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A Lawyer Who Turned the Tables: Graphic Biography Immortalizes Leonard Weinglass

A graphic biography of Leonard Weinglass vividly depicts the brilliance of this passionate advocate for justice.

(Image: Seth Tobocman)

LEN: A Lawyer in History, Seth Tobocman, AK Press, 2016

Leonard Weinglass was a many-sided original: an authentically home-grown radical, a brilliant Constitutional scholar and law professor, a courtroom brawler who brought chutzpah and wizardry in equal measure before a jury, a passionate advocate for justice and a comrade of the rebels, dissidents and revolutionaries of his time. Lenny was one of a kind, and yet, as he himself would insist with characteristic humility and generosity, he was also simply one of us.

Len created a life of purpose, fighting shoulder to shoulder with the wretched of the earth, and indeed, his clients and causes illuminate an entire epoch in US radical politics: the Chicago 8 — aka the Chicago 7 — trial in 1968, Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo in the Pentagon Papers case, and a steady stream of revolutionaries, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, Angela Davis, Kathy Boudin of the Weather Underground, Bill and Emily Harris, Jimi Simmons and John Sinclair. He successfully represented Stephen Bingham, the attorney accused of smuggling a handgun to George Jackson in San Quentin Prison, which state authorities claimed led to an escape attempt in which Jackson himself was killed by prison guards. He fought the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoena of Jane Fonda after she traveled to Hanoi during the US bombing campaign against the capitol city of North Vietnam, climbed into an antiaircraft installation for photographs and made radio broadcasts to the US military in South Vietnam urging them to stop the violence against the Vietnamese people. There was heated talk of charging “Hanoi Jane” with treason, and when she was called to testify, Fonda publicly thanked HUAC for the opportunity to put the US government on trial by giving public testimony about the war in the super-hot spotlight of a Congressional hearing. The committee withdrew the subpoena, a victory for Fonda and the peace movement, and for Lenny. This was pure Len: gaining the upper hand against a more muscular adversary by adroitly reversing the situation.

Leonard Weinglass stands in the grand tradition of the legendary 20th century lawyers who themselves joined social justice movements and helped the popular forces to move history forward — including Clarence Darrow, Constance Baker Motley, Thurgood Marshall, Bill Kunstler, Florynce Kennedy, Arthur Kinoy, Lew Steele, Jeff Haas, Michael Ratner, Jan Susler, George Crockett, Conrad Lynn, Nancy Hollander, Dennis Cunningham, Lynn Stewart, Lani Guinier, Leonard Boudin, Flint Taylor, Ernest Goodman, Charles Garry, Joey Mogul, Michael J. Kennedy, Walter Riley and Jeff Adache — and he’s earned the exalted rank of “People’s Lawyer.”

It’s perfectly fitting, then, that Seth Tobocman, an activist “People’s Artist” with decades of effort wielding pencil and pen in the service of social justice, has linked arms with Paul Buhle and Michael Steven Smith to bring Lenny vividly to life in a graphic biography — a comic book — that is part intimate portrait and part social history of the last five decades. Tobocman and Weinglass are natural brothers and intuitive comrades-in-arms: while Lenny’s field of battle tended toward the courtroom, Seth’s weapons have been forged in the artist’s studio and the comics medium. His World War 3 Illustrated clarifies the everyday agony and unnecessary suffering we see in every direction, and provokes us to rise up, fight back, dive into the contradictions and take to the streets.

Both Lenny and Seth deploy their imaginations to break free of the strait-jackets of the taken-for-granted and the acceptable discourse — each is determined to get to the root of problems as he invents new languages and frameworks of resistance, each encourages us to name ourselves as works-in-progress catapulting through a vibrant history-in-the-making, and on every major issue of the day, each has created openings to stand with the oppressed peoples of the world fighting for more peace, more participation, more freedom and more justice.

Lenny’s signature as a lawyer involved turning the tables. His typical gesture, a kind of courtroom jujitsu, the gentle art of out-maneuvering a more powerful enemy by using the attacker’s force against him or her through deft moves and skillful counters. That was the clear strategy in the Fonda/HUAC case, and it informed as well the Chicago 7 trial, the Pentagon Papers case, and the defense of the Cuban Five. Partly, this strategy involved redefining and humanizing the defendants — not a traitor but a patriot, not a spy but a defender of the nation, not a “murderous thug” but a community activist. Again and again Len would concede many of the facts in a case only to expand the universe of acceptable evidence, widening the lens in order to look more broadly at the concentric circles of context, including historical flow, political settings and economic conditions.

Unlike most lawyers whose legal training and background encourage them to dominate decisions about political and legal strategy, Lenny recognized from his early days in Newark that his clients had the right to make their decisions about how to create a defense, who should testify, who was their audience during a trial or hearing, and how to communicate best their actions and larger ethical purposes. His ego seemed not to require bluster or power plays. And he was willing to argue with but ultimately trust his clients’ wisdom and judgments.

In 1987, Lenny represented students and their allies at University of Massachusetts (UMass) who were charged with trespass and disorderly conduct for a sit-in at a campus building used by the CIA to recruit graduating students. UMass had a regulation against allowing criminal organizations to recruit on campus, so Len and the students set out to prove that the CIA was an extensive criminal enterprise. Len employed the “necessity defense,” acknowledging the commission of a crime, but arguing that it should be excused because it was done in an emergency situation in order to prevent an even greater crime. Radical lawyers had used the “necessity defense” before — in 1965, Ernie Goodman used it to defend students who’d sat in at a draft board in Ann Arbor, protesting the war in Vietnam, yet they all ended up in county jail — but this time they won.

This marvelous comic book is worthy of its subject. It bubbles with human complexity and human emotion. It reminds us that for each of us there will come a time when nothing is possible any longer, but that in the meantime we can take responsibility to engage and participate, to create, to put our shoulders on history’s great wheel. This is a book to read and to cherish, a book to tuck under the arm of anyone imagining a life in the law or heading off to law school. She’ll thank you for it later.

Thank you, Seth Tobocman. Leonard Weinglass, presente!

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