Chicago’s mayoral election may look like a local event, and the media mostly cover it as a local event, but the presence of a large, diverse, and energized opposition demanding change on basic issues of fairness and justice gives the city’s local result a potentially important, totemic meaning for the country. The winner of the April 7 runoff election may signify whether peaceful change is possible, or whether the suffocating status quo will grow more stifling.
There is another way of gauging the April vote: is Chicago yet ready to reject the police state practices of its local government? Is Chicago ready to reject a mayor who seems content to allow police state behavior to go unexamined and unpunished? Will Chicago be where a majority of Americans finally confront the nationwide plague of police hate and violence that makes the term “American justice” an oxymoron?
The current mayor since 2011, the arrogant and ineffective Rahm Emanuel, has catered to his rich folks base (with “the actions of a mad king”). And he has treated the majority of Chicagoans with destructive disdain, whether he’s closing their schools, attacking teachers and other public employees, or ignoring police brutality and killing. (As a Congressman in 2002, Emanuel supported the Iraq War right out of the box.) He is endorsed by major Chicago media that laud his “significant accomplishments,” but they can’t seem to name any. His record is mixed.
Given the preening self-satisfaction of the incumbent pugnacious bully, given the elitist priorities and anti-populist destructiveness of this Clinton-Obama Democrat, the best result for the national Democratic Party – and for the country – would be the clear rejection of regressive, right wing Democrat Rahm Emanuel for a second term as mayor. Emanuel’s defeat could mean the end of almost 30 years of corporate Democrats (including Richard M. Daley, 1989-2011) running Chicago for the 1% and driving the city into heavy debt that the 99% will be expected to pay.
Chicagestapo story breaks, police lie, everyone else starts stonewalling
Chicago is already paying tens of millions of dollars in restitution to victims of the Chicago Police Department over the past four decades (over $50 million paid in 2014 alone). On election day, February 24, Chicago police state tactics became a clear and present issue in the current election, when the Guardian newspaper published a report about one of the city’s darker open secrets, the Homan Square holding facility that has functioned as a municipal black site for torture and interrogation for years.
In its essence, the story is simple and predictable: the Chicago police have a secure facility where they can take prisoners and hold them more or less indefinitely, keeping no official record of their whereabouts, while treating them with torture techniques made familiar by their application to prisoners at Guantanamo. The Guardian story by Spencer Ackerman, a reliable reporter who used to work for Wired, is based on public records and the personal accounts of both victims and attorneys, none of whom hide behind anonymity. The report provides ample detail that can be independently verified by any responsible public official or investigator or other news organization.
Despite the long Chicago police history of chronic brutality, the department promptly went into denial mode, issuing an unsigned, so-called “fact sheet” that is free of much relevant fact. Beyond that dishonest document, police officials refused to comment. Much of the police “defense” turns on the characterization by witnesses (not by Guardian reporters) of “what lawyers say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site,” which it clearly is, based on current evidence.
Homan Square is a large, well-guarded warehouse secure from scrutiny
Homan Square used to be a Sears, Roebuck warehouse complex built in 1904, on a 40-plus acre site, providing 3.3 million square feet of floor space. In 1978, after Sears moved out, 16 acres of the site became a National Historic Landmark and the rest was re-developed in a variety of ways. In 1999, the police took over part of the Sears complex, one four-story warehouse covering most of a city block. In other words, even this smaller piece of the Sears complex is a big building, as the police acknowledge, without saying just how big the Homan Square Facility is:
It serves a number of functions, some of which are sensitive and some of which are not, however it is not a secret facility. In fact, Homan Square is home to CPD’s Evidence and Recovered Property Section, which is open to the public…. Portions of the facility are sensitive. Homan Square is the base of operations for officers working undercover assignments…. Other sensitive units housed at the facility include the Bureau of Organized Crime (including the narcotics unit), the SWAT Unit, Evidence Technicians, and the CPD ballistics lab…. Homan Square contains several standard interview rooms. Most individuals interviewed at Homan Square are lower-level arrests from the Narcotics unit….
