John Lennon: Working Class Hero and Legal Activist - LawNow Magazine

John Lennon: Working Class Hero and Legal Activist

Law and Literature ColumnFor me, John Lennon, for all his excesses and flaws, was a great musical hero and one of a select group who have been able to marry blazing musical talent with meaningful politically and socially charged songs, combined with genuine activism and a commitment to civil liberties. He was also inspired by his wife, Yoko Ono, to engage in a unique combination of music and performance art. Part of his legacy is that he continues to inspire countless individuals in their efforts to make a difference as citizens.  I have just viewed a documentary from a few years back: The USA v John Lennon. It centers on the drama of his years from 1970 to 1976 in New York City as he immersed himself in the political radicalism of the era and then found himself on the receiving end of a vindictive and no doubt paranoid campaign on the part of Richard Nixon and several key advisers.   The campaign was designed to influence the immigration system in order to force Lennon out of America (Yoko had previously acquired her green card during her residence in New York before meeting up with John in London).

In addition to his immense contributions to popular music as a member of rock’s greatest group and then as a questing and always forthright and revealing solo artist, Lennon deserves to be remembered for much more. The film, together with one of my favourite books on a musician, Jon Weiner’s Come Together:  John Lennon in his Time, has brought to mind for me three significant initiatives that he and Yoko engaged in during their time in Canada and the United States.  While many of Lennon’s fans will probably consider that they know just about everything possible about this icon, in fact, his political and legal efforts have facets that continue to be worth recounting. Let me run through these highlights by organizing them around three of his songs.

Give Peace A Chance

This song has a close connection to Canada. The Beatle with the strongest political conscience penned it in 1969 as a means of better explaining the “Bed-In” for peace that he and Yoko engaged in during their honeymoon. He had spontaneously responded to a reporter pressing him about just why the couple had engaged in such a “silly” initiative that he felt it really was time to “just give peace a chance.” While many of Lennon’s fans will probably consider that they know just about everything possible about this icon, in fact, his political and legal efforts have facets that continue to be worth recounting.  The phrase then came up again and again in interviews. To communicate their message of peace in a time overshadowed by the unrelenting news of violent and seemingly never-ending battles in the Vietnam War, he and Yoko recorded his song in June 1969 right in their hotel room at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. A large contingent of journalists and celebrities who were on hand at the time joined in. These included the poet Allan Ginsberg, the DJ Murray the “K”, Beatle assistant Derek Taylor, as well as Tommy Smothers, who joined John on acoustic guitar.

To listen to the song as no more than a pop hit on the radio is to fail to do it justice. One needs to see the video on You Tube or better yet, see the performance captured in this film and to think back to the time and place:  north of the border of the most powerful country on the planet that was embroiled in an unjust and unwinnable war that deeply divided the nation and also caused great consternation elsewhere.  the simple pacifist message of the song operated as an effective riposte to the large-scale propaganda advanced by the Nixon administration The ongoing sacrifice of countless lives for no discernible purpose, in the minds of the millions who opposed the war, led to passionate opposition that had run up against an apparently impervious government and military-industrial complex. So, the simple pacifist message of the song operated as an effective riposte to the large-scale propaganda advanced by the Nixon administration (continuing the efforts of the Johnson administration). In the US v. John Lennon, this era of clashing views is captured in a scene showing a rather underwhelmed journalist condemning the songwriter for his naivety in penning a song with such a hopelessly innocent viewpoint, and the “radical” offering a spirited rejoinder, with a reference to its use by anti-war demonstrators. Indeed, it became an anthem of the anti-war and countercultural movements in the U.S. and Canada.  It was sung by 500,000 protestors in Washington at the Vietnam Moratorium Day, Nov 15, 1969. The resolute crowd was led by folk icon Pete Seeger, who ad libbed lines like “Are you listening Nixon?”

The song is also linked in my mind to the meeting John and Yoko had with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on Parliament Hill a few months later. What was intended to be a very short visit extended to a 50-minute conversation and both John and Yoko expressed genuine admiration for our prime minister. I was taken by John’s comment about the value of their wide-ranging conversation – “talk, old-fashioned as it is, is still the best means of communication.”  At the time of the encounter, Canada had emerged as a haven (and indeed a sane alternative to the powerful interests in the U.S.A.) for those young men who had resisted the requirement that they serve their country in Vietnam. Many draft resisters, heeding their conscience, found refuge here. One was the brilliant singer-songwriter Jessie Winchester, who sang the old classic Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt, with additional stanza that had an intensely personal meaning for him – thanking Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau – “the poor man’s friend” who passed laws protecting the draft resisters. Winchester settled in Montreal and became a major creative force for decades on the Canadian folk music scene. The fleeting bond between John and Yoko and the Prime Minister of our country, which had staked out an independent foreign policy with a justified reputation for peace-keeping, symbolized the fact that the hope that the war might soon end was more than a mere utopian fantasy.

