March 20, 2003 – Ten Years Ago Tonight…

March 20 2003

March 20, 2003

Forgive this somewhat-rushed attempt to collate a variety of things I’ve written on this subject. I hope you can make some sense of the events on the night in which 800+ Chicagoans were unlawfully arrested for marching against the Iraq War.

On the night after the Iraq War broke in March, 2003 I took the train to Chicago to join between 10-15,000 other Chicagoans in protesting the start of that war. The following article, titled The Boys of Cell Block E  in the April 3, 2003 Chicago Reader, explains what happened that night. I’m the “teacher” in the subtitle. In short, somewhere between 800-900 of us were arrested that night and spent at least one night in jail. There was no justification for these arrests. Don’t take my word for it. Federal Circuit Judge Richard Posner called the police actions that night “idiotic”, and the City ended up paying $6.2 million in wrongful arrest damages.

As it became clear that we had been lured into a Chicago Police Dept. trap of no escape on Chicago Avenue between Michigan Ave. and Inner Lake Shore Drive (LSD), I called Lois to tell her it looked like we were all going to be arrested. She had been watching on television, as all the stations broke into regular broadcasting to cover the “illegal” march.

When the officer came to put on the plastic handcuffs with my name on them, I asked, “Why are we being arrested?” His response: “You should see what you f___ers did to the city tonight.” My first thought was, “Oh no, some idiots ruined this for all of us.” He yanked my cuffs on so tight that I knew I was in trouble right away.

I was put into a crowded paddy wagon on Michigan Avenue with maybe 20 other people. We didn’t move for maybe a half hour, then we were another twenty minutes to our destination, police command center at 111th & State. My wrists were very painful by now. I felt myself growing fainter and fainter as we went south, and by the time we pulled into the parking lot I felt myself going out. I dropped to my knees, my body held up by the guys standing all around me. They immediately began banging on the sides of the paddy wagon, shouting, “Hey! We got a guy passed out in here!”

To their credit, the officers driving the wagon brought me up into the extended cab and tried to get the cuffs off, but the pocket knife they used only made it worse. Finally, they got someone from inside to use the right tool to cut my cuffs off. There was immediate relief and within seconds, it seemed, I was fine again.

We all got marched into the jail, emptied our pockets, sat down in long lines in the hallways, and waited to be assigned to our cells. We then spent the night, fifteen new friends crammed into our 8×10 cell, SRO. We stood all night and then around 4:30 or 5:00 we began to hear names being called and one by one, guys were released. I heard my name sometime around 5:45. They handed me my wallet and belt, and I walked out the door. No charges.

Here’s more of the story, from an email to my close friend Steve Rostron, after he read the Reader article in 2010:
I was interviewed by WLS television in front of 111th and State immediately upon my release. The reporter introduced me as a social studies teacher from Downers Grove North High School. When asked whether the night had changed my views, I responded, “Well, I got pretty radicalized last night.” This went out live. The interviewer cut in and said, “Uh, I’m sorry, we need to go to a break, but we’ll be right back with Bob Graham.” During that “break”, he informed me that his director had informed him that we had no more time for the interview.
I walked across the street to a pay phone and called Lois. It was her first word from me since I borrowed a cell phone just before we were arrested (I have a videotape of the entire arrest, including my conversation with Lois). She had called police departments all over the city for any word and received no help. I told her I was safe, gave her a little rundown, and told her I wouldn’t make it to school that day; she already figured that and had called in for a sub. Then I walked down to the corner and caught a northbound bus to get to the 95th St. L station. I’m sitting glassy-eyed on the bus (this is about 6:45-ish), no sleep, no food, and a woman sitting across from me is just staring at me. I catch her eye a couple of times. After about a minute she says, “Didn’t I just see you on television?”
I took the L to the Loop, then the Burlington back to Downers Grove, then walked up to the school building to see Lois. Got there about 10:00 a.m. My principal, who for lack of stronger wording, didn’t like me to begin with, without ever inquiring into the circumstances, was very upset with the “publicity” I had given the school. I was proud of what I had done.