This is an exercise in non-denial denial. The police acknowledge some of what Homan Square contains, but there is no claim that this is all it contains. Most of the facility is “sensitive” and inaccessible to the public. Lawyers and reporters have been barred in recent weeks from entering the grounds. Homan Square also reportedly houses a large number of military vehicles and has plenty of space for a secret section in which to hold and interrogate persons of interest.
The police “fact sheet” claims that there are “always records of anyone who is arrested,” which leaves all the room in the world for the truth of the allegation that people have been held and tortured at Homan Square without ever being arrested (as described by Victoria Suter). Similarly, the assertion that “it is not a secret facility” can be true, since it does not deny that this “sensitive” facility may hide one of more secret sections. Defending themselves against brutality claims, police admit that a prisoner in custody died of a heroin overdose. How does that happen with competent policing?
The second and third pages of the “fact sheet” are even less relevant or persuasive. The second page consists of mostly unattributed opinion from friendly local news media (Tribune, Sun-Times, WBEZ). At least one of the police quotes reinforces the possibility that an actual, unconstitutional detention facility exists: “it’s an exaggeration to call it a ‘black site,’” according to one law professor – only an exaggeration?
It’s so much easier to disappear someone you haven’t arrested
The Guardian report makes consistent allegations supported by testimony that can be independently verified:
- that police take people into custody without arresting them;
- that police hold prisoners incommunicado, sometimes for days;
- that police deny prisoners their right to make a phone call;
- that police deny prisoners any contact with their lawyers;
- that police lie to lawyers about the whereabouts of their clients;
- that police keep prisoners shackled hand and foot.
Additionally, there are allegations of further torture including threats and brutality. Most of this behavior is prohibited by the constitution.
The third page of the police “fact sheet” comprises a detailed outline of Chicago police “arrest and interview procedures.” In other words, it is no answer whatsoever to allegations about the treatment of people who have not been arrested.
Mayor Emanuel, police officials, and others choose not to address the specifics of the Guardian report. They have been hiding behind this “fact sheet” charade of a defense, referring questioners to it as if it actually meant something. The Chicago Sun-Times and MSNBC (perhaps others) ran portions of the police “fact sheet” verbatim, as if the anonymous police assertions were an independent news story. As the Columbia Journalism Review noted a week after the Homan Square story broke, it “was huge on the internet – but not in Chicago media.” The Review did not go on to note that the Homan Square story was all but invisible in national mainstream media (Democracy NOW covered the story early and in depth). The Review also made a rookie mistake, attributing the “CIA black site” characterization to reporter Ackerman even though he was careful to attribute it to others.
Police lawlessness in Chicago is an old story – therefore it doesn’t matter?
Remember the Chicago police riot of 1968: it was sanctioned by then Mayor Richard J. Daley who shouted anti-Semitic insults at the Connecticut Senator who spoke out against the violent rampage of city cops against unarmed anti-war protestors. Chicago policing was not good before that, and it hasn’t improved appreciably since. Government in Chicago, as in so many other places, remains tolerant of illegal, racist, brutal, and sometimes lethal police behavior. That’s why it matters.
Rahm Emanuel has responded to the present “black site” report with denial and silence, mostly silence. Perhaps his only on-the-record comment on the Guardian report is: “That’s not true. We follow all the rules…. Everything’s done by the books.”
It’s not credible that he believes that. Emanuel knows full well that the Chicago police have sheltered its share of serial monsters, and may be sheltering others with its code of silence (that he has affirmed).
Emanuel is still dealing with the case of Chicago police detective Jon Burge who tortured suspects into false confessions for twenty years (1973-1993). Burge was dismissed in 1993. He was never charged criminally. Burge’s settlement with the city protected the mayor at the time from having to testify, perhaps embarrassingly, under oath. That mayor was Richard M. Daley (in office 1989-2011), the son of Richard J. Daley (in office 1955-1976). In 2010, Burge was convicted of perjury in civil suits and sentenced to 4-plus years in prison. He is now a free man, collecting his $3,000-a-month pension, thanks to a decision, apparently barred by statute, by Chicago’s Police Pension Board. Every other taxpayer gets to pay for his crimes through multi-million dollar settlements to his victims ($67 million to 18 victims, and counting) and legal fees. Emanuel has opposed establishing a fund to provide health care and job training to Chicago torture victims.
