“Meeting a Man Like That, You Can’t Help Wanting to Do More”: A Visit With Political Prisoner Oscar López Rivera

Oscar López Rivera has served 34 years in US prisons for seditious conspiracy – in other words, for his commitment to the independence of Puerto Rico – though he wasn’t convicted of hurting or killing anyone. Since 1898, when the US militarily invaded and occupied Puerto Rico, there hasn’t been a single decade in which there hasn’t been anindependentista imprisoned. But it is unusual that López Rivera has served so many years – longer by far than any other Puerto Ricanindependentista in history, longer than his codefendants, longer than offenders convicted of violence and longer than the 27 years served by the world’s most renowned political prisoner, Nelson Mandela.

In a united voice, Puerto Rican society has called on President Obama to release López Rivera. This call has come from the current governor of Puerto Rico, who made a historic diplomatic visit to see him, from former governors, from the legislature, from the Puerto Rican Bar Association, from the archbishop and the entire ecumenical community, and from universities and artists and poets. Editorials from the island’s main daily newspaper have channeled this support into consistent, strong expression, calling López Rivera’s ongoing imprisonment “the symbol of a flagrant dishonor for his jailers and an affront to democracy that fails to respect human rights.”

Members of the Puerto Rican diaspora and others in the US have also joined this campaign for his release: The AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, American Civil Liberties Union, National Hispanic Bar Association and the National Lawyers Guild have all condemned the violation of his human rights. The international community has likewise embraced the call for his release, including the United Nations Decolonization Committee, the Non-Aligned Movement, the American Association of Jurists, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, regional Latin American organizations such as the Permanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America and the Latin American Council of Churches, as well as the presidents of several nations such as Uruguay, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

As part of this growing support for his release, New York attorneys Juan Cartagena and Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan accompanied me on a legal visit in November with López Rivera.

Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF (the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund), is no newcomer to understanding the violations of the rights of Puerto Ricans in the United States. His long legal career is distinguished by his work on the political representation of poor and marginalized communities – especially Puerto Rican and Latino communities. Bannan, a staff attorney at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, recently became the president of the National Lawyers Guild, the most progressive bar association in the United States, which was formed in 1937 as the first racially integrated bar association to advocate for the protection of constitutional, human and civil rights.

Although these two attorneys were already involved in the growing campaign for López Rivera’s release from prison, they wanted to meet this man whose resistance and integrity have become legendary. They were not disappointed.

“You do this work for so long, and then there are the momentous occasions,” Cartagena said. “I was in Vieques, [Puerto Rico,] when the Navy left. I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of being Puerto Rican. Meeting Oscar was like that.”

Although López is 72 years old, and passed more than 12 of his 34 years in solitary confinement at Marion and at ADX Florence, “he was gracious, smart, current on issues of the day,” Cartagena said. “His mind [was] fresh with things that happened to him as a kid. I can’t believe that someone who served 12 years in solitary has any kind of mind.”

Bannan remarked on “his knowledge and deep understanding of the world, of human nature, of events, or the interrelatedness and intersectionality of our lives and events, and what he intends to do with the rest of his life.” She added, “These 34 years aren’t what define him. His life and vision is so much bigger than those walls that hold him. That’s what he wanted to talk about.”

Two particular expressions uttered by López Rivera impacted them. For Cartagena, it was “tengo mucha esperanza, pero tengo una mochila llena de preocupaciones,” or “I have a lot of hope, but I also have a backpack full of preoccupations.” For Bannan, it was “la lucha sin amor se muere,” or “without love, the struggle dies.”

Bannan added that López Rivera’s book, Between Torture and Resistance, comes from this same deep place of love. She was moved when he recounted a story about learning how to treat farm animals as a child: He was taught that “our actions are a reflection of who we are, how we move through the world, how we treat each other, the most vulnerable among us.” She added, “His story is to try to sensitize us to our humanity.”

The attorneys’ last image of the political prisoner made a deep impression. Cartagena said that upon seeing López Rivera wave as he headed to exit the visiting room, he felt “the overwhelming sense of injustice … of my ability to leave and his inability to follow us. Of how he can describe the torture he went through in such a way that can only reflect his resiliency of surviving the torture and 34 years of resilience … In many ways he personifies resistance in so many levels.”

