This was originally posted in the State Journal Registrar on Jan. 22, 2015.
Visit our wrongful conviction page on our website for more information on Randy Steidl’s case and other wrongful conviction cases our office has worked on.
Visit our wrongful conviction page on our website for more information on Randy Steidl’s case and other wrongful conviction cases our office has worked on.
This originally aired on This is Hell on January 17, 2015.
Flint Taylor: “Obama, for all his pious statements after Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, has been behind funneling money to police departments for militarization. And that means the kind of weaponry and tactics that are used on the military battlefield.”
Attorney Flint Taylor delivers a history lesson in racism, brutality and law enforcement.
Flint wrote the piece Blood On Their Hands: The Racist History of Modern Police Unions for In These Times.
People’s Law Office is accepting applications for our 2015 summer internship and educational program, which focuses on learning about civil rights litigation rooted in social justice and radical legal work.
The program is open to law students. To apply send resume, cover letter and writing sample to peopleslaw [at] aol.com. Applications will be accepted until February 6, 2014. A stipend is available.
Q: What were the roots of your civic activism?
A: I didn’t really become an activist until I got to law school. I graduated [Northwestern] in ’69, right at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Then I became a law clerk in the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. The Chicago conspiracy trial was going on; these anti-war activists were put on trial for crossing state lines to encourage riots—basically to encourage demonstrations against the war.
It was a very colorful trial, and the defendants were from different parts of the anti-war movement; one was a leader of the Black Panthers. I used to go down there and watch. There was this judge, Julius Hoffman, who was very against the defendants. There was a lot of commotion and a lot of acting out and drama in the courtroom. I became very immersed in wanting to become a lawyer who represents people who are fighting injustice, and [in] working for people’s rights.
I joined a group of lawyers—which I still am part of—called the People’s Law Office, which started in 1969 and is still going strong 45 years later. We represent people who are victims of police abuse and police brutality. We also are very involved in uncovering people who have been wrongfully convicted and have been in prison a long period of time. We’ve been able to free many people from prison.
My first jury trial was on behalf of Black Panthers in southern Illinois who had been attacked by the police and shot back. They were acquitted of 47 counts of attempted murder. So that was a great way to start your legal career.
Then what really influenced my commitment was the Attica prisoners’ rebellion, which happened in September of 1971. I was one of several lawyers who came from different places to represent the Attica prisoners who, by the time I got involved, had been beaten and a lot of them shot, and the prison retaken. We were trying to get them medical care and equal rights.
The state of New York was willing to sacrifice its own guards, who were being held hostage, in order to put down this prison rebellion, even though it could have been negotiated. When they stormed the prison and shot—like a turkey shoot—they killed nine of the hostages. They originally said the hostages had died because their throats had been cut, and of course the coroner determined that they had all been killed by state police bullets.
I helped to organize the legal defense of over 60 prisoners who were facing 1,400 felony counts. We organized a group called the Attica Brothers Legal Defense and I moved to Buffalo, New York, where it was based. I spent the next four or five years going back and forth from Chicago to Buffalo. Ultimately we brought a civil rights case on behalf of the [prisoners] who were killed and tortured after they took over the prison.
I realized, working on the Attica case, how important it was to stand up for people in prison and how bad the conditions and treatment of prisoners were. That was really the cause of the Attica rebellion. I realized that I could walk away from these situations, but those people in prison or the people who were victims of injustice couldn’t. So I made a commitment that that was going to be my life’s work: to expose injustice and fight for equal rights of people.
Q: What was the outcome of the Attica lawsuit?
A: We won at trial for one of the prisoners for $4 million, then that was taken away by the Court of Appeals. But ultimately, we settled the case for $12 million for the victims of Attica.
Q: Have any of your cases taken you before the U.S. Supreme Court?
A: In 1980, I appeared in a case called Carlson v. Green, which was the case that established the right to sue directly under the Eighth Amendment for damages for cruel and unusual punishment.
I represented a black man who died in a Terre Haute, Indiana, federal prison. He was the fourth man to die in the prison hospital within an eight-month period. This man was suffering from a terrible asthma attack; the doctor refused to come, even though he lived on the prison property. After several hours of him fighting for breath, the doctor said, “Give him some Thorazine.” That’s contraindicated for someone who’s having trouble breathing, and he died.
