News & Politics » Feature

Why don't Jeff Haas and Flint Taylor just give up?

by

comment

Both are young, talented, aggressive, and unattached. By rights, they should be comfortable attorneys in prestigious LaSalle Street offices. Instead, 9 years after the infamous Black Panther raid, they're making $125 a week and still fighting to bring the killers of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark to justice.

The trouble with Jeff Haas and Flint Taylor is that they just will not adjust to the way things are. They won't roll good-naturedly with the punches the way the rest of us do. At times their attitude might make you think of Ivan Karamazov, shaking his fist at the heavens in blasphemous rebellion against the gods who seem to delight in the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the just. Or you might be reminded of that grizzled old Japanese soldier they discovered a few years ago in the steamy jungles of Okinawa—still armed, still waving his rising sun flag, still hating the enemy—totally unaware that World War II was over and had been for 30 years.

The urban war is over too. The uprising of the 1962 has been put down. The ghetto riots, the SDS, the Weathermen, the Democratic Convention, the Days of Rage—all have passed. Abbie Hoffman and Dave Dellinger have gone legitimate. Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda have settled down to raise a family. And Eldridge Cleaver has embraced true Christianity with a fervor and sincerity as genuine as Charles Colson's. The dead have been buried and the U.S. has moved ahead into an uncertain but surely less tumultuous era. You can protest and rage for only so long. Then life must go on.

But for Jeffrey H. Haas, G. Flint Taylor, and their associates at the Peoples Law Office over at 343 S. Dearborn, the war is not over and they dead have not been buried. They are constantly about the business of confronting the enemy and escalating the conflict.

The principal battlefield is the Dirksen Federal building, and the major campaign concerns Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, the two young Black Panther leaders who were killed on December 4, 1969, in the infamous "search for illegal weapons" authorized by then State's Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan. That was a long time ago, and most folks lost interest as the case wound through two grand juries and an extended trial of Hanrahan and his associates in the early 1970s. Even the hardy souls who were still paying attention had to strain during 1976 and 1977, when Hanrahan and a host of city, county, and federal lawmen were tried again, as the survivors of the "search" and the families of Hampton and Clark sought some $47 million in civil damages. That trial set a record: the longest in U.S. federal court history. It started in January 1976 and didn't end until May of 1977. Without Jeffrey Haas and Flint Taylor there would have been no trial.

During the first few years of testimony, the courtroom of federal judge Joseph Sam Perry, an 80-year-old jurist who had once served in the state legislature with Richard J. Daley, was awash with spectators and newsmen. But the thing lasted so long that by the time Perry unilaterally dismissed all the charges, few even noticed. Public interest in a trial or a war cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Haas and Taylor have not lost interest. On August 14, they will appear again in the Federal Building—this time before the Court of Appeals—to argue why the judges must overturn Perry's ruling, chastise the defendants, and return the case to another court for yet another trial. They have already submitted a 248-page presentation of their argument, an 840-page reply to the defendants' position, and hundreds of additional pages of documentation to bolster their case. The appellate court will weigh the evidence and submit a ruling, probably in three to six months.

The logical question, of course, is how and why Haas and Taylor keep fighting. It is understandable that the survivors of the Panther affair and the relatives of Hampton and Clark would like a measure of vengeance (and some cash) for what they have always perceived as a cold-blooded execution. But those friends and relatives are not independently wealthy, and they have contributed virtually nothing of their personal assets to the cost of prosecution, raised small amounts through benefits and fun raisers. The National Council of Churches made a donation. And the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People picked up some $20,000 in legal costs. But the battle simply could not have gone on this long without Haas and Taylor; since 1973, they have donated their services almost full time to this case free of charge. Each, in fact, was making something (about $75 a week) during the bulk of the trial, only because the other attorneys in the Peoples Law Office were sharing their own incomes. Now, paying business at the office has picked up a little, so Taylor and Haas are pocketing a tidy $100 to $125 a week.

The full cost of prosecuting the Panther civil case to date is $75,000. It is a remarkable value in view of the time, travel, and material costs involved. And it compares very favorably with the $1.5 million the taxpayers have forked over for the legal costs and salaries of the attorneys defending the people who allegedly conspired to murder the Panthers. By cutting corners and holding costs to a minimum, Haas and Taylor are able to go on and on.

