December 10, 2016
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Life Of Civil Rights Attorney William Kunstler Chronicled In Documentary

 

 

 

New York-When they were small, Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler idolized their father, who was famous for
having championed the underdogs in some of the most important civil rights and anti-war cases of
that contentious era known as the 1960s. By the time they were born in the late 1970s, however,
those cases were behind William Kunstler, who was almost 60. As the sisters grew into their teens,
they were embarrassed and then distressed when their father continued to represent some of the
most reviled defendants in America — now accused terrorists, rapists and mobsters.

The man who had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and who had defended the Chicago 8 antiwar
protestors, Native American activists at Wounded Knee and prisoners caught up in the Attica
prison rebellion was now seen kissing the cheek of a Mafia client and defending an Islamic
fundamentalist charged with assassinating a rabbi, terrorists accused of bombing the World Trade
Center and a teenager charged in a near-fatal gang rape. The sisters remember the shock of
disenchantment they felt. Disturbing the Universe is Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler’s attempt
to reconcile the heroic movement lawyer from the past with the father they knew.

Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler’s William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, an award winner
at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, has its American broadcast premiere on Tuesday, June 22,
2010, at 10 p.m. on PBS, kicking off the regular season of POV (Point of View). POV continues on
Tuesdays through Sept. 21 and concludes with a fall 2010 special. (Check local listings.) American
television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the recipient of a Special
Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking as well as the International
Documentary Association’s 2009 IDA Award for Continuing Series.

Using home movies, archival news footage, narration by Emily Kunstler and the memories of many
of those who knew or worked with William Kunstler, who died in 1995 at age 76, the sisters retrace
their father’s path from middle-class family man to acclaimed movement lawyer to a man labeled
“the most hated and most loved lawyer in America” by The New York Times. Included in the film are
interviews with American Indian Movement founders Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt; poet,
priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan; Margaret Ratner Kunstler, the filmmakers’ mother and an
accomplished civil rights attorney; Karin Kunstler Goldman, Kunstler’s oldest daughter from his first
marriage and an assistant attorney general in New York; Leonard Weinglass, another movement
lawyer and co-counsel with Kunstler at the Chicago trial; Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party cofounder
and Chicago 8 defendant who was ordered bound and gagged in the courtroom when he
tried to defend himself; and Jean Fritz, a juror in the Chicago 8 trial.

Disturbing the Universe reveals the young, Jewish suburban lawyer who practiced bread-andbutter
law with his brother from 1946 to the early 1960s while dreaming of doing more exciting
things. He first ventured into civil rights with a housing discrimination suit on behalf of an African-
American couple in his own community in New York’s Westchester County, which he won.
(Interestingly, almost 50 years later Paul and Orial Redd, who appear in the film, are still the only
blacks in their housing complex.) The real siren call of Kunstler’s future came in 1961, when the
American Civil Liberties Union asked him to go to Jackson, Miss. to defend the Freedom Riders,
who were taking buses through the South challenging segregation laws in transportation and public
accommodations — and who were regularly beaten and arrested by police and then tried and
convicted in the legal system.

The experience transformed Kunstler. In his own words, he was “reborn into a man I liked better,
one who contributed to society and tried to make a difference.” By 1966, he had founded the Center
for Constitutional Rights with attorneys Ben Smith, Arthur Kinoy and Morton Stavis. After that, the
sensational cases came as fast as the events that defined the times.

From 1968 through 1974, Kunstler defended the Catonsville 9, including priests and brothers Daniel
and Philip Berrigan, and other religious activists who burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War;
served as lead counsel in the trial of the Chicago 8, who were charged with inciting riots at the 1968
Democratic National Convention; tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the Attica prison takeover at
the request of the inmates who were demanding better living conditions; and led the defense of
Dennis Banks and Russell Means in the wake of the 71-day standoff between the U.S. military and
Indian activists at Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D. In this period, Kunstler also met
Margaret Ratner, a radical young lawyer who was defending Columbia University protestors and
who would become his second wife and Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler’s mother.

