Remembering Dave Linn: An Attorney for the People

It is hard to defend high-profile People’s Park defendants in a contemporary legal world. It is hard to be the one man in Birkenstocks surrounded by Italian suits. But Dave Linn took the cases most people would assess as unwinnable, and gave them his full attention.

by Carol Denney

If you saw Dave Linn up in People’s Park, the last thing you’d think is that he was a lawyer, or a teacher, or a journalist, because he dressed and spoke in such an unassuming manner and could only do so much with his long, unruly head of hair.

But you might guess he was a poet if you had a chance to talk to him for a moment. He had an unexpected way of saying a lot with a few words. And seeing that he was an activist would be easy. It would be written all over his T-shirt, or on a political button, or painted right on the side of his funky car.

Dave was born in Napa, California, in 1956, and died this year of cancer in Bellingham, Washington. He was only 60 years old. He had organized with the Oakland Tenants Union, the Peace and Freedom Party, wrote for Grassroots newspaper, and took the hardest cases as a social justice attorney in Berkeley, in Washington, and in southern California.

He took on immigration, civil rights, and criminal cases for people who often could pay nothing at all.

When the University of California decided in 1991 to try to convert the Berkeley landmark known as People’s Park into sports courts, Dave Linn was one of dozens of attorneys who offered to defend hundreds of people who were arrested almost daily after construction began and for years of protests afterward.

It was chaotic. The initial 36 arrestees were held in a series of odd locations for detention over the course of three days, including, ironically, a defunct, fenced-off sports court only a block away. Those initial 36 were never charged with any crime.

We watched our friends being chased and beaten all over Berkeley’s Southside on the large TVs in our pod at Santa Rita, and were finally released with a written warning that charges could still be lodged against us.

The attorneys we worked with were determined to make sure those who committed civil disobedience on behalf of People’s Park would get legal representation. Many of those arrested in the protests were poor, some were homeless, and some had traveled from many states away to take a stand for People’s Park and its principles.

The attorneys representing them faced an unsympathetic court system, but were committed to the idea that people’s rights would be protected even with a jury trial, if it was in their best interests.

A jury trial is expensive. Most attorneys try to cut a deal to avoid one for plausible reasons. It’s expensive for the attorney, who has to try to clear a busy schedule. It’s expensive for the court, which usually counts on cutting plea deals to make any forward movement on a crowded calendar with a shrinking budget, and even then is often years behind the guarantee of a speedy trial.

It’s expensive for witnesses, who need to take time off work, scour around for daycare, travel to the court location, and manage readiness for even a moment of often upsetting, emotional testimony.

But a jury trial is what defendants who commit civil disobedience often need to clarify to a community and a jury the full context of an action which might otherwise look like gratuitous vandalism. The technical “defacement” of writing the full two-million-dollar public cost (as assessed by the spring of 1992) of the sand volleyball court in People’s Park on its wooden wall in chalk netted this defendant three days in jail, a sentence handed out by a judge, a decision which might have gone in a different direction with a jury.

Dave Linn took the hard cases, cases most people would assess as unwinnable, and gave them his full attention. He gave his frightened clients thoughtful attention and shared as much clarity of both the law and the woolly world around them as he could give, so that principles often at stake in a simple criminal charge received an opportunity for dignity and political context usually missed in a crowded court setting.


The man in the peace shades. Dave Linn fought the good fight for peace and justice.


Dave Linn defended Bob Sparks, who took a chainsaw to the center pole of the volleyball court in broad daylight in full view of police video, one of the park’s few cases that ended in a criminal conviction. Dave Linn’s case in Sparks’ defense was pretty basic: the vandalism was more symbolic injury, more embarrassment, than real damage, which was true.

Nobody could play volleyball for awhile since the center pole held up both courts’ nets, but the university repaired it within a few weeks. Sparks ended up paying a minimal fine, and the volleyball court vandalism continued for years until the university, finally bowing to continuous community pressure, removed the volleyball court on its own while the community watched and applauded.

It is hard to defend high-profile People’s Park defendants in a contemporary legal world. It is hard to be the one man in Birkenstocks surrounded by Italian suits. But Dave Linn made it look easy, weathering a lot of raised eyebrows along the way.

People who loved Dave wondered about the fact that he, as an experienced attorney, had difficulty finding work here in the Bay Area as a public defender. Being a public defender is never a glamorous or well-paid job, but it’s probably true that if the understanding in a particular county is that one always cuts a plea deal, there is no question that Dave Linn would be the less likely candidate to do so. He knew the disadvantage it would create for his clients, which in turn might well have affected his job prospects.

Most of the attorneys in the Bay Area would concede that around here, and in many parts of the country, the public defender’s office is a plea deal mill.

But there is no shortage of work for a talented man. Dave found it while raising a family he adored. His complete enchantment with the magic of parenthood was transformational for those who had never seen such an unrestrained embrace of the absolute joy of being a father.

He is survived by his daughter Autumn, his granddaughter Lucita, his father Abe and sister Judi. I was one of his friends who got calls from him all through his last year, and not to talk at all about his illness, but rather to marvel and wonder at length about the curious state of the world.

Dave redefined every role he was ever in, and leaves behind a world of widened possibilities for those of us still here trying to make sense of things.

He called once asking for help transforming a large gray storage container on top of his car into a whale, and we spent a grand day painting in the sun until it was indeed a most credible, delightful whale. Then he asked if I would add this small legend to the body of the car: “Rules for living: #1. Don’t sweat the small stuff. #2. It’s all small stuff.”

Donations may be made to:

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Interview with Sister Bernie Galvin, Part Two

“What’s forming in my mind is Jesus in the temple when he became angry at the unjust and very exclusive systems of society. That is the very reason that there are the poor and the marginalized. It is not enough just to provide food, clothing and housing.”

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“And Now Where?” Lithograph by Rockwell Kent

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