A smile creeps over attorney Jordan Kushner's face as he recalls a 1989 incident when he was a law student acting as a legal observer and says he witnessed a Minneapolis police officer tackling and then pummeling an antiwar demonstrator.

Kushner walked over to a police supervisor and said, "How can you stand there and let your officer brutalize someone, you fascist Nazi?"

The police official got quite angry, Kushner said.

"He told two of his henchmen, who arrested me."

Kushner says he had "lost it," crossing the line from observer to protester, and today he offers it as an example of what not to do when he's training legal observers.

Not that Kushner believes his description of police on that occasion was inaccurate. Indeed, Kushner still takes on cops, the courts and the power structure.

Two weeks ago, the city of Minneapolis paid out $165,000 to settle a lawsuit he'd filed. It alleged that police had violated the constitutional rights of seven clients for arresting them when they dressed as zombies and strutted through downtown in 2006.

"It was really cynical abuse by the police," he says.

These days, Kushner, 45, has become the go-to attorney for Twin Cities protest groups taking on the establishment, following in the footsteps of other activist attorneys like the late Doug Hall; Ken Tilsen, now retired, and Larry Leventhal, who is still practicing.

In recent years, Kushner has represented demonstrators arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention, families losing their homes to foreclosure and parents trying to keep schools open in north Minneapolis.

"There are not many lawyers that stay true to the cause," said Dan Scott, a former chief federal public defender. "He's one of them."

Kushner, who is married with two children, deflects questions about his personal life, preferring to stick to law and politics. In his somewhat disheveled Minneapolis office, he has a bumper sticker on a file cabinet: "Contempt of court -- It just makes sense."

Kushner's sometimes uncompromising approach has earned him a reputation for stridency. "His friends and enemies find him a little abrasive," acknowledges one lawyer, who nonetheless admires him.

Says Kushner, "I like to argue."

Zombies suit

The case settled last month dates to July 2006, when seven street theater activists were arrested after dancing through downtown Minneapolis streets dressed as zombies to denounce "mindless" consumerism. They were jailed for two days but not charged.

The group approached Kushner, who immediately saw it as a suppression of "creative artistic and political expression."

At the police station, he said, police concocted an excuse for their arrest, citing them with carrying simulated weapons of mass destruction, because they carried sound equipment with protruding wires. He said the accusation was "absurd" because they never worried about whether the protesters were hiding bombs when they were arrested.

The zombies sued in federal court, only to see the suit dismissed. Kushner took the case to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which was perceived as a long shot, and the panel upheld one of his two claims. Last month, the Minneapolis city attorney's office settled for $165,000 out of concern a jury might have awarded more.

"That case illustrates how tenacious and dedicated an attorney Jordan is," says Bruce Nestor, another prominent activist attorney in Minneapolis. "Those clients, on the face of it, did not have significant damages. They weren't assaulted. They spent a few days in jail. But it was a significant abuse of police power to arrest people in the first place. It was almost ludicrous."

Not a typical attorney

Born in New York City, Kushner obtained an undergraduate degree from Columbia University, where he got involved in protests against apartheid in South Africa. He said he chose the University of Minnesota Law School because he liked Minneapolis. "It had a lot of what a big city has to offer without being a big city," he said.

He also made up his mind he was not going to be a typical attorney. "I thought it would be more beneficial to challenge injustice than to just make money," he said. Kushner set up office space in Leventhal's offices, paying rent by doing work for him.

Leventhal, 69, says that in addition to being an excellent researcher, Kushner has an idealistic streak that reminds him of himself when he was younger. "He's very articulate," Leventhal says of Kushner, adding mischievously, "He's anything but a zombie."

In the early 1990s, Kushner represented A.C. Ford, a Vice Lords gang leader convicted of planning the 1992 murder of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf. Ford got 40 years in prison, and after the trial Kushner continued to assert Ford's innocence. "I still lose sleep over it," he says.

Kushner took on more protest cases and assumed a prominent role in the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, whose activist attorneys take a more political approach than the American Civil Liberties Union. "He's a hell of a lawyer," said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, who nonetheless acknowledges that his group approaches cases differently from the guild.

Less well known is Kushner's litigation over prisoner issues, filing suits on behalf of prisoners and their families. "He has been a real dependable advocate, someone we can call on a moment's notice," says Nathaniel Khaliq, president of the St. Paul NAACP.

Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this story. Randy Furst • 612-673-7382