AN OBSIDIAN SEMANTIC SPEAR: an interview with tony serra
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age…”
— Dylan Thomas
When I arrived at the Focus Gallery in North Beach, there was a criminal defense attorney waiting on the bench outside. He wore a loose shirt that may have come from India, and sneakers with stars and stripes on them. By his own admission, he has taken more LSD than any other practicing attorney in this country, and is legendary for defending the right of citizens to form their own relationship with marijuana. He smokes it on a regular basis and still manages to be a useful citizen, unlike half of the suits on Wall Street (a conservative estimate).
Twenty years ago I went to a party at some offices on Pier 5 with a view of the water at night. The place was crowded and I ended up passing a joint to a man with long white hair. We were in the Law Offices of Tony Serra, and that was him. There was a band with Barry Melton (from Country Joe & the Fish), who had become a lawyer but held onto his guitar. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Tony that night. He later moved his offices to North Beach, near a strip joint. I saw some artwork by prison inmates there, and a poetry reading one night. I would see him on the street occasionally, but we hardly ever spoke.
Flash forward to a warm afternoon in 2014. John Perino, who runs the Focus Gallery and was instrumental in setting up this interview, brought out a couple of glasses of wine. Tony is not a drinker, but his doctor recommends a daily glass of wine. Not everyone can thrive on pot smoke and stay focused, but he can. He was born in 1934 in the middle of the Depression, and will be 80 in December. When we finally went into the gallery and the three of us sat around talking, I thought I would ask a few questions and we would be done in half an hour. It went on for two hours, one of the more lively and wide-ranging discussions
I have had in a while. Fortunately, I had just read his recent book: The Green, Yellow and Purple Years in the Life of a Radical Lawyer (2014, Grizzly Peak Press) and taken notes. Every now and then I would throw another angle into the discussion pertaining to something in the book. “So tell me about the Lebanese hash dealer….”
He was wealthy, a “high-ranking Phalangist in the government of Lebanon.”
“My client’s lineage from before the birth of Christ had been involved in the making and selling of hashish. Hashish was entwined with religion and social life in Lebanon. It was not only legal, it was sacrament…. The DEA had entrapped the industry’s tycoon, brought him to the United States for the purpose of imprisoning him for life.
“I burned hot fire for three hours during closing argument. I emitted jagged, splicing flames; yellow hot sparks and fire pieces emanated from my roaring furnace. The jury was emblazoned by my incendiary verbal deluge. I screamed, pretended the situation was reversed. Pretend in his country… TVs were banned and illegal and the possession or sale of them there was a serious crime. Pretend he came to the United States and bought a boatload of TVs. Pretend he asked the TV corporate president to fly to Beirut to pick up the money in payment for them. Pretend that the Lebanese authorities arrested our TV executive for selling TVs. “Would you find him guilty?” … the Phalangist from Lebanon was acquitted.”
I should note the book was written while he was incarcerated for ten months in the Lompoc Federal Prison camp in 2006. There is a blurb on the back cover by Jeff Adachi, the San Francisco Public Defender, noting how Tony would “lick the railing at the Hall of Justice (or ‘Injustice’ as it is sometimes called)… so he could absorb the souls of all of those defendants….” Tony was in a prison camp for tax resistance—refusing to pay federal taxes to a government which works for the banks and corporations, and conducted an illegal war in Iraq. No taxation without representation. I told him parts of the book were downright hallucinatory, but he said he wasn’t doing drugs in prison—he didn’t want anything to lengthen his sentence. “I wrote to sprinkle psychedelic remnants from my life in the sixties over sometimes a bleak and sorrowful state of mind; sort of an upheaval in prison camp as psychic relief.”
Tony was raised in San Francisco in a lower class family, as he put it. He went to Stanford where he was something of a jock (boxing, baseball, etc.). He had a post-graduate poetry class which had some influence on him, and this future trial lawyer was an epistemology major. How appropriate, when many trials involve the question of “How do you know what you know?” I asked him if Ken Kesey was at Stanford at the same time, but he wasn’t sure. (Kesey was there in 1958 and was a year younger).
He later received his law degree at UC Berkeley, finishing 11th out of 310. He did his own legal research for thirty years, eventually realizing he had to delegate it as he had too many cases. He has been jailed a number of times for “contempt of court.” Tony was named Trial Lawyer of the Year in 2003 for representing the environmentalist group Earth First (along with several other attorneys) against the FBI and the Oakland Police and winning the case.
