EPIC Honors Dennis Cunningham, Civil Rights Attorney with Sempervirens Lifetime Achievement Award

Updated: Mar 8


Civil rights attorney Dennis Cunningham with activist Darryl Cherney.

Dennis Cunningham is a legendary civil rights attorney who has spent his lifetime defending activists since the 1960s. From suing the Chicago Police Department for the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton, to representing Earth First! activist Judi Bari when her car was bombed and the FBI falsely charged her as a terrorist, Cunningham has a lifetime of inspirational experience that has resulted in major social changes.


Cunningham had his first jury trial with one day’s notice in late February 1969, representing Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, who had organized a rally but was charged with mob action after police provoked violence by using tear gas. Cunningham successfully argued the case resulting in a “not guilty” verdict. In December of 1969, Hampton was murdered with a machine gun by Chicago police officers in a pre-dawn raid. Later, Cunningham sued the Chicago Police Department for the murder of Hampton.


In 1968, the anti-war movement ramped up and peace activists mobilized at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. As a young attorney, in 1968 Cunningham lived in Lincoln Park and witnessed Chicago police officers beating and arresting everyone they could find in African American neighborhoods, leaving 11 dead and thousands arrested. In the aftermath, Cunningham began attending court hearings in Chicago with the People’s Law Office, which provided legal aid to community members who were caught up in the Chicago court process—giving him a hands-on education in the court house.


Cunningham represented Earth First! activist and union organizer Judi Bari in a still unsolved attack that took place on May 24, 1990, when a pipe bomb that was placed under the driver’s seat of Bari’s car exploded, nearly killing her. Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were driving through Oakland recruiting students for the Redwood Summer campaign when the bomb went off.


Oakland police and the FBI tried to frame Judi and Darryl for the bombing and arrested Judi while she was in critical condition with a fractured pelvis and other major injuries, leaving her maimed and permanently disabled. Ultimately, no charges were filed. After a year, with Cunningham as their attorney, Judi and Darryl filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department and FBI for false arrest, unlawful search and seizure, and malicious investigative malpractice on the part of the FBI. The jury found that Bari and Cherney’s civil rights had been violated, which resulted in an award of $4.4 million in damages.


Cunningham also represented victims in the pepper spray trials against the Humboldt County Sheriff’s office. County officers applied pepper spray and other chemical agents to the eyes of forest activists on numerous occasions for non-violent actions, including locking down at Pacific Lumber Company offices and blocking the logging road gate to Grizzly Creek after David “Gypsy” Chain was killed by a logger. Eventually the victims of the pepper spray actions filed a civil lawsuit claiming that Humboldt officers used excessive force and with Cunningham as their attorney, the pepper spray victims won. However, they were only awarded a symbolic $1 each.


On Saturday, November 9, Dennis Cunningham will be at the Mateel Community Center for the EPIC Fall Celebration to receive the Sempervirens Lifetime Achievement Award. Doors open at 6 p.m. followed by an Indian Fusion dinner and Sempervirens Award Ceremony at 7 p.m. Music with Delhi2Dublin begins at 9:30 p.m. This event is expected to sell out, so get your tickets early at brownpapertickets.com or visit EPIC’s website for more information.