The reason why they persist is more complicated. It appears to be a mixture of personal and ideological factors.

According to all the laws of probability, both these young men should be well on their way to financial and professional stability with some respected old law firm. They are both white and unattached, have solid family backgrounds, went to top-notch colleges, and are certainly not lacking in aggressiveness or motivation. Yet instead of treading on the plush carpets at Kirkland and Ellis, they are clomping around on the bare floors of their dowdy, low-rent offices two blocks south of the Federal Building.

Haas, 35, is a darkly handsome man with a sizable crop of curly hair and a generally courteous, quiet, unpretentious manner. He speaks with a slight Southern twang, betraying his upbringing in Atlanta. His parents are Jewish; his father is a successful corporate lawyer with an Atlanta firm. Haas majored in English at the University of Michigan and got his law degree at the University of Chicago in 1967. He decided to break in with the Legal Aid Bureau of Chicago and stayed two years, representing a variety of black and Latino clients. "Right from the start it was easy to see how political power was misused in this country," he says. "It was a real education."

G. Flint Taylor is 32 and can trace his lineage (on his father's side) back to the Mayflower. Named after his great-grandfather, George Flint, who was a state senator in Maine, Taylor was raised as a Catholic in a suburb of Worcester, Massachusetts (his father was a psychology teacher in the state college system). He received his undergraduate degree in history from Ivy League Brown University, and then enrolled at Northwestern Law School, graduating in 1972. As a student at N.U., he did part-time work for Legal Aid, and it was here that he eventually fell in with Haas and the other founders of the Peoples Law Office. Taylor is tall and thin, looks younger than his years, and sports a bushy blond mustache. He tends to be more outgoing than Haas and considerably more volatile in legal combat.

Haas and Taylor first met on an April night in 1968 during the Chicago riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. They were both mingling with the hundreds of west side blacks who had been picked up at random on real or imagined charges. Both were more offended by the suspension of basic human rights than about the old buildings that had been torched, and they soon began donating considerable time sorting out the legal problems of radical young leaders like Cha Cha Jiminez of the Young Lords and Fred Hampton, who was emerging as a force in the growing Illinois Black Panther Party.

Soon a little coalition of like-minded, liberal, white attorneys, including Dennis Cunningham and Francis (Skip) Andrew, had been formed, and the group decided to launch an independent legal firm specializing in civil rights cases and catering to anti-establishment leaders and causes. their first office was a grubby former butcher shop on North Lincoln, but the clients came quickly enough. The year was 1969—the era of the Conspiracy Seven trial and the angry militance of groups like the Young Patriots, the Rainbow Coalition, the Latin American Defense Organization and, of course, the Panthers.

At first I just wanted to represent people who were getting shafted," said Haas, "but I didn't want to identify personally with those radical causes. I wanted comfort and prestige as a lawyer. I wanted to have it both ways. But some of the clients put it to me: 'What's your own position?' they asked. And I admit I saw the contradiction. You can't enjoy money if it comes from the exploitation of the people. So I became a radical lawyer, not just in the people I represented but in my own views about what has to happen in this country."

Haas, who is divorced, lives in a modest apartment in Lakeview and admits he gets a little financial help now and then from his parents in Atlanta. He characterizes himself as an atheist and an anti-imperialist who believes that "the means of production should be in the hands of the people" and that this country's exploitation of people—whether in the Third World or at home—has got to stop."

Taylor's radicalization was triggered the day Hampton and Clark were killed. As one of the party's attorneys, he rushed to the apartment on West Monroe and spent the next 14 hours scouring the place for bits of evidence while a steady stream of curious visitors passed through and counted the bullet holes.

"I had seen the Panthers getting clobbered legally for a long time," he says, "but this—this was too much. At one point I'm crawling around on the floor under Fred's bed just looking, and I come on this high-heel shoe. It's soaked with coagulated blood and sitting in the shoe is a bullet. I don't know why that sticks in my mind, but it sort of galvanized things for me. I knew I had to fight this system."

Taylor, who also lives in a Lakeview apartment, calls himself an "anti-imperialist" dedicated to "the eradication of racism and of exploitation of the poor."

