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March Madness

Aldermen are asking: Are we really going to spend all that dough to prosecute those protesters?



The dispute between activists and the city over what happened at the antiwar demonstration on March 20 is about to move to a new and unlikely front--the City Council. Joe Moore, alderman of the 49th Ward, and Ricardo Munoz, of the 22nd, are threatening to hold hearings on why more than 700 antiwar protesters were arrested that night--even if the testimony proves embarrassing to the Daley administration.

Some observers think the city has no intention of prosecuting most of the marchers. "My bet is that they'll drop the cases, only they won't make an announcement to that fact," says Mark Weinberg, a public-interest lawyer who last year filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the arrests of hundreds of homeless people who were detained but never prosecuted. "Generally what happens is that the police arrest someone, hold them for 20 hours or so, release them--and then never show up in court for the hearing. The case gets dropped because you have to have the officer there to testify. But making the defendant show up in court is another form of harassment."

In their public comments since the arrests, police and city spokesmen say they don't plan to drop the cases.

"I have a strong feeling, based on what the officials I've talked to said, that the city's not going to drop the charges against the people they arrested," says Moore. "In which case I'll call for hearings. It's getting ridiculous already. The police made their arrests, the marchers paid a price--now let's move on."

The massive protest on the day after the U.S. launched its war against Iraq began shortly after 6 PM, when several thousand people who'd been rallying at Federal Plaza began marching east toward Lake Shore Drive. By the time they reached the lake their ranks had grown to an estimated 10,000 people, and police had no choice but to allow them to cross and move onto the drive, blocking traffic in both directions. For an hour or so, the marchers walked along the drive without confronting the police. But as the drive bent west they found a thick line of policemen in riot gear waiting for them at Michigan Avenue.

Eventually most of the marchers left. But about 1,000 or so wandered down to Chicago Avenue, where the police started making arrests.

The police say the decision to arrest people was made by commanders who were on the scene. But many marchers doubt that such an order could have been made by relatively low level police commanders. They suspect the arrest order came from officials in the Daley administration--even perhaps the mayor himself--as a way of letting demonstrators know who controls the city's streets.

According to the police, 730 people were carted off to jail, where they were held for 20 hours, then released. Most were charged with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor. About 190 were released without being charged because their arresting officers couldn't be identified. That means 540 marchers, and the officers who arrested them, will have to go to court for hearings over the next few weeks--which will cost the city a fortune.

Moore, a chief sponsor of the antiwar resolution the council passed in January, says pursuing the cases amounts to overkill: "Let's just end this now, and I say this not just because I'm against the war. It's just enough already. The police proved whatever point they wanted to prove. They got the people off the streets. To continue with prosecution would be a huge waste of time and money."

In the days after the arrests Moore says he called officials at City Hall. "I started making some inquiries, talking to people over the last few weeks, basically asking if they're going to drop the charges," he says. "And they said no."

On April 4 Moore met with Bill Shaver, chief of staff for police chief Terry Hillard. "I made all the points," says Moore. "I said you're tying up police officers who should be on the street by making them go to court to testify. I said the cases would be weak. How could the police officers remember the circumstances of each arrest? How could each police officer even remember whom he arrested that night? How could they argue with anyone who said he or she happened to be an innocent bystander? I explained, 'Look, there may have been some people out of line, but there were a whole lot of innocent people swept up in this.' He claimed there were orders given to disperse. I wasn't there. But people I've known for years--people who I know are very credible, who are not given to exaggeration--insist that there were no such orders."

Moore says he left the meeting with Shaver even more determined to see the charges dropped. "I think they should drop all the charges," he says, "unless there's a particularly egregious case of someone who took a swing at an officer or people who were engaged in overt acts of civil disobedience."

And if the police don't drop the charges?

"Then I'll hold hearings," he says. "We'll bring in marchers to testify as to what happened. We'll start asking questions. We'll get to the bottom of this."

Both Moore and Munoz say they're motivated in part by their antiwar beliefs. "I feel like a lot of people in my ward," says Munoz, who represents a largely Hispanic southwest-side district in and around Little Village. "I think it's an unfair, unjust war based on a capricious decision by one man. There are many soldiers from my ward in this war. I went to church on Sunday, and Father Matt, our priest, said he had put up pictures of all the men and women from the parish who are serving. I figured I'd see 10 or 15 pictures. Well, there were 60 kids--all these kids from my neighborhood are out there. I've got moms who are calling me saying, 'Rick, I don't know what to do. My son is fighting and I'm so scared.' What can I tell them? It makes me heartsick--just sending them over to fight this war and then they come home to what? High unemployment and high interest rates and an economy that this president has shot. You can see I'm very opinionated about this."

He and Moore say they don't want to embarrass the mayor. They say there's a larger public-policy issue at stake. "If we're going to spend all that money and time prosecuting these cases," says Moore, "we ought to know why."

Both aldermen realize there are political risks to holding hearings, especially if they start asking questions about whether the mayor ordered the arrests. They know Mayor Daley wouldn't be pleased to have his police department--or any branch of his administration, for that matter--be the subject of a council investigation.

Over the past few years Daley hasn't had to worry about any such investigations, because he has the council so cowed. On most matters he gets unanimous approval from aldermen, who rarely ask tough questions of his department heads, even at hearings filled with constituents outraged about pending zoning changes or rampant development.

Moore isn't sure he could find a council committee chair willing to hold the hearings. "The obvious committee would be police," he says. But that committee is headed by 29th Ward alderman Isaac Carothers, a west-sider who's generally unswerving in his allegiance to Daley.

Another possibility is the human relations committee, chaired by 26th Ward alderman Billy Ocasio. This was the committee that held hearings on Moore's antiwar resolution, but Ocasio is known for doing pretty much what his mentor, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, tells him. Gutierrez opposes the war, but he too is a close Daley ally.

"The best bet would be to go with Ocasio because, well, what the hell does Carothers care if some demonstrators got pushed around by the police?" says one council observer who didn't want to be named. "Of course I don't think Ocasio would hold hearings either, to tell you the truth. Billy would ask Gutierrez, and Gutierrez would call Daley, and Daley would probably ask Gutierrez to ask Ocasio to back off. It's one thing for Gutierrez to defy Donald Rumsfeld. It's another thing for him to defy Daley."

Moore says he won't be deterred if neither chairman agrees to hold hearings. "There's nothing to stop me and Rick from getting a room and holding a hearing of our own," he says. "We could bring in protesters and police to ask them what happened. I'm not trying to get into a fight with anyone. The best thing is to just drop the charges. But if the city's not going to drop them we might as well get to the bottom of what happened on March 20."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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