I was quite upset with the way the whole thing was handled by the police and the city. When you’re in the middle of it, you aren’t thinking about the bigger picture, but the more I thought about it the more upset I became. I remember Sergio’s (Barreto, the Reader reporter) phone interviews (two of them) and I know I was trying to sound very middle-of-the-road because I didn’t want to come off the way I sometimes do. But I was pissed. The police never explained the situation and I still don’t know why 800 (900?) peaceful protestors were arrested.

Response to a follow-up email from Steve:
Yeah, someone was able to videotape the whole scene at Chicago and Michigan where we were all arrested, and then get the video out. I have that video, as well as the WLS video from the next morning.
In between, standing up with what was it, fifteen other guys, all night in a jail cell designed for one prisoner (one metal cot, one toilet). Which reminds me, we asked for toilet paper all night. The answer was always, “We’ll get that to you.” And they never did. Finally, one poor guy couldn’t make it any longer. We all turned away from him as he sat on the toilet and did his thing… with no toilet paper. At least it flushed. Some guys took turns trying to sleep under the cot. The cot itself had five or six guys sitting on it. The cameraderie in the cell was just great all night long. Good spirit, lots of joking, lots of exchanging of emails, personal information, stories. Interesting personalities, including one ultra-conservative guy who was visiting Chi. and eating at a restaurant on Chicago Ave.; he just walked out of that restaurant at the wrong time*. Turns out there were lots of lawyers arrested. We were all part of a large email group for years afterwards.
*There was a CTA bus caught in the logjam on Chicago Ave. as well. All the people on the bus were arrested.

March 18, 2011 update: WBEZ (Chicago’s NPR station) reported on a development in the case. “Federal Judge Richard Posner says police acted “without justification” – and “perhaps in some panic” – when they arrested about 900 people at a downtown protest on March 20, 2003.”

March 20-22, 2011 update: (from Huffington Post and from Courthouse News Service.  The HuffPost article describes Judge Posner allowing the protestors to continue their suit against the City.

The Courthouse News article is somewhat misleading, at least regarding the events I witnessed. Here is the article re-printed, with my own observations in bold.

