Daughters Remember Late Father, The Infamous Civil Rights Lawyer

The life of civil rights attorney William Kunstler is the subject of a new film, “Disturbing the Universe.” Host Michel Martin speaks with Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, who made the documentary about their father, and life as the daughters of a man who did not shy away from taking chances.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, a former prosecutor talks about what the fight for social justice means now. His prescription for change may surprise you. That conversation a little later. But first, when you hear the name William Kunstler, you may think of the internationally known civil rights lawyer who fought for civil rights in the segregated South, who defended anti-war protesters in Chicago and who negotiated in behalf of protesting inmates at Attica prison in New York and American Indians at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Or you might think of the man who embraced mobster John Gotti, represented an accused New York cop shooter and a suspect in the first World Trade Center bombings. But if you are Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, then you think of the man you loved and admired as your father. The two have made a documentary about their father's life titled "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe." And they join us now from our New York bureau to talk about it. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. SARAH KUNSTLER (Producer, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe"): Thanks.

Ms. EMILY KUNSTLER (Producer, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe"): Thanks so much.

MARTIN: Sarah, I'll start with you just because you're the elder by -what? Two years, I think it is. And you had a very unusual upbringing. You said that when most kids were afraid of ghosts and monsters, you were afraid of something else. What were you afraid of?

Ms. SARAH KUNSTLER: We were afraid of the police, the president and the FBI.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And why is that?

Ms. SARAH KUNSTLER: Because we were afraid that our father was a target. During our lifetime, he took controversial cases, and there was a lot of visible aggression towards him. People would call our house and say mean things when Emily and I picked up the phone. There were protesters in front of our house. You know, our father would joke with us when he went to court that he was packing a toothbrush because he might be hauled off to jail for contempt of court. Those were scary things for a kid.

MARTIN: You say that by the time you were born, you say your father's glory days were behind him. Emily, what do you mean by that?

Ms. EMILY KUNSTLER: Sarah and I grew up hearing about the work that he did in the South and the work that he did during the anti-war movement. During our lifetime, we saw a much different person. So it was hard, in a child's mind, to reconcile the two.

MARTIN: Was he a nice dad?

Ms. EMILY KUNSTLER: Yeah. I mean, he was definitely a nice dad. You know, he was a public person. But he still took time to throw the ball around in front of the house with us and would take Sarah and I on alternating trips with him when he would travel to give speeches and make court appearances across the country.

MARTIN: You talk about this trip to the Supreme Court where he says that he was arguing a case about - a First Amendment case involving flag burning, and he talked about - what did he say? What was the phrase he used? That�

Ms. SARAH KUNSTLER: This is Sarah. He told us that the Supreme Court was a World Series for lawyers. He was thrilled to be going to the Supreme Court to argue a case.

MARTIN: And it was like the way some kids would take a field trip�

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: �you know, you're going to the Supreme Court. You know, it's not the typical field trip or trip out of town with dad. But you talk in the film about how by the time that you were, you know, young teens, you began to have some qualms about some of your father's clients. In fact, you say in the film that dad's clients gave us nightmares. Which ones?

Ms. EMILY KUNSTLER: This is Emily speaking. You know, our father was defending Yusef Salaam, who was accused of brutally raping the Central Park jogger and El Sayyid Nosair, who was accused of murdering Rabbi Kahane, and people who would shoot cops. And it just didn't seem consistent with the stories that he had told us.

MARTIN: I think this film might be surprising to some people who think that because you're William Kunstler's daughters, you're going to try to sort of deify him or gloss over the very polarizing positions that he took or some of the cases that he took that really pushed a lot of people buttons. But you don't.

In fact, you face that issue very squarely and very early in the film. For example, here you interview the famed criminal lawyer and law professor Alan Dershowitz, who told you that he, too, felt conflicted about some of your father's cases. Here's a short clip.

(Soundbite of film, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe")

Professor ALAN DERSHOWITZ (Law, Harvard Law School): It's very, very hard to look Bill Kunstler's daughter in the eye and to say that I thought he was a hypocrite. It's a very hard question. But I do I have to say that I think he sometimes acted inconsistently with the principles that he stated and articulated.

