You may recognize Art Goldberg as the tall, lanky, gray-haired man standing on the corner of Echo Park Avenue and Sunset Boulevard every Friday for the past six years, without fail, holding a hand-painted sign asking you to honk if you want to end the war in Iraq.
But for the past 37 years and counting, one-third of his waking life has been spent running his law practice, the Working People’s Law Center of Echo Park, where he offers legal counsel on a sliding-scale basis to the less economically privileged members of the community. Located above Kien Giang Bakery, it’s a humble space decorated with crayon doodles of children and family photos.
Born in 1942, Goldberg was raised in Inglewood, but, he says, smoothing his button-down shirt, “From ’63 on, I was in Berkeley, where I helped start the Free Speech Movement.” Goldberg, now dressed for court, as he is every morning at 7, points to a large, black-and-white framed photograph on the wall. “That’s me,” he says proudly. “I’m the one standing on the police car … with the megaphone.” The grainy image shows a young Art Goldberg standing defiantly on top of a squad car, surrounded by thousands of fellow Berkeley university students.
“From that point on,” he continues, “I was in political ecstasy.” His student group SLATE protested everything from the Cold War to civil rights abuses. Goldberg was eventually kicked out of Berkeley twice “for nothing,” and spent his summers doing jail time he earned at major sit-ins on campus. In 1965 he left Berkeley to study law at Howard University, a traditionally black institution in D.C. He was kicked out of Howard, too, and the Washington Post ran an article about him, calling him a communist from Berkeley “brought in to agitate the natives.” Goldberg shakes his head: “It was so racist.” From there, Goldberg went to Rutgers, where, thanks to a liberal-minded professor, he finally made it through law school.
He wasn’t in the clear yet. For being a subversive, he was denied admission to the bar for two and a half years after graduating. He smiles mischievously. “I was certainly a subversive,” he says. Ben Margolis, who represented the Hollywood 10 (a group of screenwriters and directors blacklisted during the House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunt), defended Goldberg at 13 hearings, until he was finally admitted to the bar. Not long after, he opened the Working People’s Law Center, in a rented Echo Park storefront.
“Legal aid was just starting but there weren’t any alternative law practices,” he says of his decision. “I couldn’t be a straight lawyer. I mean, no big firm was going to hire me. Not that I had any desire to represent one capitalist pig against another capitalist pig. I mean, who cares who wins? Flip a coin, you know.”
His practice was shaped by the community’s need, which seemed to be mainly family and criminal law. But the always politically minded and active Goldberg made it a point to take on some major social cases in addition to his regular caseload, representing victims of pedophiliac Catholic priest Father Rucker, or Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Against Starbucks, or helping other “subversives” to get admitted to the bar.
At this stage in his career, Goldberg only takes on the big cases, and he has about 70 murder trials under his belt. He’s also appointed by the court to represent children at nasty divorce-court proceedings, a job he loves. Still, at 67, he longs to retire, to spend more time with his children and grandchildren, travel with his wife and devote himself more to politics. He’d love to start a political-cultural counsel in Echo Park. He watches many of the young people who live in the area walk by his practice. “They look hip,” he says, “but they don’t have any political consciousness, no background of political struggle. Luckily we’re living in a period of history that will certainly politicize them — this economic downturn. You have to have crisis before any struggle.”
But before he can ease up on his work, he needs to find a successor. The process has been difficult. The right person has to be left-leaning, willing to live in a working-class neighborhood, love the law, and not care about making too much money. Where do you find another Art Goldberg?