Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Civil Rights and Civil Disturbance

The world is filled with lions for causes, people so devoted I am in awe. I just left a screening of William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe put on by the SLC Film Center and the ACLU of Utah.

William Kunstler was a rabble-rousing figure all through the generation preceding my own, and I'd previously only heard of him as the famous attorney who defended the Chicago 7. The only reason I know about that is because of the excellent and beautiful Sundance Documentary Chicago 10, which I strongly suggest checking out.

Anyway, the short of it is that Kunstler fell from grace because after some landmark Civil Rights cases he started defending anyone who was an undesirable underdog, and some people are just... undesirable, like rapists and mob bosses and investment tycoons. Disturbing the Universe is the investigative documentary, made by his openly conflicted daughters, about what his life's work was really about, whether he was a noble freedom fighter or a irritating fame-hogging contrarian.

I loved the film, and its rising theme. I (and the film, i think) basically came to the conclusion that we as citizens have to be constant skeptics, distrusting the legal institution's mechanisms, if we are to form a more perfect system. What Kunstler did, again and again, is expose the unspoken and hateful flaws behind our existing laws that resulted in prejudicial and hypocritical acts in the name of justice. He did this by being a constant agent provocateur, by prodding the parts of the system which were most ingrained, assumed, and inflammatory.

He sums it up best in the film's climactic speech, which I can't find a copy or a transcript of (people are dumb with their protectiveness of their footage), but its gist is this: That we have this idea that everything that happens under a legal system is in accordance to the law, so those under trial get their due defense. This idea allows us to not pay attention, but it is exactly the tactic of those in power to use the law to make their actions seem justified and to remain in power. In the end the meaning for him is to uphold equality and justice rather than specific rules.

The film was part of an ongoing Film Center/ACLU series, once a month. Next time it's Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech on Oct. 5th at the Downtown Library, 7:00 PM.

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