William Kunstler, 'Politics on trial'

IssueMarch - May 2003
Review by Andrea Needham

The five chapters of this book were originally part of a longer book, And justice for all, published in1963 (the other five chapters can be found at http://www.oceanbooks.com.au ). The author, William Kunstler, who died in 1995, was a radical US defence lawyer whose clients included Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

The reissue is in response to the current attack on civil liberties in the US in the wake of 11 September 2001, and includes a new introduction which examines the “anti-terrorist” legislation brought in by the Bush administration, including the USA Patriot Act (which I hadn't realised was a rather sick acronym: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”).

The five trials described were “occasioned and sustained by communities infused with fear and prejudice” - then of immigrants, African Americans, Jews, now of Muslims, anyone of Arabic extraction, and anyone who dares speak out against the abuses being committed by the US government in the name of “freedom”.

The defendants in the book - including Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs and the Scottsboro Nine (nine young African-American men who were wrongly accused in 1931 of raping two white women, and sentenced to death, then later pardoned but not before serving up to 19 years in prison) - were never going to get a fair trial in the anti-immigrant, anti-communist, racist climates in which they were tried. The same must go today for those being held without charge in Guantanamo Bay, or in jails all over the US, the latter in most cases guilty of no more than minor visa violations.

The US government net has been flung wide in the search for “terrorists”, and has swept up groups including Women in Black, whose US members the FBI has threatened with jail if they don't provide information. As the authors say, “We face not only the roundup of thousands on flimsy suspicions, but also an all-out investigation of dissent in the US.” The events of 11 September provided the US and other governments with the perfect excuse to throw human rights out of the window and to crack down hard on civil liberties and any form of dissent.

This book is an excellent read, both as history, and as current affairs - the section on how dissent is being stifled now is truly frightening. And as with the Rosenberg trial in 1951, when the US was in the grip of “anti-red” hysteria, we are again in a time when governments can get away with almost anything in the name of “antiterrorism”. Talking about the crushing of the Black Panther movement in the 1960s - but with words perhaps even more appropriate today - Kunstler said, “The key to survival, of course, is to be able to hear the booted tread before it stops in front of your own door.” This book provides ample evidence that the booted tread is getting louder every day.

See more of: Review