Wednesday, January 25th, 2017...1:29 pm

A great warrior for justice

Jump to Comments

Larry Leventhal is remembered for his kindness and his devotion to protecting the rights of American Indians

By MORDECAI SPECKTOR

In his eulogy at Larry Leventhal’s funeral, on Jan. 20 at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, brother-in-law Bob Maisel mentioned that Leventhal’s Hebrew name was Baruch, and his American Indian name was translated as He Whose Voice Is Carried in the Wind.

Larry Leventhal left a legacy as a dedicated legal champion of American Indians. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis, told mourners in the packed sanctuary that Leventhal was a “great warrior” for Indian people. Bellecourt said that the Jewish lawyer from St. Louis Park was involved in the incorporation of nearly every American Indian school, health clinic and housing project in the Twin Cities over recent decades.

Leventhal, an eminent authority on federal Indian law and an unforgettable mensch, succumbed to pancreatic cancer on Jan. 17. He was 75.

The moving funeral service at Temple Israel concluded with three Ojibwe men playing hand drums and singing a traditional traveling-on song, as Leventhal’s casket was carried out of the sanctuary.

A St. Louis Park High School graduate, Leventhal graduated from the University of Minnesota, and from the U of M Law School, in 1967. When AIM was formed, in 1968, as a street patrol to monitor interactions between sometimes brutal Minneapolis cops and Indians on Franklin Avenue, Leventhal showed up.

Bellecourt recalled meeting the “bushy-haired” recent law school graduate: “I thought he was maybe 16, 17 years old.”

During a telephone interview with the Jewish World this week, Bellecourt said that Leventhal had read about the AIM street patrol and wanted to help out. At Leventhal’s suggestion, the AIM activists — who had complained to the mayor and the chief of police, without getting much satisfaction or justice — convened something called the “blue ribbon grand jury,” a sort of citizens’ tribunal to weigh evidence of police misconduct, and submit the findings to the county attorney.

AIM decided to go forward, but to brand their initiative as the “red ribbon grand jury.”

Leventhal continued to make himself available as legal counsel to the Indian community; and Bellecourt said that he would do the work without negotiating a fee first. Leventhal said that his fee could be discussed “later, and sometimes ‘later’ meant that he would never talk about it,” remarked Bellecourt.

The American Indian Movement ratcheted up protests, including the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties caravan to Washington, D.C., which led to the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building. Then the occupation of the village of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (So. Dakota), thrust the movement for Native American rights into the global spotlight, as U.S. forces besieged the Indians for 71 days. Two Indians were killed by government fire.

After the military siege ended, the government began prosecuting the AIM leaders, and Leventhal became the treaty law expert on the legal team defending Russell Means and Dennis Banks during a 1974 federal court trial in St. Paul that spanned nine months. The legal team also included William Kunstler, Ken Tilsen, Doug Hall and Mark Lane, all of whom have died. Russell Means died in 2012.

Judge Fred Nichol, who presided at the trial, did not want to hear Leventhal’s arguments related to the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty between the United States and the Great Sioux Nation; however, as the trial wound on, he began to listen to the treaty rights arguments, according to Bellecourt. Eventually, Nichol found widespread misconduct by the FBI and prosecutors, and dismissed the charges against Means and Banks.

In a Star Tribune obituary last week, Randy Furst noted that the late lawyer and author Vine Deloria, Jr. once said of Leventhal: “He disarms so many opponents…. He comes across as a bumpkin. Then all of a sudden, you’re on the canvas, asking, ‘Who was that masked man?’”

Deloria declared that Leventhal was one of the top five lawyers in the country on Indian treaty issues, and noted, “He’s the only one who is white.”

David Garelick clerked for Leventhal for two years, then worked as an associate in his office for 10 years. “I did like the playful, childlike side of him,” said Garelick, and added, “But he was a very complex guy… his intellect was well known,” and police investigators and prosecutors expressed their admiration of his legal skills. Even though Leventhal prosecuted a number of police brutality cases, some cops appreciated Leventhal’s integrity, according to Garelick, who now works for the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

In 1993, I wrote stories for The Circle newspaper about Leventhal’s civil suit on behalf of two Indian men from Minneapolis, Charles Lone Eagle and John Boney, who were stuffed into the trunk of a squad car and taken to Hennepin County Medical Center. A nurse reported the incident, which became a high-profile case of police misconduct in the press. Leventhal’s lawsuit resulted in Minneapolis paying about $100,000 to each of the plaintiffs, following a civil trial in October 1995.

Apart from his work on behalf of AIM and community organizations, Leventhal readily took the cases of Indians in the community that needed legal help. An Indian friend of mine living in Nebraska called me when she got the news that Leventhal had died. She recalled how he had helped her deal with some personal legal problems, and that he always treated her with the utmost kindness. He truly was beloved throughout Indian Country.

Leventhal acted out of a “basic sense of human dignity for everyone, his compassion for people, his kindness,” David Garelick told the Jewish World.

“There was nothing patchwork about what he did,” he added, regarding Leventhal’s legal practice. “Once a client crossed the threshold, he was all in. He never wanted to back out of a case… he was a ferocious and tireless advocate for justice.”

And Leventhal also had other interests. For example, he was the “vice sheik” of the local Laurel and Hardy fan club, the Block-Heads. His office was filled with Laurel and Hardy memorabilia — statuary, cookie jars and other items depicting the famed comedy duo.

He also was co-owner of a campground north of the Twin Cities, which provided a rural retreat from the high-pressure business of his law office, which operated for many years in the Sexton Building in downtown Minneapolis, and in recent years in a house at the bottom of Ramsey Hill in St. Paul.

Over the past several decades writing about American Indian issues, I had the opportunity to talk with Leventhal about his cases, and about wider issues pertaining to federal Indian law. And when my son, Max, was arrested on Sept. 1, 2008, in connection with protests at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, I called Leventhal. He visited my son in jail and acted as his attorney in what became known as the RNC 8 case.

Leventhal became a vital part of the defense team in the celebrated case that was prosecuted for more than two years in Ramsey County District Court. Susan Gaertner, then the county attorney, brought numerous felony charges against the young local organizers — including the charge of “conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism” — and then the case fizzled out.

Clyde Bellecourt said that he visited Leventhal in the hospital as he was on his way out of this life. He held his hand.

“I told him how much we loved him and how many Indian people he helped all over America… hundreds of thousands of people that never even met you that you helped, and those yet unborn who can go fishing and hunting and pray today, and have good housing and good education because of you. And I promise you, my Little Big Man Brother… I promise you I won’t get arrested on Christmas Eve anymore.”

Bellecourt said that Leventhal pushed his hand, “like he was trying to shake hands with me.”

Leventhal was preceded in death by his parents, Sally and Robert “Ruby” Leventhal; and a daughter, DeGalynn Wade Sanders, who died in 2016. He is survived by son-in-law Lance Sanders; grandsons, Landen and Logan Sanders; sister and brother-in-law Paula and Bob Maisel; nieces, grandnieces and grandnephews, and cousins; and his longtime significant other, Vicki Schraber.

(American Jewish World, 1.27.17)

Leave a Reply