THE SEDUCTIVE CHALLENGE OF
Chicago National Lawyers Guild
Bernardine Dohrn November 3, 2017
I wanted to be a radical lawyer and a freedom fighter, when I came to work at the National Lawyers Guild in June, 1967. In those heady times of rebellion and radical change, I kept a list of revolutionary/lawyers: Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Don Pedro Albizo Campos, Mahatma Gandhi, Constance Baker Motley. I had just met Haywood Burns (who would become my brother-in-law), Bill Robinson, and D’Army Bailey, Michael Kennedy (who would become my lawyer) and Michael Tigar, Victor Rabinowitz (my mentor) and Leonard Boudin (my family), Ralph Shapiro, the radical gay lawyer John Mage, Deborah Evanson, the magnificent Florence Kennedy, and of course the inimitable Arthur Kinoy (my comrade), The Guild national office, at 5 Beekman Street in Lower Manhattan seemed to me, a Midwest girl new to the struggles for racial justice, anti-war resistance, and economic equality, to be a thrilling place of intellectual sophistication, biting critique, and disapproval of the flamboyant/hippie way I dressed. But Ken Cloke and I were hired to “re-build” the Guild, in part by creating law student NLG chapters, alongside preparing radical lawyers to join and defend the rising anti-war and Black Freedom movements for social justice.
We recruited and educated law students and lawyers to represent draft resisters, found volunteer psychologists and social workers to document moral objections to the American war in Vietnam, and pro bono lawyers to be prepared for mass arrests. At my first law student recruitment speech at Columbia law school, nodding from the back row of the auditorium were Eleanor Stein, Michael Ratner and Gus Reichbach. They joined! And quickly, mass arrests came to us: at the Pentagon demonstrations where there were 682 arrests of protesters taken to a Virginia military base¬…≥; at the NYC Hilton demonstration against Secretary of State Dean Rusk; at campuses exposing secret war research at their universities. By 1968, there was the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the resignation of Pres. LBJ, the assassination of Dr. King & uprisings or rebellions in 110 cities, the occupations at 5 buildings at Columbia University, the arrest and trial of H. Rap Brown, chair of SNCC, the May Days in Paris, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the uprisings in Mexico City.
At the heart of the notion of radical lawyering are two essential threads: 1) the people with the problems are the people with the solutions, so the clients, the activists, the resisters who need lawyers must direct the lawyer/client relationship; and 2) law students and lawyers can and should be political activists and organizers themselves, committed in the long haul to the revolutionary struggle for justice. Yes, this is a contradiction. The law herself is “conservative”: law is itself the codification and enforcement of existing property and power relationships; radicals, by definition are trying to uproot (if not overthrow) established, unequal social relationships.
Although it would be years before I would meet Abdullah Omar, Mandela’s lawyer during his long confinement on Robbin Island, who became the first Minister of Justice in the post-apartheid era, and Justice Albie Sachs, the lawyer/writer appointed to the first Constitutional Court of South Africa, these committed models of radical lawyering continued to inspire NLG lawyers and me.
I think of the great poet laureate of Illinois, Mz. Gwendolyn Brooks:
cracks into furious flowers. Lifts its face
all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace….
It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.
Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind. 2x
We’re here in the era of Trump totalitarianism. So let’s close Cook County Jail. Let’s bulldoze Illinois prisons. And let’s regenerate a radical movement for peace and disarmament.
The continuing re-birth of the Guild and the brilliant Next Gen lawyers in Chicago, whose spirit and radical zeal, whose “zealous advocacy” on behalf of their creative and outrageous clients such as the vibrant #Expand Sanctuary Campaign organized by BYP 100, Mijente, and OCAD, the water protectors at Standing Rock, the queer/feminist organizers, the climate justice activists, the poets and playwrights and artists– are all challenging the deadly fosilization of legal practice.
This means that the Guild is today in great hands, propelled by passionate and defiant spirits like Arthur Kinoy himself. It is my honor to be among you.