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Chicago will pay out $6.2 million for mass arrests at anti-war protest

By staff

In February, the National Lawyers Guild reached a $6.2 million settlement in the case of Vodak v City of Chicago, which arose from the arrest of 800 protesters on the night the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq began. The case is named after Kevin Vodak, an attorney who attended the protest as a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild. Vodak was arrested along with the protesters. Under Mayor Emanuel, the city has frustrated attempts by organizers to get permits for protests against NATO/G8. Emanuel has attempted to force drastic changes to ordinances governing protests, trying to restrict the right to protest. Fight Back! posed questions to Jim Fennerty, one of the lawyers in this nine-year legal fight for the right to protest. Fight Back!: What is the Vodak case about?

Jim Fennerty: On March 20, 2003 almost 800 anti-war protesters were arrested on Chicago Avenue in Chicago. Prior to the arrest between 10 and15,000 anti-war protesters who were protesting the start of the Iraq war were escorted by the Chicago Police as they marched from Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago over to Lake Shore Drive where they proceeded to walk north on Lake Shore Drive and then exited on Oak Street.

When the protesters exited on Oak Street they were met by a line of police at Michigan Avenue and were not allowed to cross Michigan Avenue or march down Michigan Avenue and return to Federal Plaza. After waiting over an hour the police told some marchers that they could go back the way they came. Others in the march, who could not hear the police, on their own started marching back to Inner Lake Shore Drive and eventually on to Chicago Avenue after being allowed by the police. The marchers again marched to Michigan Avenue where they were met by another police line preventing them from crossing Michigan Avenue or marching down Michigan Avenue and back to Federal Plaza.

On Chicago Avenue the protesters were surrounded by the Chicago Police and detained up to three hours. In the detained crowd, besides protesters, there were joggers, people who just got off the bus, workers who just got off of work and shoppers. The protesters were peaceful and some were chanting that they just wanted to go home. None of the people detained were ever given orders by the police to disperse or an opportunity to leave.

Eventually the police started to arrest people and to put them into police wagons or buses. Hundreds were taken to jail where many were charged with misdemeanors and had to attend court. Hundreds of people taken to jail were released, some spending 40 hours in jail because they could not be identified by a police officer that they were at Chicago and Michigan Avenues. Several hundred others were detained on the street up to three hours before being released.

The Chicago chapter of the National Lawyers Guild called for volunteers to represent everyone who was charged with a crime. After several appearances in court all the people who the Guild attorneys represented had their charges dismissed.

At the same time several of these same Guild attorneys filed a class action law suit challenging the unconstitutional arrest of the people who were arrested or detained on Chicago Avenue. After almost nine years of litigation where over 100 people were deposed, the City of Chicago decided to settle the class action on the eve of trial for $6.2 million.

Fight Back!: Why did the city settle?

Fennerty: Because they knew that they were going to lose big time at trial. Two years earlier a federal judge agreed with the city that the police were immune from suit because the law was not established in this federal district that before you could arrest non-violent protesters you had to give them an order to disperse and an opportunity to leave. Also the judge held that the protesters could be arrested because they were marching without a permit.

On appeal to the 7th Circuit the court reversed the district court judge and held that the law was that protesters could not be rounded up and arrested without giving them a notice to disperse, which all could hear, and an opportunity to leave. The court also held that since the protest was a spontaneous demonstration, they could march without a permit.

Also the police defended the case on their statements that the protesters were violent, destroyed property and were charging the police lines. Nothing could be further from the truth. The police videos showed peaceful demonstrators who, when they got to Chicago Avenue just wanted to go home.

Fight Back!: Does this impact on the plans for the May 19 march against the NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda and other protests during the NATO/G8 summits?

Fennerty: Already the City has stated that they have changed their procedures for mass arrests. Recently during the arrest of Occupy Chicago the police have given individual orders to disperse and opportunity to leave before making arrests. Will this mean that during the NATO/G8 protests the Chicago Police will follow the constitution remains to be seen.

Note: the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda (CANG8) won permits from the City of Chicago to rally in Daley Plaza and march to McCormick Place. While the Secret Service is threatening to revoke the permits in service of the National Special Security Event, CANG8 is determined to go forward with a family friendly, permitted march on May 19. CANG8 continues to demand that Mayor Emanuel stop vilifying protesters as violent; that Police Superintendent McCarthy stop threatening protesters with mass arrests and that the Obama administration and Homeland Security Director Napolitano, who is over Secret Service, respect the permits granted by the City of Chicago.

#ChicagoIL #AntiwarMovement #NationalLawyersGuild #MayorRahmEmmanuel #rightToProtest #NATOG8Summit