By the mid-1970s, however, the temper of the country had cooled considerably. A mid-1980s flagburning
case before the Supreme Court in which Kunstler successfully argued that burning the flag
was political speech protected by the First Amendment recalled his heyday. Otherwise, he was to be
found defending a drug dealer who shot six policemen, a 15-year-old accused (and later exonerated)
in the notorious gang rape and beating of a jogger in New York’s Central Park, an Islamist militant
accused of assassinating Jewish leader Rabbi Meir Kahane, several of the defendants in the 1993
World Trade Center bombing and Mafia don John Gotti. This was the period when Emily and Sarah
were growing up and growing increasingly terrified by the hostility their father was attracting. It was
also the period when The New York Times gave him the “most hated and most loved lawyer” tag.
Kunstler had remarkable success throughout his career (he even managed to get the cop-shooting
drug dealer acquitted of attempted murder charges and the Islamist militant acquitted of
assassinating the rabbi). But his legal experiences changed him — especially the Chicago Eight trial,
which he won, and his efforts at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, where his
intervention failed and 43 prisoners and nine guards were killed. As told in Disturbing the Universe,
he went from believing in the law as an instrument of justice to seeing it as an instrument of
repression wielded by the powerful. In archival footage, he can be seen telling a crowd during the
Chicago 8 trial that he suspected that “more people have gone to their deaths through a legal
system than through all the illegalities in the history of man.”

In Disturbing the Universe, this view emerges as the answer to Emily and Sarah’s key question.
Their father had come to see the perversion of the justice system in favor of the powerful as so
pervasive that even the most reprehensible defendants had to have their rights protected. Indeed, he
believed they were more likely to be treated unfairly from the start. This view may not convince all of
Kunstler’s critics, but it is the thread that ties the great civil liberties advocate to the unpopular
defense lawyer. William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is a heartfelt, searching and
enlightening portrait of a larger-than-life attorney who never ceased attempting to be someone “who
contributed to society and tried to make a difference.”

“Sarah and I wanted to fit Dad’s life into a single unified theory,” recalls Emily Kunstler. “We wanted
all of his clients to be innocent and all of his cases to be battles for justice and freedom. But by the
time he died, we thought he had stopped standing for anything worth fighting for.”

“Disturbing the Universe grew out of conversations that Emily and I began having about our father
in 2005, about 10 years after his death,” says Sarah Kunstler. “When we decided to make a film, we
worried that the people we interviewed would see us only as his daughters. But this became a
strength. While we loved our father’s extravagant greatness, we also suffered his frailty. And we
knew that many other people take similar adult journeys toward reconciling the parent with the
person.

“While our father lived in front of news cameras, we found our place behind the lens,” adds Sarah.
“We hope our film communicates that the world we inherit is better because someone struggled for
justice, and that those changes will survive only if we continue to fight.”

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is a co-production of Disturbing the Universe LLC and
the Independent Television Service (ITVS), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting (CPB).

About the Filmmakers:
Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler (Co-directors/Co-producers)
Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler grew up in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and attended the
Little Red School House. In 2000, they founded Off Center Media, a company that produces
documentaries focusing on injustice in the criminal-justice system.

The Kunstler sisters have produced, directed and edited a number of short documentaries, including
“Tulia, Texas: Scenes from the Drug War” (2002), which won Best Documentary Short at the
Woodstock Film Festival and helped exonerate 46 wrongfully convicted people, and “Getting
Through to the President” (2004), which aired on the Sundance Channel. Other Off Center Media
credits include “A Pattern of Exclusion: The Trial of Thomas Miller-El” (2002), “The Norfolk Four:
A Miscarriage Of Justice” (2006) and “Executing the Insane: The Case of Scott Panetti” (2007).
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is their first documentary feature.

Emily Kunstler graduated in 2000 from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a
bachelor of fine arts and honors in film and video; she previously attended Vassar College. She was
a video producer for the independent national television and radio news program “Democracy Now!”
and a studio art fellow with the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art
in 2004. Emily lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Sarah Kunstler graduated from Yale University with a bachelor of arts in photography in 1998 and
from Columbia Law School with a Juris Doctor in 2004. She is currently a criminal defense attorney
practicing in the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York and lives in Brooklyn with her husband,
music producer Jesse Ferguson.

