“A Critical Moment:” Clinic Attorneys Lend Their Expertise to Chicago Organizers as Protests Continue


By Shanice Harris

Social Justice Bluhm Legal Clinic Faculty
Photo by Dominique Robinson on Unsplash.

The attorneys at the Bluhm Legal Clinic are always busy—helping clients, teaching students, advocating policy, and fighting for justice—but the events of the last 18 months have contributed to what might be the Clinic’s most active couple of years, as faculty have been engaged in Chicago’s persistent protests of the racial injustice and police brutality enacted against Black Americans throughout the country.

A Civil Uprising

Sheila Bedi, clinical professor of law, has dedicated much of her career to social justice, but she doesn’t underestimate the gravity of the last year and a half. “The recent civil uprisings and protests against police brutality have been called the world’s largest social justice movement of all time,” she says. “It’s a critical moment.” Bedi is one of the Clinic attorneys representing the Campbell Coalition—a conglomerate compromised of several local organizations, including Black Lives Matter Chicago, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, the Chicago Urban League, Justice for Families, the 411 movement for Pierre Loury, Network 49, the Chicago West Side Branch of the NAACP and the Women’s All Points Bulletin. In spring 2020, after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota, thousands took to the streets to express their continued frustration with police brutality in America. Many Chicagoans felt a twisted kinship to the matter, given their own decades-long frustrations with the Chicago Police Department. In the days following Floyd’s death, protests took place at Buckingham Foundation, Grant Park, and much of downtown, where crowds were met with police in tactical gear who allegedly enacted violence on the peaceful protestors.

“The recent CIVIL UPRISINGS and protests against police brutality have been called the world’s largest SOCIAL JUSTICE movement of all time.”

Sheila Bedi

Bedi and her team, including Vanessa del Valle, clinical associate professor of law, devised a strategy for organizers and activists to tell their stories in federal court. In August 2020, United States District Court Judge Hon. Robert M. Dow, Jr. oversaw a two-day special session to hear testimonies from several of the organizers associated with the Campbell Coalition. The virtual hearing was focused on the Chicago Police Department’s response to protesters. Speakers included Bedi, who represented the Campbell Coalition; Karen Sheley from the ACLU in Illinois; and Shareese Pryor, Chief of the Civil Rights Bureau at the Illinois Attorney General’s office. “CPD’s protest response revealed its propensity to engage in the exact behavior that inspired these global protests,” Bedi said as she introduced her clients during the first day of the hearing. “People from all walks of life and backgrounds will be here, as they were during the protest. And they will describe how CPD officers systematically abused their authority, used lethal force, sprayed them with chemical restraints that cause excruciating pain, unlawfully detained them, and mocked those who were bloody, crying out in pain, and begging CPD to recognize their humanity.”

Over 50 Chicagoans spoke during the hearing, ranging from social workers to college students—all protestors voicing their concerns. According to their testimonies, officers demonstrated excessive force, which in some cases resulted in serious injuries, confiscating or destroying protesters’ personal property including cell phones and cameras, failing to or refusing to provide medical care, and denying protesters access to counsel. “These violations have been widely publicized, and in their response, the City of Chicago shirks responsibility and issues blame,” Bedi continued. “It has defended the use of lethal force by characterizing protesters as aggressors. But this blame game misses a fundamental point. This, and indeed the Constitution itself, protects the people against the power of the police.”

Along with Del Valle, Alexa Van Brunt, clinical associate professor of law, and several students at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law have also lent their expertise to the fight against police brutality in Chicago. Students including Terah Tollner (JD ’21), Jay Trewn (JD ’21), Luke Fernbach (JD ’21), and Lorellee Kampschnieder (JD ’22) interviewed protestors, documented the behavior of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), and prepped for legal action against the city.

“It was incredible to be a part of this massive effort seeking justice for Chicagoans who were brutalized by CPD because they stood up for Black lives,” says Tollner. “Students were able to participate by interviewing clients, drafting allegations, and researching the Chicago Police Department’s long history of using excessive force against protesters.” Tollner adds that working in the Clinic has cemented her own desire to work in civil and prisoners’ rights.

“It was incredible to be a part of this MASSIVE effort seeking JUSTICE for Chicagoans who were brutalized by CPD because they stood up for BLACK LIVES.”

Terah Tollner (JD ’21)

Trewn, another student working on the frontlines, says his experience working with the Clinic has given him a unique opportunity. “While I used several legal skills to support the goals of protestors and organizers, from legal research and writing to legislative drafting and analysis, my greatest value add was being able to empathize with the folks I worked with throughout the semester,” he says. “Though it is impossible to fully relate with the experiences of those who were subjected to CPD’s horrific violence during the uprising, as a participant in several protests over the summer and an African American who has long endured the impacts of systemic racism, my lived experiences allowed me to empathize with their stories and relate to their righteous anger.”

