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Legal Crusader Michael J. Kennedy, 1938 – 2016: A Tribute

By Bernardine Dohrn

Bernardine Dohrn delivered this eulogy for Michael Kennedy at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan on January 28, 2016. Michael Kennedy represented Dohrn when she returned to “legal” life after 11 years as a fugitive, and when she resisted a subpoena to a federal grand jury in May of 1982 in New York City, was declared in civil contempt and sent to jail.

Former Weather Underground member Bernardine Dohrn speaks to members of the press outside Federal Court in New York, May 18, 1982. Dohrn, being questioned about the Brink’’s robbery in Nyack, New York in October 1981, has refused to give a sample of her handwriting to a grand jury. Also present are Dohrn’’s friend Bill Ayers, left, and attorney Michael Kennedy. (AP Photo/David Handschuh)

Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, and Michael Kennedy speak outside Federal Court in New York, May 18, 1982. (AP Photo/David Handschuh)

Michael Kennedy, fearless, defiant, aggressive defender of the poor, the rebellious, the radical and the silenced. Uniquely committed to his humanly-flawed but rarely-in-doubt clients, he embraced a fierce and lifelong devotion to their – to our –quandaries and needs, for decades forward. And we rely on the idea that Michael is here whatever crisis may befall us, for humane advice, for counsel about impossible ethical choices, for selecting priorities, for the best way to frame an issue, for critical strategic thinking. You go to Michael for wisdom as much as for law.

As I was preparing to go to jail for an uncertain term by resisting a federal grand jury subpoena in 1982, with three small sons at home, Michael first tried to talk me out of it, and then told me how to survive it. “Make yourself small, just now,” he said, “small enough to go through the eye of the needle. Then you will go back to your family and the revolution.” He was right.

Two decades later, my oldest son and his partner, for example, went to him for advice about marriage. And then again, for conversations about how Michael and Eleanora were raising their extraordinarily confident, fully-realized, and powerful daughter, Anna. Michael’s advice on negotiating his fees became our family mantra whenever any bargaining was involved: “If his knees don’t buckle, you didn’t aim high enough.”

Bernadine Dorhn speaking in Madrid, Spain, 2014.

Bernardine Dorhn speaking in Madrid, Spain, 2014.

Michael was also a fearless, off-the-rails lunatic, a courageous wordsmith and street fighter, capable of charging the bench in the name of justice, willing to risk contempt by manifesting his own scorn for the structures rigged against his clients. From the acquittal of Los Siete, seven Mexican-American youth charged with killing a police officer in San Francisco in 1969, to lead counsel in the acquittal of the 5 federal defendants in Brooklyn Federal Court charged with conspiracy to run guns to the Provisional Irish Republican Army in 1982 (a cache of weapons, that, to be exact, included a 20-millimeter cannon, a flame thrower, 47 machine guns and 11 automatic rifles), Michael’s strategic sense of how to obtain justice from a jury or a judge was without equal. Acquittals seemed to come his way. No wonder one of his most beloved dogs was named “Not Guilty!”

His passionate and intelligent fidelity to his clients is legendary: Huey Newton, the Mitchell Brothers, Vietnam deserters, The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, Rennie Davis in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial and before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. Grand Jury resistors under Nixon. Acquittal of a Wounded Knee defendant. Clemency for Jean Harris. Decades as general counsel to High Times and the stunningly successful campaign to decriminalize marijuana. And Michael was indeed my own anchor and guide returning to legal life, after eleven years as a fugitive.

Michael J. Kennedy, right, outside the Alameda County Courthouse in California with a client, the Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, in 1978. Credit United Press International

Michael J. Kennedy, right, outside the Alameda County Courthouse in California with a client, the Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, in 1978. Credit United Press International

Force of nature meets force of nature. In 1967, Michael and Eleanora arrived in NYC madly in love, inseparable as Pablo Neruda wrote, through “the pleasures and penalties of being on earth.” Michael had come East to take up the military law defense of GIs resisting the Vietnam War, with his life comrade at the bar, Michael Tigar.

Kennedy had law partners, and legal enemies, but everyone knew that Eleanora and Michael were the devoted partners in each thing he did, and that her savvy and insight into human longings for freedom, passionate love, tribal loyalties, and defying the taken-for-granted would resonate with jurors, judges, and even the most powerful. They loved each other in high times and low, for 47 years. Eleanora’s eye and ear for the art and the science of jury selection was prescient. During the critical jury voir dire for the federal IRA trial in Brooklyn, Eleanora realized that the British military had just seized Las Malvines islands off Argentina (also known as the Falklands War). Every Latina and Latino in Brooklyn did not feel kindly about the Brits. Bingo. Acquittal on all counts.

Against stereotype, Michael taught himself how to grow sand dunes, and how to cultivate his beloved Zen garden. His stone cottage in Ireland’s Black Valley was a different retreat and comfort, where Mikey the boatman and caretaker would set the fire in the morning and sheep roamed the hills and clogged the roads. His commitments to Nicaragua, Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, and to Gus Reichbach and to their merry band of brilliant lawyers reveal his keen character… Kennedy never tired of raving about his precious children, Scott, Lisa, & Anna, & adored playing with his 5 grandchildren.

He joked through the past months: I’m doing this clinical trial. I’ve never met a trial I didn’t love…and then….I’ve got this cancer right where I want it. 

I picture Michael and Eleanora rushing up to the New Rochelle house the evening that Haywood Burns, my sister Jennifer’s husband, was killed in a car accident in Cape Town, South Africa. Michael embraced Jennifer and whispered, “A thousand days. The Irish say it takes a thousand days to put your beloved to rest.”

Seamus Heaney wrote as Michael lived. Many will recognize this piece:

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

But you may not remember the rest of Heaney’s poem;

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term. 


Bernardine Dohrn is the founder of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law and is a lifelong human rights activist.