The $12 million protest | Sidebar | Chicago Reader

The $12 million protest 

The last major Chicago protest cost the city a pretty penny. Will history repeat itself when G8 and NATO come to town?

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Scene from the Iraq War protest that spilled off of Lake Shore Drive in March 2003

Scene from the Iraq War protest that spilled off of Lake Shore Drive in March 2003

Joeff Davis

America's eight-year war in Iraq officially ended in December. It took two additional months for the city of Chicago to end its legal battle with demonstrators arrested for protesting on the first day of the conflict.

Actually, the litigation still isn't over. On February 8 the city agreed to pay $6.2 million to settle one lawsuit, Vodak v. City of Chicago, filed by more than 700 protesters. A related case involving another 16 demonstrators and bystanders, Beal v. City of Chicago, is expected to be settled soon for $2 million to $3 million.

In addition, the city spent at least $3.8 million on outside legal help, records show. That brings the total cost of fighting these cases to roughly $12 million.

"Everything was convoluted about this case," says Greg Gorman, an attorney in the second suit. "I was a young man when this happened."

The takeaway: the tab for taxpayers for the NATO and G8 summits very well might include the costs of litigating cases involving demonstrators. That's because the city's determination to "preserve disorder," as the first Mayor Daley once put it, often conflicts with the desire of some protesters to raise holy hell.

In 2003, antiwar protesters spilled onto North Lake Shore Drive, tying up traffic. Police let the march proceed until it moved toward Michigan Avenue, at which point hundreds of protesters and bystanders were arrested. Police said the protesters had disobeyed orders. Protesters said the police never gave orders, so they were unlawfully detained.

After years of litigation, federal appeals court judge Richard Posner essentially slapped down the city's argument in a ruling last March that ridiculed the "idiocy" of the city's protest policies.

Still, the cases crept toward trial until late last year, after Mayor Rahm Emanuel convinced President Obama to bring the NATO and G8 summits here this May. The city then entered settlement talks.

"I think the city of Chicago is clearly on notice," says Joey Mogul, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the first case, Vodak v. City of Chicago. "The city must communicate with the protesters about how to disperse and what the rules are. They can't let people protest and then after-the-fact arrest people."

City officials have said they've changed their policies to reflect Posner's ruling. Still, it's likely that the upcoming summits will leave the city with additional legal bills.

Pittsburgh hosted a meeting of the G20, a larger group of economic leaders, in 2009, long before the Occupy Wall Street movement. Pittsburgh councilman Patrick Dowd believes the event helped the city's image, though the city hasn't yet settled dozens of lawsuits stemming from protests.

"We're still waiting for the dust to settle," he says.

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