Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Levin

Students Upset Courtroom ’Order’
Put the Courts on Trial

First Published: Progressive Labor Vol. 7, No. 4, February 1970
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Since the spring, Progressive Labor Party and SDS at San Francisco State have been fighting to carry the struggle against racism into the courts. Instead of retreating and hiding under the skirts of lawyers, who do nothing but build illusions about the nature of American justice, PLP and SDS, much to the embarrassment of the revisionists, Trotskyites and RYM’ites, have continued to fight for pro-working class politics in the courts, exposing the whole judicial system from top to bottom. The latest of these trials has been that of the PLP leaders of the San Francisco State strike, John Levin, Hari Dillon and Bridges Randall. The trial lasted about two weeks, during which time hundreds of people were mobilized to come down to the courts, through leaflets, rallies on campus, and leafletting and speaking in the community. Above all, the leaflets and rallies stressed the need to strengthen and build the struggle against racism that began last fall at San Francisco State, as well as the need for the working class to lead that struggle.

The strategy in the courtroom was for the defendants to act as their own lawyers so that they could better take advantage of every opportunity to use the courtroom as a forum to argue and explain the revolutionary politics of PLP. For example:

Hari Dillon (on the stand): We consider the charges of inciting to riot a compliment to ourselves and our party.
Judge: I find you in contempt.
Dillon: Your jails aren’t big enough to hold all the working people who have contempt for your courts.
Loud applause from the packed court. The judge, now standing up waving his arms like a berserk scarecrow: “Clear the court, I won’t have this, clear the court!” Then to the defendants: “You are doing tremendous harm to your case.”
Defendants: “We demand you let the people back in or we refuse to continue.”

It became apparent during the two-week trial that the three PL’ers had turned the tables, and with the support of the people had put the courts on trial instead of themselves.

Question to Bridges Randall: Bridges, do you think you can get a fair trial in this court? Answer: Impossible, these courts exist to oppress working people and revolutionary communists who fight against the bosses, not to give them justice. The nice sayings about capitalist justice being impartial, the fairness of the jury system are nothing but lies put out by the ruling class to keep the people in line. Who pays the judge? The state. Who decides who is going to be called for the jury? The state! Who pays the D.A.? The state! And who decides what laws will be and for whom they will be enforced? The state, which is controlled by a group of big businessmen, which we call the ruling class. They own the courts and its judges and they make sure that the only people who get a good deal in them are themselves.
Judge (shocked expression, looking over the hundred or so people in the courtroom): Well everyone is entitled to his own opinion.

Obviously, the judge was intimidated by the sight of a filled courtroom. The defendants commented later that the only reason they were able to use the courtroom in such a manner was because of the mass support that was organized. The only way working people and students can fight in the courts–or anywhere else–is if they have the support of the people; without that support there is almost no sense in trying.

The support was built on a struggle waged since the end of the strike, when it became apparent that there were going to be numerous trials. The struggle centered on whether the movement would continue to fight against racism and for an alliance with the working class. The revisionists, Trotskyites and RYM’ites united solidly against continuing the struggle in the courts. Instead they argued that we should use the “loopholes” within the judicial system and, with the help of clever revisionist lawyers, make the bourgeois judicial system live up to its own ideals. Their strategy was clearly exemplified by the way their lawyers questioned the D.A.’s cop witnesses.

Revisionist lawyer. Sir, you testified that people were carrying two-by-two-inch, six-foot-long picket sticks.
Cop: That is correct.
Lawyer. Do you remember whether it was a windy day!
Cop: Yes, I think there was a breeze blowing.
Lawyer: You testified earlier that the students were carrying these two-by-two’s with the intention of inflicting bodily harm. In fact they were carrying this size picket stick to keep their signs from being blown over by the strong wind which happened to be blowing that day.

Revisionists Prostitute Themselves

In essence the revisionist strategy of relying on the courts and their lawyers led to trying to convince students to prostitute their politics and the struggle at San Francisco State to the bourgeois judicial system in hopes of getting off. PLP and SDS forces argued in defense committee meetings, through leaflets and on an individual basis that students on trial must launch a full-scale attack and put the courts on trial instead; in particular, they must expose the courts’ racist and anti-working class nature.

The right wing’s main thrust was to play on people’s fear of jail; they told students that their strategy had a chance of keeping them out of jail, but if they followed PLP and SDS’s plan of putting the imperialist courts on trial, they would certainly get convicted and receive longer sentences.

We replied that if you threaten the ruling class, it is going to threaten you; that was why 700 students were arrested at State in the first place. The reason we were on trial was because we had launched an effective struggle that had gone a long way in exposing the true nature of United States imperialism and, more important, had proved that the people were capable of fighting it. The ruling class wanted to put a stop to this struggle. If we went into court and denied that we ever took part or entertained any notion that the system was racist or exploitative, the ruling class wouldn’t need to put us in jail; they would have defeated us already.

Some honest people, who in general supported our politics, argued against the strategy of fighting in the courts. They felt we would be more effective out of jail than in, and the cost of hiding our politics in the court would not be that great. We pointed out that if the ruling class thought we were going back to campus to continue the fight they would throw us in jail no matter what we said. And further that revolutionaries can’t put their own personal comfort first. We had an obligation to expose the courts and not run from attack by hiding our politics the way the revisionist CP. did. We pointed out that even if we were sent to jail, through the trials we were able to win twice or three times as many people to continue the fight against the ruling class, the working class movement would be stronger and the attack by the state turned into a victory for us.