We brought a case for cruel and unusual punishment—basically a denial of medical care. The government said, “You can’t bring a case directly under the Eighth Amendment; it doesn’t provide for a private cause of action.” That case established that right. It was 7-2.
Q: What was it like arguing before the Supreme Court?
A: It’s very intimidating in a way, but I believed very strongly in the case and I had a very strong factual situation. I’m told that Thurgood Marshall kind of poked the judge sitting next to him and said, “Look at this guy; he really believes in his case.”
Then the most interesting thing: Right in the middle of my argument, they bang the gavel and say, “It’s lunchtime.” So they get up and leave. Which is good, in a way, because then I had a whole lunch period to plan the rest of my argument. But it was so shocking. As soon it’s 12 o’clock, no matter what, they just bang the gavel and they get up and leave.
Q: Which justices dissented?
A: Then-Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice [William] Rehnquist. I recall that Justice Burger was very negative.
Q: Was it an intimidating experience?
A: The lead-up is intimidating: “I’m going to argue in front of the Supreme Court; they’re going to ask me a lot of questions. Am I going to do a good job?” But for me, I’m always very nervous whenever I go into court, no matter what. And I’ve been doing it for all these years. But as soon as I get in there and I lose myself in the struggle and I find a way to express my belief in my client and the issues in the case, nerves dissipate. I was fired up.
Q: Any other cases that really stand out?
A: A case that I’ve done on behalf of a prisoner in Indiana who was on death row and 30 days away from being executed. After many years of fighting for him, and winning once and losing once in the Indiana Supreme Court … they agreed to take the death penalty off the table, and he’ll be eligible for release in two years. He was a young black man who was accused of being involved in a bank robbery in which a police officer was killed.
Q: You also worked for two decades, starting in 1975, on behalf of the Puerto Rican independence movement.
A: I represented Puerto Rican political prisoners in U.S. courts and helped to obtain their freedom and clemency from President Jimmy Carter. I also represented Puerto Rican activists from Chicago and New York who were accused of being terrorists who were involved in clandestine work on behalf of independence. I have also testified before the U.N. decolonization committee and in other international tribunals in support of Puerto Rican independence.
Q: What changes have you seen in our society over the years?
A: One of the things that I’ve been involved with in the last 10 years is representing people accused of being terrorists.
I’ve been representing Palestinian-Americans who have been accused of giving money to people in the occupied territories and charged with providing what they call material support for terrorism. [In] one of the cases I had in Chicago, two Palestinian men, who were from Chicago, were accused of RICO [racketeering and corruption] for being part of an organization in Palestine. [Prosecutors were] saying that was a racketeering-influenced organization. Of course, the jury didn’t buy that; after a long trial, they acquitted them of everything but minor charges.
I’ve seen the courts used, in my view, to repress political activity; to over-punish people. I’ve been involved with a lot of work around the rights of prisoners and challenging high-security units. We brought lawsuits challenging keeping people locked up, basically being evaluated as threats to the institution and then being put in these units for indefinite periods of time—for two, three, four, five years in segregation. No way to get out, and no due process for getting in.
I’ve done some work for animal rights people who have been involved in releasing minks and other animals that are in these fur farms and being treated very badly. And, of course, now they’re accused of terrorism. There’s a statute called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act which makes it a crime, a terrorist crime, to free animals or do any kind of protest about the treatment of animals that interferes with these industrial animal farms.
They have been using RICO in political situations when it was supposed to be used only against organized crime, and that’s what they’ve used with terrorism too. They’ve expanded that use to use it against people who don’t fit the definition of terrorism. Just this year, I represented, with two other lawyers, these young men. My client was just 21 years old; he had come from Florida to be part of the anti-NATO demonstrations because the NATO summit was in Chicago this summer, and they were part of demonstrating and actually causing some kind of vandalism. They were found by these two undercover Chicago police who were encouraging them to take further steps beyond just minor vandalism and talking to them about making Molotov cocktails. Before they did anything—they never were able to do anything—they arrested them and charged them with terrorism.
