The Emerging Police State

William M. Kunstler, The Emerging Police State. Edited by Michael Steven Smith, Karin Kunstler Goldman, and Sarah Kunstler (New York: Ocean Press, 2004).

This short book should be required reading for every left and liberal person in the US. Built around fifteen speeches by radical lawyer William Kunstler, in and out of the courtroom, it sometimes chillingly describes the emerging US police state. The texts date from the 1970s to 1995, the year Kunstler died. Taken together, they show two things: 1) the evolution of Kunstler’s ideas about the law and his role in defending accused persons, and 2) how in those decades the then emerging right had already begun to dismantle the Bill of Rights. The speeches thus anticipate what we are (arguably) experiencing today: the police state emerged. Ironically, several of the selections come from FBI files, courtesy of the Freedom of Information Act (a channel now no longer open because of the PATRIOT Act). Also included are two letters to the New York Times, one of which, entitled “The Movement is Not Dead,” protests the Times’s misreporting him to have said that the left was less militant.

Three chapters add depth. An introduction by Michael Ratner locates Kunstler as a stalwart defender of civil rights and traces his evolution from lawyer to radical lawyer. A second introduction by Michael Steven Smith concentrates more on Kunstler the human being, much of the material taken from the author’s personal experiences. An Afterword by Judge Gustin L. Reichbach reproduces his Appreciation of Kunstler as it appeared in the New York Law Journal in 1995.

From the 1960s until his death, Kunstler represented a Who’s Who of the US civil rights and radical movements. A short list would include: Freedom Riders in the South, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Chicago 7, students at both Kent and Jackson State, and members of the American Indian Movement. He successfully argued the unconstitutionality of the New York death penalty, and won the Supreme Court case which ruled that flag-burning was protected by the First Amendment.

By his own account, Kunstler only became a full-blown radical lawyer after the trial of the Chicago 7 in 1970 (the closing arguments for the defense are reproduced in Chapter 8). At that point he became totally convinced that the law, instead of being an impartial arbiter between people, in reality upheld the interests of capital and the rich, while discriminating against the masses, the poor, immigrants, and people of color.

In these speeches, many of them moving expressions of Kunstler’s humanism, the man’s sense of humor emerges time and again. In his lifetime he published two books of poetry, mostly sonnets, which he often used effectively in his speeches. Throughout, Kunstler’s enormous erudition stands out. He constantly makes analogies to US and world historical events and personages.

In the final analysis Kunstler’s politics defy definition. Clearly anti-capitalist (a system based on greed as he called it), anti-imperialist, and anti-racist, he was probably much too busy to even think about joining a political party, but obviously considered himself part of The Movement. While never an advocate of violence, he clearly saw that breaking the established (and discriminatory) law was sometimes necessary. He also defended the Weatherpeople’s right to wage an underground struggle against the system.

The logic of why people must struggle for a better world is irrefutable. The scary thing is that, as Kunstler constantly points out, those in power are dedicated to destroying, by force if necessary, the ones who carry out this struggle.

Reviewed by Hobart Spalding

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