There is no attempt by Haas, Taylor, or any of their associates at the office to disguise these leftist views or apologize for them. Clients waiting to see someone can pass the time reading a late issue of the Black Panther newspaper, or the Black Star (official organ of the Afrikan Peoples party), or the Burning Spear (official organ of the African Peoples Socialist Party), or other literature published by "anti-capitalist" groups. Haas's private office is decorated with colorful posters put out by "liberation" organizations in Angola, Chile, and the Middle East.

Currently, Taylor and Haas are actively involved with the Iranian students' organization in Chicago, which is charging that its anti-Shah position has made its members objects of persecution by local agents of Savak, the Iranian secret police—a persecution, they contend, carried out with the knowledge and approval of the Chicago police.

Nevertheless, the overriding passion of Taylor and Haas remains the Panther affair, not just because of all the time and emotion they have invested but also because, in their view, it symbolizes everything that is wrong with justice American style. "The American judicial system is hypocritical from start to finish," Haas says matter-of-factly. "It doesn't have anything to do with justice. It's set up to protect the interests of the big corporations, the FBI, sometimes the middle class—never the poor or the minorities. If you don't think so, just look at the transcript of the trial. We were the plaintiffs but to read it you'd think we were the defendants.

Despite their attitude toward the judicial system, Taylor says he and Haas work within it for several reasons: first, to try to squeeze out some small occasional concession, such as keeping a client out of jail; second, to expose the basic contradictions that are part of the system; and third, to compel the courts by dogged persistence to do what they were theoretically established to do "It's very important to get the lies and outrages that occur in court on the record," Taylor says. "It's important to get it all out—to encourage protest. Eventually, we believe the courts will have no alternative but to take the responsibility they've been ducking.

Indeed, the Panther case, despite its age, still does provide an amazing opportunity to parade before the public some outrageous flaws in our system of law enforcement and justice. No one has ever been convicted of anything in connection with that 1969 raid, but then again, no one has ever come clean with the basic data—the official reports, the documents, the correspondence upon which a solid judgment could be made. For almost eight years, the U.S. government has shown extraordinary unwillingness to reveal what it knows and the U.S. courts have displayed an amazing hesitancy to compel the government to do anything. And so, five years after they began working on the case in earnest and more than a year after the end of the trial, Haas and Taylor are still beseeching the courts for pertinent records they feel they should have had from the start.

"This is a bigger cover-up than Watergate," says Taylor. "It's worse than the Kennedy and King assassinations because the FBI was so directly involved. It's obvious if anyone has the patience to look at it."

Of course, that is the problem. Like a blob from outer space, the Panther affair has just grown and grown over the years, consuming mountains of paper and weaving its tentacles into every corner of the establishment. The cast of characters implicated is enormous. Yet unlike Watergate, there is no obvious resolution. There is no principal villain who can sustain public interest or end the tension by resigning from office. The blob goes on getting bigger and fatter. Taylor and Haas seem to be living in the hope that someday it will get so big and ugly and disgusting that it will just burst, spraying wet slime over the general populace and provoking a campaign of angry indignation—maybe a revolution—against a government dedicated to injustice and dishonesty. "We're just fighting the good fight," says Haas, "trying to expose what the government does all the time to the basic rights of people."

Whether all the written and oral arguments can persuade the appellate court to reverse old Judge Perry is debatable. On the surface it would seem that Perry's conduct during the trial (prescinding from all other issues) would justify a substantial reversal and a totally new start. But Haas and Taylor are not counting on that because they have little confidence in any court. However, they do hope to illuminate the more obvious absurdities so that a failure to reverse would be viewed as sheer hypocrisy.

Even a sketchy chronology of the long, frustrated effort to get the evidence and the official refusal to cooperate suggests the basic foundation of their appeal. Way back in the summer of 1973, it was learned for the first time that FBI agent Roy Mitchell and his Black Panther informant William O'Neal were intimately involved in preparations for the 1969 raid. The involvement was of more than casual interest, because everyone known to have been connected with the affair had already been questioned at great length during two interminable grand jury hearings an the long Hanrahan trial. But no one had ever so much as whispered the names of Mitchell and O'Neal. Haas and Taylor, who had already filed a civil suit, smelled a rat. The alleged conspiracy, it seemed, was bigger and broader than they had been led to believe. They sought to subpoena Mitchell and O'Neal and asked the court to order the FBI to turn over its files on this duo, as well as the complete files on the Panther party and the files on individual Panthers involved in the suit. At that point the roller coaster ride began.

