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Len Weinglass: Radical Lawyer

Ann Schneider Sep 17

Len: A Lawyer in History
By Seth Tobocman, Edited by Paul Buhle & Michael Steven Smith
AK Press, 2016


Five years in the making, this finely distilled history written and illustrated by the great Seth Tobocman is a treasure to own. This graphic novel was commissioned by Michael and Debby Smith as a tribute to their late friend Leonard Weinglass and edited by Smith and Paul Buhle. Published by AK Press, it fits alongside other radical history graphic novels such as Kate Evan’s Red Rosa, Paul Buhle’s Wobblies and Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the United States.

Len illustrates the life and work of Leonard Weinglass, beginning in 1958 when he got out of the Air Force and served briefly as a New Jersey assistant attorney general before opening a solo practice in Newark. There he met Tom Hayden, who was organizing tenants to engage in rent strikes under the aegis of SDS’s Newark Community Union Project. Deindustrialized East Coast cities like Newark were then powder kegs, with Black majorities whose demands for civic participation were contemptuously ignored by all-white administrations in much the same way that the Black majority in Ferguson, Mo. endured decades of abuse under an all-white local government. The Newark rebellion in July 1967 brought police to within 150 feet of housing projects where they began firing through windows, killing Rebecca Brown, a mother who fell while trying to protect her children from injury. Leonard won damages in the aftermath for warrantless searches of Black residents’ homes. 

Leonard’s commitment to the Newark community was soon rewarded by the electoral triumph of Kenneth Gibson in 1970 over corrupt Mayor Hugh Joseph Addonizio, ending white minority rule.

Through brilliant editing, the book brings out historical detail, such as the Yippies’ many unsuccessful attempts to obtain a city permit to camp in a park near the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention. An attractive young woman was sent to present the application to the Chief of Police, enfolded in a Playboy pin-up. I understood for the first time how Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame could have gone to work for the Rand Institute, a think tank with close ties to the Pentagon. It was a time when it was still possible to believe in the honor of the U.S. government and its foreign policy. 

Leonard’s career included defending the Chicago Eight, Ellsberg, Mumia Abu Jamal, Kathy Boudin, the Palestine Eight, and the Cuban Five after their convictions by a Miami jury in 2000. But his favorite case was putting the CIA on trial in 1987. Not directly, but by winning the right to put on a necessity defense in the case of University of Massachusetts Amherst student activists who wanted to kick the CIA off the campus. Dozens of locals and Amy Carter, daughter of the former President, occupied a sensitive campus building in Amherst and were arrested. Len’s former client Abbie Hoffman from the Chicago Eight trial worked to make the case a cause célèbre, bringing in Ellsberg and former CIA agent Ralph McGehee to testify as experts. McGehee’s testimony about Vietnamese captives brought the jury to tears. A young Sandinista supporter (like our present Mayor Bill de Blasio) testified to the terrorism of the contras and death squads in Nicaragua. Tobocman obtained the transcripts of the October 1986 trial as the best source of what occurred.

Although Leonard’s lawyering was brilliant, he could not have won the acquittals without the solid political awareness of the Amherst community. It is worth noting in that regard that Bernie Sanders advocated abolishing the CIA in 1974 during his first race for the Senate. Senator Daniel Moynihan introduced legislation to do so in 1995, pointing out its colossal failures as an intelligence agency. Protests to shut down CIA recruiting continue to occur at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where we physically confronted the police in such an effort in 1980.

The author and editors make the point that the same issues we confronted in the 70’s and 80’s are recurring in new forms. Where the government tried to prosecute Ellsberg for leaking thousands of classified documents to the New York Times and other newspapers it now targets whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and publishers like Julian Assange of Wikileaks.

Seth gives us good likenesses of Tom Hayden, Dave Dellinger, Bobby Seale, Ho Chi Minh, Stokely Carmichael, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. One feature that a graphic novel cannot convey was the sonorous tones of Leonard’s speaking voice. No wonder judges anticipated his appearance. In the combative environment that lawyers inhabit, Leonard never stooped to irony or sarcasm and instead upheld the dignity of the profession in his method, strategy and habits. His record of wins is impressive but it was his persistence and dedication to his clients, even if the battle took decades, that is his most singular quality.

Ann Schneider is a member of the board of the NYC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.