Continuing to Defend Dissent

Our work defending the right to dissent was put to an intense, and lengthy, test with our representation of people protesting the 2003 Iraq war. On March 20, 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, over 10,000 protesters took to the streets in Chicago in a spontaneous demonstration, marching up Lake Shore Drive and exiting at Oak Street. As the night progressed and the crowd grew smaller, around 1,000 people ended up on Chicago Avenue near the intersection of Michigan Avenue.  Without providing an order to disperse or giving an opportunity to leave, Chicago Police corralled, detained and arrested hundreds of protestors and bystanders.  In total, over 800 people were detained and more than 500 of them were taken to a police station, many of them criminally charged.

We coordinated the legal defense for the almost 300 people charged with the criminal offense of Reckless Conduct, working actively with other lawyers from the Chicago chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. After fighting the prosecutions for several months, almost all of the charges were thrown out. With NLG attorneys Melinda Power and Jim Fennerty, we filed a class action lawsuit, Vodak v. Chicago, challenging the legality of the detentions, arrests and prosecutions. After the criminal cases were over, the office gained a new member, Brad Thomson, who had been arrested and brutalized at the demonstration, and who joined us as a paralegal.

The City fought the case aggressively and fiercely, hiring private counsel from large law firms and paying them millions of dollars to do whatever they needed to do to crush us. They noticed deposition after deposition, filed motion after motion, and attempted to intimidate us by conducting discovery into the political opinions and activities of our clients. They also filed a counter-claim against our class representatives, claiming over $1 million in damages for the costs of police overtime resulting from the mass arrests. We fought back and prevailed at a class certification hearing, but on the verge of trial, after over 5 years of litigation, the judge granted summary judgment to the City, ruling that the arrests were not unlawful because there was no permit to demonstrate. That portion of the litigation was a baptism of fire for Sarah Gelsomino, who joined the office right after law school, and was immediately immersed in the Vodak litigation.

Disappointed but not dispirited, we appealed the decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and eventually obtained a highly favorable ruling which excoriated the City and strongly affirmed the right to demonstrate, and the obligation of the police to clearly order demonstrators to disperse prior to arresting them. Back in the District Court, we aggressively prepared for trial, but then were able to settle the case for a total of $6.2 million for the class members, with attorneys’ fees and costs to be paid separately.

In addition to the Vodak litigation, we have continued to represent people arrested for a wide array of political activities, including fighting against police brutality, anti-war activists, environmentalists, immigrant rights activists, international solidarity activists, along with numerous other movements.  In 2007, attorneys from People’s Law Office represented over 150 disability rights activists affiliated with ADAPT, who came to Chicago from around the world to commit civil disobedience as part of a campaign to demand that individuals with disabilities have the right to choose community services rather than be forced into a nursing home or institution.

We are currently part of the legal team which is fighting to protect the rights of Occupy Chicago, have appeared in court for persons arrested as part of that movement, and have challenged the constitutionality of the arrests of Occupy Chicago participants. We are also currently involved in fighting to ensure that the City does not prevent political dissent at the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago in May 2012, and will be involved in representing anyone who is arrested as a result of those protests.


Early Days
The Murder of Fred Hampton
Government Surveillance
Representing the Panthers in Downstate Illinois
Attica New York Prison Riots
The Fred Hampton Murder Trial
Prisoner Rights Work
Puerto Rican Independence Movement and the Puerto Rican Community
Fred Hampton Appeal
George Jones Street Files and False Imprisonment
Representing Demonstrators, Protestors, and Activists
Puerto Rico Work Continues
Police Brutality and Torture
Continuing to Represent Demonstrators and Activists
The Attica Prison Civil Case
Continuing Work in Solidarity With Puerto Rico
Fighting the Death Penalty
Sexual Abuse Litigation and Illegal Strip Search
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
Criminal Defense for Civil Rights Abuses
Jail Suicide
Opposing the Criminalization of the LGBTQ Community
People’s Law Office and The National Lawyers Guild