The idea for the office originated in 1968, in the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic Convention, when a group of lawyers, trying to figure out how to deal with the hundreds of criminal cases of people arrested in the protests, decided they wanted to work in, with, and for the movement for social and political change. The idea was to have an office that would be part of the movement in some real way, with a workload determined by political events and involvements, and thus free of the normal constraints of a law firm. Primarily, that meant the office would be a collective, whatever that meant; not a firm in any event. Ted Stein brought the idea to Dennis Cunningham, Skip Andrew and Don Stang, Dennis talked to Jeff Haas, and the five of them started meeting to discuss whether such a thing could be done, and whether they ought to try it. Before they got very far, Dennis met Bobby Rush and Fred Hampton, who asked for help with the many legal problems the new Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) was already having. The opportunity to go to work for such clients – even though the lawyers were so green that they had little idea of what to do - made the decision to start the office easy.
There ensued a baptism of fire. Dennis had his first jury trial in late February 1969, on one day’s notice, representing Fred Hampton in a case about a demonstration in Maywood City Council chambers. By April of that year a high level of conflict had developed between the police on the one hand and the Panthers and Young Lords on the other, and there was a series of major confrontations between them. Fred Hampton was convicted of robbery for allegedly stealing ice cream bars from an ice cream truck and passing them out to neighborhood kids, and though the trial judge had originally promised him probation, a vicious attack on Hampton in the press by Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan led the judge to sentence him to two to five years in prison. We got involved at the appeal level and joined the efforts to free Fred and defend the Panthers, drafting a motion for an appeal bond.
It was a time of tremendous political activity and drama in the city, involving the BPP, the Young Lords, Young Patriots, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), an increasingly radical anti-war movement, and militant community organizations such as Concerned Citizens of Lincoln Park and the Latin American Defense Organization (LADO). In May, Young Lords’ member Manuel Ramos was killed by a police officer, leading to a tense protest march by some 2000 activists from People’s Park (Armitage and Halsted) to the Chicago Avenue Police Station. Major police raids and shooting incidents against the Panthers occurred throughout the summer, and by summer’s end the lawyers were making multiple appearances in courts almost every day, and not feeling that green anymore.
The actual office was opened in a converted sausage shop at Halsted and Webster on August 1, 1969, with a collective that included Skip, Don, Jeff, Dennis, Flint Taylor, Seva Dubuar, Ray McClain, Mariha Kuechmann and Norrie Davis, while Ted Stein and Burt Steck ran the Chicago Legal Defense Committee and the Chicago Area Military Law Project in the front room. The storefront space was laid out in a unique honeycomb of tiny hexagonal chambers, designed by Howard Alan, and there was a six-inch-thick concrete wall and steel gate across the front, behind the plate glass window, to protect us in case of an armed attack. We had already boldly decided to call ourselves the Peoples Law Office (PLO) – informally at least – and our purpose was easily encapsulated in the obligation to be worthy of that name. We were soon joined by a wonderful older man, Eugene Feldman, who volunteered his services as a receptionist, and who inspired us with his lifelong commitment to the movement and his first person stories of the civil rights struggle in the South and against HUAC in the forties and fifties.
In late August, our efforts to free Fred Hampton were successful and he was released on an appeal bond, returning home to a tumultuous and inspiring welcome. The frenetic pace of work intensified in the fall: Marc Kadish moved from Detroit to organize a National Lawyers Guild chapter in Chicago and to work in our office; the Chicago Conspiracy trial began in September with a boisterous demonstration at which numerous Weathermen were arrested for felony mob action and for freeing a comrade from a police wagon; a faction of SDS, the Revolutionary Youth Movement, had their National Action; and in October the Weathermen had their “Days of Rage.” There was also another shootout at Panther headquarters, and six Panthers were arrested; Skip and Dennis got most of the cases thrown out. Bobby Seale was bound and gagged in the Conspiracy trial, and the Panthers and other supporters held daily protests at the Federal Building. In November there was a shootout in which Panther Spurgeon “Jake” Winters and two Chicago police officers were killed. Working with Warren Wolfson, we represented Brian Flanagan, who was charged with the attempted murder of Corporation Counsel Richard Elrod, who had broken his neck trying to tackle Brian as he ran through the streets of Chicago in the Days of Rage. Flanagan was acquitted of the charges.
History by Section
The Murder of Fred Hampton
Representing the Panthers in Downstate Illinois
The Hampton Trial
Prisoner Rights Work
Puerto Rican Independence Movement and the Puerto Rican Community
George Jones and Street Files
Representing Demonstrators and Activists
Puerto Rico Work Continues
Police Brutality and Torture
Continuing to Represent Demonstrators
The Attica Civil Case
Continuing Work in Solidarity With Puerto Rico
Fighting the Death Penalty
Sexual Abuse Litigation
Back to the Supreme Court
The 1996 Democratic Convention
Policy and Practice Cases
False Arrests and Convictions
Continuing to Defend Dissent
Continuing the Fight for Justice in the Chicago Police Torture Cases
Opposing the Criminalization of the LGBTQ Community
People’s Law Office and The National Lawyers Guild