CHICAGO – Attorneys for the Chicago Chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild filed a class action suit against the City of Chicago and the Chicago Police Department on April 10 because of mass arrests of people involved in a major demonstration on March 20, the day U.S. bombs began falling on Baghdad.

The crowd – estimated in excess of 15,000 – first gathered in downtown Chicago and marched down Lake Shore Drive, a major north-south thorofare bordering on Lake Michigan. When demonstrators who, had been escorted by the police, reached in the ritzy Gold Coast neighborhood, police moved in and arrested nearly 800 demonstrators. Of these, 540 were charged with various offenses, including mob action.

Many of those who were arrested were not even part of the demonstration but were coming out of restaurants and buses or, as in one case, were workers getting off shift at nearby Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Although police claim that they had ordered the crowd to disperse, all who spoke at a press conference announcing the suit asserted that no such order was given.

According to Chris Langone, one of the attorneys for the Guild, the suit will “help shed light on a pattern of attacks on civil liberties” by Chicago police.

Kevin Vodak described how he was standing on the curb trying to observe developments when police arrested him for no apparent reason.

Other specific accusations made by witnesses who spoke at the press conference include:

* Police forced marchers into an area with restricted exit, would not let them leave, and then arrested them for failure to disperse. Merely asking a police officer for permission to leave was sometimes sufficient cause for arrest.

* Police targeted leaders of the demonstration for arrest even though, minutes before, these same individuals had been engaged in negotiations with the police commander on the scene in an effort to find ways to bring the demonstration to an orderly close. Police also confiscated communications equipment, in one case smashing it, and have never returned it.

* Police beat some protesters causing broken bones and, in other cases, put handcuffs on them so tightly that they suffered nerve damage.

* Police kept arrestees for up to 36 hours without allowing them to make a phone call and denying them food, water or restroom facilities. Some of those arrested say police told them the arrests were to prevent them from participating in peace actions scheduled for the following days.

There have been a number of other complaints about police harassment of people opposing the war against Iraq. On Saturday, April 12, members of Chicago’s South Side Arab-American community canceled a peace march after complaining that police had gone to local Arab businessmen and threatened them with possible violence if the march went ahead. Individuals have also complained about being harassed by police because of their involvement in the peace movement.

The National Lawyers’ Guild suit, filed in the name of a number of specific individuals and also in the name of the “class” of people arrested on March 20, asks for unspecified monetary damages and an injunction to end police harassment of demonstrators.

Several members of the Chicago City Council, that passed an anti-war resolution by a near-unanimous vote earlier this year, are calling for City Council hearings on the March 20 arrests.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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