The visit gave them a sense of action and a sense of urgency. “What I got to live today brought me so much more committed to his release,” Bannan said. “I need to communicate that, so that he’s not just a worshiped figure. The reality of his confinement, waving to us as he went back in – the urgency of it somehow gets lost.”

Cartagena added, “In some ways we have to figure out a way that more people can see and hear what we just saw and heard. Only if we can get some media in there to broadcast the sound of his voice, his mannerisms. Everything about him, his humanity. Meeting a man like that, you can’t help wanting to do more.”

To learn more, read Dahr Jamail’s Truthout piece, “Oscar López Rivera: Will Obama Pardon This Political Prisoner?

This op-ed, written by PLO attorney Jan Susler, was originally published in Truthout on Monday, December 07, 2015.

The Black Panther Party and the “Undying Love for the People”

Starting with a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Stanley Nelson, Laurens Grant, Aljernon Tunsil, and Firelight Media’s made-for-PBS documentary on the history of the Black Panther Party has been touring the country. The feature length film—named, not without a touch of irony, The Black Panthers, Vanguard of the Revolution—has attracted large audiences, much acclaim, and some criticism, most notably from former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown, who called it “a two-dimensional palliative for white people and Negroes who are comfortable in America’s oppressive status quo.”

Nelson, Grant and Tunsil are African-American documentary filmmakers of note, having to their collective credit documentaries on Emmet Till, Freedom Summer, Jesse Owens and the Freedom Riders. In his director’s statement, Nelson describes his mission in making the film:

Seven years ago, I set out to tell the story of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, a little known history that hadn’t been told in its entirety. In particular, I wanted to offer a unique and engaging opportunity to examine a very complex moment in time that challenges the cold, oversimplified narrative of a Panther who is prone to violence and consumed with anger. Thoroughly examining the history of the Black Panther Party allowed me to sift through the fragmented perceptions and find the core driver of the movement: the Black Panther Party emerged out of a love for their people and a devotion to empowering them. This powerful display of the human spirit, rooted in heart, is what compelled me to communicate this story accurately.

Several powerful documentaries paved the way for Firelight’s film. In 1969, radical filmmakers Mike Gray and Howard Alk made a black-and-white 16 millimeter film called American Revolution II, which chronicled the Chicago Black Panther Party’s efforts in forging a Rainbow Coalition among white, Puerto Rican and African-American organizations.

During their filming, Gray and Alk were inspired by a 21-year-old messianic Black Panther Party leader, Chairman Fred Hampton, and set out making a sequel to American Revolution II. They shot some remarkable footage of Hampton and the Chicago Panthers, but before they had finished the film, Hampton was murdered in his bed, the victim of a conspiracy hatched as part of the FBI’s then-secret COINTELPRO program and executed by the Chicago police and the State’s Attorney of Cook County, Edward V. Hanrahan.

Summoned to the apartment to film the murder scene, Gray and Alk then transformed their film into The Murder of Fred Hampton, which powerfully proved Hanrahan’s claim that the Panthers shot it out with the police to be a bold-faced lie, and that the raid was in fact a pre-planned police murder. The movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, but was not widely viewed in this country. It was, however, seen in New York City by a young man named of Stanley Nelson.

In 1987, African-American film producer Henry Hampton’s series Eyes on the Prize aired on PBS. The six-part series documented the early civil rights struggle, and three years later, PBS aired Eyes on the Prize II. This eight-part sequel chronicled the evolution of the civil rights struggle during the last half of the 1960s and through the 1970s as it moved north, became radicalized while also entering the realm of electoral politics.

One episode, entitled “Power” and narrated by Julian Bond, described the rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland California and featured interviews with former national BPP leaders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. A few weeks later, Henry Hampton, his director, Terry Rockefeller, and their film company, Blackside, presented an episode called “A Nation of Laws?” In this episode, the filmmakers, armed with evidence unearthed by Fred Hampton’s lawyers over a decade of litigation, and the investigation conducted by Senator Frank Church’s Intelligence Committee, made out a compelling case that Fred Hampton was a charismatic young leader of a dynamic revolutionary organization who was the victim of a nationwide FBI conspiracy to destroy the Black Panther Party, a conspiracy that was part and parcel of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO.