In 2013, when the city council approved $12.3 million in settlements to two victims, Mayor Emanuel’s comments were cold:
“This is a dark chapter on the history of the city of Chicago…. a stain on the city’s reputation…. I am sorry this happened…. Now let us now all move on.”
Or not, Emanuel is also dealing with the more recent case of Chicago police detective Richard Zuley whose possibly torture-induced convictions are also threatening to come back to haunt the city. Zuley was such a good Chicago torturer (1977-2007), that he went on loan as a Navy reserve lieutenant to Guantanamo where his torture techniques set the bar high for brutality. Zuley, his attorney, and the Chicago police have refused to answer questions from the Guardian.
Police brutality, torture, black sites still not election factor
Emanuel has never shown any inclination to take on the corrupt history of Chicago policing, even as its costs mount for a city in declining financial health. Other public figures, like the media, are also leaving the issue alone. There have been only a few, well-deserved calls for an investigation, especially one by the U.S. Justice Department (which so far has refused any comment).
Even Emanuel’s opponent in the April runoff, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, has only promised public comment. How hard can it be to condemn police torture in Chicago? The charges are many and easy to document and have a long history of turning out to be true. Last November, the United Nations Committee Against Torture issued a report on U.S. compliance with torture law that singled out Chicago police violence against young black and Latino people, as well as “excessive use of force” generally used by Chicago police.
Emanuel was expected to win the mayoral election in the first round, outspending his opponents roughly $15 million to $1.3 million. He also had President Obama’s endorsement. He won 45% of the low-turnout vote, with 55% preferring someone else (voting for three other candidates). Now the runoff is one-on-one and the polls (which overrated Emanuel in the first round) are showing him with a small lead or in a dead heat. He seems aware of his vulnerability, having released an apologetic ad saying he’s sorry he rubs people wrong and should maybe listen more and talk less.
Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is three years older than Emanuel (who is 56) and has a longer political career, all of it Illinois, most of it in Chicago. He is a current member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. He is an established progressive. He was an ally of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington (1983-1987). Garcia’s silence on Chicago police torture is somewhat mystifying, and likely only temporary.
Police: better than mere citizens, above accountability?
In 2012, Mayor Emanuel attempted to expunge a jury verdict that concluded that the Chicago police “code of silence” was a reality. The mayor backed a court motion to vacate the jury verdict and won the support of a woman who had been beaten by a cop, promising to pay her the $850,000 jury award even after the verdict was vacated. Emanuel effectively reached for a code of silence about the “code of silence,” hoping to protect future cops against the consequences of their own brutality. A federal judge rejected the ploy.
The police torture issue is as universal as it is local. The issue cuts deeply. Emanuel is already on the wrong side of it. Even as mild a position as a call for an investigation by the Justice Department would be difficult for traditional Democrats like Emanuel, Obama, Hilary Clinton, and all the rest of the don’t-prosecute-torturers crowd that has become the dominant, anti-democratic wing of the Democratic Party. The defeat of Rahm Emanuel would be at least a momentary check on the smart and soulless drift of the Democratic Party.
Rahm Emanuel is a particularly nasty piece of work as a political being. Why would anyone think it a good idea to be governed by a nasty piece of work? Have American voters learned nothing since 2000, when five nasty pieces of work on the Supreme Court imposed on us a whole nasty piece of work presidency that gave us endless war and debt for which we still pay dearly? Have American voters learned nothing since 2008 when we elected a not-so-nasty piece of work who promptly hired a nasty piece of work as his chief of staff, encouraging the nasty pieces of work in Congress to keep any good from happening – even closing Guantanamo – by any means possible? This collusion of nasty pieces of work prolongs the war crime of Guantanamo, one of America’s nastier pieces of work, preserved in perpetuity as a monument to the depravity of the nasty.
Is that really so hard to say in Chicago, or anywhere the nastiness won’t end if its not confronted?