William Kunstler, The Terrible Myth

February, 1970


And that is the terrible myth of organized society, that everything that's done through the established system is legal — and that word has a powerful psychological impact. It makes people believe that there is an order to life, and an order to a system, and that a person that goes through this order and is convicted, has gotten all that is due him. And therefore society can turn its conscience off, and look to other things and other times.

And that's the terrible thing about these past trials, is that they have this aura of legitimacy, this aura of legality. I suspect that better men than the world has known and more of them, have gone to their deaths through a legal system than through all the illegalities in the history of man.

Six million people in Europe during the Third Reich? Legal.

Sacco Vanzetti? Quite legal.

The Haymarket defendants? Legal.

The hundreds of rape trials throughout the South where black men were condemned to death? All legal.

Jesus? Legal.

Socrates? Legal.

And that is the kaleidoscopic nature of what we live through here and in other places. Because all tyrants learn that it is far better to do this thing through some semblance of legality than to do it without that pretense.

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An Easy Call

Gov. David Paterson is being urged to veto a bill that would prohibit the New York City Police Department from adding any more innocent individuals to its vast computerized database of personal information on the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers stopped, questioned and often frisked by police officers.

This should be an easy call for the governor. He should ignore this awful advice, which is coming from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the police commissioner, Ray Kelly, and others. Allowing the police to continue accumulating these permanent files on the innocent, an abomination in and of itself, would also encourage the cops to continue their Jim Crow stop-and-frisk policy, which has led to the systematic harassment and humiliation of young black and Latino residents who have done absolutely nothing wrong.

This racist policy needs to stop — and stop now. As Al Baker reported in The Times two months ago, black and Latino New Yorkers were nine times as likely as whites to be stopped by the police in 2009. But once stopped, they were no more likely than whites to actually be arrested.

An overwhelming majority of the people stopped, questioned and searched by the police are innocent of any wrongdoing and are sent on their way after the encounter. This illegal and inhumane policy has gotten completely out of control. From 2004 through 2009, police officers stopped people on the street and checked them out nearly three million times, an astounding figure. Nearly 90 percent were completely innocent, minding their own business.

These wholly unnecessary interactions with police officers are frequently traumatic and degrading. Men and women, boys and girls — in a vast majority of cases, black or Hispanic — are routinely ordered to sprawl face down on the sidewalk or in the street, or to spread-eagle themselves against a wall. They are frisked and often verbally humiliated. And I have been told time and again by people who have been through these encounters that police officers have threatened to charge them with disorderly conduct if they dared to raise any objections.

The Police Department has compounded this outrage by loading information on these innocent New Yorkers into its permanent database of stop-and-frisk encounters. The database is one of the first stops for cops investigating actual crimes. Thus, these innocent individuals become a permanent focus of the police, not because of anything they’ve done wrong but primarily because of their ethnic background.

The legislation Governor Paterson is being urged to veto would prevent police officers from putting personally identifiable information into the database on people who are stopped but who are not given a summons or arrested. The Police Department would be able to keep the data it has already compiled but would have to stop putting information into its files that would identify people who have done nothing wrong.

The bill has been passed by both the Senate and Assembly and awaits the governor’s signature. He should sign it with dispatch.

The bill would not curb the department’s stop-and-frisk policy. But as Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, noted on Monday, it would stop the continued expansion of the database, which is one of the policy’s objectives. She also said, “It would send the message, loud and clear, that whatever pass the Police Department has gotten from city government on these policies, the state is being much more attentive.”

That most New Yorkers do not seem to care about the way young black and Latino New Yorkers are treated by the police does not make that treatment any less noxious or vile. And it doesn’t make it legal. Stopping and searching people without good reason is unconstitutional.

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