As US Attorney General Albert Gonzales becomes more and more of a national disgrace demeaning the high office to which he was appointed by his long-time friend George W. Bush one cannot help but reflect on recent attorney generals to realize what a disaster Gonzales has become.
Here is a man who has placed politics above justice, who has used his office to solidify power, rather than guaranteeing citizens their rights under the Constitution of the United States.
Contrast his behavior against that of another Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who died at the hands of an assassin(s) just 39 years ago, and who for many of us was the last great hope to revive the democratic spirit upon which this nation was founded.
In 1966 I was privileged to witness first hand Kennedy's dedication to that spirit when he was a member of the US Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor he served on the committee hearings in Delano, Calif., during the early days of the grape pickers strike.
Sen. Kennedy, who was one of the last to arrive on the third days of the hearings, along with an aide, Rev. James L. Vizzard, S.J., and this reporter, had to push by a local policeman after the policeman refused to budge, claiming that the local fire marshal was forbidding anyone further from entering the hall, despite Sen. Kennedy identifying himself as a member of the subcommittee.
More than 100 people were in the hall as the senators began taking their places at the committee table. Another 400 stood outside waiting for admission. Members of the press also had to ask reluctant people to leave their section, despite the fact that many protested their removal.
The left side of the auditorium was reserved for various classes from Delano High School, which rotated throughout the day. The middle section of the hall was occupied by members and friends of the anti-union Independent Kern-Tulare Farm Workers Association (IKTFW). Beside them and against the far wall were members of the NFWA and AWOC.
Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.), the committee chairman, opened the session with a quick announcement that a rotation system was being worked out and at the lunch break the auditorium would be emptied and those presently waiting outside would be allowed to enter. He also warned the audience against demonstrations while testimony before the subcommittee was being given.
Mayor Clifford Loader was the first witness, welcoming the senators to Delano, but quickly pointing out that he felt their trip was unnecessary, since no strike really existed in the area. "The simple truth is, gentlemen, that there is no strike in Delano," he said.
Complying with the request made by Sens. George Murphy (R-Calif,) and Williams after Cesar Chavez's testimony in Sacramento on the opening day of the hearings, law enforcement officials from Kern and Tulare counties appeared before the subcommittee in Delano.
After several other witnesses testified, the law enforcement officials were asked to answer charges made by Chavez regarding their harassing of pickets and extending preferential treatment to the local growers.
Kern County District Attorney Kit Nelson acknowledged to the subcommittee that he had not arrested or taken any of the growers to trial because he personally held a "reasonable doubt" that the were guilty. He went on to emphasize to the senators, however, that he had warned a number of growers "not to break the law in the future, or I would have to enforce the provisions of the law."
Sheriff Leroy Galen from Kern County then answered questions put to him by Sen. Kennedy on the allegations that he and his department had badgered striking grape pickers by stopping them frequently on no charge, making unwarranted arrests, and repeatedly taking their pictures.
A subsequent exchange between the former US attorney general and a local symbol of "law and order" would later become the stuff out of which legends are made -- almost tantamount to sacred scripture -- in the farmworker communities throughout California's valleys, where the law has always stood for the will of the local growers, and order the enforcement of that will.
SEN. KENNEDY: "...When they [the pickets] are just walking along, what did you arrest them for?"
SHERIFF GAYLEN: "Well, if I have reason to believe that there's going to be a riot started and somebody tells me that there's going to be trouble if you don't stop them, it's my duty to stop them."
KENNEDY: "Then do you go out and arrest them?"
KENNEDY: "And charge them?"
GAYLEN: "Charge them."
KENNEDY: "What do you charge them with?"
GAYLEN: "Violation of -- unlawful assembly."
KENNEDY: "I think that's most interesting. Who told you that they're going to riot?"
GAYLEN: "The men right out in the field that they were talking to said, 'If you don't get them out of here [the pickets], we're going to cut their hearts out.' So rather than let them get cut, we removed the cause ..."
KENNEDY: "As the former US attorney general, this is the most interesting concept, I think, that you suddenly hear talk about the fact that somebody makes a report about somebody going to get out of order, perhaps violate the law, and you go out and arrest them, and they haven't done any thing wrong. How can you arrest somebody if they haven't violated the law?"
GAYLEN: "Theyre ready to violate the law ..."
CHAIRMAN SEN. WILLIAMS: "We will recess ..."
KENNEDY: "Could I suggest that the district attorney and sheriff reconsider their procedures in connection with these matters, because it really is of great concern to me. In the last five minutes, it's a considerable concern to me."
GAYLEN: "Before I do anything, I ask the district attorney what to do. Just like these labor people out here, they ask their attorney, 'What shall we do?'"
KENNEDY: "Can I suggest in the interim period of time, the luncheon period of time, that the sheriff and the district attorney review their procedures and start by reading the Constitution of the United States!"
Sen. Murphy, obviously embarrassed over the sheriff's testimony, and in attempting to restore some dignity, only exacerbated the situation by observing to the committee that it was "too bad that Governor Brown didn't think of this [Sheriff Gaylen's explanation for the arrests] before the riots in Watts."
As the subcommittee recessed for lunch and the auditorium was being emptied, a member of Sen. Kennedy's staff approached a local civic official and asked if the farmworkers and the other people waiting outside would be assured of getting seats for the afternoon session.
"Of course," the man answered, "the police and sheriffs are handling the whole thing." The aide hurried on past the official and up the aisle, a look of understandable panic and worry on his face.
Witnessing Kennedy in action one could easily understand former Teamster President James Hoffa's description of him as a "bulldog" simply not willing to let go of the rag. Contrast that characterization with the one could easily apply today to the Bush White House's current "lapdog" who cares little for such ideas as "equal justice under law."
A.V. Krebs publishes the online newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner, email email@example.com. He is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness.
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