This episode featured the only known interview with FBI informant-provocateur William O’Neal, who drew the floorplan that the police used in their murderous raid, and who received a $300 bonus for his integral role in the conspiracy. “A Nation of Laws?” also made an early link between police repression and the issue of mass incarceration through Angela Y. Davis, who provided a bridge from the Hampton assassination to the second half of the episode which documented the 1971 Attica prison rebellion and its bloody suppression, on orders from Governor Nelson Rockefeller, by the New York State Police.

Nearly two decades passed before another documentary treated the BPP, Fred Hampton and the FBI’s program to destroy the Party. This time it was BET, oddly enough, in its series called American Gangster.  In an hour-long episode that aired in 2008, BET crowned J. Edgar Hoover as an all-powerful law enforcement gangster and traced his decades-long war against all manner of black organizations and leaders. Honing in on COINTELPRO and its attempt to destroy Martin Luther King, the show condemned Hoover and the FBI as virulent racists who, after King’s assassination, joined hands with the newly elected Richard Nixon to continue its war on the black liberation movement, cloaked as a war on crime. The show climaxed by documenting in detail how the murder of Fred Hampton was COINTELRPO’s racist end game in the FBI’s plot to destroy the Black Panther Party.

So it was with this historical backdrop that Nelson anGrant set out to recount the short but complicated history of the Black Panther Party, starting in California in 1966 with the Party’s founding and its bursting on the national scene with its dramatic march into the California state legislature, legally holding guns while Governor Ronald Reagan was holding a press conference on the Capitol’s steps. Using remarkable black-and-white archival footage, the current voices of more than twenty former Panthers, a former FBI agent, several retired police officers, a number of Panther lawyers and community activists, and a collection of historians (rather than a narrator), and accompanied by some soul stirring period music , the fast-paced movie opens with the Chi-Lites belting out “Give More Power to the People” and takes the viewer through the police slaying of little Bobby Hutton, Huey Newton’s shootout with the Oakland police and the world-wide movement to “Free Huey.”

It shines a light on the many BPP community programs, from serving breakfast to thousands of children to publishing a weekly paper best known for its dissemination of the BPP’s 10-Point program and the art of Emory Douglas, which most often displayed his almost limitless capacity to depict police as all manner of pigs. It also shows the vital importance that young women played in the day-to-day operations of the Party—several of the Party’s female leaders, most notably Erica Huggins, Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown and Phyllis Jackson have important roles in narrating the Party’s history.

Vanguard of the Revolution also takes a serious look at the developing division within the party between the imprisoned Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, who had risen to prominence in Newton’s absence and had later fled to Algeria and opened up an international section of the Party. The film also shows how the FBI took glee in attempting to foment and further exacerbate that conflict and other political differences that arose between the Panthers and other organizations. But the heart of the film is the recounting of a number of events that reflect the government’s unremitting repression of the party and how the Party attempted to resist, yet ultimately succumbed, to this onslaught.

One such method was the arrest and prosecution of Panther leadership. Beyond the arrest and prosecution of Huey Newton, the film also deals at length with the jailing of the New York Panther leadership, in a case that became known as the Panther 21. Through the voice on Jamal Joseph, who, at the age of 16 was rounded up as one of the 21, and one of his lawyers, the viewer is familiarized with their trumped-up and politically motivated arrest, prosecution and, in one of the few joyous moments in the film, their acquittal and victory celebration. The film also documents the targeting of Bobby Seale as one of the alleged co-conspirators in the notorious Conspiracy 8 trial in Chicago in 1969, and his being viciously bound and gagged by Judge Julius Hoffman when Seale attempted to represent himself.