CHICAGO (CN) – More than 900 people who were arrested by Chicago police during a 2003 protest of the Iraq War can sue the city, the 7th Circuit ruled.
As the United States prepared to invade Iraq eight years ago, a group of war opponents planned to march through downtown Chicago in protest.
Although protest organizers had no formal time (this depended on George Bush, not us) or agreed-upon route, the police did not object to the demonstration.
After a rally at the Federal Plaza on March 20, the marchers made their way onto Lake Shore Drive, an important multilane commuting thoroughfare. (Police on all sides of the streets we were marching on were polite, courteous, waving us around corners, directing us ONTO Lake Shore Drive, and making no effort to stop the march from proceeding)
Police tried to keep the march on the northbound side of the street, but rowdy activists spilled onto the southbound lanes (These “rowdy activists” went to the southbound lanes when the northbound lanes were jammed. The traffic both north AND southbound was gridlocked. No cars were moving on LSD.) where they banged on the hoods and windows of cars. (There were many, many car horns honking in support of the marchers. I never saw an unfriendly face in any car. Any banging on hoods and windows was more along the lines of what West Berliners were doing as East Berliners came out in their Trabbies the first night of freedom: celebration, not with any intent to damage.) Shouts of “Take Michigan!” had been heard, possibly referencing Michigan Avenue. (Possible, I suppose, because there’s always a few idiots. I never heard any reference to taking Michigan or Michigan Ave. I think this was a knee-jerk reaction by the department big-wigs who remembered 1969 (Days of Rage). This crowd was NOT about 1969; it was mostly older people and mothers with children.)
About 8,000 of the marchers turned west toward the major downtown vein. (I did. I was already to Oak St. and knew I had a long walk on bad ankles that were hurting badly back to Union Station. I turned west because I saw that thousands of others had the same idea as me – it was time to go home. I had to teach the next morning.) It was rush hour and the closing of Michigan Avenue, in addition to Lake Shore Drive, would effectively halt north-south traffic in the area. (A simple analysis of the crowd would have shown ANY policeman worth his/her badge that this crowd just wanted to go home. A simple “stop and go” directed crossing of Michigan Ave. would have dispersed the crowd within 15 minutes, 30 minutes tops.)
Police officers formed a line to prevent a major disturbance (thus creating one) and warned that they would arrest marchers who tried to enter Michigan Avenue. (I was one who approached the mounted officers forming the physical barrier and explained that all people wanted to do was go home. After several attempts with several different officers, I was given no direction of any kind. It was clear that I was NOT going to cross Michigan Ave. Now the challenge was “how to get home”.)
While police were justified in that step, (I seriously question this assumption) they then proceeded to form a second blocking line behind the marchers to prevent more from heading west. The group became surrounded.
“The police then began culling the trapped herd, arresting marchers along with people who weren’t part of the march but were just trying to get home,” Judge Richard Posner summarized in the 7th Circuit’s ruling. (What is left out here is that we finally assumed as a group that the only way home was to go back east to Inner Lake Shore Dr. and then head south. Someone told me that a policeman had directed him to do this. I can’t confirm that, but I do know that the 800 of us began to do exactly that. As we walked south on Inner Lake Shore, police directed us west onto Chicago Ave. Since my ankles were hurting so badly, I asked a policeman if in fact we could cross Michigan at Chicago. I was told yes, we would be allowed to cross there. Of course, when we arrived at Michigan, the same barriers of mounted police and police on foot in full riot gear were waiting. I told the police there that we were told by police on Inner Lake Shore Dr. that we would be let through. These police said, no, you’ll need to go back to Inner Lake Shore Dr. and continue south. This is NOT what my ankles wanted to hear, but me and a group of a dozen or so traipsed back to Inner Lake Shore… to be told that, no, you’ll need to go back to Michigan Ave. to be let through there. At that point, the light went on in my head: they’ve put us in a box – now what?)
Some (Not some. All.) arrestees were jailed overnight and (some were) charged with reckless conduct. (I wasn’t. I was released sometime just before 6:00 a.m. on the 21st. I was one of the first in my cell to be released. Due to email contact with everybody, I found later that the last several guys in my cell were not released until noon on the 22nd.) All charges were later dropped.
The arrests prompted two lawsuits, consolidated together, alleging a long list of constitutional, state-law, and local ordinance violations, including violations of the Fourth Amendment.
U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall dismissed the case, finding that the city and arresting police officers had qualified immunity that merited summary judgment. (Wow! Nice gig. Why don’t teachers have qualified immunity when they hit a student?) The 7th Circuit reversed on March 17.
“What [police] could not lawfully do, in circumstances that were not threatening to the safety of the police or other people, was arrest people who the police had no good reason to believe knew they were violating a police order,” Posner wrote for the three-judge panel (I believe my testimony may have been influential in this decision.)
While the police say they told marchers to disperse using bullhorns, (The first time I heard an order to disperse was at Oak and Michigan by the Drake. But this was not the issue. We WANTED to disperse! The problem was HOW to disperse. Hundreds – and I would guess about 900 – had to get back to either the Federal Plaza or Union Station in order to go home. That meant crossing from the east side of Michigan Avenue to get to the station on the west side. DUH!!!!) the plaintiffs have submitted more than 250 affidavits to the contrary.
The 7th Circuit also found the city could be liable for the arrests because it delegated police power to the superintendent of police.
“The city makes the extravagant claim that the only officials whose tortious conduct can ever impose liability on it are the members of the city council acting through their ordinances,” Posner wrote “Not even acts of the mayor are acts of the city, it contends; they are merely acts of an errant employee.” (I always figured Daley was making the call on this from the comfort of his condo in Central Station. Watching on tv, he saw the pictures from the news helicopters of the march spilling onto Lake Short Drive. He was at his father’s side at the disastrous 1968 Democratic Convention.