 


 

 

Timeline:       

·         July 7, 1919 – William Moses Kunstler is born.

·         1944-1945 – Kunstler’s Army unit joins the invasion of Leyte, New Guinea. He receives a Bronze Star.

·         1960 – Kunstler represents Paul and Orial Redd, African-American founders of the local NAACP chapter who live in his Westchester community. This housing discrimination lawsuit is Kunstler’s first civil rights case.

·         1966 – Kunstler co-founds the Center for Constitutional Rights.

·         Oct. 5-9, 1968 – Kunstler represents the Catonsville 9, Catholic activists, including brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, who burn draft files to protest the Vietnam War.

·         Summer 1968 – Kunstler, who is representing Abbie Hoffman on a marijuana charge, meets young radical attorney Margaret Ratner in a New York City.

·         Aug. 22-29, 1968 – Protesters, including the YIPPIES and the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, converge on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

·         Sept. 24, 1969–Feb. 18, 1970 – Kunstler serves as lead counsel in the trial of the Chicago 8 (Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale and Lee Weiner).

·         Feb. 25, 1970 – After a speech by Kunstler, rioting students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, burn down the local branch of the Bank of America.

·         Sept. 9–13, 1971 – When inmates at Attica Correctional Facility seize the prison, they invite Kunstler to be an observer and then their lawyer. On Sept. 13, the state retakes the prison by force, killing 29 inmates and nine hostages.

·         Feb. 27–May 8, 1973 – American Indian Movement and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation residents occupy Wounded Knee, S.D., and demand an investigation into corruption by local government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. U.S. military and government agents surround the area. The standoff ends peacefully after 71 days. Kunstler aids negotiations.

·         Jan. 8–Sept. 16, 1974 – Kunstler is lead counsel at the trial of Dennis Banks and Russell Means of Wounded Knee. After nine months, the judge dismisses the case.

·         October 1976 – William Kunstler and Margaret Ratner marry at the Manhattan courthouse where they met.

·         Nov. 5, 1976 – Sarah Kunstler is born.

·         June 24, 1978 – Emily Kunstler is born.

·         Nov. 19, 1986 – Larry Davis, a 23-year-old drug dealer, shoots six officers when police raid his sister’s Bronx apartment. He eludes capture for 17 days. Represented by Kunstler, Davis is found not guilty of attempted murder two years later.

·         March 21, 1989 – Kunstler defends Gregory “Joey” Johnson’s Texas flag-burning case of 1984 before the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 21, 1989, the Court issues its decision invalidating prohibitions in force in 48 of the 50 states against desecrating the American flag. Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989).

·         Aug. 18, 1990 – Yusef Salaam, 15, is convicted of raping and beating the Central Park Jogger in 1989. Kunstler spends two years appealing and is brought up on disciplinary charges after calling the trial judge a “disgrace to the bench.”

·         Dec. 22, 1991 – A jury acquits Kunstler’s client El Sayiid Nosair of murdering Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York on Nov. 5, 1990.

·         1992 Kunstler represents John Gotti and defends his constitutional right to counsel.

·         Feb. 26, 1993 – A car bomb is detonated below the WorldTradeCenter. Kunstler represents suspects Ibrahim A. El-Gabrowny, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig and Sheik Abdel Rahman, but is disqualified by District Court Judge Michael Mukasey on Aug. 25, 1995.

·         Sept. 5, 1994 – William Kunstler dies.

 

 

ABOUT POV:    Produced by American Documentary, Inc. and now in its 23rd season on PBS, the award-winning POV series is the longest-running showcase on American television to feature the work of today’s best independent documentary filmmakers. Airing June through September, with primetime specials during the year, POV has brought more than 300 acclaimed documentaries to millions nationwide and has a Webby Award-winning online series, POV's Borders. Since 1988, POV has pioneered the art of presentation and outreach using independent nonfiction media to build new communities in conversation about today's most pressing social issues. More information is available at www.pbs.org/pov

 

Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, The Educational Foundation of America, New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The Fledgling Fund, FACT and public television viewers. Funding for POV's Diverse Voices Project is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Special support provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. POV is presented by a consortium of public television stations, including KCET Los Angeles, WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG



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