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The Fight Isn't Over

In 50 years, Flint Taylor has battled Nazis, the KKK, police and the FBI, and he’s still standing

Published in 2021 Illinois Super Lawyers Magazine

Photo by: Todd Rosenberg

On Nov. 2, 1983, three Chicago police officers repeatedly tortured Darrell Cannon, a homicide suspect, in order to elicit a confession. They beat him with a flashlight, used a cattle prod on his genitals, and thrice put a shotgun in his mouth, told him it was loaded, then pulled the trigger. Eventually, Cannon confessed to a crime he didn’t commit, and served nearly 24 years in prison before he was exonerated.

It was while he was in prison that Cannon first learned about civil rights attorney Flint Taylor. During Black History Month, a TV special aired on the Black Panthers and Fred Hampton and Cannon saw Taylor being interviewed by reporters at a crime scene. “Even while under threat, he continued to persevere, to bring this to light without fear,” Cannon says. “I liked that, so I wrote him.”

The first thing Cannon shared was that he didn’t have any money. But Taylor responded anyway. “To this day, I have never paid Flint Taylor one dollar for his representation,” Cannon says. “Even the reparation money we got, Flint and company refused to accept a dollar of it.”

Since Cannon was released in 2007, he has sought damages for what Taylor argues is part of a widespread pattern of injustice led by Commander Jon Burge that was subsequently covered up by high-level officials for decades, including Mayor Richard Daley. It’s a fight Cannon continues to wage, with the help of Taylor—who Cannon calls a “godsend.”

“I could not have a better attorney representing me,” Cannon says. “He’s been more than just an attorney to me. He’s been a personal friend; he’s been like a brother to me; he has never shied away from giving me any kind of assistance that he could give me. It’s been a blessing.

“He’s an unsung hero in my book and in the book of a lot of other torture survivors,” Cannon continues. “As long as there is breath in my body, I am indebted to Flint Taylor.”

 

Born in Maine, Taylor grew up Westborough, Massachusetts, where the family moved after his father’s got a job as a history professor at Worcester State University. Taylor played football, basketball, and baseball at Westborough High School; he was also in the honor society and served as student council president. Education was important to Taylor’s family: In addition to his father teaching and later serving as a guidance counselor, his mother got her master’s degree and worked as a librarian, while his sister, Laurie T. Crumpacker, went on to teach feminist history at Simmons College in Boston.

Five years older than Flint, Laurie was in college at the start of the peace movement during the Vietnam War. “She was an example to myself and my younger brother politically and in the sense of social activism,” Taylor says. “She even got me to go to one of the marches on Washington [the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968] when I was in college.”

Taylor attended Brown University during the height of the civil rights movement, then Northwestern for law school. He arrived on campus just a week after the 1968 Democratic Convention. Less than a year in, Taylor found his people. 

“I was introduced to several lawyers and law students who were representing people involved in the civil rights movement and radical movements in Chicago, specifically the Black Panthers and the Young Lords and other organizations,” Taylor says. “They were getting busted or arrested for all sorts of trumped-up charges, and these lawyers were representing them.” 

Those lawyers—Taylor included—would go on to launch the People’s Law Office in August 1969. That December, the Black Panthers’ Illinois chairman Fred Hampton was murdered in his home. Taylor, in just his second year of law school, was among the first on the scene. 

“When he was assassinated in his bed on December 4, I was one of the people who was summoned to the apartment within hours of the raid to start to reconstruct the murder scene,” Taylor says. The team spent 10 days in Hampton’s apartment, finding and documenting evidence that the incident was a search-and-destroy mission by police, rather than a shootout between police and Panthers. 

So began years of trials. “[In] the first trial, they charged the Panthers with attempted murder, even though there were 90 shots fired and, at most, one was fired by the Panthers,” Taylor says. “That case was ultimately dismissed.” 

Then: “We filed a Section 1983 civil rights suit in 1970. It met resistance at all levels: the police level, the prosecutor, state’s attorney level, and it went up on an appeal because the judge dismissed big portions of it on prosecutorial immunity,” he says.