Like father, like son - Two generations of Daleys shout obscenities at Abraham Ribicoff, 1968

Like father, like son. Two generations of Daleys shout obscenities at Abraham Ribicoff, 1968

But I don’t fault him as much as I do his commanders on the scene who made no real effort to find out who we really were. How hard would that have been? Just ask. I never saw any police commander making any effort to talk with anybody on the street. As though the decision had already been made by the time they got there. And maybe it had.)
In the appellate court’s decision to remand the case for trial, Posner suggested that plaintiffs “streamline” the case by confining their claims to the Fourth Amendment.
“The underlying problem is the basic idiocy of a permit system that does not allow a permit for a march to be granted if the date of the march can’t be fixed in advance, but does allow the police to waive the permit requirement just by not prohibiting the demonstration,” Posner wrote.
Because organizers wanted the demonstration to coincide with the start of the war, they could not complete the city’s permit application for parades, which requires a minimum of two day’s notice for demonstrations meant as “a spontaneous response to a current event.”
The Chicago Police Department will sometimes waive the permit requirement when a march is planned for the unknown date of some triggering event.
“Apparently these ‘unpermitted marches’ are sufficiently frequent that the police have adopted a practice of ‘permitting’ them to use a specific corridor of city streets,” Posner explained. “This waiver of the permit requirement is informal; it seems to consist of just in not telling the demonstrators that they need a permit.” (I think the police were of two minds that night. At first, as described here, they cordially allowed and cooperated with a march that gained much bigger numbers than they expected at first. Why they directed us over to LSD is anybody’s guess. It’s possible that the march leaders in the front ranks just did it on their own. In any event, as I said above, the police said nothing [I was probably half-way back in the march] and did nothing to indicate that they were opposed to this move. Then I’m thinking the Mayor turned on the news and saw the quagmire on LSD, at the same time getting reports from his commanders about the five knuckleheads who shouted “Take Michigan” – if in fact that happened, and sent down the order to stop the thing in its tracks. The order to arrest 900 people? I can’t even fathom it. I have video taken of me in that crowd and you can judge for yourself the kind of people who were there.)

April, 2003 – Because I was seen as an important and credible (I know, what were they thinking?) witness, I was asked to give a deposition as part of the class action lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department. This is what I wrote in advance of that deposition.

April 19, 2003

To Whom It May Concern:

I am a 53-year-old white male. I have taught U.S. History at Downers Grove North High School, Downers Grove, Illinois since 1989. Prior to that I taught at Wheaton Christian Grammar School, Wheaton, Illinois. I graduated from Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois in 1972 and received my Masters degree from Northern Illinois University in 1979.

