In 1968, Gerald Lefcourt was a young law school graduate with a passion for social justice. Having been recently fired from the Legal Aid Society for refusing to plea bargain for indigent clients on cases he knew he could win in court, he became the east coast legal team member for the Black Panther Party. Lefcourt would spend that summer living in a communal house on New York’s famous Fire Island along with other activists, including Florynce “Flo” Kennedy who took young Lefcourt under her wing and mentored him: “There has to be laughter and fun at the revolution, or it isn’t a revolution”.
That was also the year he met anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman and was swept away by Abbie’s passion, vision and organizational skills: “Revolutionary joy, that’s what we’ve got going….” Lefcourt was inspired: “Here was a justice lover and he was willing to fight for it and organize for it.” Abbey also mentored him on the importance of laughter as a fundamental value of social change. Lefcourt volunteered to participate as a member of Abbie’s legal defense team. They became close friends and for the next 21 years, Lefcourt provided Abbie legal services free of charge.
As legal council, Lefcourt was a behindthe- scenes participant during the social and political upheavals of the 60’s: “We didn’t end racism, but we stopped legal segregation. We didn’t end war, but no longer can 500,000 young people be sent to places like Vietnam without declaring war. And now, even the President of the United States has to talk about childcare and women’s rights. All these things changed because of our efforts in the 60’s.”
Today, Gerald B. Lefcourt is a criminal defense attorney who takes on unpopular and high profile clients. He is considered one of the very best trial lawyers in the United States and has been recognized by his peers numerous times. Among his awards is the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award given him in 1996.
SuperConsciousness Magazine spoke with Gerry Lefcourt about the importance of laughter in fighting for social justice.
SC: Abbie Hoffman was a master of using political theater while having fun ridiculing injustice. One great example was when he organized a bunch of people to throw money off the balcony inside Wall Street: stock brokers went wild trying to catch those dollar bills, completely disrupting that morning’s trading. He understood the profiteering of war and by throwing money at the workers, he shined public light on the greed.
Flo Kennedy was the same way. She’d keep bringing Black Panther Party members to Fire Island restaurants that normally would not serve African Americans. She fought racism but always with a sense of humor. You’ve stated they both had a huge impact on you….
GL: Yes, the Black Panthers were my clients. Flo and I shared a house on a Fire Island with a group of other political activists, ten of us sharing the summer house. She was my adopted mother. I invited the Panthers out for the weekend. Going to the restaurant was Florynce’s idea and we all had a great time.
It was Gilbert and Sullivan all over again. Both of them had a way of making very powerful points while also being extremely entertaining. Abbie always hated the blah, blah, blahs: Imperialism, sexism, you know, all the big isms. Instead, he would say that the Yippie’s believed in the violation of every law including the law of gravity.
SC: Abbie organized hundreds of thousands of people to protest the [Vietnam] war at the Pentagon. The rally was promoted as an opportunity to gather together, levitate and exorcise the Pentagon: to cast out all the demons of the war machine. People came. It was fun and brilliant.
GL: And the amazing thing is, I was so close to him over the years, and I saw the impact on him personally. One minute he could be crying from the pain of the struggle and the next minute he would devise a humorous way to make his point in some other venue. When we first met, he told me he would make a revolution, just keep him out of jail. And I believed him.
Abbie was a phenomenal organizer through his humor and he made fighting for justice fun. And everybody wants to have fun. In the courtroom situations, it’s a very solemn serious environment and he just refused to take seriously what they take so seriously because he had principles that were higher than that. Social justice and freedom were much more important than the solemnness that is brought to these environments.
A jovial interaction makes everybody more human and ultimately can lead to breakthroughs.
SC: As a young man, a young attorney in your twenties, what kind of a personal effect did Abbie and Flo have on you as far as how you approached your work? It was one thing to see how they used humor and lightheartedness for social justice, but did that have an impact on you personally in how you approached your career?
GL: Yes it did. In a courtroom it’s okay to be humorous in front of a jury but judges often don’t get it. That’s a little dangerous. Also, a jovial interaction makes everybody more human and ultimately can lead to breakthroughs. I’ve had terrible enemies [in the courtroom]. The humanizing quality of humor and jovialness ends up making those situations less than they might have been. I’ve actually been approached, in a friendly way, after confrontations by the adversaries, because of the human quality that had been entered into it all.
I did start several organizations and participated with groups like The Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Legal Aid Union. Humor was a part of them, but they both had important political purposes.
I just wasn’t as good at it as Abbie, but I did learn from him and the same with Flo. [Professional] relationships would most likely be very serious and confrontational, but, they could be funny and humorous and confrontational.
SC: Do you think that humor in those circumstances kept you healthier as a result?
GL: Yes I think it probably did. It also was more effective.
SC: There are a lot of social justice workers out there, not really directly affiliated with any fundamentalist religions, per se, but they still carry on with humorlessness and martyrdom kinds of attitudes….
GL: The bottom line of that is that it’s not inviting. When being serious and confrontational, it’s very difficult to get anybody who’s on the fence to join your side. The thing that both Abbie and Flo had was a way of being inclusive and inviting through their lightheartedness.
The thing that both Abbie and Flo had was a way of being inclusive and inviting through their lightheartedness.
SC: Presently, we’ve got quite a few news type television shows that have a comedic approach to our current political situation but there’s a big difference between comedic commentary and actual social justice organizing and action.
GL: Absolutely. And I think while they are very entertaining they don’t accomplish the latter. It’s just humor with a liberal bent but not doing anything that creates change.
Things like the banner drops off the Plaza Hotel around the Republican Convention. I represented those kids. They climbed [the building] secretly in the middle of the night right to the top of the Plaza Hotel then dropped the banner starting about 5:30 in the morning. They rappelled down the side of the building and unfurled the banner that depicted Bush pointing one way and truth pointing the opposite way.
You know, those were Abbie-type actions.
"The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, and in so doing, he identifies himself with people - that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature." ~ James Thurber
“The Daily Show,” with comedian host John Stewart, is one of the most watched news shows today. This show is also broadcasted on the Comedy Channel. Is it possible that we prefer to deal with social issues through humor?