The People’s Law Office team ultimately discovered the raid was set up by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, Taylor says, and was intended to neutralize the Black Panther Party and its leadership. “[Once] we uncovered the fact that the FBI was behind it all, there were three more years of intense discovery before the trial started in 1976.” 

During that 18-month trial, then the longest civil rights trial in federal court history, Taylor and his partner, Jeff Haas, were jailed for contempt. 

“I was jailed, allegedly, for knocking over a water pitcher in exasperation when the judge was very much dead-set against us and refused to entertain a motion that we’d filed,” Taylor recalls. “My defense was always that I’d just jostled my papers on the table and it knocked the water pitcher off, but regardless, the judge saw fit not only to hold me in contempt, but to bring in the jury so they could see the broken water pitcher.”

After 13 years of litigation on the Hampton case—an 18-month trial that was thrown out, winning a new trial with a landmark 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision, defending it at the U.S. Supreme Court, then it coming back down—Taylor and the team reached a $1.85 million settlement, one of the largest in a police violence case. Though Taylor didn’t argue it before the highest court, he’d be back to do so for Cleavinger v. Saxner (1985) and Buckley v. Fitzsimmons (1993), winning both times.

It was work that would be the highlight of any lawyer’s career, but Taylor was just getting started. 

 

From 1980 to 1985, Taylor worked on the civil suit following the 1979 Greensboro Massacre in which members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party fired upon demonstrators at an anti-Klan rally, all of which happened with police present. Five were killed, and 10 were wounded. In 1985, Taylor moved to North Carolina for six months for discovery and trial, and the offenders were deemed liable for damages—the first such verdict ever obtained in the South.

“Like the Hampton case before it and the torture cases after it, the Greensboro Massacre case was transformative and very much solidified and informed my views of police and prosecutorial misconduct and violence and, of course, how far the police and prosecutors will go to get convictions,” Taylor says, “particularly of Black people and Black men.”

He remembers the Greensboro experience as uncomfortable, to say the least. “We were there in Klan country, and these Klansmen and Nazis who were defendants in our case—and who were on videotape shown taking guns out of the trunks of their cars and shooting down anti-Klan demonstrators—they were in the courtroom. They were the ones we were examining, and they were the ones who lived in the communities around us,” Taylor says.

“I came out of that trial with a real deep understanding and respect for people in the South who fought against racism and fought against the Klan.” 

Fighting against racism is a throughline in Taylor’s career, and one he says hasn’t gotten easier. 

“It’s always a constant struggle to deal with racism, whether that racism is something that may have been subconsciously imbued in you as a white person from a white suburb or whether it’s, more frequently, the racism that you’re confronting daily in the courts and with the police,” Taylor says. “On the one hand, you have to be very conscious of the fact that you are a white person. You haven’t experienced what Black people have experienced; you haven’t experienced firsthand what your clients who have been tortured or shot or put through the justice system or who have family members who are in prison [have]. We haven’t suffered that. We’re privileged, and we have to always remember that in the way we approach not only the people that we represent, but also in terms of being honest in our evaluation of the court system and the police and the systemic nature of these injustices.”

The People’s Law Office’s work and reputation for fighting against racism helped Taylor and his colleagues gain the trust of their clients, despite often being from different cultural and racial backgrounds, he says.

“We fought very hard to change the narrative and to bring the truth of these cases,” Taylor says. “The Hampton case started out as a shootout, according to the powers that be, and we were able to change that narrative to a ‘shoot-in,’ then to a murder, and then to a political assassination when the FBI involvement came out. In Greensboro, we fought a similar battle: to show that it wasn’t just the Klan and Nazis, but they were working in collaboration with, and with the tacit approval of, the police and the FBI.”  

As part of a strong intergenerational and interracial movement, Taylor changed the narrative around the police torture cases he’s worked on and ultimately got the city of Chicago to agree to reparations for victims of police torture. In the Burge case, he says, that narrative “went from being treated as the allegations of a Black convicted cop killer [Andrew Wilson] against a white decorated Vietnam veteran and police commander [Burge] to what it is now a systemic and racist torture regime that targeted Black suspects and arrestees over a 20-year period and over 125 documented cases.”