At approximately 9:30 p.m. on the evening of March 20, 2003 I was arrested by an unidentified officer of the Chicago Police Department on the sidewalk on the north side of Chicago Avenue, within a few feet of the northeast corner of the intersection of Michigan and Chicago Avenues. I had been sitting on the western edge of a low railing around the parkway grass between the sidewalk and street, when a line of officers moved close and one officer asked me to move back to the sidewalk. I did as ordered, and it was at that time that police began to one at a time arrest all those in my immediate vicinity. I was taken by the arm by an officer whose badge was obscured due to the wearing of protective equipment. I asked for what reason I was being arrested and was told that “they ought to ship every one of you fuckers over to Iraq”. At that point, my hands were cuffed tightly behind me, my pockets were emptied, my protest pins were removed and a couple of pens and papers in my pocket were thrown on the ground, and I was put into a paddy wagon with approximately twenty-five other men and boys (the youngest was 13 years old).
Prior to my arrest I had been participating in what I believed to be a lawful march in protest of the war against Iraq that had begun the day before. I had participated in two previous peaceful marches (one in October, 2002 and the other in January, 2003) and this one seemed identical in every way to those with the exception of the much larger group of participants, the expanded route march, and then, the sudden change in behavior and attitude of the Chicago Police Department.
It was this “personality” change that was baffling to those around me on Chicago Avenue, and to those I shared a paddy wagon and jail cell with. From the time the march stepped off at approximately 6:30 (?) until it arrived at Michigan and Oak St., I witnessed nothing but good behavior by the crowd and the usual polite accompaniment by uniformed Chicago Police officers, escorting on foot, bicycle and in some cases ATV’s.
But when we turned west on Oak St. and arrived at Michigan Ave. the attitude changed. We were met by a wall of flak-jacketed officers on foot and horseback, armed with truncheons. I and others repeatedly asked officers what was going on and in no case did I or anybody else receive a reply.
It appeared that some in the crowd were leaving the area to the north, but I needed to get back to Union Station and the discomfort from quadruple ankle surgeries determined for me that I did NOT want to walk further north to go south. So I waited at Michigan and Oak for some kind of guidance, either from protest leaders (whoever they might be) or from the police.
After between 30-60 minutes, the crowd seemed to move in an orderly fashion that indicated “leadership” back east toward Lake Shore Drive, turning south on the Inner Drive. Northbound LSD was still not open and I found myself walking southbound on the curbing that separated inner and outer drive. That curb rose to become a wall after a block or so and I (and many others) stayed on it. This gave me good vision over the top of the crowd. I was at about the mid-point of the group – as many in front of me as behind me.
No one knew for sure what the plan was, but I felt good (especially considering my feet) that we were moving in a southerly direction. I assumed that at some point we would turn west and then return to Federal Plaza by either State or Dearborn. I assumed that the police did NOT want us on Michigan Avenue (thus the blockade at Oak and Michigan).
As we approached Chicago Avenue, the crowd in front of me was funneling onto it west-bound. Before I got down off the wall, I saw what I believed to be a line of police blocking southbound Inner Drive and directing us west on Chicago Ave. I cut across the corner and did not go all the way to the police line, and then proceeded on Chicago Ave. Things got very crowded there and most people had stopped walking. I remember passing a number of passenger cars that were caught in the foot traffic, and one CTA bus with quite a few passengers, as I worked my way toward Michigan Ave. I wanted to find out what was the hold-up.
Upon reaching Michigan Avenue there was another solid phalanx of police in riot gear and marchers were not allowed to proceed further. At first I just stood around for awhile, assuming another temporary impasse (like at Oak and Michigan). I felt that as soon as march organizers made it clear to police that marchers simply wanted to CROSS Michigan Ave., and not march ON Michigan Ave., that we would soon be on our way.
Fifteen minutes turned to a half hour and I now asked several policemen blocking Michigan Avenue where we were to go. One said, “back to Inner Drive and head south.” I said that we all had just come from there and were funneled in this direction by police. I got no further response.
Like many others, I just decided to wait it out and see what became of the situation. Word then began to trickle through the crowd that all “exits” from Chicago Ave. between the Inner Drive and Michigan Ave. were blocked. There was no place to go. Many people began to sit where they were, either in the street, on the sidewalk, or the grass.
One by one, the police let each of the passenger cars leave the area. The CTA bus was emptied and the bus was allowed to leave. When all vehicles were gone, small groups of police began to enter and arrest what appeared to be selected marchers. I can verify that anyone with a sound amplification device was taken out. Most of these people went limp and were dragged for many yards by the police, usually at a rapid pace. I saw truncheons used several times, for what reasons I could not discern.
Then the police began to move methodically toward my side of the street. The moment for me when I knew the arrests were going to happen came when I saw handfuls of plastic handcuffs being passed down the police line. At that point I borrowed a cell phone and called my wife at home to inform her that it looked like we were all going to be arrested.
She had been watching television by this time and the local stations were all reporting that the marchers were refusing to disperse. She called every station to attempt to tell them the real story. She was rebuffed by every station (actually treated rudely by WGN) except WBBM radio who responded by saying, “We know! One of our reporters was just arrested.”
At no time from the time the march stepped out of Federal Plaza until the time I was put into the paddy wagon did I ever hear an order to disperse from any police officer, either with or without amplification. I asked between five and ten different officers at either Oak and Michigan and again at Chicago and Michigan if there had been an order given. Just prior to being arrested I turned to the hundreds of people behind me who were up against the wall of the pumping station on Chicago Avenue and asked loudly if anyone had heard an order to disperse. The only response I heard was a chorus of “No”s.