MARTIN: Sarah, first can I ask, why did he think that?

Ms. SARAH KUNSTLER: Alan Dershowitz doubted that Bill loved the people that he represented later in his career. So to take that public stance -I only represent people I love or people whose causes I support, and then to represent people accused of bombing the World Trade Center or raping a jogger in Central Park, that was hypocritical.

MARTIN: But you do go into - you do go into the trajectory of his life. And you start, for example, that when he came back from World War II, he went to law school on the GI bill. You said he started out doing pretty mundane legal work, lived in the suburbs, had that kind of classic, middle-class existence. And then something changed for him. Emily, what is it that caused him to start on the path that later became his life?

Ms. EMILY KUNSTLER: He got a call from the ACLU to go be a witness when the Freedom Writers got off the bus in Mississippi. And he went down south and he watched these really brave people risk arrest, brutality and prison time, and he was blown away. He realized then that it was really getting out there and doing something that mattered. And it changed the course of his life.

MARTIN: Your father was one of the lawyers representing a group who'd protested at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. They were charged with inciting to riot and other related charges. The trial became known as the Chicago Eight. It was later the Chicago Seven. There were these famous exchanges between your father and the judge, Judge Julius Hoffman. Here's a short clip.

(Soundbite of film, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe")

Judge JULIUS HOFFMAN: I asked you to sit down.

Mr. WILLIAM KUNSTLER (Defense Attorney): Your Honor, I think the court is going to have to decide put me in my seat. I am not going to sit down unless I am forced to sit down.

Judge HOFFMAN: I have had enough of your insults.

Mr. KUNSTLER: Your Honor, I'm not being insulting.

Judge HOFFMAN: You sit down, sir, or we'll�

Mr. KUNSTLER: What?

Judge HOFFMAN: �arrange to have you put down.

MARTIN: The whole trial was a very shocking experience to many people watching it. At one point, one of the defendants, Bobby Seale, an African-American, was gagged and bound to his chair for speaking out of turn. And Sarah, I just was interested to - I think you're a lawyer, as well, right?

Ms. SARAH KUNSTLER: Yes, I am.

MARTIN: And so for you, I mean, being a lawyer yourself and going through sort of the whole process of going to law school and so forth like, what was it like for you to watch this whole scene play out?

Ms. SARAH KUNSTLER: It's really liberating, because in law school, you're taught to conform. And that's part of the reason why it's so exciting for us to get to show this film to law student audiences. While you might not be in the same kind of confrontation that Bill was in in that courtroom, you can stand up for what you believe in. You can have courage of conviction in a courtroom.

MARTIN: He became - he transformed - as you said, it's a film about transformation from this kind of typical sort of suburban burgher, you know, and barrister doing, you know, wills and things like that into this internationally famous figure. He was the go-to man for civil rights disputes ranging from the prisoner riots in Attica to the standoff with Native Americans and the federal authorities at Wounded Knee.

Were you aware that he was so famous? I mean, you were aware that he was a person who was under threat at times. But were you aware that he was this big figure outside of your life?

Ms. SARAH KUNSTLER: It seemed to Emily and I that our father was at the center of everything important that had ever happened. So we had a sense of him as like this hero who swooped in in these tremendous events and got to play a part.

Ms. EMILY KUNSTLER: And just walking to school with him every day -Sarah and I went to a school that was maybe four blocks from our family home. It would take us 25 to 30 minutes to walk there because every 10 feet, someone would stop to talk to him.

MARTIN: And how did you feel about that?

Ms. SARAH KUNSTLER: This is Sarah. We liked it. It was our experience. We didn't know it any other way. That's who our dad was. And, you know, I mean, it could be annoying if you had to go somewhere. But our father had this presence and this life, and it kind of took us out of this solipsistic little world of our childhood and made us realize that there was a world out there and things were happening.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're speaking with Emily and Sarah Kunstler. They are the daughters of famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler, and they have produced a new documentary about their father. It's called "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe."

