A Tribute to Iconic People’s Lawyer Dennis Cunningham (1936-2022)

By Flint Taylor

PLO Office 1976

On March 5, 2022, Dennis Cunningham, who was the epitome of a true and uncompromising people’s lawyer, transitioned peacefully at his son’s home in Los Angeles, California.

Dennis was a unique and brilliant human being, who proudly wore his radical politics on his sleeve and never shied away from writing about, speaking on, or putting into action his passionately held and thoroughly analyzed beliefs.

At the age of fifteen Dennis attended the University of Chicago as part of a Ford Foundation program for students who had completed two years of high school. After graduating, he traveled around Europe for several months in a battered Vespa, going over the Alps and the Dolomites to Rome, hanging out with numerous people, including jazz musicians, most notably saxophonist Dexter Gordon. He worked as a copyboy for the Chicago Sun Times, worked as a reporter for a small Iowa newspaper, and returned to Chicago to be involved in the starting of Chicago’s famed Second City, where he worked as a bartender and improv actor.

Inspired by the 1963 March on Washington, which he called “the engine of my enlightenment”, Dennis went to work for the City of Chicago’s Human Relations Commission, investigating housing discrimination, while attending Loyola of Chicago’ Law School at night. He left the City job when he realized, in the wake of Chicago Mayor Richard J.  Daley’s response to Dr. King’s 1967 march for open housing, that he was working “for the wrong side.” He was sworn in as a lawyer in November of 1967, just in time to represent persons arrested in the uprising that followed the assassination of Dr. King and the Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As Dennis recently described it:

a zillion people got busted [at the convention]. Three weeks later [attorney] Ted [Stein] and I are sitting there, the two of us, and everybody left town, and we had like 300 cases. . . I started going to court. I had really good luck then because I got to try a lot of cases, and they were all bench trials.

Shortly thereafter, filmmaker Howard Alk introduced Dennis to Fred Hampton and Bobby Rush, who were starting the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. Soon after that, Fred requested that Dennis represent him in a multi-defendant mob action case that arose from a demonstration against a segregated swimming pool in Fred’s home town of Maywood, Illinois. As Dennis described the experience:

This guy, Ivory (a co-defendant) was represented by (notable Black attorney) James Montgomery, who I vaguely knew. But there he was, and I’m like thank goodness I have someone to watch what he does, and have half a clue as to what I’m supposed to do, and that’s the way it went. . . I don’t have a lot of memory about how the trial went except that I gave a rousing closing argument, which Fred really liked, that sounded really good. Montgomery later acknowledged that it was good, and we got a not guilty, that was really sweet. A big relief I’ll tell you that. I sure didn’t want to lose that case.

At about this time, Dennis was talking to two other young lawyers, Skip Andrew and Don Stang, about starting a law collective, which they decided they would “boldly” name the People’s Law Office. With Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party, Cha-Cha Jiminez and the Young Lords, and SDS members as clients who were regularly subjected to arrests and police violence, Dennis, Andrew and Stang, together with attorney Jeff Haas, and law students Seva Dubuar, Flint Taylor, Ray McClain and Jack Welch, opened the People’s Law Office in August of 1969.

When the Chicago police murdered Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in a pre-dawn raid in December of 1969, Dennis took a leading role in coordinating the legal and political effort that the People’s Law Office, the Panthers, and the Black community of Chicago mounted to expose the lies that the raiding police and the conspiring Cook County prosecutors were loudly trumpeting in the media and in the courts. A few years later, the PLO, lead by Dennis, Haas and Taylor, undertook the Herculean task of uncovering and exposing the FBI and its Cointelpro program’s central role in the assassination of Fred Hampton, a legal and political battle that spanned more than a decade and included an 18-month Federal civil rights trial.  As Taylor described Dennis’ role:

He was an advisor, a mentor, an inspiration; he always had the big picture, he always thought about, and knew about what one move would lead to with regard to the next move . . . his involvement was crucial to our plotting out and making our 13- year fight to expose the FBI’s role in the assassination.

Also in the early 1970s, Dennis became involved in the 30-year struggle to defend the Attica Brothers and to expose the truth in the wake of the 1971 prison rebellion and the law enforcement massacre that followed. Michael Deutsch, who was recruited to the People’s Law Office in 1970 and worked side by side with Dennis during the series of criminal and civil legal battles, incapsulated Dennis’ leading role:

Dennis had the unique ability of bringing the political essence to the courtroom, not only in court but also in his written advocacy. He was a master at capturing the political nature of the case. For the 30 years we worked on Attica, Dennis was a key person in organizing the Brothers, in putting forth the Brothers’ position, in helping to maintain unity among the Brothers. He related to the Brothers in a way they could trust and know that he believed in their struggle.