October 1973—The U.S. attorney's office asks the courts to quash the Mitchell and O'Neal subpoenas. Only after months of legal argument and maneuvering are the two men finally produced for questioning.

April 1974—U.S. attorney's turn over to Haas and Taylor 34 documents (237 pages in all) along with sworn testimony that the FBI files have been scrupulously studied and this is the only "pertinent" material.

July 1974—On the basis of the material supplied and independent revelations from Washington about the FBI's Cointelpro (Counterintelligence Program) activities, the Panther lawyers subpoena Marlin Johnson, head of the Chicago FBI office at the time of the raid. Johnson declines to answer questions about spying activities.

October 1974—The lawyers seek to question other top Chicago FBI agents but the federal government strenuously objects.

January 1975—An assistant U.S. attorney assures Perry he has personally reviewed the FBI files and the 34 documents comprise everything relevant.

March 1975—Under continued pressure from Haas and Taylor, who insist there has to be more than the file than they have seen, Perry privately reviews unreleased material and decides that some might be relevant after all.

June 1975—The lawyers receive 193 more documents, many of which reveal new, totally unexplored angles. Perry tells Haas and Taylor to hurry up.

January 1976—The civil trial finally begins with the Panther attorneys holding some 227 FBI documents. They are more convinced than ever that they have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Perry resents their suspicious attitude.

February 1976—Perry tells the government to produce the "complete" FBI file on O'Neal and Hampton, a opposed to the "pertinent" file. Haas and Taylor get about 100 more documents and are assured that at last everything is in their greedy hands. A few days later Mitchell takes the stand and inadvertently refers to a document on O'Neal that Haas and Taylor have never seen. He is ordered to produce it and does so, providing conclusively that the "complete" O'Neal file has not been handed over. Perry orders the complete files on O'Neal, Hampton, the Panther plaintiffs, and the Panther party brought into open court. The next day, the U.S. attorneys produce 200 new volumes (each of about 500 pages) and wheel them into the courtroom in shopping carts. Perry says it's really his own fault the documents hadn't been produced before and refuses to chastise the government for its "tardy compliance."

It does not require special training to conclude that something fishy is going on here. An outsider might suspect obstruction of justice even without knowing that among the documents considered "irrelevant" were a FBI document authorizing a special bonus for O'Neal because of his outstanding work in preparing for the raid and lengthy correspondence between FBI officials in Chicago and Washington discussing the best way to "neutralize" the Panthers.

Eventually, Haas and Taylor were overwhelmed by the sheer mass of material thrust upon them two months after the trial had begun. Although they were assisted to some extent by other attorneys at their office and by outside lawyers like James Montgomery and the NAACP's Herbert Reid, it was impossible to read, digest, and collate the stream of new material passing into their hands daily (after the FBI had blacked out "security matters") while at the same time questioning witnesses on the stand. Repeatedly, they asked for a mistrial and just as repeatedly Perry denied the motion.

When the whole thing was over, in May 1977, the Panther lawyers had identified 213 individual documents for admission as evidence. Of these 213, they had had precisely 33 in their possession the day the trial started. In short, they had to try the case at a considerable disadvantage.

Throughout the trial, the tension was obvious. Haas and Taylor were constantly at war with the well-paid attorneys, especially John Coghlan and Camillo Vilini, representing Hanrahan and the other lawmen. But their fiercest opponent was Perry himself, who was described editorially by the Chicago Defender as "an aged, partially deaf, conservative leaning, easily distracted, bad tempered, stubborn, vindictive man." He made little effort to disguise his genuine dislike for Haas an Taylor, charged them with contempt on several occasions, and sent each to jail briefly in the heat of battle. On one occasion, he even encouraged Coghlan (Hanrahan's blustering, pompous attorney) in an attempt to ridicule Taylor personally. Here's how it went:

Coughlan:  … I can understand Mr. Taylor's exasperation that caused him to stand here in front of the jury with his hands extended at 180 degrees, with him pounding on the podium, not your honor pounding on the podium, and with a high falsetto voice more fitting of an eighth-grade soprano at St. Mary's choir than in the voice of a lawyer in a courtroom, saying, "Please, judge," with a squeak. I'm sorry, I didn't get enough squeak in there. It was really quite a bit higher—and as he—

Taylor: Judge, I do not need to stand here, Judge, and have this man put that kind of harassment. If he wants to deal with the issues, let him deal with the issues, Judge. He doesn't have to attack me, talk about my tone of voice, and that is the kind of garbage that goes on in this courtroom and that the court countenances all the time … .