You know, the film takes all the chapters in William Kunstler's life. In fact, there was this period when he was - I mean, he was always a polarizing figure once he became a civil rights activist and lawyer, but then there was a point at which you say he seemed to become - what's the word I'm looking for? - like a media junky, that just he couldn't get enough.

There was a - he participated in a mock trial of Tyrone the Cat. There's a short clip I want to play about that. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe")

Mr. WILLIAM KUNSTLER: What, in your expert opinion, is the relationship between cats and human beings? Is it a friendly one, a hostile one?

Ms. EMILY KUNSTLER: It was official. Sarah and I agreed. Our father had completely lost his mind.

MARTIN: What is going on there? Have you ever figured it out? Why was he doing that?

Ms. EMILY KUNSTLER: This is Emily speaking. Fox called him and said that they were doing this trial against cats, all cats, for crimes against humanity, and he couldn't turn it down, you know? It was a nationally broadcast mock trial, and he loved it. You know, he really appreciated the theater of the courtroom.

MARTIN: And what do you think about that?

Ms. EMILY KUNSTLER: At that time, you know, I have to say, Sarah and I had cats, and we didn't want the cat to lose, but it was still embarrassing that our father was the person standing between, you know, the cat.

Ms. SARAH KUNSTLER: This is Sarah. He was a tremendously embarrassing dad. You know, I mean, I think as far as dads go, we were always dying inside when he was publicly embarrassing us. You know, as far as his relationship with publicity, there's no question that he loved it.

Every night, he would walk our dog around the corner and get every single newspaper, the evening edition, so he could see what was being said about him. We had to watch every news show that evening to see if he was on it. And he knew that if he was on a case that that case would get attention.

So it wasn't just, for him, publicity for publicity's sake. It was a tool that he used to bring attention to things that he thought mattered.

MARTIN: One of the cases you wished he had not taken, and you're both clear about this in the film, is that of Yusef Salaam. He was one of the men convicted of assaulting a female jogger in Central Park as part of a group, a wilding pack, as it were. The case caused widespread outrage. Your father spent years fighting the case, appealing the conviction.

Later, after your father's death, Salaam was found to be innocent, and he was freed from prison. You interviewed him for the film. This is what he had to say.

(Soundbite of movie, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe")

Mr. YUSEF SALAAM: The legacy that Bill Kunstler has left is his fights and his struggles were - or became also my fights and my struggles. You know, any time you have injustice, or anytime you are faced with any kind of injustice, and you're in a position to do something, you have to do something.

MARTIN: Emily, can I ask you? You talk about how in the film, you pleaded with your dad not to take that case. Your dad said well, you know what? It's in the Constitution. Everybody deserves a lawyer, and you would say yes, but does it have to be you? And when you think about that, what do you think?

Ms. EMILY KUNSTLER: You know, making this film, one of the greatest gifts that it gave Sarah and I was the opportunity to meet Yusef and his family. You know, we think about the sacrifices that we made and the risks that we took for our father to live the life that he did, and after meeting Yusef and coming to understand his life and his story, those sacrifices seem really small in comparison.

Yusef spent seven and a half years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and we had to made uncomfortable so our father could stand up for him and help protect his rights. And you know, we - at this point, it seems like a worthy sacrifice.

MARTIN: Sarah, what about you? When you think about the whole arc of your father's life, what do you think?

Ms. SARAH KUNSTLER: You know, Emily and I talk about this. And when our father died, we definitely wanted to reconcile him. We wanted all of his life to make sense. We wanted all of his choices to be good choices, and it's the sentiment of the child to want the parent to be consistent at all times. And one of the things that - the conclusions we came to in making this film, is that the search for consistency is flawed from the outset and that real change happens in inconsistent moments, in gray moments, and that the only way we're going to move forward as a nation is, you know, is by not being afraid to act in those moments.

MARTIN: Sarah and Emily Kunstler wrote, directed and produced the new documentary, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe." Ladies, I thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SARAH KUNSTLER: Thank you.

Ms. EMILY KUNSTLER: Thanks so much.

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