John Sinclair

Shortly after Lennon moved to New York City and fell in love with its openness, diversity and the fact that he could circulate through it in a way that did not require that he remain trapped in his persona as a “rock superstar”, he met up with several political radicals and made new friendships.  The fleeting bond between John and Yoko and the Prime Minister of our country, which had staked out an independent foreign policy with a justified reputation for peace-keeping, symbolized the fact that the hope that the war might soon end was more than a mere utopian fantasy. He became an ally of the anti-war left and was told of the plight of their friend and comrade-in-arms, John Sinclair. Sinclair was then serving a 10-year jail sentence for giving two marijuana joints to an undercover officer. This had clearly been a politically motivated prosecution of a political radical and anti-war activist. Lennon shortly thereafter knocked out a very effective protest song (“they gave him ten for two/ What else can, what else can, Judge Colombo do? / Gotta, gotta gotta, … set him free”). John and Yoko performed the song at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally at the University of Michigan on Dec 10, 1971. Other performers who volunteered to fight for justice included Stevie Wonder (a hero of John’s and he was thrilled to meet the great Motown star) and the folksinger Phil Ochs. The Rally was believed to have had a major impact on the release, on bail, of Sinclair, just a few days later. The Michigan State Senate had only a day before the rally altered its laws to adopt a more liberal stance to marijuana possession (removing it from its penal code). The news of the various efforts to fight for Sinclair’s release undoubtedly had its impact on the votes cast for the bill. Sinclair himself, in interviews, has attributed Lennon’s song and his involvement as a major factor in his release.

Gimme Some Truth

This is another protest song, written in 1971, and expressing the intrepid Liverpudlian’s growing exasperation at the deceptive practices of establishment politicians of the era. Even in the dark days when a New York judge ruled that he must leave within 60 days or face deportation, John remained defiant. Outside the courtroom he quipped: “Having just celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary, we are not prepared to sleep in separate beds. Love, John and Yoko.” A fine version of the song can be found on the album Make Some Noise: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur (2007) – with Jakob Dylan on vocals and Dhari Harrison on lead guitar.

The song is prescient insofar as it serves as a prelude to a period where John and Yoko would be placed under intense covert surveillance and intimidated in a variety of ways, all in an effort to force Lennon out of the country. The Nixon administration, which had ensured that FBI agents would be at the Sinclair Rally and  other concerts for charity where the couple would perform, brought pressure to bear on the immigration process and asserted that Lennon was an undesirable presence. He had been convicted on a drug possession charge (a small amount of hashish) and that was to be the ostensible reason for his removal.  The film charts the close collaboration John and Yoko had with their very capable immigration lawyer, Leon Wildes. Wildes was able, with the help of their courage and persistence, to achieve a legal breakthrough on behalf of Lennon.  Even in the dark days when a New York judge ruled that he must leave within 60 days or face deportation, John remained defiant. Outside the courtroom he quipped: “Having just celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary, we are not prepared to sleep in separate beds. Love, John and Yoko.”

The documentary film takes us through the immigration proceedings in a lively fashion and captures the poise that Lennon and Ono displayed throughout. One very cool scene reveals them claiming to be ambassadors for the just-established country of Nutopia. Nutopia by contrast with the cold-shoulder treatment given them by the U.S. authorities, had a wide-open citizenship rule. As was often the case, Lennon revealed himself to be a brilliant satirist and here he mocks the bogus submissions by government lawyers.

The film charts the close collaboration John and Yoko had with their very capable immigration lawyer, Leon Wildes. Wildes was able, with the help of their courage and persistence, to achieve a legal breakthrough on behalf of Lennon. Until the U.S. Court of Appeals decision in 1975 on Lennon’s case, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had never acknowledged that it had used its own discretion in deciding which individuals to deport. By adroit use of freedom of information laws, Wildes discovered 1,843 instances in which INS had invoked prosecutorial discretion in a hitherto secret program developed for “non-priority” cases. Once it was revealed, the hand of INS was forced and it was essentially obligated to issue official guidelines on how the discretion would be applied. This opened up a major avenue for resisting removal from the U.S. for countless immigrants in years to come, who have much reason to be thankful to Lennon and his counsel.

Wildes convincingly established in court that the Nixon administration had intervened in the deportation decision-making process. He further succeeded in convincing the courts of the valuable contributions Lennon could make as a musician to American society and his peaceful advocacy for worthwhile causes. John and Yoko’s persistence and courage had paid off. But it’s remarkable to consider just how his immigration battles continue to resonate to this day.

Authors:

Rob Normey
Rob Normey is a lawyer who has practised in Edmonton for many years and is a long-standing member of several human rights organizations.
 


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