[News] A Tribute to Iconic People’s Lawyer Dennis Cunningham

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Mar 18 17:23:56 EDT 2022

A Tribute to Iconic People’s Lawyer Dennis Cunningham (1936-2022)
March 2022

*By Flint Taylor*
Office 1976

On March 5, 2022, Dennis Cunningham, who was the epitome of a true and
uncompromising people’s lawyer, transitioned peacefully at his son’s home
in Los Angeles, California.

Dennis was a unique and brilliant human being, who proudly wore his radical
politics on his sleeve and never shied away from writing about, speaking
on, or putting into action his passionately held and thoroughly analyzed

At the age of fifteen Dennis attended the University of Chicago as part of
a Ford Foundation program for students who had completed two years of high
school. After graduating, he traveled around Europe for several months in a
battered Vespa, going over the Alps and the Dolomites to Rome, hanging out
with numerous people, including jazz musicians, most notably saxophonist
Dexter Gordon. He worked as a copyboy for the *Chicago Sun Times*, worked
as a reporter for a small Iowa newspaper, and returned to Chicago to be
involved in the starting of Chicago’s famed Second City, where he worked as
a bartender and improv actor.

Inspired by the 1963 March on Washington, which he called “the engine of my
enlightenment”, Dennis went to work for the City of Chicago’s Human
Relations Commission, investigating housing discrimination, while attending
Loyola of Chicago’ Law School at night. He left the City job when he
realized, in the wake of Chicago Mayor Richard J.  Daley’s response to Dr.
King’s 1967 march for open housing, that he was working “for the wrong
side.” He was sworn in as a lawyer in November of 1967, just in time to
represent persons arrested in the uprising that followed the assassination
of Dr. King and the Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic National
Convention. As Dennis recently described it:

*a zillion people got busted [at the convention]. Three weeks later
[attorney] Ted [Stein] and I are sitting there, the two of us, and
everybody left town, and we had like 300 cases. . . I started going to
court. I had really good luck then because I got to try a lot of cases, and
they were all bench trials.*

Shortly thereafter, filmmaker Howard Alk introduced Dennis to Fred Hampton
and Bobby Rush, who were starting the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther
Party. Soon after that, Fred requested that Dennis represent him in a
multi-defendant mob action case that arose from a demonstration against a
segregated swimming pool in Fred’s home town of Maywood, Illinois. As
Dennis described the experience:

*This guy, Ivory (a co-defendant) was represented by (notable Black
attorney) James Montgomery, who I vaguely knew. But there he was, and I’m
like thank goodness I have someone to watch what he does, and have half a
clue as to what I’m supposed to do, and that’s the way it went. . . I don’t
have a lot of memory about how the trial went except that I gave a rousing
closing argument, which Fred really liked, that sounded really good.
Montgomery later acknowledged that it was good, and we got a not guilty,
that was really sweet. A big relief I’ll tell you that. I sure didn’t want
to lose that case.*

At about this time, Dennis was talking to two other young lawyers, Skip
Andrew and Don Stang, about starting a law collective, which they decided
they would “boldly” name the People’s Law Office. With Fred Hampton and the
Black Panther Party, Cha-Cha Jiminez and the Young Lords, and SDS members
as clients who were regularly subjected to arrests and police violence,
Dennis, Andrew and Stang, together with attorney Jeff Haas, and law
students Seva Dubuar, Flint Taylor, Ray McClain and Jack Welch, opened the
People’s Law Office in August of 1969.

When the Chicago police murdered Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in a pre-dawn
raid in December of 1969, Dennis took a leading role in coordinating the
legal and political effort that the People’s Law Office, the Panthers, and
the Black community of Chicago mounted to expose the lies that the raiding
police and the conspiring Cook County prosecutors were loudly trumpeting in
the media and in the courts. A few years later, the PLO, lead by Dennis,
Haas and Taylor, undertook the Herculean task of uncovering and exposing
the FBI and its Cointelpro program’s central role in the assassination of
Fred Hampton, a legal and political battle that spanned more than a decade
and included an 18-month Federal civil rights trial.  As Taylor described
Dennis’ role:

*He was an advisor, a mentor, an inspiration; he always had the big
picture, he always thought about, and knew about what one move would lead
to with regard to the next move . . . his involvement was crucial to our
plotting out and making our 13- year fight to expose the FBI’s role in the

Also in the early 1970s, Dennis became involved in the 30-year struggle to
defend the Attica Brothers and to expose the truth in the wake of the 1971
prison rebellion and the law enforcement massacre that followed. Michael
Deutsch, who was recruited to the People’s Law Office in 1970 and worked
side by side with Dennis during the series of criminal and civil legal
battles, incapsulated Dennis’ leading role:

