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Honoring Civil Rights Lawyer Dennis Cunningham

Human rights attorney, Dennis Cunningham, passed away at the age of 86 in Los Angeles on March 5, 2022, from cancer.

“[My obligation] is to take care not to undermine the values or the goals of the client’s activism.” Dennis Cunningham in Representing Radicals (2021)

After being inspired by the famous 1963 March on Washington, which Dennis Cunningham described as “the engine of my enlightenment,” Dennis attended law school at night during the 1960s and he was admitted to the bar just in time to defend demonstrators from the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Dennis began practicing in Chicago where he co-founded the People’s Law Office (PLO) in 1969 in a converted sausage shop together with WPLC’s Jeffrey Haas, attorney Skip Andrew, and law student Flint Taylor. PLO was created to represent Movement activists and protesters facing criminal charges. The work brought attention to a need for attorneys to take on cases in the name of “social justice”— now colloquially referred to as “movement lawyering.”

Dennis Cunningham represented the Black Panthers, Attica prison inmates, environmentalists, and gay men attacked in San Francisco’s “Castro Sweep.” Later in his life, Dennis moved to California to be closer to his family.

“Dennis was loved by his family and friends. He was a wonderful, generous, loving person. In his life's work he taught by example future generations of movement lawyers to not allow the law to define their clients, but with them to tell their stories, to fight to correct the narrative, to push the boundaries, to speak truth to power, and where possible to seek some measure of justice. He will be missed.” Pat Handlin, WPLC Board Member

In 1969, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, leaders of the Black Panther Party, were shot during a pre-dawn raid in a Chicago apartment. Hours after the police shooting, Dennis Cunningham called Gerald B. Lefcourt who advised that he immediately enlist a forensic expert to inspect the apartments This was the first step to establishing evidence that helped prove the raid was the result of a government conspiracy under the FBI’s clandestine COINTELPRO Program, to destroy the Black Panther Party and in particular to target Fred Hampton, the rising young leader of the Chicago Panthers. The team of lawyers, including WPLC’s Jeffrey Haas, Flint Taylor, and Dennis Cunningham, sued authorities and 13 years later in 1982, after an 18-month trial, the suit was settled and $1.85 million was awarded to the survivors and families of the two victims.

“In court and in his writing Dennis was brilliant, imaginative, often histrionic, and a passionate defender of many Movement leaders and causes, a visionary and close friend for 54 years.” Jeffrey Haas, WPLC Emeritus Board Member

In 1974, a team of lawyers, including Dennis Cunningham successfully sued the government in a civil suit stemming from the 1971 prison riot at the Attica Correctional Facility in which 62 inmates were indicted and 8 convicted. In 2001 the suit was settled and the Attica Brothers Legal Defense Fund was awarded $12 million, including legal fees.

On October 6, 1989, SFPD cleared the streets in the Castro District of San Francisco in retaliation for a protest against federal inaction on the AIDS epidemic. Lawsuits followed, protesters were brutalized by police, and in 1992 plaintiffs agreed to a 225k settlement.

"Dennis worked on police accountability long before it became a popular cause. His intelligence, experience, and tenacity made him a formidable advocate, and he never turned down a fight. And through everything, he kept his sense of humor and warm personality. At a time when 'straight ally' was not even a term, Dennis was a straight ally." Brian Bringardner, Lead plaintiff in Castro Sweep case

In 1990, Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari, on their way to a demonstration against the logging of ancient redwood trees when a pipe bomb exploded in their car. While Cherney, Bari, and their supporters claimed the timber industry or the government planted the bomb, authorities said the bomb had accidentally detonated while they were transporting it to use for “eco-terrorism.” In 2002, Dennis Cunningham persuaded a jury in California to award $4.4 million to the two Earth First environmentalists. A federal jury determined in a civil trial that the F.B.I. and Oakland police had defamed Cherney and Bari. The story including the legal case, wherein you can see Dennis in action in court, was made into a film by Dennis Cunningham’s daughter, Bernadine Mellis, in the 2005 documentary “The Forest for the Trees.”

He later represented groups opposed to apartheid and those protesting dictatorships in Central America. Dennis Cunningham, presente.

“It was all about Dennis’s commitment, which is what you want in a lawyer who’s trying to do the right thing…Dennis led that fight for years.” Gerald B. Lefcourt

In memory of Dennis, his family has organized a donation pool via the National Lawyers Guild to the Water Protector Legal Collective:

WPLC mourns the loss of civil rights attorney, Dennis Cunningham. Our condolences and prayers go out to his loved ones. We are honored to further the work done, and in some cases started, by movement lawyers like Dennis Cunningham. Power to the People!

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