Don Jelinek, leftist lawyer and former Berkeley councilman, dies
By Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle, July 4, 2016
Services will be held this month for Don Jelinek, a former Berkeley city councilman and civil rights attorney whose clients ranged from black sharecroppers in the Deep South to the Attica prison rioters and the Indian occupiers of Alcatraz.
Mr. Jelinek died June 24 at his home in Berkeley. He was 82, and the cause of death was lung disease, said his wife, Jane Scherr.
Over his 60-year career as an attorney, Mr. Jelinek was always on the side of those charged with instigating a revolt. His first legal advocacy was in the service of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Jim Crow South in 1965, and he was still organizing for SNCC, hosting meetings at his Berkeley home, until shortly before his death.
His final wish was that his gravestone read simply “He was SNCC.”
“He was the most deeply moral person I’ve ever met,” said Scherr, herself a co-founder of the famed Berkeley Barb underground newspaper. “His commitment to the cause of racial justice was very profound.”
Donald Arthur Jelinek was born in the Bronx, N.Y., on Feb. 17, 1934, the son of Jewish immigrants. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, and moved to Greenwich Village to attend New York University, where he earned both his bachelor and law degrees.
Mr. Jelinek lived in a tenement and worked as a janitor to pay his way through law school, and thereafter identified with the working class.
“The Village radicalized him,” said Scherr. “He lived in a building with gay people and black people.”
His first job as a lawyer was at a firm practicing business law on Wall Street. In August 1965, Mr. Jelinek answered a call for lawyers by the American Civil Liberties Union and flew to Jackson, Miss., for a three-week vacation to work pro bono.
“Representing the black farmer was a shock for a Wall Street lawyer accustomed to impersonal, professional relationships timed to the quarter hour,” Mr. Jelinek later told an interviewer. “If Paul Revere had tried to warn black Mississippi, I thought to myself, he would have ridden up, shouted ‘The British are coming’ and would still be at the first house talking about his silverware when the king’s men arrived.”
But the Wall Street lawyer never went back to that Wall Street. His three-week vacation lasted three years. He worked on strategy with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and was arrested twice for practicing law in Alabama without a license.
From there he came west, arriving in Berkeley in 1968. Because he had been arrested in the South, his application to the California Bar was held up, so he got a job with the state, advising various Indian groups. Soon enough he was on Alcatraz Island.
Then a 35-year-old attorney, Mr. Jelinek first went out to the former federal penitentiary on Thanksgiving Day, 1969, to advise the Indian activists who had taken control of the island and faced federal charges. It became a cause celebre, and the famous El Cerrito rockers Creedence Clearwater Revival donated $10,000 so Mr. Jelinek could buy a boat he named “The Clearwater.”
He began a daily commute by boat and then ended up living among his clients for most of the time.
“It was incredibly exciting to be part of building a new society — not that anybody thought this was a utopia,” Jelinek recalled of the 19 months he spent defending the occupiers.
He was also active in the anti-Vietnam War effort. While representing a Marine Corps deserter, Mr. Jelinek once flew to Washington state and hiked overnight into remote mountains to track down U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When he found Douglas at a cabin, Mr. Jelinek pulled a change of venue petition out of his backpack. Douglas signed it and Mr. Jelinek hiked back out.
This level of dedication got him national notice. In the aftermath of the 1971 riot at the Attica Correctional Facility, near Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Jelinek was named lead defense attorney for 61 inmates charged with a total of 1,400 felonies. Under Mr. Jelinek’s defense, no inmate served any additional time for these crimes.
In 1973, he founded the law firm Jelinek & Associates, and took on the case of of flea market vendors who were ousted from the BART Ashby Station parking lot.
“The guy was very persistent. He would never give up,” said appellate lawyer Myron Moskovitz who worked with Mr. Jelinek on the flea vendor case. “He did things way beyond what would be expected of a normal lawyer and came up with very original ideas as to how to win a case.”
Mr. Jelinek’s work on behalf of the BART vendors gave him local visibility that helped get him elected to the Berkeley City Council, where he served from 1984 to 1990.
Mr. Jelinek ran for mayor of Berkeley in 1994 and was the top vote-getter in the general election. But he fell just short of the 50 percent threshold and was defeated in a runoff by Shirley Dean. He was also fined $15,000 by the state for campaign violations. Undaunted, he ran against Dean again in 1998 and lost again. In 1979, Mr. Jelinek met Scherr, who had launched the the Barb in 1965 with her then-husband Max Scherr. Scherr and Jelinek were married in 1985 and lived for 31 years in a stucco cottage south of the UC Berkeley campus.
Mr. Jelinek was the author of three books: “White Lawyer, Black Power,” about his time in the SNCC, “Attica Justice,” about the uprising and his defense of the prisoners, and “Survivor of the Alamo,” a story about the one Texan who did not die in the famous battle. Survivors include Scherr, his wife of 31 years, and a brother, Roger Jelinek of New York.
A memorial service was held July 16 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Berkeley.