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Still Fighting The Power

They may get regular paychecks and wear shoes nowadays, but the faithful of the People's Law Office haven't mellowed much.

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By Ted Kleine

Few institutions spawned by the 1960s counterculture have survived to the once-dreaded age of 30. But the People's Law Office, which was founded to defend the Black Panther Party, is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a reunion this Saturday night.

The PLO started out in a converted sausage factory at Halsted and Webster. "Lincoln Park was a multiracial community, believe it or not, in the 1960s," says Jeff Haas, one of two lawyers who's been with the office from the beginning. That first building was fortified with a six-inch-thick concrete wall in case of armed attack by the authorities. The staff shunted through a series of rented offices until nine years ago, by which time they had finally collected enough fees from police-misconduct and civil rights cases to buy a building in Wicker Park. The PLO occupies the top floor, a sunny suite with exposed brick, potted plants in the corners, and African masks on the walls. A 1978 Reader story about cofounders Haas and Flint Taylor says they lived on $125 a week. The money's gotten better since then.

"We're not operating on a shoestring," Haas says. "If you're successful in civil rights litigation, you can be compensated. It's not an easy way, though. One of the ways we've been able to survive economically, we have no secretaries here. Everybody does their own computer work."

In the early 1970s the staff posed for a New York Times story about their "law commune." Two of them were barefoot. Another was holding a guitar. Haas wore love beads over his dress shirt. Today, at 57, he's just as casual, though in a This Old House sort of way. The other day he showed up for work in a red polo shirt and jeans, looking like he was ready to put up drywall. His rhetoric hasn't changed much since 1969 either.

"I think we still believe in the struggle," he said. "People who are oppressed by police and prosecutors are the ones we have decided to assist."

Suing the Chicago police over Black Panther Fred Hampton's killing was one of the PLO's first cases. It taught the radical lawyers how to investigate police misconduct--still one of their favorite causes--and it ensured the PLO's longevity. "A lot of it has to do with the duration of these cases," says Dennis Cunningham, a founding attorney who now works in San Francisco. "The Hampton case lasted 15 years. It doesn't let you go. And then something else comes up."

Like the case of George Jones. Jones was tried for murder in 1981 after evidence that would have freed him disappeared into the Chicago Police Department's "street files," which allegedly hid evidence favorable to defendants. The PLO sued to end use of the files and won Jones $800,000 in punitive damages.

After seeing so many out-of-control cops in the Jones and Hampton cases, the PLO decided to reform the police department, Haas says. "I think we started as criminal lawyers, but we started to defend the movement against police harassment--the SDS, the Black Panthers."

The "movement" is mostly a thing of the past, but the police will always be with us, and if you believe Haas, most of them "feel they can crack heads pretty much with impunity." The People's Law Office offers itself as the answer to the old Roman question "Who will guard the guardians?" Its lawsuits contributed to the firing of notorious police commander Jon Burge amid allegations he'd tortured suspects during interrogation. They also forced the police department to set up a counseling program for officers who slapped around their wives and girlfriends.

Right now the PLO is trying to change the department's disciplinary system to make it easier to fire "repeater beaters," cops who continually rough up citizens on the street. The Office of Police Standards can't use prior complaints in disciplinary hearings, and as a result, Haas says, there's a cop whose free-swinging nightstick has cost the city over $2 million in judgments. He's still on the force, albeit at a desk job.

"We'd like to see an independent prosecutor to prosecute officers," Haas says. "If the state's attorney goes to prosecute officers, he's not going to get [police] cooperation in cases."

You won't hear about reunions at big-shot law firms like Sidley and Austin or Mayer, Brown & Platt. But the People's Law Office isn't a firm, it's a collective. Veterans think of it with nostalgia--for the 60s, perhaps, or "for part of their life when they made a significant contribution to justice," Haas says.

"There's definitely a different kind of spirit," says the lanky, white-bearded Cunningham, who was dressed in a blue blazer over a lime green corduroy shirt. He'd been working on the Chicago Legal Defense Committee, defending kids who'd protested at the 1968 Democratic Convention, when he helped round up a group of lefty lawyers to start the office. "It's like in the great metropolitan firms, they have their own culture. There's a culture here also that's totally different. It's about things other than money and success."

Dozens of lawyers have passed through the People's Law Office. Among those expected at the reunion are a public defender from Washington, D.C., and an alumnus who's arguing civil rights cases in South Carolina. Not many are working on LaSalle Street or going to court on behalf of insurance companies.

"I don't think there's too many of them that have gone to the other end of the spectrum," Cunningham says. "I can't think of one I know about. There's probably a few that have slid a ways. If they're some of ours, I'm glad I don't know who it is."

Out in California, Cunningham is still defending protesters, including Earth First! member Darryl Cherney, an environmentalist who was arrested by Oakland police after a bomb blew up in his car.

"Sometimes you think, 'Maybe I'm crazy to be sticking to these views and beliefs,' but I think not," Cunningham says. "The movement has been in tremendous eclipse, but it hasn't disappeared."

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