Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Howard Zinn in Vermont

One of the absolute high points of my legal career was the defense of the Winooski 44. In 1984, peace activists occupied the offices of Senator Robert Stafford in Winooski to protest U.S. policy in El Salvador and Nicaragua. They were arrested and charged with unlawful trespass, and in November of that year 26 of those protestors were tried before a jury of their peers. I was fortunate to be one of the eight Vermont lawyers who represented the defendants.

The defense was necessity: the doctrine that a technical violation of the law can be justified if it was undertaken to prevent a greater harm, which in this case was the Reagan administration's support for death squads in El Salvador and contra mercenaries in Nicaragua to oppress the people. In addition to the moral authority of the defendants, witnesses for the defense included former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Howard Zinn.

When I met Dr. Zinn he was very gracious and willing to be of assistance. His testimony was eloquent, and fleshed out the themes of his academic career and the deeply American values of political protest:

Well, social movements all through American history, including the current one dealing with problems in Central America, all use a variety of tactics. Their basic inteition is to arounse public opinion. The idea is to try to get the public, which they usually believe has not been told the whole trugh by the press or the government, aroused about an issue. They want to get information to the public. They want to appeal to the people who have not been paying attention to this issue. And so they use a variety of tactics which have been classic in American tradition, tactics of demonstration, tactics of petition, tactics of civil disobedience.

By civil disobedience I mean the technical violation of law in order to try to bring to public attention some very powerful issue, some very fundamental principle. This is an approach which goes back to the American Revolutionary period, to the movements of that time when, as most everybody knows who has learned something about the American Revolution, the colonists in New England used a variety of tactics which were technically outside the law, but which the colonists believed fit in with what they called a higher law. When they went onto the property of stamp tax collectors and destroyed the stamps, when they violated property lines in various ways in order to bring the attention of people to the abuses of the British King and Parliament, they were appealing to fundamental principles of government which they then expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence was really the summing up of what is the relationship between people and government. The basic idea of the Declaration was that goverment derived its power from people. People set up governments. People set them up for certain purposes, and the purposes were to do something for people to guarantee life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Democracy is not just voting. Democracy is not just writing letters to congressmen. Democracy in America has always meant people getting together, meeting, petitioning, demonstrating, going out in the street; yes, sitting in, trespassing, doing various acts of nonvioolent, technical disobedience to arouse large numbers of people.

The way civil disobedience works is that it affects the public. It affects the majority of the people. It does more than affect one senator. It affects many senators. It affects many congressmen. It affects the President. It afects the military leaders of the country because what a government needs most of all when it carries out its foreign policy is legitimacy.

As I say, representing the Vermonters standing up for the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua in the face of a hostile government, and hearing the Vermont jury pronounce them not guilty, was one of the highlights of my legal career, and working with Howard Zinn to present his testimony was a great pleasure. While right-wingers attacked him for his views, Dr. Zinn expressed some of the most fundamental values of American democracy, and I was proud to know him, however briefly.

Howard Zinn died on January 27 at the age of 87. He will be missed by all of us who value justice and freedom.

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