The second form of repression, which we now know was coordinated and orchestrated nationally by the FBI, was police violence—most commonly in the form of raids on Panther offices and homes that lead to injury, death and the mass arrests of Panthers who defended themselves against these attacks like the police assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark on December 4, 1969. While Vanguard of the Revolution does not plow ground not covered in prior films, it does accurately portray Hampton as the remarkable young leader that he was, showing numerous clips from The Murder of Fred Hampton, beginning with Hampton’s stirring speech at the Federal Courthouse (after Seale was gagged and jailed) in which he proclaimed that “you can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail a revolution.”

The film also gives appropriate prominence to Hampton’s assassination in the history of the Black Panther Party. Using much of Mike Gray’s footage, as well as portions of informant O’Neal’s interview from Eyes on the Prize II, this segment also relies on the voices, then and now, of raid survivor Akua Njeri (Deborah Johnson), several former Chicago Panthers, two of Hampton’s lawyers and an African-American police officer to retell the chilling tale. Notably absent is the voice of longtime U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush, who was the very prominent Minister of Defense of the Chicago Chapter who miraculously avoided a fate similar to Hampton’s on December 4. But Mike Gray is an important voice in the re-telling and gives a unique perspective as a filmmaker who chronicled the events in real time.

Bookended with the Hampton assassination in the film is the police raid on the Los Angeles Black Panther offices only four days later. Unlike the pre-dawn raid on Hampton’s apartment, this raid was met with armed Panther resistance. Through the eyes of three of the men who were present—Wayne Pharr, Roland Freeman and Gil Parker—we experience firsthand the gun battle that took place for many hours and the Panthers’ ultimate surrender. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, when Pharr, who has since died, was asked how he felt as he fired back at the police, he responded, “I felt free, I felt absolutely free.”

As the film heads to its conclusion, we see the results of the repression on the Panthers and the divisions within the Party as the Oakland Chapter turns to electoral politics and Bobby Seale runs for Mayor of Oakland. What we do not see is the emergence of an underground iteration of the Panthers known as the Black Liberation Army, which dedicated itself to armed actions and armed struggle and which engaged in some high-profile confrontations with police that left several police officers dead and numerous BLA members, including Assata Shakur and Sundiata Acoli, charged with capital crimes.

The film is not a complete history. The narration favors Kathleen Cleaver and her view of the history over that of Elaine Brown; George Jackson’s role in the Party’s evolving ideology is omitted, as is Angela Davis, Geronimo Pratt and the BLA; and Bobby Seale has withheld his very important current voice from the film. It could also be said that it glosses over the very real issue of male chauvinism in the Party, although Elaine Brown does briefly acknowledge that it was a problem. The documentary concludes on a down note, depicting Huey in his post-prison years as a violent, dope-addled, underworld kingpin—one former Panther called him a “fucking maniac”—while noting that Eldridge Cleaver went on to be a born-again Christian and political supporter of Ronald Reagan.

With Gil Scott Heron’s mournful “Winter in America” as the backdrop, those blows are softened somewhat by the film’s final act: the separate reading of each of the points in the Panther’s 10 Point Program by several of those former Panthers whose voices have become familiar during the movie, and by Jamal Joseph’s proclamation that, for all its youthful mistakes and over-exuberance, the Black Panther Party was motivated, at bottom, by an “undying love for the people.”

As one of the lawyers who fought to transform the narrative about the Black Panther Party and the assassination of Fred Hampton both through courtroom litigation and by working with various committed filmmakers over the years—including those at Blackside and Firelight—these omissions and criticisms, in my view, pale in comparison to what Firelight has succeeded in telling, primarily through the voices of those now-greying Black Panthers who lived through it. In their youth, these and many more Panthers courageously made people’s history. That history is somewhat imperfectly, but most powerfully, narrated in this film, and the lessons to those engaged in today’s struggles against racism and for justice are there for all to see. Can we ask for more from a documentary filmmaker?

This article was written by People’s Law Office attorney Flint Taylor. This was originally published in In These Times on October 29, 2015.

