Stan Willis: A biography

Activist/Attorney Stan Willis is a lifelong Chicagoan, rooted in the working class West Side, from which he has developed strong connections with numerous justice-seeking communities across the city, this nation, and internationally. His dedication to both teaching and social justice activism began long before he became a trial lawyer specializing in Civil Rights, Police Brutality and Misconduct, and Criminal Defense work. Soon after honorable discharge from the Air Force as a young G.I., Stan began working for the Chicago Transit Authority as a bus driver where he helped organize several wildcat strikes including the largest one in Chicago’s history, that disrupted travel city-wide at the time of the Democratic National Convention, but helped win concessions from the union and City of Chicago to begin dismantling the blatantly racist policies and practices impacting black drivers.

Stan was enrolled at Crane Junior College while still with the CTA, as the nation became immersed in the Civil Rights movement. An active student leader, he led a march while carrying a coffin, in protest of the murders of Black college students by South Carolina National Guards at Orangeburg, South Carolina. Stan’s leadership continued in the academic arena where he became editor of the college yearbook, founded the Afro-American History Club, and was elected President of Student Government at Crane College. In this capacity, he led the student movement to name the new campus after Malcolm X. After completing his Associate’s degree, Stan transferred to the University of Chicago, earning his B.A. and a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies. A strong desire to directly impact the practical needs and working class struggles of marginalized communities at home and abroad led Stan to further study, in Master’s level Economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and finally to the law – earning the Jurist Doctorate from Chicago Kent.

Both prior to, and since embarking on his law career, Stan has consistently taught in various settings both formal and informal. The role of Professor and/or teacher is one to which he devoted the same level of dedication and rigor that he brought to the courtroom and community organizing, as he believed it was a critical part of empowering individuals and communities and diverse constituencies to effect positive change in our world, whatever their ultimate career path. Former students and colleagues provide strong positive feedback on his effectiveness in teaching courses and programs such as the G.E.D. program at Malcolm X College, African American History courses at Statesville prison, and Economics classes as an Adjunct Professor at Roosevelt University. He is a frequent guest lecturer at Chicago-area law schools and has, for several years, taught annual workshops for lawyers and lay people across the nation providing state-certified continuing legal education (CLE) credits in topics including civil rights, criminal defense, and human rights. Stan has served as a faculty-lecturer for the annual civil rights seminar sponsored by the Illinois Institute for Continuing Legal Education (IICLE), The Chicago Kent College of Law, and the American Bar Association, in the area of Section 1983 Civil Rights Liability and Litigation. Concurrently with his legal work, Stan also maintains an active public speaking schedule on issues related to the criminal justice system, the death penalty, police brutality, community control of police, the prison-industrial complex, America’s political prisoners, racism and the American legal system, and International Human Rights.

Stan has been recognized in the legal field by diverse groups for his unswerving commitment to social justice work and solidarity across racial, generational, class and other lines. In 1984, the Black American Law students at Chicago Kent College of Law established the Standish E. Willis Community Service Award for law students who demonstrated leadership and made significant contributions to the law school and the African American community. More recently, The National Lawyers Guild, The Arab-American Action Network, The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and others have presented him with awards for outstanding leadership and teamwork in the justice arena. A colleague supported his successful campaign to present evidence of Chicago Police Torture to the U. N. in Geneva, Switzerland with the following recommendation: “[Stan’s] political insights and analysis are beyond critique, including issues pertaining to race, gender, class, colonialism and imperialism, and I continue to learn from him. Personally, he has always supported me and my work in various communities as a lawyer, as an activist and as an out lesbian. Words cannot articulate my respect and admiration for Stan and his work.”