In Chicago, Dennis also represented numerous leaders and members of the SDS-Weathermen, and Rising Up Angry, and later provided counsel to arrested FALN members and Palestinian liberation hero Rasmea Odeh. One of the most famous of those clients, Bernardine Dohrn, eloquently linked Dennis’ acting background to his unique lawyering skills:

I picture him as lanky redheaded hipster, coolly unlawyerly, Darrow returned as Nelson Algren. Dennis was a performance of understated defiance, hurling himself into history on the side of the dispossessed. Dennis does law as the theater of improv. He was an early practitioner of the disciplined art of spontaneity, schooled in the improvisational acting techniques of Viola Spolin and Paul Sills at Second City and the Compass Players. Perhaps Dennis is the singular fusion of improv and the practice of law, taking the drama of legal performance into the uncharted territories of jazz riffs and invention. His skills of listening, clarity and confidence, of wit and speed, are seen in today’s progeny of poetry slams, hip hop and rap performances.

In the early 1980s, Dennis moved to San Francisco where he continued his career as a people’s lawyer, while maintaining a close working and comradely relationship with the People’s Law Office. With other Bay area lawyers, he represented protesters who were subjected to mass arrest at the 1984  Democratic Party convention; during anti-nuke actions at the Livermore Laboratory; at anti-apartheid demonstrations; and at Central American solidarity actions. He also represented folks arrested during the police sweep of Castro Street in 1987; at the Rodney King verdict protests in 1992; and during actions by Food Not Bombs, Act Up, and others. Dennis also defended classical violinist Nicholas Leiser, who persisted in playing his violin in BART stations despite repeated arrests, and brought a case that established the right of musicians to play in such public places. After defending Religious Witness with the Homeless for multiple sit-ins, leading Sister Bernie Galvin of Religious Witness called Dennis “the world’s greatest lawyer.” Remarkably generous in practicing people’s law, he represented numerous prisoners without fee, and was a charter member of the Fleagle Aid group that dispensed free legal advice at a Berkeley flea market during the late 1980s.

 In 1992, Dennis and Ben Rosenfeld brought a case against FBI agents and Oakland police officers involved in the frame-up and media smear of Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, after a car-bomb assassination attempt against Judi in May 1990. The attack came at the start of Redwood Summer, a planned season of mass protest and direct action against the destruction of old-growth forests. Dennis and Ben were part of a legal team that brought the case to trial in 2002, and won a $4.4 million verdict with eighty percent of the award assigned to plaintiffs’ first amendment claims that the sensational false arrest after the bombing was a latter-day Cointelpro operation. Dennis’ youngest daughter, Bernadine Mellis, documented the Bari case and Dennis’ role in it in the award-winning film The Forest for the Trees.

Following the Bari case, the legal team was recruited to represent plaintiffs in the “pepper spray” case, where locked-down forest-protection protesters in Humboldt County had refused orders to unlock themselves, and had pepper spray daubed in their eyes by police. After two hung juries, a third jury compromised on a 2005 verdict for nominal damages of one dollar per plaintiff. A later settlement of the Plaintiffs’ claim for attorneys’ fees brought the case to a final resolution. In typical Cunningham fashion, Dennis shared his hard-earned fee with his clients.

Dennis, a career-long active member of the National Lawyers Guild, was one of the originators of the Guild’s National Police Accountability Project, and was honored first in Boston by the national Guild, and later by the Guild’s San Francisco chapter who awarded him the 2007 Spirit of Justice Award. Importantly, he was also supported without fail by his remarkable family, particularly including his daughters Delia, Miranda and Bernardine, and his son Joe.

As the tributes continue roll in from clients, friends, colleagues, and so many others whose lives Dennis touched, former People’s Law Office lawyer Jeffrey Haas aptly summed up Dennis’ legal career:

In court and in his writing Dennis was brilliant, imaginative, a visionary, often histrionic, and a passionate defender of many Movement leaders and causes.

He was, without a doubt, a true people’s lawyer.

Note: the author gratefully acknowledges the use of information from the Anti-Imperialist News article of March 7, 2022 entitled Dennis Cunningham – transitions at the age of 86 on March 5 as well as other interviews, tributes and collective recollections.

In Dennis’ memory, his family has organized a donation pool via the National Lawyers Guild to the Water Protector Legal Collective: www.nlg.org/donate/waterprotectorlegal/

NLG Convention 2013 San Juan Puerto Rico