Fernbach adds that the work that the Clinic has been doing since 2020, regarding both COVID-19 and the civil uprisings, has presented once-in-alifetime opportunities to gain real-life experience. “Law school classes can be very doctrine-heavy, and the Clinic offers opportunities to develop the real skills that I will need to be a successful advocate,” he says. “Through the Clinic I have been able to work on both [COVID and the racial justice movement], which are the most important things going on in the country right now. It has been a privilege to represent and support the organizers and activists who are doing such amazing work.”

The Work of the People

The Clinic has also been working with grassroots organizations who are leading the movement to help them craft legislation to push forward to city council. “[We’re] working with them to develop strategic plans, both to identify what has gone wrong with policing in such a fundamental way, but also to provide the solutions and build up a kind of world that the organizers are envisioning,” Bedi says. In addition to the organizations in the Campbell Coalition, the Clinic’s staff and students have worked with GoodKids MadCity and Black Abolitionist Network. Bedi stresses that the Clinic’s work with protestors is all about supporting the vision of the activists and assisting anywhere they can. “Whether it’s developing litigation strategies, or drafting ordinances, or even doing some strategic planning, that’s the goal our students have taken on.”

During Northwestern Pritzker Law’s academic panel on the Breonna Taylor grand jury verdict in October 2020, Bedi spoke about the need to divest from police and reinvest in community needs. One of the community organizations that the Clinic has been working with, GoodKids MadCity, has thought up several innovative ways that the city can invest in community-based discipline that don’t involve the need for an armed officer. “Things like block-by-block councils where [residents] are able to build out what the community needs—whether it’s a safe place to recreate, jobs, a place to cool off, mental health counseling, addiction services,” Bedi says. “And the idea is meeting people where they are, building community, and building on the strengths of that community.” She acknowledges that the reimagining of the justice system will take time, but says she is confident in the possibility of immediate steps to drive some of the massive police budget to community organizations.

“We institutionalize and demonize young black and brown people, and that has created OVERCRIMINALIZATION. But there are no state resources that go into LIFTING UP and CELEBRATING the young Black and Brown people who are doing the work of PEACE BUILDING every day.”

Sheila Bedi

Some of the clients the Clinic represent have suggested a peace book, which would lift up the young people throughout the city that are involved in peace-building activities. This would be a direct opposition to the infamous gang book that the City of Chicago maintains, which lists all of the people that CPD believe are involved in gang activity. “We institutionalize and demonize young Black and Brown people, and that has created overcriminalization,” Bedi says. “But there are no state resources that go into lifting up and celebrating the young Black and Brown people who are doing the work of peace building every day.”

The People v. the Police

This isn’t the first time in recent history that the Chicago Police Department has found itself in hot water with its citizens. In 2019, the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago entered a consent decree committed to constitutional and effective law enforcement after protests arose in 2015. “This decree only exists because five years ago, Chicagoans took their demands for justice from the street to the city council in the names of Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd, and so many other Black and Brown people killed or brutalized by the Chicago Police Department in recent history,” Bedi said during the hearing. “This consent decree could be, and it should be, an antidote to the poison of police lawlessness that has infected Chicago for well over 100 years, but it has failed.”

The decree, with was signed by Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr., was supposed to “ensure that the City and CPD deliver services in a manner that fully complies with the Constitution and laws of the United States and the State of Illinois, respects the rights of the people of Chicago, builds trust between officers and the communities they serve, and promotes community and officer safety,” according to the decree’s language. CPD’s refusal to comply—and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) Independent Monitoring Team’s affirmation of this fact—is what prompted Bedi and the Coalition to bring a case against the City of Chicago. The Independent Monitoring Team is responsible for assessing the CPD’s and the City of Chicago’s (City’s) compliance with the required elements of the Consent Decree.

The Fight Continues

As the country slowly emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and the events of the last 18 months, Bedi is confident that activists have no plans on slowing down. In November 2020, the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic and the MacArthur Justice Center (along with the People’s Law Office) filed a federal lawsuit against several Chicago police officers on behalf of 60 plaintiffs, alleging unlawful arrest, brutality, and mistreatment by the named officers in those days following the death of Floyd. “The police reacted with racist police violence, really incredibly violent uses of force, retaliation, name-calling, a lot of bigotry, misogyny, racism in the language that police officers used,” says Bedi. As of June 2021, the complaint was still pending.

“Chicago has been the epicenter of the fight for racial justice and the fight against white supremacy that has been involved in policing since its inception,” she says. “So the organizing that is happening right now, the uprisings that have been happening, are a result of years and years of work.”