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.