Bernardine Dohrn walks in Leonard Peltier’s shoes on the 39th anniversary of his unjust incarceration in federal prison.
FREE Leonard Peltier!
Bernardine Dohrn walks in Leonard Peltier’s shoes on the 39th anniversary of his unjust incarceration in federal prison.
Saw the chilling and powerful “Death and the Maiden” at Victory Garden Theater last night, followed by an inspiring conversation with Chicago torture survivors and anti-torture activists and lawyers. Please see it, and also join the movement for reparations: change.org/petitions/pass-the-ordinance-seeking-reparations-for-the-chicago-police-torture-survivors
I was inspired to re-read the following written in 2008 by Bernardine Dohrn from our book Race Course: Against White Supremacy, but for the latest go to peopleslawoffice.com:
In 1969, a young man named Jon Burge returned to Chicago from military service in Viet Nam. Part of his assignment in Viet Nam was to guard and accompany detainees who were interrogated as suspected Viet Cong guerrillas at Dong Tam base, south of
Saigon. Army records show that 1,507 detainees were interrogated in the three-month period starting November 1, 1968, when Sergeant Burge was assigned to the Ninth Military Police Company of the Ninth Infantry Division. Back in Chicago, he joined the Chicago Police Department in 1970, and was assigned to Area Two, a police station on Chicago’s south side. Over a period of twenty years, as is now widely acknowledged, a group of white police officers engaged in the routine torture of more than one hundred
African American suspects at Area Two stationhouse. The torture methods included electrically shocking suspects’ testicles, tongues, and ears (using a “black box” from Vietnam and cattle prods), burning suspects by shackling them to boiling radiators, and
putting lit cigarettes on their arms, legs, and chests, suffocating them with typewriter covers, forcing gun barrels into their mouths to simulate mock executions, and depriving them of water, food, and sleep. All of the victims were African American men. More than thirty-five years later, not a single person has been indicted for these
crimes—a pattern of total impunity.
For the past three years, I’ve had the distressing but dynamic experience of teaching a law school seminar on torture. Simultaneously, I’ve had the good fortune of participating in the Chicago Coalition Against Police Torture with a large circle of
activists who will not remain silent. In fact, the most recent report from the intrepid coalition of community activists, lawyers, and human rights organizers documents that the taxpayers in the City of Chicago and Cook County have spent some $6 million to defend Jon Burge and his cohort, and up to $45 million to settle wrongful conviction civil rights claims dating from the current Mayor Richard J. Daley’s time as state’s attorney, plus an estimated $20 million in legal fees for those cases. Taxpayers footed the $7 million bill for an investigation by special prosecutors that took over three years
to complete. Their 292-page report found “beyond a reasonable doubt” that numerous defendants had been tortured, but concluded that “the statute of limitations bars any prosecution of any officers.”
Another $20 million is part of a settlement by the city of Chicago on torture claims by Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Leroy Orange, and Aaron Patterson, four men who served a total of seventy years on death row in Illinois for crimes they did not commit. They were convicted and sentenced to death by prosecutors under then State’s
Attorney Daley, based on false confessions extracted through torture. These four men were pardoned (based on innocence) and fully exonerated in 2003. They are among nine innocent Illinois men sentenced to death and two dozen others sentenced to prison
for crimes they did not commit during this period. Some twenty men remain in prison based in part on evidence obtained under torture from the white officers of the Area Two police station.
The People’s Law Office’s Flint Taylor, civil rights attorney Standish Willis, and clinical law professor Locke Bowman, who together fought for justice for the Burge torture victims, their families, and their community, show no signs of slowing down. In the
summer of 2007, the Cook County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to support making torture a new crime as defined by international law, without a statute of limitations; to initiate new hearings for the twenty-six Chicago police torture victims who remain incarcerated; and to support any action taken by the U.S. attorney to
investigate and prosecute crimes of torture by the Chicago police. As a result of a resolution signed by twenty-six of the fifty Chicago aldermen, the Police and Fire Committee of the Council held a well-publicized open hearing on July 2, 2007, to examine the failures of the special prosecutors’ investigation and to explore remedies
that the council can take with regard to Jon Burge and the police torture scandal. For the mayor and the current state’s attorney, this is the case that just will not go away.
