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Resistance is not futile

Chad Abraham
Attorney Sandy Karp in his Glenwood Springs law office. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.
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The young cop was shaking as he pointed his gun at the car.Sandy Karp saw him, along with 40 or 50 other officers, and feared for his life and the lives of his companions – four members of the Black Panthers.”I yelled out the window, ‘I’m a lawyer, what are we charged with?’ Through the loudspeaker: ‘All right, lawyer, get out of the car and put your hands up. OK, get on the ground,'” Karp remembered. “So they handcuffed all five of us, and about a half-hour later a police captain arrives and tells them to un-handcuff me. I asked him to un-handcuff the rest of them and I said, ‘I’ll need your badge number.'”The captain laughed at him. Every officer had his badge covered up. Karp and the Panthers were allowed to drive away, “but it was a part of the constant harassment the Panthers got.”On the Bay Bridge in 1971, the Oakland police, like their counterparts across the nation, were seen as virtually unaccountable. But Karp, a young attorney who had just attended a United Front Against Fascism conference, was unafraid to face down authoritarianism.Nearly 34 years later, little has changed.Move to the mountainsU.S. Senior District Judge John Kain is not a fisherman.

Kain, Colorado’s first public defender, recalled working with Karp in the mid-1970s. When Karp extended an invitation to Kain to go fishing in the mountains, the latter was not impressed.Along with debating how the justice system treats the poor, the young lawyers would often get into deep discussions about science and philosophy.”He’s an extraordinarily intelligent person, and he’s always thoroughly prepared,” Kain said. “After he tried a case in my court, his client wrote a letter to me saying what a great job this lawyer did.”That’s the only time that’s ever been happened since I’ve been a judge,” said Kain, who has been on the bench for 28 years. Karp fell in love with the high country and fly-fishing and a cabin seven miles above Twin Lakes – “We had the highest place on [Highway] 82.”But Karp, his wife, Lana, and their two children kept going over Independence Pass and into Aspen for concerts, movies and the occasional dinner. Karp also began frequenting the Roaring Fork River to indulge his craving to cast.”When the kids were in college, we said, ‘Why are we doing this?’ So we sold the house in Denver, sold the cabin and bought a house above El Jebel,” said Karp, who speaks softly and quickly.Tired of commuting between Denver and Missouri Heights on the weekends, he met Glenwood lawyer Lee Leavenworth and discussed merging. Leavenworth & Karp was formed about five years ago.Having given up criminal cases years ago, Karp concentrates on employment law. His first case in the valley was an age-discrimination lawsuit against the Aspen Skiing Co.In 2003, Karp went up against The Aspen Times. The paper published an article that mistakenly revealed the identity of a Snowmass Village town planner who had criticized the massive Base Village development. The planner, Carolyn Poissant, was later fired by the town and hired Karp.The case was settled out of court, following negotiations between Karp and Times’ lawyer Tom Kelly.

“I’ve known him for a long time,” Kelly, who practices in Denver, said. In the Times’ case, “I found him to be as I’ve always known him, knowledgeable and fierce, but, at the same time, very affable and always with a good perspective on things.”A leftist bentEmpathy, confidence and a leftist bent are traits Karp learned at an early age.He spent his childhood in Milwaukee, which “had this long history of socialist mayors. Wisconsin was a fairly progressive place when I was growing up.”Karp received undergraduate degrees in physics and astronomy from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, then earned his law degree from the same institution in 1968.He had a medical exemption from Vietnam due to asthma, “so I said, ‘What can I do that would help the anti-war movement?’ I decided to go to law school.”He also joined the National Lawyers Guild. Attorneys from the organization played a key role in the civil rights movement, sending representatives to the South to fight for voting rights. The guild would later take Karp overseas to help GIs avoid the war.After graduation, he jumped into the New Left political and anti-war arenas. Working with the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union, he and a few partners opened up a small law office in Madison. “Our main clients were draft resisters and we would counsel young men on avoiding getting drafted.”He was soon representing people from across the state. Members of the Black Panthers in Milwaukee eventually contacted Karp’s firm. Karp and his partners soon opened another small law office in that city.

He recalls one night of partying with a few Black Panthers when police drove by and shot at the house. Police harassment of the Panthers was “never-ending. I was in court [with the Panthers] almost every day from the time I moved to Milwaukee.”Fighting for GIsIn 1972, Karp and a few other lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild found themselves on American military bases in Asia defending GIs who were being court-martialed. Using offices in Japan and the Philippines, the attorneys were usually the only things standing between soldiers protesting the war and the brig.The U.S. government was not fond of their activities and often encouraged the local police to raid the guild’s offices. “We got followed all over Asia wherever we went.”One sailor defended by Karp had been publishing and distributing an anti-war newspaper on an aircraft carrier stationed near the Philippines. The paper included articles on why the United States shouldn’t be in Vietnam, the atrocities that were taking place and advice on how to file conscientious-objector forms.”He was a progressive-minded young man,” Karp said.The ship’s captain had a different view and disciplined the seaman on the basis that his hair was too long. “The military was really nuts about this hair thing, and one of the main forms of protest was these guys would grow their hair long.”The sailor refused to cut his locks and demanded a court-martial.During cross-examination, Karp asked the commanding officer to look at a picture of the back of a man’s head and to offer his opinion on whether the hair length violated military rules.”It obviously violates Navy regulations,” the officer said.”Really,” Karp said. “So if he was under your command, you’d have him court-martialed?”

“Well, I don’t know about court-martial, but we’d certainly give him a [nonjudicial punishment].”Karp flipped the picture over, revealing that it was Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, chief of U.S. naval operations.”The judge freaked out, told the jury to get out, dismissed the case against the guy and they discharged him the next day.” Fear was never the reason for the soldiers’ actions against the war, Karp said.”This is political stuff. This is saying, ‘This is an unjust war and I’m not going to go fight,'” he said. “I don’t recall guys ever telling me they didn’t want to go because they were afraid to fight.”There was a massive anti-war sentiment in the military in the early ’70s, especially among the minority GIs. They clearly understood that they were being used as cannon fodder for an unjust war and they weren’t having any part of it.”Asked if he was ever intimidated before going up against military lawyers, he said, “Nah, it was fun. I never had an issue about being intimidated by the government or by the big corporations. Maybe it was naiveté, but I never worried about that sort of thing.”Civil rights cases and wronged employees remain his passion.”I’ve always gotten a lot of ego satisfaction doing that kind of work, helping the little guy against the big guy and that’s what I continue to do.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com


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