Growing up, I remember hearing an awful lot about Leonard Weinglass. My father, William Kunstler, was a famous civil-rights lawyer, and his best known case was one he and “Lenny,” as my father affectionately called him, tried together. For five long months in 1969 and 1970, during a blustery Chicago fall that turned into a brutal winter, they represented the Chicago Eight—left-wing activists, including Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, and Bobby Seale (until Seale’s case was severed from the proceedings, and the “Eight” became the “Seven”) charged with, among other things, membership in a federal conspiracy to incite riots across state lines for their roles in organizing and participating in protests around the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. With the help of Dad and Lenny, they used the trial as an opportunity to put forward what they stood for, laying before the jury exactly what was at stake for them and for countless others protesting the war in Vietnam and the status quo in American politics. For my sister Emily and me, born almost a decade later, the trial of the Chicago Eight was the stuff of legends. By turns a high drama and an absurdist comedy, it was a lesson in courage, in standing up for what you believe in, when the odds (and the might of the federal government) are stacked against you.
In the 1980s and ’90s, my father’s office was in the basement of our house in the West Village. As children, Emily and I had the run of the place, crawling under desks and making elaborate art works out of pilfered office supplies. From time to time, Lenny would stop by, always friendly to, and patient with, our sexagenarian father’s little girls. Like my father, he was tall and thin. They were a matched set, with overgrown hair and sideburns that they both grew out during the Chicago trial and never cut back. Dad and Lenny would sit on either side of my father’s enormous black marble desk, folding their long bodies and rumpled suits into the creaky wooden desk chairs my father favored, where they talked, laughed, reminisced, and strategized. They never worked together again, but they shared the deep affection of two people who have weathered a life-changing experience.
Leonard Weinglass, who died in 2011 at age 77, was a movement lawyer—that is, a lawyer who represented people who were part of movements for progressive change; a lawyer who saw law both as a tool to advance those movements, and a tool used to crush them—and saw his role as that of an advocate in the truest sense of the word. I interviewed Lenny in 2006, when Emily and I were making a documentary about our father, who died when we were teenagers. We embarked on the project because we wanted to dig deeper into what had made our father tick, and Lenny was our logical first interview. The Chicago Eight trial was a watershed moment for our father, who was 50 years old when it started. Already well known for representing members of the civil-rights and anti-war movements, Dad became something of a legal rockstar, growing his hair long, experimenting with drugs, and speaking to packed crowds on college campuses across the country. When it was over, five of the defendants were found guilty of crossing state lines with the intent to start a riot, and Dad was sentenced to four years for contempt of court, at the time the longest contempt sentence ever imposed on an American lawyer. While all of the convictions were ultimately overturned, Dad found it impossible to go back to the life he had led before, at one point telling an interviewer, “I’m not sure where my home is anymore.”
Lenny’s life was similarly transformed. During our interview, he jokingly told us that he was widely known as “the other lawyer” after Chicago. But Lenny’s modesty was misplaced; 36 at the time of the Chicago trial, he had already cemented his reputation in Newark as a people’s lawyer, working as a solo practitioner out of a street-level office in a poor black neighborhood, defending local organizers fighting to improve their communities, and he would devote the rest of his life to fighting on behalf of defendants whose actions were motivated by their politics. What he lacked in Kunstler bombast he more than made up for in eloquence and thoughtfulness. And where Dad lost himself in the cases he took, blurring the lines between lawyer and client, putting his fist in the air and letting the movement carry him away, Lenny never seemed to forget that he was the lawyer, putting the movement and the radical risk takers that made up those movements first.