Perry: Counsel, are you the one who was talking about insulting remarks. [To Coghlan.] Proceed.

Taylor: What?

Perry: [To Coghlan.] Proceed with your statement, counsel … .

Taylor: Oh, Judge.

Coghlan: Would the court show that the remarks proceeded by the shrieked "what" and the interruption of Mr. Taylor were shouted in very high decibels. Not being a scientist, I cannot give it exactly, but it was quite loud, even for my ears to hear, and I believe the word that was shrieked was "what" … .

To be sure, this procedure was not typical of the entire trial. Far more common was the sort of dialogue that occurred when Perry (at Coghlan's behest) accused the Panther lawyers of violating one of his earlier rulings and then refused to consult the transcript, which alone could have settled the dispute.

Taylor: Judge, we want the transcript.

Perry: Keep quiet. I will fine you right now if you don't keep quiet. I am talking and I will not be interrupted by you.

Taylor: I am sorry to interrupt, your honor.

Perry: Well, you are not only sorry. You are going to pay for it if you do it again. Now bring the jury back and I will inform them.

Taylor: But Judge, before you—

Perry: Now we are not going to monkey around with this case anymore.

Taylor: You are going to make an error, Judge.

Perry: Shut up.

Taylor: You will just make an error, Judge.

Perry: Shut up.

Taylor: It is in the transcript.

Perry: Bring the jury.

Taylor: Can we see the transcript?

Perry: I said, shut up!

This is not to suggest that Haas and Taylor were always on solid ground (legally or otherwise) and their opponents always wrong. They themselves wandered far afield on occasion and needlessly baited the judge, lawyers, and witnesses. Given the enormous handicaps and their own relative inexperience, it is remarkable they were able to proceed at all. In all probability, they withstood the pressure because much of what was occurring in the courtroom seemed to be confirming their deepest convictions about the American system of justice.

And so in the end, when Perry exonerated all the defendants (while the jury was still deliberating), neither lawyer was crushed. When the judge subsequently laid on them all the costs of the trial (including the government's cost of reproducing all the documents that the FBI had failed to submit until it was forced to), they took it as true to form. And when Perry refused to even allow an appeal of his verdict unless Haas and Taylor posted an impossible cash bond (the judge claimed all the charges were from the beginning "frivolous"), they regarded it as ultimate ammunition for their side.

Now as they go before the appellate court, they have a new list of apparently relevant FBI documents that they would like to discuss with the FBI. All of this new material has been released under the Freedom of Information Act in connection with other suits. And much of it confirms the original thesis that a campaign to snuff out actual and potential black troublemakers was conceived in the malignantly fertile mind of J. Edgar Hoover and eagerly carried out by his loyal operatives in large urban centers, including Chicago.

Haas and Taylor will not be fully satisfied until the crime has been laid at the feet of the criminal, Fred Hampton rests easy in his grave, and the hypocrisy of the judicial system is exposed. Meanwhile, they will have to be satisfied with lesser triumphs—like the one they obtained one day in the heat of the trial when Perry's patience and malfunctioning hearing aid were running true to form.

Haas: Well, Judge, I just don't like the rules changing as we go along. That is what I object to.

Perry: Well, you don't like anything as far as you are concerned except your way.

Haas: Well, Judge, there hasn't been anything that has happened—

Perry: And you are not going to have your way!

Haas: I know. My way is a fair trial, and I know I'm not going to get it, Judge. That is totally clear in this courtroom.

Perry: You bet your life you are not going to get it!

As far as Jeff Haas and flint Taylor are concerned, that pretty well tells how things are.

Add a comment