This ends my summary, but I would like to add one thing. I have refereed four IHSA state championship soccer games and thousands of youth, high school and college soccer games in my refereeing career. The unwritten rule of soccer officiating is the rule of common sense. In my opinion, the Chicago Police Department violated this fundamental rule of policing. Anybody present at this march could see plainly that the huge majority of these marchers were positive and non-violent, and wanted to do one thing only – return to Federal Plaza and go home.
Somewhere (probably off-site) a decision was made (possibly based on television viewing) and a bunch of people trained to follow orders, followed one more.

Thank you.

Robert W. Graham
29 W. Sixth Avenue
Naperville, Illinois 60563
(630) 717-8027

Do these people look threatening to you? (The car was not hi-jacked. She was a passenger in the car, and like many, many others in cars along LSD, showed positive support for the march, even though held up in traffic by it

Do these people look threatening to you? (The car was not hi-jacked. She was a passenger in the car, and like many, many others in cars along LSD, showed positive support for the march, even though held up in traffic by it

January 12, 2012 update from the  Chicago Tribune . When Federal Circuit Judge Richard Posner excoriated the Chicago Police Department in court, it was, I believe, the point where City attorneys realized they were going to lose their case.

My “Comment” on the article:
I was one of those arrested in March, 2003. I was 53 at the time. Everything Judge Posner says about Chicago Police Dept. actions that evening is on the money. At no point during the march did any of the people I was with hear a single police order to disperse. In fact, every policeman we passed up to and onto Lake Shore Drive was courteous, waving us around turns and stopping traffic, accompanying us on ATVs. They waved us off Lake Shore Drive at Oak St., where we stood at the corner of first Oak and Michigan, and then per their orders, Chicago and Michigan, and kept trying to tell them that all we wanted to do was go home. All you had to do was look at this crowd and you could tell it was harmless: grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers with children in strollers, college students, professionals. There was simply no attempt made to gauge the crowd because by this point the riot gear was on, the plastic cuffs were draped around their waists and the decisions had been made. I spent the night in a cell with 15 other guys, SRO, and was released at 5:45 the next morning. As Judge Posner said, “Idiotic”. I’ll add “Unconstitutional”.

February 10, 2012 – Chicago Tribune  – A settlement! Because of my status as “credible witness”, when the Trib called our lawyers asking who they could interview, they suggested my name, among others. (The Trib article originally featured my picture. A photographer came out to our house and snapped off a bunch of shots for the article. The picture doesn’t appear in the archived article.)

I wrote this that day:

The city settled. I got a call from the lawyer at around noon yesterday. When I heard the amount ($6.2M), and the amount Lois and I would possibly be eligible for, my first thought (after “Holy crap!”) was “what a waste of taxpayer money”. I was interviewed by the Trib later in the day, where among other things, I repeated that thought. The article carries that quote.
Over the years, I have concluded that it was probably Mayor Daley, watching tv images in his condo like the one below on Lake Shore Drive, who ordered our arrest. But it was his commander on the ground who did the real disservice by not informing the mayor that we weren’t a bunch of Days-of-Rage types out to destroy the city. (We were in fact following police orders at every step, and at no point was there ever an order to disperse.) I believe the mayor didn’t get that report because the police commander couldn’t tell the mayor that his department more or less blew it that night… so 850 of us took the fall.

The fact that the police could not give us direction of any kind hours later after we were all milling around and wanting to just go home tells me they had gotten themselves into a place where they themselves had no clear direction. Here again I think the mayor was done a disservice. I think he was thinking about what protesters were like at the ’68 convention, or possibly the more-recent WTO/Seattle folks, and again, his commmander on the ground didn’t tell him we simply wanted to go back across Michigan Ave. to go home. Result – this is the memory I’m left with. I’ll never forget those plastic cuffs cutting off my circulation:


My check arrived out of the blue in January, 2013. There was no letter, no explanation. Just a plain envelope with the return address of the legal firm. Thank goodness I recognized it. I opened the check and my jaw dropped. It was more than I thought it would be. But wait. There was a second envelope. That envelope contained ANOTHER check. Lois and I were to say the least pleasantly surprised by the amount of the two checks. No, it wasn’t a million dollars. But it was a waste of taxpayer money.
Case closed.


About robertwallacegraham

Retired high school teacher, curmudgeon, soccer coach, bicyclist, etc. etc.
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