US sanctioned torture is one of the pressing human rights issues of our time. I very much admire and am grateful for the moral vigilance with which some are responding to this administration's attack on democracy and human rights in its war on terror. Yet I also wish for a day when there is comparable popular awareness of and outrage about the long standing, institutionalized human rights abuses that take place within US borders. The most recent example of the latter to come my way was in Salim Muwakkil's latest article in In These Times:
The latest domestic example is Chicago, where for nearly two decades (from 1973 to 1991) the police department virtually condoned the torture of more than 100 black criminal suspects. Those illegal techniques led to the wrongful conviction of dozens of black men, and even prompted Amnesty International in 1990 to call for an inquiry into police torture in the city.
To be fair, Chicago cops did not widely practice these torture techniques. Investigators found that police district Area 2 was the focal point, and that police commander Jon Burge was the primary culprit. The city eventually fired Burge for his illegal interrogation techniques, but he has paid no legal price. His former colleagues periodically display continued support for him; some cops attempted to enter a pro-Burge float into the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Community outrage sank that float.
Even after former Illinois governor George Ryan granted four death row inmates pardons once he concluded their confessions were tortured from them by Burge and his men, Chicago officials failed to prosecute. The curious reluctance of elected officials to act on the Burge case prompted a Cook County Court judge to appoint a special prosecutor. But after two years of investigating, special prosecutor Edward Egan has done little but complain about police officers’ refusal to testify against colleagues. In early December, however, Egan granted immunity to three officers connected to Burge, and observers note it may mark a turning point in the probe.
Though I tend to feel disappointed that much of the white, middle class segment of the left does not sustain its attention on the human rights abuses at home that are part of the legacy of US racism, it may be that current, widespread concern about extraordinary rendition and torture has provided the leverage that was needed to move the investigation of the Chicago case forward.
Egan’s renewed attention in the case might well have been provoked by an October 14 hearing in Washington D.C., in which a group of Chicago lawyers and two Illinois Congress members brought the Burge case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is the human rights arm of the Organization of American States. Frustrated with Egan’s slow pace, an aggregation of community and human rights activists petitioned the international group for a hearing on police torture and the failure to prosecute Burge and his men.
“By taking this issue outside the boundaries of the United States, we thought we could bring a broader focus on the issues of police torture within the United States,” says Stan Willis, a Chicago attorney/activist who was among those presenting the case to the international group. Current headlines about far-flung CIA torture chambers, the Bush administration’s opposition to Sen. John McCain’s anti-torture legislation, and the U.S. refusal to allow U.N. human rights monitors one-to-one interviews with prisoners at Guantanamo Bay also offered an optimal opportunity to put Chicago torture in the global spotlight.
Still, it is important to emphasize the objectives of people like Stan Willis, one of the attorneys who presented the Chicago case to the international group:
“We also want to use this issue to inform people and mobilize them to fight the increasing damage being done to the African-American community by this nation’s criminal punishment system,” Willis explained. What human rights groups condemn as torturous treatment was long considered routine punishment for black Americans, he said, “just as black Americans have been subjected to racist terrorism for hundreds of years before terrorism became a global issue.”
The Chicago case is only a small start. Any one hear of Raymond Smoot? He was beaten to death by 25-30 correctional officers inside of the Baltimore City Intake. Here is his niece, Donnetta Kidd, telling some of the story:
On May 14, my uncle Raymond was beat to death by 25-30 correctional officers at approximately 6:32 in the evening. My uncle was kicked, stomped and beaten while he was handcuffed inside of his cell. He had blood coming out of every open hole. He had blood coming out of his eyes, and stuff stuck in his mouth, where he was bleeding so bad internally that blood was just gushing out of any hole that it could. His nose was clipped together with some kind of medical clips. He had bruises on his waist side, where profuse blood was draining out of him.
His eyes were purple, and the blood was just gushing out of his eyes. As the medical nurse continued to clean him up, more blood just kept pouring out of my uncle. They had to keep changing all the medical equipment that he had on him every five to 10 minutes because the blood was pouring out of the holes that they had created with the needles. He was just bleeding internally really, really bad, and it was just gushing out of his body.
To date, only three of the officers involved have been indicted. This is not a story that has gotten very far in the blogosphere.
In current coverage of torture outside the US, there is a lot of interest not just in the perpetrators who performed the acts of torture, but in who authorized it and why was it allowed to happen? Yes, all of the guilty police officers must pay the consequences for their actions, but the problem is not just racist police officers.
Few people are aware that the booking facility where Smoot was murdered, and the related Baltimore City Detention Center, are run by the State, not Baltimore City. In other words, the fate of the more than 100,000 people that are booked, and the more than 40,000 who are subsequently detained each year, lies largely in the hands of State actors. Yet, because of their location in downtown Baltimore, booking facility and detention center issues are treated merely as “Baltimore City problems” not worthy of broader State attention by policymakers. At the same time, the Mayor and other Baltimore City leaders sometimes view these institutions as out of their hands and play the role of mere bystanders as the fate of their community is largely determined from afar.
This disconnect contributes to a leadership vacuum where problems at these institutions are swept under the rug and largely ignored until they reach crisis proportions and finally receive public attention. In the case of Mr. Smoot, it is painfully obvious that no one has ensured that correctional officers receive and follow adequate training; it is also likely that such officers are spread too thin in light of the clear failure to reduce the severe overcrowding that has plagued the booking facility for years. Finally, the brutality involved raises concerns about whether applicants for these positions are adequately screened and whether there is a commitment to hiring the right people for the job.
Sadly, this leadership vacuum also means that Mr. Smoot’s tragic death is not an isolated incident, but simply one more example of the multitude of related problems that plague these facilities and negatively impact the community. Indeed, Mr. Smoot’s death is outrageous in its brutality, but it is not unusual; the State’s own records show that more than one person dies each month at the booking facility and jail.
The racism of individuals in power, who feel no obligation to deal with these problems, creates situations where 25-30 racist corrections officers can let loose on a Black man in handcuffs. In a system with good policies and clear lines of accountability, the police force may still include numerous racists, but there will be no opportunity for them to organize orgies of violence.