Protesting Police Misconduct navigating the law to protect protesters in Chicago's streets

Melinda Power had just passed the bar exam in San Francisco in the early 1980s when she was called to Chicago to work for the Puerto Rican Liberation Movement. She was asked to help support a group of clandestine Puerto Rican independence fighters that had been sent to prison for alleged conspiracy against the United States government—she gladly accepted, and did not look back.

Almost 20 years later, Power would find herself as part of a legal team representing 850 people arrested in downtown Chicago for protesting the war in Iraq in 2003. By then, she was already a well-known name in the legal community—someone who advocated for the rights of citizens, especially those abused by police.

But before Melinda could enter the legal world fighting against police misconduct and human rights, she was a young girl from Nashville, Tennessee who spent most of her time with her twin sister, Margaret. The Power sisters considered themselves a unit—one could not be without the other, as described by Margaret, now a Latin American Studies professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

“It never, never occurred to us that she would be an attorney,” she says of her sister Melinda, “but we were teenagers that were very politically active together.”

The Power sisters throughout the years. Second picture: Melinda, left; Margaret, right. Photographs courtesy of Melinda Power.

Their political activism was fueled at an early age after having spent six months living in their father’s hometown of Sydney, Australia. Melinda describes it as a large, liberal city. This was an eye-opener for the fifteen-year-old girls who only knew about what they considered a conservative, all-white southwestern Pennsylvanian town where they grew up. The anti-Vietnam movement was at full force and both, Melinda and Margaret took part in demonstrations with people that they say introduced them to more liberal ideologies.

“On our return to the United States, living in such a conservative town, we began to look for other people with similar points of view,” Margaret recalls, “we took part in anti-war activities, went to rock concerts—overall, more politically involved.”

During their college years at Georgetown University, both sisters continued to develop their political stance, as well as an interest in Latin America. After college, Margaret moved to San Francisco, while Melinda was in Arkansas doing volunteer work.

“I encouraged Melinda to join me in San Francisco, where I suggested we work and save up to travel to Latin America,” says Margaret.

With enough money saved up, the Power sisters flew to Puerto Rico, took a ship to Venezuela and boarded buses to other Latin American countries, eventually spending 6 months in Chile.

Back in San Francisco, Melinda enrolled in law school after working as a secretary and upon suggestion from a friend that she would be a good lawyer. Melinda recalls: “I was complaining to a friend of mine that I was so much smarter that the men that I worked for… that was my motivation!”

With a political mindset established and law degree in hand, what followed later for Melinda’s career came naturally.

In 1985, during her work for the Puerto Rican Liberation Movement in Chicago, Melinda represented Alejandrina Torres, a fighter for Puerto Rican independence, who was accused of being part of a plan to free Oscar Lopez, an accused member of the clandestine Armed Forces of National Liberation— from prison. Torres was found guilty and sentenced to prison until pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 1999, after serving almost 15 years. Oscar Lopez declined clemency and instead opted to stand in solidarity with another FALN member that was not pardoned. Today, Lopez remains in prison.

Melinda was more than just an attorney for Torres, she says that she herself supported the movement. “I moved to Chicago because I supported independence from Puerto Rico,” she says, “and I thought how the U.S. treated Puerto Ricans, both in Puerto Rico and in the U.S., was very racist. So I decided that I wanted to come here and help out to any extent that I can.”

More than 30 years after her move to Chicago, Melinda continues to take cases that align with her political consciousness.

Working from her law office in the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community in West Town, Melinda is now working on several cases stemming from the Black Lives Movement in Chicago. Most of her clients have been protesters arrested, and often-times, mistreated by police for exercising their First Amendment rights.

“Since I do criminal defense, in many of the cases, the police abused people,” she says. Melinda explains that police brutality has not been something new in her line of work. For her, police misconduct has been the same as it was back in the 1970s and all though the 80s and 90s. The only thing that has changed, she says, is how people have reacted to it.

"In the 70s there was a big movement about protesting many, many things, including the police," she explains, "then in the 80s and 90s there wasn’t much of a movement, which doesn’t mean the police did anything different, it was just the people were not opposing it the way they are now. And of course now, there is a huge movement that exposes and opposes what the police do.”

From the First Gulf War in 1991, to the anti-NATO protests in 2012, Melinda has helped defend protesters from police during illegal arrests, false accusations, and brutality. She herself has experienced the unfairness of arrests: In 1991 and 1993, Melinda was arrested while attending two different protests. She was represented by Attorney Janine Hoft from People's Law Office, who has collaborated on several cases with Melinda since 1984.