*Dennis had the unique ability of bringing the political essence to the
courtroom, not only in court but also in his written advocacy. He was a
master at capturing the political nature of the case. For the 30 years we
worked on Attica, Dennis was a key person in organizing the Brothers, in
putting forth the Brothers’ position, in helping to maintain unity among
the Brothers. He related to the Brothers in a way they could trust and know
that he believed in their struggle.*

In Chicago, Dennis also represented numerous leaders and members of the
SDS-Weathermen, and Rising Up Angry, and later provided counsel to arrested
FALN members and Palestinian liberation hero Rasmea Odeh. One of the most
famous of those clients, Bernardine Dohrn, eloquently linked Dennis’ acting
background to his unique lawyering skills:

*I picture him as lanky redheaded hipster, coolly unlawyerly, Darrow
returned as Nelson Algren. Dennis was a performance of understated
defiance, hurling himself into history on the side of the dispossessed.
Dennis does law as the theater of improv. He was an early practitioner of
the disciplined art of spontaneity, schooled in the improvisational acting
techniques of Viola Spolin and Paul Sills at Second City and the Compass
Players. Perhaps Dennis is the singular fusion of improv and the practice
of law, taking the drama of legal performance into the uncharted
territories of jazz riffs and invention. His skills of listening, clarity
and confidence, of wit and speed, are seen in today’s progeny of poetry
slams, hip hop and rap performances.*

In the early 1980s, Dennis moved to San Francisco where he continued his
career as a people’s lawyer, while maintaining a close working and
comradely relationship with the People’s Law Office. With other Bay area
lawyers, he represented protesters who were subjected to mass arrest at the
1984  Democratic Party convention; during anti-nuke actions at the
Livermore Laboratory; at anti-apartheid demonstrations; and at Central
American solidarity actions. He also represented folks arrested during the
police sweep of Castro Street in 1987; at the Rodney King verdict protests
in 1992; and during actions by Food Not Bombs, Act Up, and others. Dennis
also defended classical violinist Nicholas Leiser, who persisted in playing
his violin in BART stations despite repeated arrests, and brought a case
that established the right of musicians to play in such public places.
After defending Religious Witness with the Homeless for multiple sit-ins,
leading Sister Bernie Galvin of Religious Witness called Dennis “the
world’s greatest lawyer.” Remarkably generous in practicing people’s law,
he represented numerous prisoners without fee, and was a charter member of
the Fleagle Aid group that dispensed fee legal advice at a Berkeley flea
market during the late 1980s.

 In 1992, Dennis and 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 May 1990. The attack came at the
start of Redwood Summer, a planned season of mass protest and direct action
against the destruction of old-growth forests. Dennis and Ben were part of
a legal team that brought the case to trial in 2002, and won a $4.4 million
verdict with eighty percent of the award assigned to plaintiffs’ first
amendment claims that the sensational false arrest after the bombing was a
latter-day Cointelpro operation. Dennis’ youngest daughter, Bernadine
Mellis, documented the Bari case and Dennis’ role in it in the
award-winning film *The Forest for the Trees*.

Following the Bari case, the legal team was recruited to represent
plaintiffs in the “pepper spray” case, where locked-down forest-protection
protesters in Humboldt County had 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 brought the case to a final resolution. In typical Cunningham fashion,
Dennis shared his hard-earned fee with his clients.

Dennis, a career-long active member of the National Lawyers Guild, was one
of the originators of the Guild’s National Police Accountability Project,
and was honored first in Boston by the national Guild, and later by the
Guild’s San Francisco chapter who awarded him the 2007 Spirit of Justice
Award. Importantly, he was also supported without fail by his remarkable
family, particularly including his daughters Delia, Miranda and Bernardine,
and his son Joe.

As the tributes continue roll in from clients, friends, colleagues, and so
many others whose lives Dennis touched, former People’s Law Office lawyer
Jeffrey Haas aptly summed up Dennis’ legal career:

*In court and in his writing Dennis was brilliant, imaginative, a
visionary, often histrionic, and a passionate defender of many Movement
leaders and causes.*

He was, without a doubt, a true people’s lawyer.

Note: the author gratefully acknowledges the use of information from the
Anti-Imperialist News article of March 7, 2022 entitled *Dennis Cunningham
– transitions at the age of 86 on March 5 *as well as other interviews,
tributes and collective recollections.

In Dennis’ memory, his family has organized a donation pool via the
National Lawyers Guild to the Water Protector Legal Collective:
Convention 2013 San Juan Puerto Rico
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