Remarks at the Len Weinglass Memorial
May 16, 2011 · By Phyllis Bennis
Remembering a friend, teacher, and fighter for justice.
Below are Phyllis Bennis' remarks at the Len Weinglass Memorial. Weinglass, one othe U.S. leading political defense lawyers and civil rights activists, passed away on March 23rd, at the age of 77.
What an amazing celebration of such an amazing life. Lenny was a gift to all of us.
I’m not sure how many of you heard the news, but yesterday the U.S. government announced they are declassifying the Pentagon Papers. It’s been 40 years – how many hundreds of thousands of copies have been published, read, translated into other languages, studied, used to build opposition to new wars. And still parts of it remain classified, remain redacted. Forty years.
I first met Len Weinglass during the Pentagon Papers trial. I was very young – one of the scores of students and sort-of students and not-quite students working as organizers on the Indochina Peace Campaign and its parallel organization the Pentagon Papers Peace Project. From the beginning, Len was like the WAY older brother I never had. He was ‘Lenny” from the start; for reasons I never quite understood he always called me a childhood nickname no one else but my family ever used.
We ran into each other pretty often, although we didn’t really work directly together. Until we did, starting in the mid-1970s. Lenny was in LA, I was in South Dakota learning how to investigate jurors while working on one of the Wounded Knee trials. I came back to LA and started doing jury selection work with Len – the Skyhorse-Mohawk case, Bill & Emily Harris’ SLA trial, a bunch of trials of Vietnamese, Iranian and Palestinian protesters. Lenny's ability in a courtroom was legendary for good reason. After one trial of Iranian students protesting at the Beverly Hills home of the Shah's sister, Lenny not only won the acquittal, but had the jurors so won over to our side that one of them, an older white Jewish wealthy Beverly Hills resident, came over to me and one of the defendants after the verdict, put her arms around both of us, and said "good luck, girls, in the struggle in your country!"
(It was after one of those trials that Len urged me to “get a license, so we can get you appointed by the court and get you some money!” “A license as what?" I wanted to know. A licensed investigator, of course. So I did. And he did. And I kept my private eye license for 30 years.)
Lenny was a wonderful friend. I was house-sitting for him one summer, taking care of his great dog Kefir, the sort-of great-grandfather of his beloved Lucca. I remember, because it took me most of that summer to read Edward Said’s magisterial Orientalism – the book that transformed so profoundly how academics and eventually the rest of us understood the role of the U.S. in the Middle East. Lenny and I talked about it years later.
I worked with Lenny and an extraordinary team of lawyers for 21 years defending the LA 8 – the seven Palestinians and one Kenyan facing deportation for McCarthy-worthy guilt-by-association charges. My friend and trial colleague David Cole reminded me that Lenny invented the term “terrorologist” during the cross-examination of one of the government witnesses in that case. And when every hearing began, if the whole legal team wasn’t in town yet, in this seemingly-endless trial that involved complicated constitutional issues of freedom of speech, freedom of association, the rights of non-citizens in the U.S., the one question from the judge was always “will Mr. Weinglass be participating?”
Lenny was the most luminous star of our movement – for many of us, as long as we can remember being political beings. He wasn’t always the brightest star on the biggest stage, or in front of the most intense spotlight, because he stood back, always urging others forward. But in the smaller rooms, where he would laugh and keep all of us laughing, where he would tell us stories that brought other countries other struggles other peoples to vivid life – that’s where he was the brightest star. And in the courtroom. That’s where he shone in a whole different way than everybody else.
At an early moment in the LA 8 case, a government attorney frustrated by the obligation to protect any rights for these ostensible terrorists, whined to journalists, “we didn’t expect the Weinglasses of the world” to show up in this case.
But Lenny did show up. He always showed up, to fight for people’s rights, to fight for justice. They say that history is made by those who show up. Lenny knew that movements are also built by those who show up. So he did, for all of us, over and over again, as we worked to build movements against wars, against occupation, for justice.
Lenny taught us all. Without even trying he led teams of wanna-be Weinglasses, Weinglasses-in-training, junior Weinglasses and every one of us became better lawyers, better investigators, better organizers, better activists, better people – for being on Lenny’s team. It was a better team than the Giants any day.
Thanks, Lenny. For showing up.