† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Torture, Lies, and Denial
by Kay Whitlock
It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s an American problem. It’s our problem. We bear some measure of responsibility for it because it goes forward in our names, by public and private actors and institutions who comprise much of the mainstream of civic life.
Torture isn’t perpetrated by rogue actors and “bad apples.” It is foundational to American policing, prisons, and military action.
Many people seek to justify torture, or the euphemisms that try to disguise its nature: “enhanced interrogation” and “special methods of questioning.” Others – most people – simply deny its existence or, if made uncomfortably aware of it, make frantic efforts to explain it away and cover up complicity in its authorization, administration, and human, ethical, and spiritual impact.
Politicians won’t make it stop. Professional advocates won’t make it stop. Religious leaders won’t make it stop. It can’t be arrested and jailed away; that’s part of the same mentality that produced it. Torture will only stop if we make it stop, through visionary as well as practical forms of movement building and community organizing that build unstoppable momentum, linking growing numbers of people across myriad constituencies and issues.
In light of several notable revelations concerning torture, Criminal Injustice is reprising an earlier post, with this new introduction.
On May 6, 2015, following decades of organizing, litigation, and journalism and, more recently, a concerted six-month grassroots campaign, the Chicago City Council passed an unprecedented reparations package for survivors of torture, administered by former Chicago Police Department commander Jon Burge and his “midnight crew” of detectives, and survivors’ families.
CI’s gratitude for this landmark victory goes to those who led the campaign –Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, Project NIA, We Charge Genocide, and Amnesty International – USA, as well as to everyone who actively supported it. We also express gratitude and respect to the People’s Law Office, especially Joey Mogul and Flint Taylor, for more than a quarter century of tireless effort to bring the torture of over 110 African American men and women to light and obtain justice.
The reparations package includes a formal apology for the torture; specialized counseling services to the Burge torture survivors and their family members on the South Side; free enrollment and job training in City Colleges for survivors and family members (including grandchildren) as well as prioritized access to other City programs, including help with housing, transportation and senior care; a history lesson about the Burge torture cases taught in Chicago Public schools to 8th and 10th graders; and the construction of a permanent public memorial to the survivors. It also sets aside $5.5 million for a Reparations Fund for Burge Torture Victims that will allow those still living to receive some measure of financial compensation for the torture they endured.
For decades, many Chicago officials tried to minimize awareness of this violence and the extent of its harm. It is now our job to ensure that the Rahm Emmanuel and subsequent administrations are never permitted to view this package as a “fine” to be paid and forgotten while business as usual, in the form of police violence, continues. May this tangible acknowledgment serve to inspire us all to greater activism, to more urgent and sustained demands for accountability for violence administered not only by the state but with the active participation of professional individuals and organizations and corporations who reap benefits from their involvement.
And, as Joey Mogul rightly points out, “While the reparations for Burge survivors focus on a finite set of particularly egregious cases, they can serve as a model for what reparations might look like for systemic police abuse plaguing cities across the nation.”
Even as the police torture reparations victory was in the making in Chicago, it was confirmed through new disclosures of email communication that the prestigious American Psychological Association (APA) had secretly worked to bolster “a legal and ethical justification” for the post-9/11 “war on terror.” The APA, too has tried to deny this. But psychologists and other health care professionals play essential roles in implementing and providing cover for torture.
And torture was center stage in a court room in Boston, not under interrogation, but rather, as rationale for denying the death penalty. The “defense” attorneys for now convicted Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev opened their arguments in the penalty phase with an appeal to the jury for sentencing to a “punishment worse than death.” Tsarnaev would spend his life, they said, buried alive in the ADX Supermax at Florence, Colorado. His life should be spared, they argued, so he could be sentenced instead to the slow motion torture of this “living hell.”
Of course, this is the subtext of some resistance to capital punishment – it isn’t punishment enough. And yes, the defense in its’ contradictory everything but the kitchen sink approach to the penalty phase did call Sister Helen Prejean at last as a witness for mercy.
But the first and central defense argument was an open call to torture. And nothing can ever remove that stain.