Not until 1993 was Jon Burge fired from the Chicago police force. He lives today in Florida, with a full police pension, on his boat called Vigilante. The torture of one hundred twenty-five Black men from 1973–1993 has, to date, only required him to return to Chicago, to take the Fifth Amendment in depositions, and to face demonstrators.
In 2005, after receiving no satisfaction from local or federal authorities, the Chicago Coalition Against Police Torture decided to go international. We brought torture victims and community members to the Inter-American Commission on Human
Rights of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C., to ask the Commission to hold hearings in Chicago on the blatant violations of The Organization of American States charter, and to bring the Special Rapporteur on Racial Discrimination in the Americas to Chicago to investigate. In the spring of 2006, the
coalition participated in a shadow report to the UN Committee on Torture in Geneva, which was holding hearings based on a report by the U.S. State Department on their compliance with the Convention Against Torture (CAT). The committee was stunned to learn about the well-documented cases of police torture of African American men in Chicago. The CAT committee’s final report includes a highly critical section on the Chicago Area Two torture cases, smack between their responses to the U.S. government about torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. A month later, Joey Mogul
presented the Burge torture cases to the UN Human Rights Committee, again before a substantial delegation of U.S. State Department officials, again with an official demand that the U.S. government explain the absence of prosecutions for documented
torture against Black men in Chicago.
These allegations of police torture were no secret. They circulated in the African American community for years, and by the late 1980s everyone who practiced in criminal court was aware of the tortured confessions and open secret of racist punishment and pain being used and defended by officials up the chain of command. A book was written (Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People by John Conroy, 2000), a documentary film was made (The End of the Nightstick, directed by Peter Kuttner, 1993), Amnesty International issued a report on the cases (1991), and there have been thousands of
newspaper reports about the cases, the victims, and the perpetrators.
On October 21, 2008, former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, 60 was arrested by FBI agents at his home on Florida on two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury for allegedly lying about whether he and other officers under his
command participated in torture and physical abuse of one or more suspects in police custody, dating back to the 1980s. He faces prosecution in federal court in Chicago, with a maximum penalty of twenty years for each count of obstruction of justice and
five years for perjury. Prosecutors noted that the investigation is continuing.
So the war in Viet Nam did come home—in a damaged and deranged manner—as will the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the so-called War on Terror. African American men experienced the full force of “collateral” damage through the practices of police
interrogation techniques, trials using tortured confessions as evidence, and disappearances into the prison industrial complex. One of the consequences of the returning troops and military personnel and private security forces to the U.S. will be the domestication of new violent technologies and new brutalizing techniques that will again be used by law enforcement at home. Enhanced interrogation, coercive interrogation, “fear up harsh,” cover-up and secrecy, and legal impunity will migrate back, whether or not we call these practices torture or “just” cruel, inhuman, and
degrading treatment or punishment. In the Chicago Area Two police torture cases, no one can avoid the documented evidence of systemic, racist torture directed solely against the Black community over two decades. We can contemplate the level of harm to individuals. We can imagine the impact on family members and on an entire community. We can stand in awe at their humanity and survival. We can see the resonance with historic examples of white domination and terror. We can decide not to be innocent, to insist on seeing and on official accountability. We can surely address
the question of justice and reparations.
You can always count on the war-mongers: John McCain, who’s been wrong about every foreign policy issue for 50 years, is still wheeled out to offer his sage advice on what the US should do next, and it’s always a variation on a theme, and a badly broken record: Bomb! Bomb! Bomb! Dick Cheney, of course. Lindsey Graham. Henry Kissinger—the biggest killer of them all. Wrong side of humanity, wrong side of history, but always in the thick of things, spinning lies, re-writing the record, spreading fear and hatred in the hope of one more war, and one more after that. And always enabled by the Talking Heads and Opinionators from the right, center, and “left”—that fatally narrow band considered (mainly by itself) to be the American political spectrum.
The liberals are entirely predictable as well: “No one could have foreseen this rapid descent into sectarian war!” (Sorry folks, every serious scholar and analyst predicted this would be the eventual result of a US invasion way back in 2003—look it up, starting with Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University); “Most people thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.” (Nope—look that up to); “Prime Minister al-Maliki is the problem—not multicultural or inclusive enough. We did our best, but our client just wasn’t up to it.” (Ah yes! Always).
