Thursday, July 20, 2006

Police Brutality in Chicago

The tepidly worded report from the special investigators looking into allegations of police torture on Chicago’s South Side during the 1970s and 1980s came out yesterday to no one’s satisfaction. It’s too wishy washy to satisfy victim advocates. There is a stunning lack of both verbal and prosecutorial imagination in the report. Is there really no way that any legal action can be taken against Burge and the others named in the report? I don’t pay a lot of taxes, but it is somewhat painful to know that $40,000 of Chicago taxpayer dollars goes to support a portly bachelor living in Florida who is likely guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” (the report’s wording) of torture and negligence in at least 3 cases. In some cases, prosecutorial imagination is necessary to at least provide the veneer of justice done. As Eric Zorn says in the Tribune this morning: “[The reports] fails as an effort to "put this to rest," as Boyle said the report had done. Without the language of anger, regret and even shame to surround the voluminous facts, the stain remains.”

This stain is not just the emotional and physical effects on the individuals directly affected by the torture. The details of these cases were long taken as fact in the African-American community and have contributed to a deep mistrust of the police and public officials in the community. I can’t tell you how many times my African-American former gang member co-workers have told groups or individuals that the gang life is just an extension of the corrupt politics of the city of Chicago. The difference is that they have the veneer of legality and don’t get their hands dirty.

But it goes deeper than that. Underneath it all is a disturbing answer to the question, why haven’t African-Americans “made it” in American society and why is the ‘hood so bad? Neighborhoods like the Woodlawn, Washington Park and Englewood communities that surround my home were once middle class white neighborhoods. African-Americans “moved in” and the neighborhoods “went downhill.” There exist a multiplicity of historical reasons for why this happened, but the general answers in the body politic today are welfare dependency and “culture.” A variant of this question, why is the Latino community in Chicago so organized, mobilized, active and led by strong leaders while the African American community is not has preoccupied us in the McCormick Tribune Fellows Program.

Answers like culture, welfare dependency, or “sell-out leaders” are ultimately dissatisfying because they do not pass the “Archie Bunker test.” A plausible answer would look to African American communities in the early 1970s before the scourge of crack hit the streets. These communities (including those in CHA housing projects) were organized, mobilized, active and led by strong leaders. One by one those leaders (like Fred Hampton) were killed, marginalized, or co-opted by the machine. Efforts to organize and create change were resisted strongly by the powers that be in City Hall. White politicians did everything they could to steer city funds to their wards at the expense of black ones. And the police were brutalizing young black men. Top it off with Harold Washington’s untimely death in office and you have the recipe for disillusionment and nihilism.

You can’t analyze the current situation of the inner city or propose solutions without dealing with this reality. It’s not something people can just “get over.” Little about how Chicago or America has treated its ex-slaves engenders hope or trust.

Links to some of the coverage:



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