Torture Survivor to be Released after 25 Years in Prison

Special Prosecutor Drops Charges In  Wrongful Conviction Case of Burge-Era Torture Victim After Almost 25 Years in Prison

Chicago, IL; October 14, 2015 –At the request of the Office of the Special State’s Attorney for Cook County, today Cook County Judge Thomas Byrne dismissed all charges against Shawn Whirl, a torture victim from Jon Burge’s notorious reign of terror at the Chicago Police Department.  Mr. Whirl’s 1991 murder conviction was overturned by a unanimous Illinois appellate court in August of this year. Mr. Whirl will be released sometime midday today from Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Illinois.

46 year-old Mr. Whirl was the first person granted a new trial after a referral by the Illinois Torture Inquiry & Relief Commission, which was established in 2009 to provide an avenue of relief for torture victims of the Chicago Police Department.  Mr. Whirl’s case was among the first cases to be referred by the Commission to the courts. 

When Whirl’s attorneys notified him of his release he said: “How do I feel? Relieved, but also nervous because this feels surreal. I just want to be able to start from somewhere to continue to correct this wrong. I’ve been in a think tank here in prison – I’ve utilized my incarceration to better myself. In order to be upset, you have to have room for anger. And I just don’t have room for that.”

Attorney Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office, who represented Mr Whirl together with his law partner Ben Elson and Tara Thompson of the University of Chicago Exoneration Project, and has been representing police torture victims for nearly 30 years, said:  “This is another important victory, not only for Shawn, but also for the entire movement that has steadfastly fought for justice in the torture cases for many years. That it follows on the heels of the passage of the historic reparations ordinance makes it particularly significant.” 
Ben Elson added, “This case also underscores the importance of a strong and independent Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission in the continuing campaign to seek justice for all police torture victims who remain imprisoned on the basis of confessions that were tortured from them.”Tara Thompson, who spoke with Mr. Whirl yesterday, said, “This case shows that it is never too late for the criminal justice system to right a wrong and to recognize the mistakes of the past.  We want Shawn’s release to give courage and hope to those still locked up for crimes they did not commit.”
Mr. Whirl was convicted of allegedly robbing and murdering a cab driver on the City’s far South Side in 1990.  Soon after the murder, police sought Mr. Whirl, who was then just 20 years old, for questioning.  During his interrogation, as Whirl testified at his evidentiary hearing, he was slapped, stepped on, and subjected to racial slurs by Detective James Pienta–a protégé of Jon Burge who worked with him for 13 years and who has been accused of torture by a series of other African-American men over multiple decades. Mr. Whirl described how, when he did not cooperate with Pienta’s insistence that he confess to this crime, Detective Pienta used a set of keys to repeatedly scrape a wound on Whirl’s leg until it was bloody and raw.  Pienta took the stand at Whirl’s evidentiary hearing for a new trial but declined to testify, exercising his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when asked a wide ranging set of questions about his role in the pattern and practice of torture. Burge did likewise in a video that was introduced into evidence at the hearing.   
Because of this torture, Mr. Whirl ultimately signed a false confession in this case.  He pled guilty and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. In 2012, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission referred Whirl’s case back to the Circuit Court of Cook County for an evidentiary hearing on his torture claim.  The courts initially denied him relief, but on August 12 of this year, an Illinois Appellate Court panel vacated Whirl’s conviction. In a unanimous ruling, the panel condemned the torture of Mr. Whirl, recognized that it was part of a pattern and practice of torture under Burge, and determined that Mr. Whirl should receive a new suppression hearing and, if necessary, a new trial.  That opinion explained that ​”it is impossible to conceive of how the State could prevail at a new suppression hearing with the officer alleged to have coerced a suspect’s confession invoking his privilege against self-incrimination.”  The case then returned to the circuit court, where today the Office of the Special State’s Attorney, exercising its mandate to do justice in cases involving torture, moved to dismiss all charges, citing Detective Pienta’s continuing intention to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights, and conceding that they had no case without the tortured confession.

Mr. Whirl was represented by Flint Taylor, Ben Elson, and Sarah Gelsomino of the People’s Law Office and Tara Thompson of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School.  University of Chicago Law School students also participated in Mr. Whirl’s representation.
Mr. Whirl and his legal team will hold a press conference on Thursday, October 15, 2015, at 1:00 pm, at the People’s Law Office, 1180 N Milwaukee Ave in Chicago.

