Barry Willdorf

Post-strike bio

Two months after the strike, Bonnie and I got married. I had a year of law school left. Bonnie had 2 years to go at Barnard. Bonnie went to the SDS convention that summer. I worked for the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee doing what law students inevitably do for honchos like Kunstler, the Lubels, Hank diSuvero, etc. We continued to be active in SDS the following year, participating in the stop-the-registration demos in the fall and strike-redux that following spring.

I graduated from Columbia Law School in May 1969 with charges still pending from the ’68 bust. I was one of a handful of students who had charges other than criminal trespass. Those included resisting arrest and malicious mischief, which never made any sense, given that I was arrested in the same group as everyone else and didn’t wreck anything. I guess they wanted to hang up my bar admission and they did. I was held up about nine months.

Within a month of graduating I got a pre-induction physical notice. I wanted to go in and organize. Bonnie assured me that as dumb as they were, the army wouldn’t take me and that if they did I wouldn’t last a day. She turned out to be right. At the physical I had what I considered to be a minor disagreement with one of the doctors about how to conduct a hernia examination. I’d been on a number of teams in high school and college where the examination was required at the beginning of every season, so I knew what to expect —or thought I did. As it turned out, the army doctor was just shining on the exam and I told him that in front of about 15-20 18-year old inductees. He got into my face and I told him to back off, I wasn’t in the army yet. He told me to go sit on this bench, which seemed reasonable, so I did . Next thing I knew a sergeant came by and told me I’d been ordered off the base. I said that I wasn’t done with my physical and he said, “yes you are.” End of military career.

I got a job with the New York Legal Aid Society as a criminal investigator, since I was being held up by the Bar. The following spring, Ken Cloke asked me whether I wouldn’t like to spend a year in sunny southern California defending anti-war Marines at Camp Pendleton. About a month after I said “yes,” the meeting house where I’d be working was machine-gunned and a Marine was wounded. Bonnie and I went anyway.

Bonnie and I arrived at Oceanside (the city that Camp Pendleton built) on July 5, 1969. You could still see the line of machine gun fire across the broken stucco in the front of the house. The wounded Marine had his arm in a sling. We’d hardly crossed the threshold when a couple of the original organizers handed us the keys to the place and split. The following spring, we were in Long Beach to visit a Marine in the brig up there. We stopped at a Movement for a Democratic Military (MDM) house to say hello and walked into a bust. I was trying to do a lawyer thing when they arrested Bonnie and me just for the heck of it. Next thing we knew, we were being charged with possession of illegal weapons and bomb-making material. The cops issued a press release saying they’d captured terrorists and the AP picked up the story. Problem was that the guns were legal and the bomb-making material was sulfuric acid that a couple of people who lived in the house were using to clean crud off of the brass roach clips, hash pipes and western-style belt buckles they made for sale at their head shop. After the cops maxed out on the news, they dropped the charges completely but kept the guns and drug paraphernalia. As an extra bonus, there’s an entry in my FBI file saying I was “armed and dangerous.” (It also lists me at a rather complimentary six foot-one, I might add. –I’m just under 5’11”) We worked for over a year at the Oceanside/Pendleton collective, organizing, showing Newsreel films, trying to open a bookstore, and publishing a GI paper. I was kicked out of the collective for being too bourgeois. Bonnie was given the choice of me or the collective. She chose me. The collective disbanded a few months later. We’re still married. We moved to San Francisco where I was again held up for the Bar.

In 2001, I published a novelized version of our 13-month experience at Pendleton called Bring The War Home! The print version sold out but I still have an e-book that I’m willing to forward by email free to anyone who is interested in the only novel about the GI Movement that exists. Email me at bsw@agauchepress.com.

