In fits and starts, I developed a political conscious sitting around the home of my friend Sarah Kunstler. As a fifteen-year-old, when her father, the crusading, radical, criminal defense attorney Bill Kunstler, was already his seventies, he’d yell at Sarah, in front of me, about her poor choice of friends, referring to me as a crackhead, as in “Why do you hang out with these crackheads,” or, “What do you need money for? To buy crack for your crackhead friend?” Though this moniker was a somewhat apt description of me at various points as a teenager, I came to see that his hurling the early 90’s worst insult at his daughter’s friend was his way of being nice and welcoming.
In the years that followed, after his death, I would - during breaks from college - sit with Sarah and we would argue about race, poverty, war, and justice over bottles of wine at the kitchen table in their Gay Street house beneath a framed Margaret Bourke-White photograph. The photo showed a line of down-and-out looking black people waiting for food, or some kind of help, framed against a billboard showing a happy, white, idealized American family driving their car, with two bits of text on the billboard, “World’s highest standard of living,” and, “There’s no way like the American way.” Using this as one of many reference points, Sarah would explain, for the hundredth time, how her father would say that all white people are racists and how that is reflected in the country, including the work that I had recently begun doing at public defender’s offices. Because at St. John’s College where I went to school, unlike most northeastern liberal arts colleges, we didn’t really talk about these polarizing cultural issues of American society, and because my gathering interest in criminal law was more based on my moral and aesthetic sense than on any social justice issues, these conversations were an education for me, an opportunity to see the political dimensions of my own life and experience.
Sitting there as a college senior, getting a verbal beating from Sarah, I began to see the significance of the fact that I had recently asked her mother, another terrific attorney Margie Ratner, to write me a recommendation for law school when I had called her house just five years earlier to ask for representation following a felony drug distribution bust, for which I was largely responsible but for which I had managed to escape all consequences due to some combination of the fact that my mother had health insurance to send me to rehab, the fact that my girlfriend's parents were respected people in the community, and other obvious privileges. The absurdity and inequity in the fact that I was now applying to go to prestigious law schools when I should have been completing my "juvenile life" sentence - the sentence that I might have otherwise received from a blind lady justice - might have escaped me if not for the combined influence of Sarah's sharp rhetorical skills, too much wine, and the very fine Margaret Bourke-White photograph.
(If you want to get a sense of Sarah's adolescent rhetorical arsenal, which has only grown stronger over time, there is some old footage of her from that era in the terrific documentary that she and her sister made about her father, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. It may be coming to a theater near you this fall or to your home on PBS's P.O.V. series in the spring.)