THE BLOG
03/29/2011 03:11 pm ET Updated May 29, 2011

Demonstrators and Their Lawyers Protect Our Right to Peaceful Protest

It has been a season of demonstrations. In the midst of economic upheaval, natural and human-engineered disasters, and war, we have been reminded again, with recent evidence from Egypt and Tunisia, of the awesome power of the people assembled in peaceable, public protest against tyranny and oppression. Only a cold heart could have remained unmoved by the voices and images of the young Egyptians who mobilized their nation (and its tired, defeated opposition parties) to overthrow their authoritarian oppressors.

Elsewhere, sadly and predictably, repressive regimes have responded to peaceful protests with lethal violence. News over the weekend that the Syrian government had fired on its citizens, killing scores, was a depressing echo of the stories from Iran, Yemen, Bahrain and, of course, Libya. These government crackdowns are more evidence -- of a less uplifting variety -- of the immense, potential power of organized protest.

It's a good thing that the First Amendment of our Constitution bluntly forbids laws "abridging the right of the people peaceably to assemble." Peaceful assemblies of the people in this country helped bring an end to the Vietnam War. Dr. King's march on Washington is the best remembered of countless marches, protests and demonstrations that ended segregation and ushered in a host of civil rights reforms. More recently, the Million Man March focused the attention of much of the nation on the resilience of African American men in the face of crushing burdens. And this winter, protests by public union members in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio held out some much-needed hope of blunting the current right-wing assault on working men and women.

Despite the protection that our Constitution so unambiguously affords to assemblies of the people, courageous men and women have suffered arrest, indignity and brutality in the exercise of that right. Images of hoses and dogs that police turned on civil rights marchers in the deep South remain etched in our collective memory. Vietnam War protesters were sometimes beaten and bloodied.

Eight years ago this month, in March 2003, at the start of the Iraq invasion, some 9,000 mostly young men and women assembled in the federal plaza in the heart of downtown Chicago and marched north on Lake Shore Drive to show their opposition to a war they felt was being waged on a pretext and for no good end. Those protesters, of course, were prescient. At the time, the overwhelming majority of Americans supported the invasion. Not so today.

The Chicago Police Department -- world famous for its brutal assault on demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 -- arrested about 900 of the March 2003 demonstrators. Claiming that the marchers had defied an order to disperse, Chicago police wearing full riot gear and wielding batons moved in on the protesters (seriously injuring some). Scores of idealistic young people were arrested, loaded into waiting paddy wagons and transported to police lockups where many spent the night. The police charged some with disorderly conduct or resisting arrest.

The police, of course, deny that those charges had anything to do with the protesters' opposition to the invasion. But it's hard to imagine the police employing the same tactics if the march had been in support of Mayor Daley or the Fraternal Order of Police.

The Chicago chapter of the National Lawyers Guild called for volunteer lawyers to provide free legal representation for every one of the charged protesters. (The Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, where I work, took half a dozen of the cases.) All of the bogus charges were dropped before trial. Stalwart civil rights lawyers Jim Fennerty, Sarah Gelsomino, Janine Hoft, Joey Mogul, Melinda Power and John Stainthorp then filed suit on behalf of the arrested protesters, arguing that the arrests violated the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It would be an understatement to say that the wheels of justice moved slowly in the case. In 2009, after years of litigation and just as the case was about to go to trial, the federal District Court granted summary judgment to the defendants (on the dubious premise that they could not have known the arrests were illegal). Earlier this month, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated the suit and instructed the lower court to hold a trial on the protesters' claims. At the end of the day, a jury must be impaneled to decide if the Chicago police had any lawful justification for their actions in March 2003.

This has been a long slog through the court system. But there should be no mistaking its importance. The right to march in the streets is more precious than gold. With that right, the people hold the power to change the course of history. Whenever those in authority act to undermine "peaceable assembly," everyone's freedom is put at risk.

So hats off to the committed Americans who took to the streets in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. And hats off to the lawyers who've fought so long and hard to protect their right to do so. Every American shares in their victory.