After we left Pendleton, I continued doing court martial defense work until the war ended. This included a regular gig at Travis A.F.B. By war’s end, I’d defended G.I.s at courts martial in every branch of the service including the Coast Guard. I’d visited a dozen brigs and stockades to represent soldiers, sailors and airmen who were resisting war and racism in the military. Among other places, I was once in the Ft. Dix Officer’s Club, so I have to say that I have a special perspective on what went down on March 6, 1970 (my birthday) in the townhouse. (I’m also going to take this opportunity to say that when I left Columbia for Pendleton, I objectified military officers in a way that was contradicted by my personal experiences over more that five years in the G.I. movement and it taught me a lot about the dangers of objectification.)

In 1971, Bonnie co-founded and became the first coordinator of the Bay Area Military Law Panel of the NLG. I was a contributor to the only GI legal self-help book that existed at the time: Turning the Regs Around.

In 1972, I opened a storefront law office in the Mission District of San Francisco. In addition to my military law practice, I began representing Iranian students who were protesting against the Shah’s regime and who were at risk of deportation and torture by Savak, the Shah’s secret police. This worked out great as we all know because the students ended up being instrumental in creating a revolution that jailed and killed them.

In the late ‘70s I became disenchanted with criminal law, in no small measure because by then I had a couple of kids and I wasn’t glamorizing criminals anymore. The last straw for me was a client I’d represented in 2 prior DUI trials where I won an acquittal in the first and got a hung jury in the second. When he came into the office the third time, I told him that I’d represent him only on the condition that he hand me his license right then and there so I could tear it up. When I got home that night, I realized that I was no longer cut out for criminal defense. Meanwhile, I started doing employment discrimination, real estate and securities fraud, which as it turned out in the Mission District was happening a lot, since property values were skyrocketing and predatory realtor/lenders had figured out that stealing the homes of poor minorities was child’s play.

Another thing I did during this time was a case in which I proved that the economic value of a stay-at-home mother to a welfare family was greater that the value of a working mother to a middle-class family. It involved a mother who was murdered on the street by a former inmate of a California mental institution who was released when Reagan shut the mental hospitals and moved the patients to neighborhood (yes, read poor neighborhood) board and care facilities.

So one day in ’77, I settled a case and came into a year’s supply of money. (How’s that for bio candor?) Bonnie and I bought some land up in Mendocino County where I indulged myself, spending the next decade plus of vacations and weekends building a non-code, solar-powered house, which happened to employ one of the earliest versions of the photo-electric panel. We also had a gravity feed water supply that delivered uncontaminated water and a low-flush toilet. (And yes, folks, it all worked.)

In 2005, I was honored as “attorney of the year” by the San Francisco AIDS Legal Referral Panel for my work establishing that HIV+ status (as opposed to full-blown AIDS) was a protected disability for employees.

In 2001, I was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer. In 2005, I was diagnosed with leukemia and came within hours of kicking the bucket on two separate occasions. In November ’06, I had a stem cell transplant (Without having to scrounge parts from an aborted fetus, reverend.) and have been pretty much in recuperation ever since. I couldn’t travel for a year. I couldn’t hug friends for a year. My diet for about four months was the shits. I tossed my appointment calendar. Now I get up in the morning glad to see another day while feeling good.

I’m winding down my law practice and now writing more. Most recently, a story about my step-grandmother, who commanded an all-woman underground cell in the French Resistance, was published in The Jewish Magazine. La Petite Mama can be found at: http://www.jewishmag.com/121mag/petite-mama/petite-mama.htm

So, here, as they say, is the bottom line. Bonnie and I raised three daughters who are all doing well (2 are graduates of Columbia College and one of the law school). They’re wonderful young women and are productive members of society. Bonnie and I are still married, going on 40 years. She saved my life by making sure I got diagnosed. She was there every day during my treatment. She kept track of my meds (sometimes 16 different ones in a day.) We still have very close friends from Columbia ‘68. We still have ex-Marines and other former GIs among our friends. I try not to fuck up so bad that I don’t die before I have a chance to apologize for whatever it is I inevitably do or say. And if fortune smiles on me a little longer, I’ll see you in April.

- by Barry Willdorf
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