I just returned from attending the wake and memorial service held in New York for the legendary civil rights and criminal defense attorney, Michael J. Kennedy. It was truly an inspiring experience, and underscored the crucial role of criminal defense lawyers in society
Kennedy was a giant in the legal profession, a brilliant, creative and compassionate attorney who was drawn to those cases that seemed hopeless and unwinable, because he saw injustice and was compelled to try to help the victims. He had empathy for the less fortunate among us and saw the humanity in even the most despised defendants. They were all created equal in God’s eyes, and in Kennedys mind and soul, they deserved equal treatment.
And he was an unabashedly outspoken “lefty,” as we were called during the contentious cultural battles that led the country out of the war in Vietnam, and provided African Americans the opportunity to claim an equal role in society.
Kennedy was involved in many of the high-profile, political cases arising out of the tumultuous decades that ended the 20th Century. And the wonderfully consistent point of most all of his cases was protecting the individual against the awesome power of the state. He provided a voice for the underdog and the oppressed, and he did it with elegance and style.
The list of his clients during those decades reads like a “Who’s Who” of radical politics. For those younger readers who may not immediately recognize the names or the cases, I encourage you to do a quick Wikipedia search, and learn just how important those people and their causes were at that time.
For those of us who came of age during the Vietnam war, and the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, no case was more important than the case of the Chicago 8, the anti-war activists who had been charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The defendants were all prominent anti-war radicals including Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin from the Youth International Party (the Yippies); Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers; and David Delinger from the National Mobilization Committee (NMC). Kennedy represented Rennie Davis in the Chicago conspiracy trial, as well as when he was subpoenaed to testify before the US House Un-American Activities Committee.
And he represented Black Panther Huey Newton on murder charges in Oakland. And Bernadine Dohrn of the then-infamous Weathermen. And a Penobscot Native American arrested for assaulting an FBI agent in Wounded Knee. And members of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love (the LSD group to which Tim Leary also belonged). And seven young Mexican Americans (Los Siete de la Raza), charged with murdering a police officer in San Francisco.
The list goes on and on and includes many non-famous defendants as well, many of whom Kennedy represented pro bono, because he recognized they were being destroyed by a hostile government that wanted to silence their voices.
Tom Forcade and High Times Magazine
Kennedy also represented Tom Forcade, a marijuana smuggler who founded High Times magazine in 1974. Forcade, who also founded the Underground Press Syndicate to connect alternative newspapers, and whom I first met in Miami Beach in 1972 at the Democratic National Convention selling marijuana to demonstrators from the People’s Pot Tree, once famously said there are only two kinds of smugglers; those who need a fork lift, and those who don’t! Clearly Forcade needed the forklift, and he needed Michael Kennedy to stay out of jail.
Kennedy was the general counsel to High Times from it’s founding to the time of his death. And true to Forcade’s desire that the magazine always support NORML, he continued and expanded their support, making High Times the single largest financial supporter in NORML’s history. It was an enduring partnership that has served marijuana smokers well over these many decades.
In more recent times, as we began to enact legalization measures in more and more states, Kennedy was one of the strongest voices reminding everyone that we must not forget those prisoners who are still in prison on marijuana charges, including a petition for clemency he and his associate David Holland filed with the Obama Justice Department seeking clemency for a number of non-violent marijuana prisoners serving life sentences.
So we lament Michael Kennedy’s passing as a tremendous personal loss for those of us who were fortunate to know him and work with him over these many years, and even more importantly, for the loss of one of the truly great advocates for personal freedom and equality for all people. Michael had a quick Irish wit, and for those who came up against him, a quick Irish temper; but he generally spoke softly, with the knowledge that truth and justice are powerful allies in the struggle for freedom.
It is terribly sad to lose an old friend and political ally, but the memorial service was an appropriate reflection of a life well-lived. Michael Kennedy was an extraordinary individual who could not ignore injustice when he saw it.
This column first appeared on Mariijuana.com.