As the trials continued through the summer, the bankruptcy of the right wing’s strategy became obvious. SDS and PLP, however, continued to develop and win people to the strategy of putting the courts on trial. In the courtroom PLP and SDS members defended themselves, reading PLP and SDS literature as evidence for the defense and boldly putting forward pro-working class and anti-racist politics. Outside the courtroom SDS organized a political defense committee, which issued a newsletter, organized picket lines in support of students on trial and distributed leaflets in the community urging people to come to the trial. In spite of weaknesses in the execution of the strategy–mainly not making enough effort to involve new people–PLP and SDS forces grew in strength as more people saw not only the importance of fighting in the courts but the true nature of the right wing “legalistic” strategy. It became clear to them that their strategy was nothing but a justification for copping out of the struggle and, what is more, spreading defeatism and cynicism among the people.

Levin, Dillon and Randall were arrested on a warrant signed by Puppet Hayakawa on the charge of “inciting to riot;” in other words, for winning masses of students to fight racism at San Francisco State. The District Attorney, a little twirp named Brier, put on the usual show. He called four witnesses, three cops and one scab, who all testified that the defendants had disturbed the “peace and tranquility” and disrupted the racist education at San Francisco State. The jury, handpicked by the court system because of their loyalty to the system, clucked their tongues in disapproval as the D.A., shaking with mock fear, displayed one of the rocks that had been heaved through the administration window. To no one’s surprise the D.A. made his case; after all the ruling class, which controls the education at San Francisco State, also controls the courts, the judges and the juries downtown.

Defendants Take the Offensive

The defendants’ strategy was simple: Yes, we incited a rebellion, a rebellion against the racist exploitation of nonwhite working people and students. That is right, we disturbed the peace, the ruling class’s precious status quo and furthermore we are going to continue to do it whenever we get a chance.

Outside the courtroom SDS members and PLP members organized people on the campus, community and the job, some new but many of whom supported the strike at State last fall. The main success of the trial was that hundreds of people who before had to one degree or another some illusions about the court saw that there was no justice for those who opposed the system. Furthermore, hundreds of people saw very clearly that PLP has no intention of running, but when attacked will fight back not only on the campuses, in the shops or community, but in the courts as well.

The defendants’ first witness was Ernie Brill, a member of SDS and the worker-student alliance caucus at San Francisco State:

Bridges Randall: Did you see any of the defendants talk at the rally?
Brill: Yes, Bridges.
Randall: What did he say?
Brill: He talked” about how Hayakawa was really no different than Smith or Summerskill [two past presidents of San Francisco State, who the students sent packing.] When the liberal tactics of Smith and Summerskill had failed to fool the people, the trustees and the ruling class they represent decided to try a hard line. But the role of all three is the same: to keep the bosses’ racist and anti-working class schools functioning and to keep students from uniting with working people to fight the system.
Randall: Did he say anything else?
Brill: Yes he talked about how the ruling class had two main weapons to break the strike: racism and anti-communism. First they would try to divide white students from black students, or vice versa. If that didn’t work, Hayakawa would try to build anti-communism in order to split off the majority of students from communist and radical leadership. He said students had to reject these tactics, see them for what they were and continue to build the strike.
Randall: Did Bridges say anything else?
Brill: Yes, he talked about the need to build an alliance with working people if we are ever win the strike. He said the main purpose of the university is to train students to help the ruling class further exploit working people and keep them in line. He told the students that they have an objective interest in allying with working people if we were serious about smashing the ruling class. He said that the most important part of the strike was winning support of working people for the struggle.
Randall: Were any working people out on campus?
Brill: Yes, there were some–
D.A.: Objection–How does he know if any working people were at the rally.
Brill: Because an auto worker spoke at the rally and said–
Judge: What the worker said is irrelevant. Objection sustained.

Each of the defendants testified in turn, and by recounting the speeches they made during the strike they explained PLP’s position on the need for a revolution and the establishment of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

Question to Hari Dillon: Did you chant “Power to the Workers?”
Dillon: Yes, I chanted that because we believe there are only two classes that can hold power. Right now the bourgeoisie runs the country and fills their pockets with the money they make by exploiting and oppressing working people. As a member of Progressive Labor Party, I am fighting for a society controlled by working people that isn’t based on making money from other people’s labor, like capitalism is. The only people working people will oppress are those who want to restore capitalism. That is what I meant by chanting, “Power to the Workers.”

As the trial progressed, more and more people came to the courtroom. On the last day, when Hari Dillon took the stand, there were no more than ten empty seats in the courtroom. The judge didn’t waste a minute indicating how much he believed in an “open” trial. By the afternoon, people coming into the courtroom were greeted by a row of “pigs” with three-foot nightsticks. However, the judge soon learned that it takes more than a few pigs to intimidate the people. After Hari finished his testimony despite the judge’s threats of throwing every one in jail if they made any noise, the people gave Hari a loud round of applause. The judge, when faced with this open defiance, did the only thing he could do; he kept quiet.

On the final day of the testimony a rally was held on campus that included speeches and agitprops attacking the courts and urging people to come and hear our closing argument. The people who lived in the dorms went around their floors and organized a car pool to get students down to the court. As a result of the organizing, the courtroom was overflowing. Hari Dillon gave the closing statement. He pointed out that the ruling class was so scared of the people that they had refused to let Mrs. Baskett testify. [Her husband had been shot down in cold blood by the pigs.] This only showed that the ruling class was afraid of the people, afraid of having themselves exposed and that this trial was not going to stop either PLP or working people in general from fighting back against this rotten system.

That the defendants were convicted was no surprise to anyone, but that hundreds of people who had been organized to come down to the trial, had been exposed to the real class nature of justice, and had seen revolutionary communists defend Marxism-Leninism in court, was a victory for the working class. There is no question that it is necessary to do better, to win more people to politics and sharpen the fight against racism and the whole system. That is the only way the ruling class, courts and all, is going to be defeated. Thousands of working people, students and intellectuals must be won to the perspective of fighting for the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.