Message from Oscar Lopez Rivera

A Special Message on El Grito de Lares from Oscar López-Rivera

For the past thirty-four years, Oscar López-Rivera, the longest held political prisoner in Puerto Rican history, has commemorated El Grito de Lares from within a U.S. prison. From his cell in the Marion Federal Penitentiary, he wrote a brief reflection on the significance of El Grito.

It’s very important to celebrate the Grito de Lares, especially to learn more about that glorious event and to have a good appreciation about the courageous men and women who dared to sow the seed of struggle for the independence and sovereignty of our beloved homeland. We can raise the question, why was the abolition of slavery so important to the heroic women and men who took up arms against Spanish colonialism?  Would the Spaniards have abolished slavery without their uprising? Would the colonizers have continued taking Puerto Ricans for granted? Would the anti-colonial struggle have had the continuity it has been able to have without this event? If the Grito de Lares had not happened, could so many generations of Puerto Rican freedom fighters have given continuity to the anti-colonial struggle?

The best leaders, who have succeeded them and emulated their example, have looked at the Grito de Lares as the most important symbol of the Puerto Rican anti-colonial struggle. They have used it as a platform not only to raise consciousness, but also as one that will not allow Puerto Ricans to forget that we have the potential of becoming an independent and sovereign nation as long as we dare to struggle for it.

For us, El Grito de Lares is as important as the Grito de Dolores is to Mexicans and the Grito de Yara is to our Cuban brothers and sisters. The Grito de Lares was only the beginning of a revolutionary process. Its celebration in the Puerto Rican diaspora and in Puerto Rico confirms that our struggle to end colonialism continues, and that generation after generation has carried in its heart our national boricua identity. Indeed, the seed sown by the heroic women and men in the Grito de Lares—that 23 of September, 1868—has become a perennial one. Our struggle continues and victory will be ours because we dare to struggle and to win.


Oscar López-Rivera

For more on Oscar López-Rivera and our work supporting the Puerto Rican Independence movement, visit the Puerto Rico page on this site.

Congratulations to PLO Attorney Joey Mogul for Recieving the 2015 US Human Rights Network Movement Builders Award

Congratulations to PLO attorney Joey Mogul for the 2015 US Human Rights Network Movement Builders Awards for their dedicated work, leadership and collective organizing on the successful Burge torture reparations campaign and to Stan Willis for his brilliant vision and leadership raising these cases in the international human rights bodies and decades of principled activism.

Click here to view all the recipients of the award.

Reparations Won: An Historic Victory in the Struggle Aginst Chicago Police Torture

The 20 year reign of police torture that was orchestrated by Commander Jon Burge and implicated former Mayor Richard M. Daley and a myriad of high ranking police and prosecutorial ocials, has haunted the City of Chicago for decades. Finally, on May 6, 2015, in response to a movement that has spanned a generation, the Chicago City Council formally recognized this sordid history by passing historic legislation that provided reparations to the survivors of police torture in Chicago.

Read more about this in the July/August 2015, Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report.

Illinois Appellate Court Issues an Important Decision in Shawn Whirl’s Police Torture Case

On August 12, 2015, the Illinois Appellate Court issued an important decision in the Shawn Whirl police torture case that  was litigated by Flint Taylor and Ben Elson of the People’s Law Office and Tara Thompson of the University of Chicago Exoneration Project. The Appellate Court, in a 36 page opinion, held that Whirl, who had consistently maintained that he was tortured into giving a false confession by an Area 2 detective who had previously worked for decades with Jon Burge, was entitled to a new motion to suppress hearing on the question of whether his confession was tortured from him and should consequently be barred from evidence at a new trial. The Court all but mandated that Whirl, who has spent 25 years in prison, be released without the formality of a new hearing and trial, finding that “it is impossible to conceive how the State could prevail at a new suppression hearing,” and that “without Whirl’s confession, the State’s case was non-existent.” Whirl’s lawyers have called on the Special Prosecutor, who represents the State in the Whirl case, to heed the clear message in the Court’s opinion and agree to dismiss Whirl’s case rather than pursuing further appeals at the taxpayers’ expense.

