Animal rights meet civil rights by Jacquie Lewis
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1994:
Animal rights activists peacefully exer-
cising their First Amendment Rights don’t expect
to be kidnapped, physically abused, held cap-
tive, and arrested for battery––but it happened to
Susan Koenker on February 15, 1992.
Susan, along with other participants in
a PETA-sponsored event, was explaining to
prospective buyers at a General Motors auto
show that GM was then the only car maker in the
world performing crash tests on animals. The
show was at McCormick Place, a sprawling con-
vention center and part of city property, on
Susan and Gloria Van Dellen were
leafleting in the “spine,” a public thoroughfare
connecting McCormick Place to parking lots.
Five men wearing hockey jerseys and jeans,
never identifying themselves, demanded that
they leave. Assuming they were security people,
Susan and Gloria immediately headed toward the
nearest exit. As they left, Susan passed a former
student of hers, greeted him, and handed him a
flyer. Two of the hockey jerseys and jeans
grabbed her from behind, locking her elbows in
a vice grip as they lifted her off the ground. They
began running with her, shoving people out of
their way, knocking down a young child. Legs
flailing, Susan felt like a marionette. Gloria
turned and Susan was gone.
Figuring security guards wouldn’t be so
violent, Susan wondered if they were unem-
ployed GM workers. She feared being beaten.
“Call the police!” she screamed. The jerseys
abducted her further and deeper into the sub-
basement levels of McCormick Place. All the
while they yelled, “You’re ours! We’ve got you
now! You belong to us!”
Susan was herded through an apparent
control room, equipped with television monitors,
and down a long hallway to the very last room.
The jerseys, security guards after all, celebrated
their capture, jumping in the air, falling over
furniture, laughing and high-fiving.
Susan’s arm felt as if they had broken
t. She screamed that she wanted to use the tele-
phone to call a friend and go to the hospital. A
first aid specialist guarded the doorway, paying
no attention to her cries or her complaints of
pain. Then Susan did something that probably
extended her stay in the McCormick Place dun-
geon: she told them she’s a lawyer.
While the jerseys tried to decide what
to do with Susan and what story to concoct, they
imprisoned her for three hours. When the police
came and took her to the station, they never told
her she was being arrested. The officers told her
that at the station she could file battery charges,
call a cab, and go to the hospital.
Outside, as organizer of the demonstra-
tion, I began to question a couple of McCormick
Place security men after Gloria informed me
what had happened. Did they have anyone fitting
Susan’s description? Walkie-talkies in hand,
they lied and told us, “No.”
Once at the police station, Susan’s pos-
sessions were inventoried, she was fingerprinted,
mug shots were taken, and she was booked for
battery against the jerseys, all 5’2” of her. (Her
accusers are 5’10” and 6’2”.) Susan, no rap
sheet, no priors, was thrown into a holding cell
and held for another hour before “Chicago’s
finest” let her go. Before leaving the station,
Susan asked to file battery charges against the
two men. The warrant officer refused her, stat-
ing, “They didn’t kill you, did they? Quit whin-
ing!” Susan, by this time a very angry lawyer,
showed her bruises and demanded that he start
writing. She got her warrant.
Immediately, she went to the hospital,
had X-rays taken, received medicine for the pain,
and got a referral to an orthopedic specialist.
Chicago has a reputation for crooked
politics, and Susan’s story took plenty of twists
and turns. Monday morning, she received a call
from the police station. She was told the police
were dropping her charges against the two securi-
ty men because they would lose their jobs. They
would, however, proceed with the criminal
charges McCormick Place had filed against her.
Round two. Susan went to the nearest
police station and showed the warrant officer
there her bruises, explaining what had happened.
He filed charges. It was then that Susan learned
the names of the security guards: Chris Pienta
and Terrence O’Driscoll. Pienta has a relative on
the police force.
Susan suspected this wasn’t the first
time Pienta and O’Driscoll had done something
like this. Her attorney, Barry A. Gross, filed a
“motion for discovery” of McCormick Place
security records. They found that men caught uri-
nating on the walls, selling jewelry, or just caus-
ing a drunken nuisance were never arrested. Only
one other person had ever been arrested: Peter
Fry from Greenpeace. As in Susan’s case, he
was exercising his First Amendment rights,
leafleting on an environmental issue at the annual
boat show. His experience was almost identical.
McCormick Place offered Susan $2,000
if she would agree never to file a civil suit. The
State’s Attorney suggested that if Susan pledged
not to sue McCormick Place, the state would
drop the charges against her.
Instead she took the case to trial.
Her lawyer asked Pienta and O’Driscoll
if, after receiving alleged injuries from Susan,
they went to the hospital. They didn’t. When
asked to identify the site of her alleged battery
against them, they named sites roughly 200 yards
apart. Susan won. Case closed.
The media became interested––just how
are security guards trained? CBS investigative
reporter Pam Zekman covered the trial.
Susan filed a civil suit involving seven
counts, among them violation of her First
Amendment rights. Legal negotiations continued
for many months. Having lost the criminal trial,
McCormick Place knew it didn’t have a chance of
winning the civil trial. Susan had missed several
days of work, paid $1,500 in medical fees, and
had pain in her arm and shoulder for seven
months. She spent $6,000 in legal fees, but she
fought the system and won.
Pienta and O”Driscoll? They’re still
security guards at McCormick Place, but perhaps
a little more controlled. GM quit crash testing on
animals a year later. And Susan received a settle-
ment 17 months later: a check for $90,000.