sacrifice that our father's clients made, that Yusef made, and the
work that he did to help other people's children that we really feel
today was definitely worthwhile. I also have to add that I think that
a healthy degree of fear and distress of the government is not a bad
thing, and I'm actually grateful for that education that I had. You
know, maybe it was something I couldn't understand when I was 8, but
I'm glad I'm still a person that asks those questions today.
WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE was released in theaters on
November 13 at Cinema Village in New York City and is opening on
November 20 in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Berkeley, D.C. and Seattle
with more cities to follow. The film will be broadcast on PBS on the
award-winning documentary series P.O.V. in the Spring/Summer of 2010.
For more information on the film, including screenings and show times
in your area, please visit www.disturbingtheuniverse.com
1. The "Central Park Jogger Case" arose from an incident in 1989 when
a 28-year-old white woman, an investment banker, was raped and beaten
while jogging in Central Park in New York. Five Black and Latino
youth were arrested, charged, and wrongfully convicted of the crime,
serving between 7 and 13 years in jail before they were exonerated in 2002.
2. Jean Fritz was a Republican juror in the Chicago Conspiracy trial,
one of four who held out for acquittal on all charges. She is
interviewed in the film.
3. Michael Smith, 21 years old at the time of the 1971 Attica prison
rebellion, was on of the guards held hostage by the prisoners. He was
shot five times by the state police when they stormed the prison and
massacred and brutalized the prisoners. He is interviewed in the film.
4. El Sayyid Nosair is an Egyptian-born American citizen, convicted
of involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the murder
of Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990.
5. Daniel Berrigan is a Jesuit priest who was active in protests
against the Vietnam war and with 7 others started the Plowshares
Movement, an anti-nuclear weapons movement that became well known
during the 1980s for militant actions in which they were accused of
damaging government property (nuclear weapons). Berrigan was one of
the Catonsville Nine, Catholic activists who went to the Draft Board
in Catonsville, Maryland, in May 1968, took 378 files of people
drafted into the U.S. military, poured homemade napalm over them, and
set them on fire. Kunstler was the lead defense lawyer in their trial.