Read the opinion here.

Listen to the oral argument made by attorney G. Flint Taylor here.

Also, follow the links to the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times articles.

NLG International Committee Testimony to UN Decolonization Committee – Hearings on Puerto Rico 6/22/15

Jan Susler, partner at the PLO and co-chair of the NLG International Committee’s Puerto Rico Subcommittee, testified before the United Nations Decolonization Committee, urging that Puerto Ricans be able to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination, free of U.S. colonialism June 22, 2015. Read or download the full testimony as PDF here and see the UN’s press statement about the hearing at their website here.


This was originally posted on the National Lawyers Guild website.

Reflecting Upon the Recent Police Standoff in Edgewater

A week ago, there were reports of a police standoff for five hours overnight in Edgewater that brought scores of police vehicles to a several block area and resulted in the arrests of over 30 men, women and children charged with a minor offense of disturbing the peace, a misdemeanor charge. Police were responding to gunshots that they ultimately determined came from behind the apartment and the 30 or partygoers. Many neighbors who were evacuated or told to go back into their houses, have continuing concerns about violence and drug activity in their mixed race, mixed income neighborhood. This is a sentiment they share with many urban Chicagoans. However, the incident bears reflection and raises many questions for our communities about responsible policing and the accountability of law enforcement.

Was the police action a measured response to legitimate concerns of violence? Or was the police response a show of force and intimidation directed at certain people? Why were over 30 people of color marched out of a residence and charged with minor crimes. Why was the neighborhood under siege for five hours and the streets packed curb to curb with police patrol cars, squadrols and armoured Hummer-style trucks?

We must ask these questions and others. We cannot afford to just accept a thin police narrative of events and move on. In Chicago, the police’s account of incidents has proven untrustworthy, as demonstrated by recent lawsuits that have impeached their versions of police shootings of Black men.  As civilians it is incumbent upon us to ensure our public officials are accountable to us for their actions, including law enforcement personnel as our nation becomes increasingly desensitized to police violence tactics. This is not to judge or criticize with bias but bring fairness, justice and freedom from violence for all.

This was written by PLO attorney Janine Hoft

Reparations: A Blueprint to address systemic police violence

The City of Chicago made history on Wednesday May 6 when it passed legislation providing reparations to survivors of racially motivated police torture committed between 1972 and 1991. Once implemented, it will offer a measure of hope to survivors, their family members and African American communities devastated by the legacy of torture committed by infamous former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and detectives under his command.

It represents a bold break with the status quo, representing the first time that a municipality reparationswon-2 (1)in the United States – - a nation with a long tradition of unanswered calls for redress for systemic race based violence, including slavery and lynchings – - will provide reparations to those harmed by law enforcement violence.   It can serve as a blueprint for what reparations might look like for systemic police abuse plaguing cities across the nation

Chicago’s reparations package was driven by the inadequacy of traditional legal remedies to make individuals and communities whole for systemic harm. After decades of litigation, activism and investigative journalism, the truth about systemic torture of African Americans by white detectives to secure confessions, involving electric shock, suffocation, and mock execution, often accompanied by racialized abuse, was exposed.  Yet full accountability proved elusive.

The statute of limitations precluded Burge and his men from being held criminally or civilly responsible for their crimes of torture (although Burge was ultimately convicted in 2010 for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about the torture he and others committed). They enjoyed decades of torturing with impunity, courtesy of a cover up by the Chicago Police Department’s chain of command and governmental officials, including former Mayor Richard M. Daley.  Moreover, the limited remedies offered by civil litigation – financial settlements that were often meager and practically unavailable to the vast majority of survivors – were inadequate to address the trauma and material needs of the torture survivors, their family members and communities.

Burge’s legacy of torture left festering wounds that remain open to this day. Many survivors continue to suffer from nightmares and flashbacks, grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder that has gone untreated for decades.  They live under a shroud of shame, guilt, and anguish that undermines their ability to form relationships and share community with others.  Survivors’ family members were also left to contend with their secondary trauma in isolation, after their fathers, sons and partners were ripped from them.  As whispers of the torture spread, entire communities lived in fear that they or their loved ones would be disappeared from street corners or homes into the bowels of police stations to be tortured and terrorized.  The torture, like lynchings, served to terrorize entire African American communities.