We look in the mirror and see brave and selfless heroes, peace-loving and well-intentioned, and wherever we go on our missions of peace and love—Viet Nam, Cambodia, Panama, Grenada, Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, on and on—the people for some reason resent our beneficent presence, and American soldiers on the ground say they can’t tell their friends from their enemies. We may break a lot of stuff, but we’re mainly on a mission of repair, to save and civilize the good down-trodden natives. We are wonderful, always, and always the Puppet just can’t build on the wonderful work we’ve done and get the job done.
Blame the Brown Guy!
My brother Rick was one of the heroes of the American war against Viet Nam—he helped to organize and articulate war resistance in his unit, refused to kill people or to be killed in pursuit of the rulers’ imperial dreams, and deserted the US Army, spending the next decade on the run and in active resistance to war and racism. Unlike folks like John McCain who committed war crimes every day, dropping bombs on civilians, ruining farmland and infrastructure and murdering farmers and workers from the air, Rick stood for peace and justice.
A few years ago a group of German radicals and peace activists created a huge depiction of a soldier in profile, running hard as his helmet and rifle are flying away from him, and called it The Monument to the Unknown Deserter. They displayed their monument from town to town and city to city all over the country. We need that kind of sentiment—that monument—here, now more than ever.
If Bowe Bergdahl went AWOL, becoming one of millions of deserters throughout history, we should embrace that action on his part. We should stand up visibly, noisily, and salute the courage not to fight.
High-stakes, standardized testing is to learning as:
a). memorizing a flight manual is to flying
b). watching Hawaii Five-O is to doing detective work
c). exchanging marriage vows is to a successful marriage
d). reading Gray’s Anatomy is to practicing surgery
e). singing the national anthem is to good citizenship
f). all of the above
On June 10, 2014, Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that current teacher tenure laws deprive students of their right to an education under California’s constitution.Vergara v. Californiawas cast as a group of poor kids suing the state to get rid of bad teachers under the banner of an advocacy group called Students Matter, a not-for-profit founded by Silicon Valley billionaire David Welch in order to bankroll his multimillion dollar lawsuit.
Vergara was immediately hailed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as an opportunity and “a mandate to fix these problems.” Give Arne Duncan credit for consistency: he called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” because it swept the slate clean and folks could just start over (never mind those Black bodies piled in the corner), and in 2010 he applauded the school board in Central Falls, RI, the most densely populated and one of the poorest cities in the state, for firing every teacher, guidance counselor, and the principal at the high school because of poor performance. “This is hard work and these are tough decisions,” Duncan said at the time. “But students only have one chance for an education, and when schools continue to struggle we have a collective obligation to take action.”
Breitbart.com called the California decision a “conservative’s dream-come-true victory” over the unions, and cheered Welch and his supporters as “a long-time coalition of educational free-market supporters and privatization philanthropists, including the Gates Foundation, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad and Walmart’s Walton Family Foundation.” Karen Lewis, fiery leader of the Chicago Teachers Union, responded that the ruling had “the moguls drinking champagne.”
The link to Brown v. Board of Education was explicit in Judge Treu’s decision as well as in aneditorial in the liberal New York Times which acknowledged somewhat grudgingly that teachers deserve “reasonable due process rights,” but saluted the decision for opening “a new chapter in the equal education struggle.”
There’s trouble in every direction.
Because Judge Treu wrapped his judgment in it, let’s start with Brown, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine and heralded the legal termination of racially segregated schools—it’s become an icon in the popular story America tells itself about its inevitable upward trajectory. On October 26, 1992, the US Congress designated Monroe Elementary School, one of the segregated Black schools in Topeka, Kansas, a National Historic Site because of its significance in the famous case, and the National Archives include several documents from the case in its digital classroom.
Brown occurred in the wake of World War II, in the wash of that reenergized sense of freedom. The decision followed incessant and increasingly intense demands by African Americans that the country live up to the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment. And, importantly, Brown coincided with clear white interests that had nothing to do with Black well-being: avoiding a revolution led and defined by subjugated African Americans; transforming the feudal South and integrating it into a repositioned capitalist juggernaut; removing a blatant and embarrassing fact of American life that was being effectively wielded against the US in the escalating Cold War. White power needed Brown—but only a bit of Brown.