As a new lawyer/litigator Stan joined Peoples’ Law Office (PLO), which was an excellent fit to hone his legal skills and contribute to a diverse, highly principled, dedicated and skilled legal team and to continue his involvement in the community, during which time he joined the Lawyers For Washington movement and emerged as one of the coordinators of the group of several hundred volunteer lawyers. After that mayoral victory, he continued to use his legal and organizational skills to empower communities of color and spent several years as a respected partner with PLO prior to establishing his own firm, The Law Office of Standish E. Willis, in 1989. As the owner of a small practice specializing in civil rights litigation, criminal defense, and personal injury cases, he has tried numerous federal jury trials and several state jury and bench trials, and has argued many cases before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In addition, he has litigated hundreds of civil rights lawsuits against many municipalities involving numerous public officials. He is a member of the Federal Defender Panel and was named one of Chicago’s “Tough Lawyers” by the Chicago magazine in 2002.

In terms of his community work, Stan’s approach to injustice is to teach, organize, listen, and then go to work both in court and in the streets – alongside the people. This has always struck a responsive chord with youth, elders, the poor, women, the LGBTQ community, men, people of color, immigrants and others being marginalized by the criminal system, and with effective teaching and organizing, even resonates at times with the elected officials who are representing them– thus he has deep friendships and mutually respectful working relationships with a broad, diverse base of comrades.

Examples of Stan’s social justice campaigns which he shares when speaking to college students include the following: the 1991 televised beating of Rodney King galvanized his to organize the African-American Defense Committee Against Police Violence. In 1995, he organized “The Riverdale Eight,” a group of African-American women who had been brutalized by Riverdale police officers. When the State of New Jersey announced an August 1995 execution date for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Stan joined the many abolitionists globally, mobilizing to save his life by organizing and chairing the African-American Committee to Free Mumia Abu Jamal – work which helped him gain a greater understanding of the political prisoner issue in the U.S. In that regard, he worked with others to educate and mobilize support for all victims of racial and political oppression, including the numerous victims of the notorious Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and simultaneously took an active role in the courtroom and community actions that led to Gov. Ryan’s clearing Illinois’ death row and commuting the death sentences of 4 men who had been convicted based on tortured confessions. In 2005, he founded the grassroots organization “Black People Against Police Torture” (BPAPT) and led a coalition of lawyers, activists, and community members to internationalize the Chicago Police Torture cases via the international Human Rights mechanisms and treaties to which the U.S. is subject. Stan presented evidence of police torture both before the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (2005), and The United Nations’ Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination (2008) which helped bring a modicum of justice in the Chicago police torture cases by sparking the indictment of Commander Jon Burge. Through Black People Against Police Torture, Attorney Stan Willis was among the first to challenge Chicago’s right to host the Olympics, coining the now familiar phrase “the torture capital of the U. S.” and he personally initiated and drafted the legislative bill which ultimately was passed and enacted in 2009 in the form of The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission.

As an active member of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and chair of its Chicago chapter, Stan authored a stakeholders’ report on COINTELPRO Political Prisoners which was submitted to the UN Periodic Review of the United States in 2010. In this capacity, his research, writing, and speaking commitments have helped bring a new level of awareness and effectiveness to our local struggles by accessing the international human rights movement. Stan has organized several Town Hall Meetings to report back to the community on work done in the international arena.

Activist/Attorney Standish E. Willis exemplifies the legacy that can result from a life of service and dedication to the work of the people, despite the personal and professional sacrifices that such work often requires. Stan is a long-time board member for the Black United Fund of Illinois and was a founding member of several significant institutions, such as The Communiversity (pre-cursor to the Center for Inner City Studies), The Black Student Congress, African Liberation Day, and The National Anti-Imperialist Movement in Solidarity with African Liberation. He has counseled many dedicated and prominent activists, such as Bobby Rush (Alderman/Congressman), Marian Stamps (Cabrini Green leader), and Nancy Jefferson (Mid-West Community Council leader). Stan is known as a tireless advocate for oppressed communities, including being a long-time supporter of the global struggle for Palestinian Rights. He has, ironically, sued prominent liberal organizations for discrimination against Black people, such as Amnesty International and The Cook County Public Defenders’ Office. Whether locally, nationally, or internationally…from the classroom, to the courtroom and beyond, Stan Willis stays true to his Chicago roots – always guided by the needs of the community, and the people.