Recognizing the lack of redress for these systemic harms, Standish Willis, founder of Black People Against Police Torture, made the initial call for reparations.  Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM), a grassroots group of artists, activists, attorneys and survivors, amplified this call by asking police torture survivors and the larger community to imagine how they would publicly memorialize these cases recognizing the difficulty and immensity of depicting the harms perpetrated, while also recognizing the struggle waged by many for justice for decades.  Through art charrettes, teach-ins, creative outreach and community dialogue, CTJM sought to spark the collective imagination of communities to conceptualize what was necessary for the City to provide in order for individuals and communities to heal from torture.  This call served to redirect everyone’s attention beyond the usual cries for accountability for police brutality and to focus on holistic means of meeting the material needs of all members of impacted communities, and offering positive visions for healing and repair.

Given the glaring lack of precedent in the U.S., CTJM looked to the U.N. Convention Against Torture’s principles of restitution, rehabilitation, compensation and public acknowledgment. CTJM also consulted with Juan Mendez, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, himself a survivor of torture in Argentina, and relied on the expansive scope of reparations provided for atrocities committed under the Pinochet regime in Chile when conceiving of the essential elements of the original legislation (a CTJM member is a Chilean torture survivor who fought for reparations in Chile as well).

Ultimately, the reparations package, brought to fruition by an inspiring multiracial and intergenerational campaign led by CTJM, Amnesty International, Project NIA and We Charge Genocide, within the larger context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, achieved far more than any individual criminal prosecution or lawsuit could afford.  In addition to financial compensation to all individual survivors, it includes a legislative admission and apology by the City of Chicago for the torture committed by city employees, settling the historical record and placing this systemic pattern and practice of torture beyond dispute.  The reparations package also includes the creation of a center on Chicago’s Southside where survivors can access specialized trauma counseling services. It extends benefits like job placement, and free tuition at City Colleges for the torture survivors and their families.

Reparations are also an exercise in collective grief, catharsis and healing. As part of this process of narrating and commemorating what Burge torture survivors endured, the City of Chicago will not only create a permanent public memorial, it will also create a living memorial through an 8th and 10th grade curriculum for Chicago Public schools about the reparationswon-3 (1)Burge torture cases.  The hope is that by inscribing these cases both figuratively and literally into the collective memory, generations to come will ensure torture is never again committed in our name.

Like every reparations process, there have been fair critiques for being too narrowly focused and not ambitiously seeking redress for every case of police torture. However, while the reparations for Burge survivors focus on a finite set of particularly egregious cases, they can still serve as a model in other cities. Ultimately, each process will be unique and place specific.  But Chicago’s journey provides some guideposts for municipalities to consider beyond changes in police policies that have left both victims and communities affected by racist police violence unable to heal.

There is no question that excessive force, in many instances amounting to torture, causes physical injuries and leaves psychological scars. As noted by sociologists Amanda Geller and Jeffrey Fagan in their study of the impacts of the New York City Police Department’s stop and frisk practices, even less egregious forms of discriminatory policing cause significant individual and collective emotional harm.

Municipalities need not shoulder this burden alone. There are approximately 40 federally funded centers throughout the U.S. offering psychological treatment to torture survivors – but unfortunately, they are only permitted to provide services to people who have been tortured outside the U.S.  It is time for federal government to recognize that law enforcement officials torture people in the U.S. and that survivors need access to the same services we rightfully offer survivors of torture around the world.

Ultimately, Chicago’s approach to systemic racial harm offers a glimmer of a possible future in which the nation as a whole might finally grapple with reparations for the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and its direct descendant, mass incarceration, each of which echo through the Chicago Police Torture cases.

Joey Mogul is a partner at the People’s Law Office who has represented Burge torture survivors for the last 18 years.  Mogul co-founded the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials and drafted the original reparations ordinance.

A smaller version of this piece appeared in Time.Com, along with the fierce thoughts of courageous Chicago Police torture survivor and activist Darrell Cannon.