False affidavits for search warrants for Earth First and affiliate groups were created; false police reports were filed; the First and Fourth Amendments were trampled upon. The opposition voice against lumber capitalism was sought to be squelched.
I asked him if he thought the U.S. Constitution could protect us anymore. He said he was “breathing life into dying constitutional principles,” but that the dark forces of a police state were increasing. I remember when someone retyped the Bill of Rights and passed it around as a flyer (this was in the 60’s), and many people thought it was a communist document. Had he ever requested his FBI file? No, he didn’t want to be paranoid—although there was a time when he was given special searches in whatever airport he was passing through.
A few years ago I saw a one-act play (at the Exit Theater) by a criminal defense attorney from Los Angeles. He was an older man complaining about how no one liked defense attorneys, especially their clients, and his monologue was embellished now and then by his mournful harmonica. Many don’t understand the defense function—a lawyer can know his client is guilty, as Tony admits in one case—but he is there to keep the government honest, to make sure its evidence and arguments are legitimate. A prosecution getting by on dubious informants and constitutional violations could become a habit which is hard to break.
I told him I worked for a criminal defense attorney for seven years (who specialized in the death penalty), and said something about the tunnel vision of professionals. He readily agreed; it is not unusual for some lawyers to be in the office every day of the week. He said “law school devours you” and “the law is a jealous mistress.” He admitted he is an “anti-lawyer lawyer,” thinking most of them are “cowards and materialists.” I mentioned the book by Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class, whereby professionals cannot be counted on to resist or even notice the encroachments of a fascist state—partly because they are too busy with their noses to the grindstone.
I asked him what it was like having a five-hour closing argument in a Black Panther case (successfully defending Huey Newton against the charge of murdering a prostitute). He outlines a case, which he knows inside out by then, and doesn’t look at his notes for the first 1 1/2 hours of his talk. He is hardly ever stoned in court. He is a “semantic warrior” who knows the law and knows how to talk to a jury.
He mentioned bringing a Japanese water-color of a rural setting to court. He wanted to demonstrate how the West regarded the “relevant factors to causation”—for example, a broken wheel, and how one looks at it from a different perspective. Maybe the wheel is broken because of a bird flying by. Litigation leans heavily on who has framed the argument.
In his book he talks about how “federal sentencing law is draconian…. Sentencing discretion is taken from the courts in drug cases. The Balance of Powers Doctrine, which is so crucial to our constitutional democracy, has been usurped. The judiciary has been rendered impotent.” (p.115) He also repeats an old complaint of defense attorneys: the government can compensate informants in a number of ways, the defense cannot pay for a witness to testify.
He often ran into situations where “the defense bar was on the norm, passive and acquiescent to the prosecution: a class of dilettante legal professionals, praying to and prey of Mammon” (p.40). In one such case, he was representing a mobster in Miami. He makes the point that the Mafia is a subculture with its own rules, and says “It seldom visits harm outside its social and economic borders.” That is one of the few lines in the book that I would question.
He has other lines, like “I became armed with a green obsidian semantic spear. My final closing argument thundered with green lightning flashing from the podium” (p.43). It reminds me of something the French poet, Rimbaud, said about disordering the senses. He was a Latin scholar before he pushed his senses to the limit and, similarly, Tony Serra is a lawyer whose rhetoric and flamboyance in the court (and in his book) are grounded in a solid education.
I asked him when was the last time he took mushrooms—saying the last time for me was 1987 out at the cliffs. He said it was six months ago. He was at a concert in Berkeley and was so stoned he had to wait a few hours after the concert ended to drive home.
Other topics that came up: search warrants for a cell phone… if appearing in court without his false teeth might make him seem more real to the jury… his brother Richard Serra (a sculptor known for 20-ton installations of steel slabs) … and his recent appearance at City Lights Bookstore (April 24, 2014). The place was packed, he read from his book, and generally took over the event, wandering away from the mic, engaging the audience, and changing his shirt to read FREE SHRIMP-BOY (an allegedly reformed Chinese gang leader who he represents; more on that here).
When we finally ended the discussion, Tony went to have dinner. John said he lives around the corner in Bob Kaufman’s old place, the humble abode of a long-gone poet.
You can catch Tony at Focus Gallery on June 5. He’ll be introduced by public defender Matt Gonzalez, then reading from The Green, Yellow and Purple Years in the Life of a Radical Lawyer.
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).