Taylor credits the Movement for Black Lives, too. “They took the lead and started to make a difference in terms of making it an issue that now is even more widely [known] in terms of how police violence and mass incarceration affects the broader communities of color,” he says. “It’s very rewarding to see that the movements have become as strong as they have and have so much acceptance. We can only hope that will continue and have some really fundamental impact in changing the systemic racist problems we have in the country.” 

Thanks to his long career litigating high-profile cases, it’s no surprise Taylor has some suggestions for resisting burnout. First, he credits his family: “My wife, Pat Handlin, who is a lifetime public interest lawyer, has been a tremendous part of my support. I have a daughter, Kate, who’s now a defender in Florida who is a tremendous part of my life as well.” He’s likewise quick to credit his colleagues as well.

Physical fitness doesn’t hurt, either. “When I was younger, I ran a lot,” he says. “Whatever your physical or mental things are that are important to you outside of the law, they’ll help you sustain yourself.” Taylor even ran the Chicago Marathon in 1981, while working on a case in which an officer shot two men in Humboldt Park during a Puerto Rican Day festival. “It was in front of Judge [Prentice] Marshall, and I asked Judge Marshall if we could have Monday off because I'm running the marathon,” Taylor says. “He said ‘nah.’ What’s really kind of tremendously ironic was later in the trial, he had a heart attack and it became a mistrial.”

For the most part, though, Taylor says it’s the work itself that keeps him going. 

“You’re going to represent people that you’re going to respect and that give you the strength,” Taylor says. “The kind of quiet strength you see in a mother whose child has been framed or is doing time in a penitentiary and the loyalties that they have to their family member—when you start to feel a bit sorry for yourself and start to get a little bit down and burned a little bit, those things can help.”

And it certainly helps to win. “It was 10 years in the making, but we ultimately won the Hampton appeal, even though going to court every day for 18 months sometimes felt like we were checking into a jail cell, because either we were crazy or everyone else was crazy. That’s how they tried to make you feel,” he says.

“The judge and the lawyers on the other side and the defendants, every time we were talking about a conspiracy and the FBI’s involvement and the documents that we were uncovering, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, well, you’re kind of crazy. What you’re saying is happening couldn’t be happening.’ But we made it through. And if you can make it through that, you can make it through almost anything as a lawyer.” 

That sentiment is one he tries to share with law students whenever he gets the chance. “I’ve been doing this for 50 years, and in some ways the fact that I’m standing here is the best lesson that you can learn. You can fight these cases through thick and thin and end up still alive and still fighting these cases 50 years later,” Taylor says.

“I feel an important aspect of being a people’s lawyer, which we take seriously, is to share what we know to help change the narrative—to write about the work we do, to speak about the work we do. Law students are much more aware in some ways than we were when we started out. They’re much more sensitive to the issues.”

Taylor encourages law students to follow their beliefs, as he has. 

“Don’t give up your idealism, your belief in justice, and try to figure out ways when you get out of law school to serve those beliefs, rather than to get drawn into the kind of corporate law that’s going to have you representing what I would consider the wrong side, the ‘bad guys.’ Figure out ways to pursue your beliefs in racial justice and all that goes along with it.”


Flint Taylor vs. The Torture Machine

In 2002, Taylor testified before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board while holding a telephone box—just like those used against his clients by Chicago detectives (middle right photo). In 2019, Taylor released the book The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago. “It has a double meaning,” Taylor says of the title. “Burge used this black box, which he devised from his days in Vietnam. The box has a generator in it, and they attach wires with alligator clips, and then attach them to the people they were torturing—their ears, fingers, genitals. That’s what the torture machine was. But given the fact that Chicago has the Democratic machine, the Daley machine, which was so involved in the torture scandal, covering it up and using the confessions to send people to death row, the torture machine also means the Daley machine that was complicit in the scandal.”

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