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 anti-war 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.
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 co- founder 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-and- butter 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 flag- burning 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).