Brown was, importantly, the result of relentless action and activism from below—whenever I read an account that begins with something like, “As a result of Brown, America experienced a wave of activism for justice…,” I want to offer an amendment: “As a result of a wave of activism for justice, America got Brown…”
In any case the promise of Brown was not simply about ending segregation in public schools; the promise, rather, rested on a profoundly democratic aspiration—that all individuals will receive equal education and opportunity, and that each will be afforded full dignity and equal respect. The most radical possibilities of Brown are that the country might recognize Black people’s full humanity, their complete membership in the nation. Ralph Ellison wrote at the time that “the court has found in our favor and recognized our human psychological complexity and citizenship and another battle of the Civil War has been won.” Another battle won, perhaps, but not the last.
Brown embodies a fundamental, even a fatal, flaw that runs deep in the American racial narrative. The argument in the case turns on the specific harm suffered by Black children and the feelings of inferiority that are a result of segregation, rather than the despicable, immoral, and destructive system of white supremacy itself. Black people—not racism—were the acknowledged concern; Black pathology, however, not white privilege became the focus of action. And the institutions of white supremacy live on: mass incarceration and massive school closings in Black communities, home foreclosures which disproportionately erase Black wealth and the gutting of voting rights for Black people. On and on and on.
And so Brown, the widely celebrated and lofty statement of principle, was followed immediately by its lesser-known brother, the betrayer and assassin, Brown II, the implementation, or remedy phase, and here again—consistent with the long tradition of all things racial—the remedy fit neither the crime nor the injury. In fact Brown II gave the local school districts, the parties defeated in Brown, the power and responsibility to construct the solution—to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” The fox—far from being banished from the hen house—was given the only set of keys.
“With all deliberate speed” turned out to mean “never.” The activity in the courts over the decades following Brown went decidedly south: Racially isolated Black communities were denied the right to draw students from adjoining white suburbs; children were denied the right to equal school funding; the concept of “neighborhood school” was reinforced and reified even if the result was re-segregation. School segregation is alive and well, more firmly entrenched than ever, and each year schools are more racially divided.
Monroe Elementary—that iconic temple in Topeka elevated as a National Historic
President Obama is faced with a decision: Does he double down on Bush’s catastrophic decision 12 years ago to invade Iraq, one of the most foolish and costly decisions by a president? Or does he do what he promised as a candidate for president in 2008, and finally end the American occupation of Iraq?
Join me in telling President Obama that it’s time to end American intervention in Iraq.
Grace Lee Boggs will be 99 years old later this month, and I’ll be in Detroit for her birthday party.
Her 95th was a noisy intergenerational riot, and I’m expecting nothing less than an uprising this time around. Grace goes on and on, and she inspires and challenges me to do the same.
To celebrate her 99th, get the dazzling documentary, “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” by the young film-maker Grace Lee. The documentarian Grace was filming “The Grace Lee Project,” a collection of interviews across the land with everyone she could find who shared her name. The idea was cool: show the vast range and diversity of Asian-American women simply by following this one thin thread. And then she met the wondrous revolutionary Grace, and a whole new film project was launched.
Grace Lee Boggs has one of the most interesting minds you will ever encounter. She is always restless, always awakening and rethinking, forever astonished and moved to act, never standing still or entirely satisfied. Even at 98 she’s the most forward-looking person in any room she walks in to. She’s a great believer in the power of the unfinished conversation—she loves the unscripted, surprising ideas that percolate in-between when we speak with the hope of being heard, and listen with the possibility of being changed. Since every idea contains its opposite and nothing is fixed or final, she dives into dialogue with unmatched fervor. It’s a sight to behold, and a gift to participate.
Grace wears a t-shirt these days that reads: [r]evolution. She says that we must work for revolution, but not in any old stereotypically scripted way. We must fight for revolution, yes, a huge transformation of all that is before us, and we must embrace evolution—becoming new men and new women capable and worthy of the changes we envision and struggle toward.
Grace challenges us to grapple with the big questions: What does it mean to be human in the 21st Century? How will we grow our souls? Who will we choose to be in a world not of our choosing? What can we imagine and how will we get there? What time is it on the clock of the world?
Happy Birthday, Grace!!
See: “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs”