A New Graphic Novel Portrays an Iconic Radical Lawyer as the Superhero He Always Was

A New Graphic Novel Portrays an Iconic Radical Lawyer as the Superhero He Always Was

A New Graphic Novel Portrays an Iconic Radical Lawyer as the Superhero He Always Was

From the Chicago Eight to the Cuban Five, Leonard Weinglass dedicated his life to protecting the right to dissent.

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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.

Len, A Lawyer in History, a new graphic novel written and illustrated by Seth Tobocman, and edited by Paul Buhle and Michael Steven Smith, tells the story of Leonard Weinglass and the cases he took. But like Lenny himself, it puts the struggle before the man. Tobocman, a radical comic book artist who has long used his art in the service of political change, is well-suited to the task. In page after kinetic page, he sketches a story that reads, as much as a tale of one remarkable man, as a primer on radical dissent—and the criminalization of that dissent—from the days of the Newark Community Union Project, founded in 1964 as a northern outpost of Students for a Democratic Society, to the persecution of the Cuban Five, who were sent to the this country to monitor counter-revolutionary terrorist organizations planning attacks on Cuba, and were wrongly convicted of a conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States. Lenny represented them until his dying day.

The case of the Chicago Eight looms large in Tobocman’s book, and it is easy to see why—the trial itself was like a theatrical performance and has inspired countless reimaginings, including a powerful 2008 documentary by Brett Morgen that combined animation and archival footage. Tobocman’s vision of the trial is fast-paced and compelling, intercutting key courtroom moments with flashbacks to the protests that gave rise to the indictment, bringing both to dramatic life. He starts with the context that gave rise to the protests, filling the frames with striking, dark-lined images. “By 1968,” he writes, “many Americans felt they had exhausted all conventional means in pursuit of peace and justice.” From a mass of shadowed military figures conscripted into battle, to a faceless group of baton-wielding cops storming Grant Park, to throngs of protesters holding their ground, Tobocman’s stark renderings are powerfully evocative of present day movements for justice—of prisoners striking across the country and protesters taking to the streets in Charlotte, North Carolina, after yet another black man is murdered by the police. And the resonance of this not-so-distant past lends an urgency to the retelling. In the end, Lenny is cast as legal superhero, breaking down prison gates and springing the Chicago Eight on the strength of his legal acumen—an ecstatic, over-the-top vision of radical lawyering.

I can’t decide whether this image would have made Lenny cringe or chuckle, but I know he would have changed the subject—putting the focus squarely, as he always did, on the client or the movement he was representing. And in the end, it was just one episode in an astonishing legal career that spanned five decades—a life devoted to advocating on the front lines. Tobocman’s book can’t cover all of Lenny’s cases—and, thankfully, doesn’t try to—but he does delve deep into a few, like Lenny’s representation of Anthony Russo, who was charged along with Daniel Ellsberg with leaking the Pentagon Papers, classified documents about the US role in Vietnam. The charges against Ellsberg and Russo were eventually dismissed on the basis of government misconduct, but not until after the conclusion of a lengthy trial in which Lenny put his client on the stand to explain his personal and political motivations in making the material public.

With the little-known case of Jimi Simmons, an incarcerated Native American man who was improbably acquitted of murdering a guard after a prison-yard fight, Tobocman again showcases Lenny’s courtroom skills. But perhaps more important, Tobocman captures Lenny’s fundamental belief in his client’s right to participate in his or her own defense—an easier course of action in cases where he could cast his client’s actions as moral choices, and when there wasn’t a man lying dead on the floor. Simmons may not have been Anthony Russo or Abbie Hoffman, an activist whose actions highlighted some greater injustice, but he was Lenny’s client, and Lenny helped him to take the stand to share a complicated truth: While Simmons had fought with the officer, who died in his arms, he was not the person who stabbed him.

When Emily and I set off to interview Lenny, we were incredibly nervous. Lenny loomed large in our imaginations, and now he was going to be sitting across from us, answering our questions. His interview was our point of no return; we had embarked on an intensely personal project without any idea about where it might lead, telling a story we weren’t sure we had any right to tell. In the elevator, on the way up to his apartment, we bickered about whether to address him as “Lenny,” as our father always had, or call him “Len,” as we had heard he liked to be called.

When the elevator door opened, Lenny (as we decided to call him) set us right at ease. The first thing he said to us was that he had incredible respect for the fact that our father had managed to be a parent, that for him, the work he chose was incompatible with nurturing young kids. “You can’t walk out of your law office and do a case for five months, 800 miles away from your practice, and get paid 75 dollars a week and survive and have a family,” he told us.

And yet, a few small moments in Tobocman’s book suggest that it may also have been something he wanted: a spurned marriage proposal to a woman with whom he apparently hoped to start a family is described as a “devastating blow”; spending time with a client’s family, Lenny is seen as wistful for the family he never had the opportunity to have.

Like my father, I am a both a lawyer and a parent. And like parenting, a lot of lawyering, even the good kind, the noble kind, is both thankless and boring. Sifting through legal precedent to find a hook. Preparing briefs that are hundreds of pages long. Sticking by a client, like Lenny Weinglass stuck by Kathy Boudin and Mumia Abu Jamal, when the path to victory is neither certain nor clear. But this work, done in the service of people and movements, can, with persistence and grit, unmask injustice, right wrongs, tear down walls, and bring all of us one step closer to the elusive promise of equal justice under law. In the end, Lenny is a parent—his courage, the strength of his conviction, and his willingness to speak truth to power, helped give birth to a generation of progressive lawyers who saw Lenny and his uncompromising commitment to his clients as an example of the type of lawyer they wanted to be. And through this book, his legacy has the potential to birth many more.

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