How Did This Happen? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

How Did This Happen? 

If the city bears some responsibility for the peace march chaos, it's not owning up.

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For over three months activists who participated in the huge antiwar march of March 20 have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with city and county officials. "In some ways it's not even about what happened on March 20," says Andy Thayer, who was among the several hundred protesters arrested that night. "It's about marches to come."

The march began shortly after 6 PM, when several thousand people who'd been rallying against the war left Federal Plaza and headed for Lake Shore Drive. The police ranks were surprisingly thin that night, and because there weren't enough cops to keep the marchers off the drive, they didn't even try. More than 10,000 people wound up marching north on the drive, blocking rush-hour traffic in both directions.

The marchers eventually cut west at Oak only to find a thick line of policemen in riot gear waiting at Michigan Avenue. There the march stalled. Many people went home, but about 1,000 or so wandered down to Chicago Avenue.

What happened next is disputed. The police say they gave an order to disperse. The marchers say they didn't. Many of the marchers say they begged police to let them go home. Instead, the police cordoned them off on Chicago between Michigan and the drive, then swept in and started making arrests.

According to the police, 730 people were carted off to jail, where they were held for up to 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.

Police officials contend the arresting officers acted with restraint. Privately, some rank-and-file cops say the protesters got exactly what they deserved for blocking rush-hour traffic. "I do believe you have to send a message," says one north-side detective. "You can't just let people do whatever the hell they want. That's anarchy."

The marchers counter that the police went overboard. Many of the people arrested say they went onto the drive only because the police let them. Other people arrested that night weren't even antiwar protesters but commuters or tourists who got swept up along with marchers.

In April more than 100 people who'd been arrested but not charged joined a class-action suit against the city that was organized by attorney James Fennerty. "There were some interesting subcases regarding injured people or people who had property taken away," he says. "We had a case where two Mennonite missionaries who live in Pilsen were arrested. Apparently they had been on their bikes during the march, but when they got arrested they left their bikes in the street. When they came back the bikes were gone."

While Fennerty pulled together his court case, 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore and 22nd Ward alderman Ricardo Munoz looked at what could be done on the political front. Moore and Munoz have been the City Council's leading antiwar aldermen and are two of only a few council members willing to occasionally defy Daley. "I was getting calls from a lot of my constituents about what had happened that night," says Moore. "I felt I had to do something. At the very least I wanted charges dropped."

That wouldn't be easy. Officially the decision to press or drop charges is made by Cook County state's attorney Richard Devine. But in matters like this Devine acts at the behest of police officials, and they in turn generally do what Daley tells them. Yet Daley's spokesmen say he had nothing to do with the police response that night--as hard as that is for many marchers to believe--and he has limited his public comments on the matter to a few prepared statements about the need to balance respect for law and order with the right to free expression.

Moore says that in April he met and talked with police department officials who told him that the city wasn't going to bend, that it wouldn't ask the state's attorney to drop charges, no matter how difficult or costly they might be to prove. Starting in late April, dozens of people who'd been arrested went to court for their initial hearings. "I told the department that if charges were pressed we would hold hearings as to what happened on March 20," says Moore. "They went ahead with the cases, so we had the hearing."

The appropriate venue for the hearing was the council's police and fire committee, chaired by 29th Ward alderman Isaac Carothers, a Daley loyalist. "But it became clear that Alderman Carothers was not going to be able to hold the hearing, even though I asked him many times," says Moore. "He informed me that [administration officials] didn't want the hearings to go on. Obviously this was a sensitive issue for the administration."

Why was it sensitive? "Because," says Moore, "there's all these issues about what the police did and why they did it and would they do it again." For example, did the police not assign enough cops to keep the marchers off the drive? Were the mass arrests an overreaction? Did police give proper notice that they wanted the crowd to disperse? Who actually gave the order to arrest, Mayor Daley or a local commander?

City officials won't comment, saying they can't talk about a matter that's in court. But many activists claim the arrests were a power play designed to stifle future demonstrations. "I think it was revenge on the marchers for embarrassing the mayor, for taking the drive--this mayor takes revenge on people who cross him," says Thayer. "We had a peaceful march. There was no property damaged. There was no reason to cart us away. This was not about law enforcement. This was about using the law as a tool to advance the political agenda of the mayor. I'd have loved to have heard the police try to justify what they did that night."

Citing the class-action lawsuit, the police didn't send a representative to testify when Moore and Munoz held their hearings on June 17. In fact, only three city officials--Moore, Munoz, and 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller--showed up.

For five hours the aldermen sat in the well of the council chamber as people stepped forward to describe what had happened to them on March 20. A 21-year-old college student from Indiana said he'd been hit in the nose by a cop, opening up a wound that went untreated during his 14 hours in jail and later required five stitches. A 56-year-old man said he was heading home from work on a CTA bus when he was told to get off by police, only to be swept up in the crowd and arrested. A woman said police in the lockup had been abusive: "Their mood vacillated between joking with us and intimidating us." Another woman closed her testimony by proclaiming "All power to the people," and many of the people waiting to testify stood and cheered.

"I think the hearing went well, though I wish more of my colleagues had showed up," says Moore. "I think this is a very important issue about police behavior and First Amendment issues. But let's face it, it's a different kind of politics in this city. The legislative branch doesn't act as a check on the executive branch."

Moore says he sent out a letter inviting all of his colleagues. Only one besides Munoz and Shiller responded, 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney. "Tom called to say he might attend, but he had another commitment," says Moore. "So much for council independence."

Midway through the testimony, one other alderman, Ed Burke, of the 14th Ward, wandered into the chamber. A murmur shot through the crowd as people wondered what this machine stalwart with close police ties was up to. But he'd come only to give a message to Moore. "He wanted to get ahold of me about something else, and he knew where he could find me," says Moore. "I asked him to stay with us, but he jokingly said, 'No, people would think I'm a communist.'"

Moore says he'll eventually issue a report summarizing the testimony. "I've not heard anything from Mayor Daley or his administration," he says. "They didn't send me a thank-you note saying, 'Thank you, Alderman Moore, for bringing this travesty of justice to our attention.' They're sort of acting like none of this took place."

Two days after the hearing the state's attorney's office dropped charges in 103 of the pending cases. Charges in many other cases had already been dropped, and some people had pleaded guilty. That left only 70 cases still pending.

Fennerty says that by pressing forward with these cases the city is putting arresting police officers in a position where they might have to exaggerate or lie under oath about what happened on March 20. He says, "We heard a case where one woman said she was on the street and 'a white police officer grabbed me. But when I got to the police station, they said this black cop was the arresting officer.'"

Tom Stanton, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office, says there were various reasons for dropping the cases it did. "In some cases," he says, "the police officer didn't show up to court or the defendant in question got swept up in the mix--they were not involved in any way. Other cases were not processed properly, so we had to let them go." He says the state's attorney's office has "vigorously investigated" more than 320 cases. And the remaining 70? "We'll take them forward as each case warrants."

Moore thinks it would be prudent of the state's attorney to drop the remaining cases, but he says the city can't let that happen without losing face. "I think our end--or the council's end--of this is over," he says. "But the legal end will be going on for a long time."

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

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