Ten Years after Iraq War Began, Justice for Protesters is a Work in Progress

Over 500 protesters and bystanders were arrested during a 2003 Iraq War demonstration in Chicago.
Brad Thomson

March 19 marked the 10-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The day after the war began, massive protests swept the globe, including demonstrations in dozens of cities across the U.S. Many who attended woke up on March 21, ten years ago today, in jail.

In Chicago, on March 20, 2003, over 10,000 people took to the streets and marched up Lake Shore Drive, an expressway, before exiting toward Michigan Avenue, a main tourist and shopping strip. As evening fell and the crowd of anti-war activists grew smaller, Chicago police blocked the march, surrounding demonstrators and bystanders alike. Police prevented over 800 people from leaving for an hour and a half and arrested over 500, including me. 

Lawyers and staff from People’s Law Office joined members of the Chicago NLG chapter to mount an immediate response, coordinating pro bono representation for all of the more than 300 protesters charged with reckless conduct. This collective defense effort, combined with political pressure, prompted prosecutors to drop all of the charges.

Chicago NLG members followed up with a class action civil rights lawsuit, Vodak v. City of Chicago, which they filed on behalf of everyone arrested or detained that night. I was deposed in the case and represented at my deposition by longtime Guild attorney Melinda Power. While I had some familiarity with the NLG prior to my arrest, the experience of being part of this lawsuit served as my first real introduction to the commitment and dedication of Guild lawyers and legal workers. A year after the case was filed, I was fortunate to be hired at People’s Law Office, where I began doing legal work on this and other civil rights cases.

The Vodak case required a massive amount of work. It involved over 100 depositions, a two-day class certification hearing, and countless issues requiring extensive litigation against the corporate firm hired to defend the City. Then, in 2009, after years of late nights at the office, the judge ruled in favor of the City’s motion for summary judgment, effectively throwing out the case.

We appealed and achieved a huge victory in March of 2011, when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion reinstating the case and strongly criticizing the actions of the Chicago Police. The decision held that the City cannot arrest peaceful demonstrators without warning, even if they are demonstrating without a permit. 

We spent most of 2011 once again preparing for trial until one year ago when, on the eve of trial, the City agreed to settle the case for a total of $6.2 million in damages. After a decade of litigation, we are only now seeing closure in this case. Just as it is important for us to reflect on the impact of 10 years of militarism and occupation in Iraq, it is crucial to reflect on the legal strategies we use to support the right to protest.

Civil litigation is a long, grueling process with lots of ups and downs. While we consider this settlement to be a victory that both vindicates the rights those arrested and provides them with significant compensation, it is unconscionable that it took so long. It is also important to recognize that our success goes beyond the settlement. In doing radical legal work, we must measure victory not only through financial settlements or verdicts because the reason we do mass defense work is to create more space for dissent and to minimize repression so that individuals feel empowered to take action. 

Since the lawsuit began, we have seen changes in the City’s approach to policing protest and we believe this lawsuit was part of that. While this case was being litigated, police stopped using the tactic of “kettling” or “corralling” as they had the night of March 20, 2003. Also, during the Occupy Chicago protests, the City publicly declared that police were being cautious about how to respond beacause of the appellate ruling earlier in the year.

Despite all of this, the City of Chicago continues to shut down demonstrations and repress dissent. While the Vodak case outlaws certain police tactics, we have seen police continue to limit protest through selective enforcement of municipal ordinances, police infiltration, and the use of force against demonstrators. It is critical that we in the NLG not become complacent and that we continue to use creative litigation to resist any and all law enforcement tactics aimed at repressing movements fighting for radical social change.

For a more extensive account of the Vodak litigation, read this article from the Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report.

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Brad Thomson is a legal worker member of the NLG and is active on the Mass Defense Committee, Military Law Task Force, and the newly formed Animal Rights Activism Committee. Brad works as a paralegal and private investigator for People’s Law Office, a civil rights law firm in Chicago focused on police misconduct and criminal defense, particularly for social justice activists. Brad worked on the legal team for Vodak v. City of Chicago, along with People’s Law Office attorneys Janine Hoft, Joey Mogul, John Stainthorp and Sarah Gelsomino. The legal team also included NLG attorneys Melinda Power and Jim Fennerty.