“Melinda is as great a client as she is a lawyer,” Hoft says of her experience representing Melinda. “She trusted my experience with false arrest cases and we were outraged that she was falsely arrested.”

Melinda and Attorney Hoft both collaborated with four other attorneys in representing 850 people arrested during anti-war protests in Chicago in March 20, 2003. They spent nine years on the case and successfully reached a settlement for all 850 clients in 2012, costing the City of Chicago $6.2 million in compensation.

"We got the idea that we should sue the police for what they did"

Audio: Melinda Power talks about her experience representing 850 people arrested at a 2003 anti-war protest in Chicago.

To get an idea on how Melinda approaches cases in court, a few attorneys who defended Chicago police officers accused of mistreating Melinda's clients were contacted for their opinion. One attorney, Brian Gainer from Johnson & Bell law office, who represented officers involved in the assault and arrest of a Chicago man in 2009, declined to give his opinion, stating his clients' wishes to keep details of the case private. Other attorneys did not reply to the initial request.

But the other attorneys around Melinda were able to provide insight on her approach.

Collaborating with Melinda is a positive experience, describes Attorney Hoft. “In all collaborations, Melinda will not shy away from raising difficult issues that are aimed at developing people into their best selves and creating the type of just society we want to live in.”

This observation is echoed by Max Suchan, a young attorney and advocate for criminal justice reform who met Melinda when he was 15 years old and just a freshman in high school, nearly 10 years ago.

“I think she has a lot of skills as a lawyer. She is very motivated by a sense of justice and willing to help people. I think that carries over to her work. Not only is she skilled but she really believes in the work that she is doing,” he says.

There is a “Melinda-style” that colleagues describe when Melinda is standing in court. “She is very direct, for better or worse, she does not beat around the bush, and she is not afraid to say what she wants and ask for what she wants—which may be disarming to her opponent,” says Suchan, “sometimes this may be off-putting to her opponent.”

What Suchan describes has also been observed by Attorney Hoft during their more than 30-year professional relationship. She advises any of Melinda's opponents in court to not let their guard down.

“She is friendly and fair… but she will advocate zealously for her clients,” she says.

Committed, consistent and inspirational—a few of the words used to describe Melinda as a professional by those who have worked with her or who have known her for many years.

“Melinda has been very consistent. She has been involved with social justice struggles for decades—longer than I have been alive," says Suchan, “and I value that legacy because Melinda is one of the few in the group of people that is relatively small, both locally and nationally, that have worked with social justice based movements at the fore-front of law and intersected them both."

Her sister Margaret, who followed Melinda to Chicago in 1981 and took part in the Puerto Rican Liberation Movement in solidarity, says that she is lucky to be able to share similar interests—politically and otherwise—with Melinda.

Having Melinda as a sister encourages her to take part in political movements and advocate for others, says Margaret. And despite having witnessed Melinda in court many times and sharing many other life-events, Margaret still looks back at how Melinda took care of their ill mother several years ago as one of her most memorable memories. “She took really good care of her,” Margaret recalls.

The sisters continue to be the unit that Margaret described growing up, sharing a home, trips, and stories with each other from their respective careers.

When she is not in court or in the office, Melinda enjoys doing outdoor activities, hiking, swimming or walking. Sometimes she would rather spend time with her cats or hosting immigrants in her home while they wait for asylum.

Sitting in her office on a sunny, October morning, Melinda sighs as she ponders about the future of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, the nation, and of police misconduct in general.

“For the Puerto Rican community, I hope that Oscar Lopez is released," she begins. She recounts her recent weekend trip to Washington, where she took part in protesting for his release.

"In terms of police misconduct, my hopes really are that the role, mission, and concept of the police drastically changes. Because if that does not change, the behavior of the police will not change. Until the police see their job and mission as different than what it is, they will keep mistreating and using excessive force on people."

But police brutality will not change in the near future, she says. “I think it’s inherent in the nature of the police force. There would need to be a dramatic reconstruction of what the police are, who they represent, who they work for in order for that to happen.”

Suddenly the phone rings and the quiet office comes to life as her assistant calls out to Melinda from the front lobby. A call from an inmate is coming through and Melinda jumps from her chair, ready to advocate for another client.

Right: Attorney Power in her office, pictured with Attorney Max Suchan, October 13, 2016. Photograph by Daisy Contreras.

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