[News] Rest in Power Dennis Cunningham!

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Mar 7 10:50:29 EST 2022


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*Dennis Cunningham - transitions at the age of 86 on March 5th *



Dennis Cunningham has been making art and practicing civil rights law at
his home in Bernal Heights, in San Francisco, for forty years, and prior to
that, in Chicago. He has four children, two nieces and two nephews, three
grandchildren, and a partner of thirty years; he is a central figure in a
vibrant, committed community of left-wing activists and radical lawyers.



The eldest of four siblings, including Damon, Margaret, and Rob, and the
son of Robert Maris Cunningham, Jr. and Deborah Libby Cunningham, Dennis
grew up in Glencoe, Illinois, and spent summers at the Libby family home in
the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. At the age of fifteen in the early 1950s,
he matriculated at the University of Chicago as part of the Ford Foundation
Pre-Induction Scholarship (a program for students who had completed two
years of high school). After graduating, he traveled around Europe for
several months on a battered Vespa he bought from a guy in Paris, going
over the Alps and the Dolomites to Rome, connecting with various people for
different legs of the trip.



Starting in the early 1960s, he began collaborating with his great friend
Paul Sills and other contemporaries at Second City and in related projects
where improvisation was the order of the day—Game Theater, Story Theater,
and the Parents School. It was at Second City that he met Mona Mellis, who
would become his wife and the mother of Delia, Joe, Miranda, and Bernadine.
In this period, he deepened his lifelong devotion to art making and to
jazz. He remembers a song on a childhood Christmas record with a really
cool jazz lick that he sees as triggering his interest in the latter, and
he co-owned a jazz bar in Chicago in the early 1950s with his friend John
Court.



Galvanized by the civil rights movement, specifically the 1963 March on
Washington (“the engine of my enlightenment”), as well as by an article he
read about lawyers fighting housing discrimination, he went to law school
at night at Loyola University in Chicago. He was licensed in 1968, just in
time to defend people arrested in riots that followed the murder of Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the protests at the Democratic National
Convention.



Inspired by lawyers and organizers working with the National Lawyers Guild,
Dennis was a co-founder of the People’s Law Office in Chicago, along with
Jeff Haas, Flint Taylor, Skip Andrew, and later Michael Deutsch. In more
than fifty years of practice, he has participated in numerous cases
involving protesters and protest movements, prisoners and prison
rebellions. These include the twelve-year civil prosecution of FBI agents,
the State’s Attorney, and Chicago police officers involved in the infamous
“weapons raid” on December 4, 1969, in which Illinois Black Panther Party
leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot to death, and the defense of
dozens of prisoners falsely accused as “ringleaders” of the rebellion at
the Attica State Prison in western New York in 1971. After these criminal
charges were thrown out in 1976, Attica Brothers led by Big Black and Akil
Al-Jundi organized Dennis, Mike Deutsch, Liz Fink, and other Guild lawyers
to sue state officials. The civil rights lawsuit held officials responsible
for the massacre of thirty-nine prisoners and state-employee hostages
during the retaking of the prison, and the mass torture of prisoners that
followed. After more than a quarter-century of litigation, this case
culminated in a multi-million-dollar settlement



Dennis relocated to San Francisco in 1982 to be near his children, and
continued to do movement work and police misconduct cases. With other Guild
lawyers, he helped to represent protesters in mass arrests in the 1984
Democratic Party convention; anti-nuke actions at Site 300 at the Livermore
Laboratory; anti-apartheid demonstrations in Berkeley and San Francisco;
Central American solidarity actions in the 1980s; the police sweep of
Castro Street in 1987; the Rodney King verdict protests in 1992; and
actions by Food Not Bombs, ActUp, and others. Dennis defended classical
violinist Nicholas Leiser, who persisted in playing his violin in BART
stations despite repeated arrests, bringing a case to enjoin BART police
from further harassment. This verdict established the right of musicians to
play in such public places; “BART may not arrest this gentleman for playing
his violin,” wrote U.S. District Judge Sam Conti in his preliminary
injunction. Dennis also defended Religious Witness with the Homeless for
multiple sit-ins, leading Sister Bernie Galvin of Religious Witness to
refer to him as “the world’s greatest lawyer.”



In 1992, Dennis and his young law partner Ben Rosenfeld brought a case
against FBI agents and Oakland police officers involved in the frame-up and
media smear of Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, after a
car-bomb assassination attempt against Judi in Oakland in May 1990. The
attack came at the start of Redwood Summer, a planned season of mass
protest and direct action against destruction of old-growth forests on the
North Coast. After Judi’s tragic death from breast cancer in 1997, Dennis
and Ben were part of a legal team that brought the case to trial in 2002,
and won. In what was apparently only the second time FBI agents had faced a
jury in a civil rights suit—the Fred Hampton case was the first—a unanimous
jury awarded Bari and Cherney $4.4 million dollars in compensatory and
punitive damages. Notably, eighty percent of the award was assigned to
plaintiffs’ claims that the sensational false arrest after the bombing was
a latter-day cointelpro operation, in violation of the First Amendment.



Following the Bari case, the legal team was recruited to represent
plaintiffs in the “pepper spray” case, where in 1997 locked-down
forest-protection protesters in Humboldt County refused orders to unlock
themselves, and had pepper spray daubed in their eyes by police. After two
hung juries, a third jury compromised on a 2005 verdict for nominal damages
of one dollar per plaintiff. A later settlement of the plaintiffs’ claim
for attorneys’ fees cut short a matter which had seemed poised to break the
record for long cases Dennis has fought.



Dennis received the Spirit of Justice Award from the National Lawyers Guild
in 2007; in 2006, Bernadine Mellis released *The Forest for the Trees*, an
award-winning documentary focused on the Bari case that was featured in the
Human Rights Watch Film Festival, among others. Most recently, Dennis and
Yolanda Huang brought a class-action suit against the Santa Rita Jail and
Alameda County Sheriff's Office on behalf of female prisoners who were
being subjected to multiple forms of unconscionable maltreatment, including
systematic sleep disruption.



*



In 1954, as managing editor at *Chicago Review*, Dennis traveled with his
co-editor and roommate—who had been brought into the world by Dr. William
Carlos Williams—to visit the poet in Rutherford, New Jersey. Williams gave
them a poem to publish, “View by Color-Photography on a Commercial
Calendar,” which concludes with these lines:


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Celebration of life for Dennis will be forthcoming.
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