Why we all bear responsibility for the torture of black, brown and poor people -- at home and abroad

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The existence of the Homan Square police facility on Chicago's west side was not in itself a secret. It's listed on precinct lists; a drab website about the area's history notes, "Homan Square Police Facility has increased safety, and offers a boost to local merchants."


So when the Guardian last week revealed that Chicago cops have been operating a secret black site at Homan Square – a site where actions reminiscent of the CIA's treatment of purported terror suspects abroad took place – it was particularly horrifying. Police have publicly maintained the property, while keeping the abuses behind its walls out of the public eye for many years. Guardian reporter Spencer Ackerman reported that detainees as young as 15 were beaten, shackled for hours and denied access to a lawyer at Homan Square. To be sure, we're not talking about waterboarding or the wholesale disappearance of prisoners for years. But we are talking about serious violations of constitutional rights, usually against poor black and brown detainees.

The abuse of detainees is no less horrible if carried out in an isolated prison north of Kabul or an abandoned warehouse in Chicago. There is, however, something especially disconcerting to know that this kind of activity has been hidden in plain site in a major US city. Among many Americans there's an unavoidable, if somewhat problematic, NIMBY (not in my backyard) sentiment: US soil is no place for extraordinary renditions.


But they do happen, and there are similarities between what takes place at home and abroad. Whether near or far, black, brown and poor people can be disappeared and mistreated — essentially dehumanized — for years without public attention.

Of course, the existence of brutal interrogations in secret prisons, wherever they occur, cannot be blamed on the public turning a blind eye. This is a story about abuse and the violation of human rights. But we must reflect on the fact that such abuses have consistently been meted out to individuals considered dispensable or contemptible. In light of the revelation that for many years certain arrestees in Chicago were denied access to lawyers, the question of who gets to be disappeared is all-important.

"Homan Square – said to house military-style vehicles, interrogation cells and even a cage – trains its focus on Americans, most often poor, black and brown," wrote Ackerman. This domestic black site, then, is yet another example of how justice can be denied to poor, non-white communities. And it shows that this can continue without note for so long precisely because the voices of these communities so rarely occupy the center of mainstream media consciousness.

The Chicago police department is to blame for concealing the unconstitutional practices behind Homan Square's walls. As with CIA black sites, these are secrets violently defended by the institutions that keep them. Yet the conditions that allow this sort of abuse to continue without great public note are undeniably tied to the socio-economic and political standing of the victims. After 9/11, a sea of blind eyes turned away from the way in which alleged terror suspects were tortured and disappeared by the CIA, as well as governments worldwide that allowed black sites to covertly operate.


Chicago policing has a storied history of abusing black men. Former Chicago police commander, John Burge, appointed in 1972, oversaw the torture of over 100 black men over the course of a decade to extract confessions. He served four and a half years in prison, but has been allowed to collect a pension from the city. Richard Zuley, a former Chicago detective who later went to work as an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay, was notorious for abusing, threatening and torturing non-white suspects during his CPD tenure from 1977 to 2001.

As long ago as 1959, the ACLU of Illinois published a study entitled "Secret Detention by the Chicago Police." The document exposed practices including removing arrest suspects from the reach of attorneys for many hours, and beating arrestees to elicit confessions. When decades pass and the same abuses continue, there's no room to blame bad apple police. This is a systematic issue, woven tightly into the fabric of Chicago policing, which has gone unaddressed all too long.


Notorious cop codes of silence explain why officers have not spoken out from behind the thin but impenetrable blue line. And it is to the credit of reporters like Ackerman, but also the commitment of those fiercely asserting nationwide that Black Lives Matter, that tacit tolerance of police violence against people of color is being challenged with righteous fury today.

I'm not suggesting that the existence of black sites and their ghastly operations were easy for the public to learn about. But we must at least ask ourselves, prodding whatever collective conscience we might have, about how much US paranoia over Islam enabled systematic torture and illegal rendition to go unscrutinized for years.


The story of a Chicago black site is not only a lesson in the dangers of the creeping militarization of domestic policing. If the ability to disappear suspects is emblematic of War on Terror tactics, then Homan Square is not an example of how the boundless war crept onto US soil. Rather, it illustrates how this sort of war was being waged in America long before 9/11 by the police and against poor people of color. It should not have taken so long for society's privileged to recognize that a war is going on in our midst. But to call it a war between the police and America's poor and black suggests two sides in conflict with equal footing. It is more appropriate to call it a decades long assault.

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