This was the first time, under Illinois law, they used the terrorism statute since it was passed after 9/11. [They] charged these young guys with providing material support for terrorism, conspiracy to commit terrorism, and possession of an incendiary device with the intent to commit terrorism. We had a long trial in the state court in Chicago and they were convicted of lesser charges. But the terrorism charges were rejected by the jury, which basically said, “We don’t think this is terrorism. These are just young guys who went over the line but certainly aren’t terrorists.”
[In another] case, two young men are accused of freeing minks in Illinois and Iowa, and they’re charged with this Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. It may be against the law, and maybe they can indict them, but why call it terrorism? I’ve found that, if you have a jury and you start talking about terrorism, either they’re going to see it and say, “Well, it’s really not terrorism,” like they said with those NATO kids, or they’re going to be influenced by that and not be able to really fairly look at the evidence. It’s a very prejudicial kind of charge.
I’ve done a lot of work representing people who are subpoenaed to grand juries, and wrote a long law review article in 1984 that’s still being quoted by people who are opposing grand juries about how the power of the grand jury is being abused by the federal government—being usurped by federal prosecutors when the grand jury is supposed to be an independent institution.
Q: Are you seeing a lot of repercussions from what’s going on with ISIS?
A: The FBI is concerned that there are people who have gone from the U.S. over to fight with that group and other groups in Syria. The FBI is very active in terms of investigating and surveilling the Arab and Muslim communities in Chicago and in New York as well.
I’m involved in a case right now in Detroit where a Palestinian woman, who’s 67 years old—lived in this country for 20 years—was arrested because they said 10 years ago when she filled out her naturalization papers, they asked her if she was ever arrested, convicted or imprisoned, and she filled out “no, no, no.” It turns out 45 years ago, in 1969 when she was a 22-year-old student, she was allegedly involved in resistance to the new occupation when the Israelis went into Gaza and the West Bank in 1967. She was put into a military tribunal that they set up, she was horrifically tortured, and she was found guilty of being involved in resistance activities against the Israel occupation.
She’s been in this country 20 years. The reason, I believe, they brought these charges is because she’s very active in the Palestinian community in Chicago and part of the Arab American Action Network. We’re saying it’s politically motivated.
Q: You are a past legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.
A: It was started [in 1966] by lawyers who were involved in the civil rights movement in the South. One of the founders was William Kunstler, who was a well-known civil rights lawyer; [also] Arthur Kinoy and others. They set up this office in New York, and over the years it’s expanded to be involved in international human rights, women’s rights, labor rights, all kinds of different work on behalf of people who are fighting for justice in the courts.
From 1991 to 1996 I was fortunate enough to be the legal director of that institution. We had about 10 lawyers and we had a lot of cooperating lawyers who would donate their services to work on a civil rights case with the center. It’s still going strong; it was very involved in challenging the people who were put in Guantanamo and got some good opinions from the Supreme Court about that.
I was involved in several cases when I was there. One that I was proud of was getting an injunction against preventing homeless people, who were getting harassed and beaten up in Penn Station. The police would see them as homeless and jump on them and throw them out. The court said they had a right to be there and to stop any type of abuse and harassment.
Q: What do you like the best and least about your job?
A: I like fighting for people’s rights and exposing injustice. Having to be creative about how to present people’s cases to juries, basically. The thing I like least is being in front of judges who are not open-minded and are basically so pro-prosecution or pro-government that they won’t listen to reasonable arguments.
Q: What has changed in the legal arena since 1969?
A: The law has become more restrictive and the judiciary has become more conservative. Of course, I came at the time of the Warren court. After Attica, there was a period of time in which courts were trying to give prisoners constitutional rights and protect their conditions and treatment. [Recently] we’ve seen a more conservative court, both in the federal district court level and, of course, in the Supreme Court. Also, I think we’ve seen a rollback on certain basic civil rights that were being protected when I first started practicing. Even in the criminal defense field, it’s much harder to defend people, and the law has restricted some of the rights of people who are accused of crimes. We have the influx of mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws. When Attica happened, there were 200,000 people in state and federal prisons—that was in 1971, 1972. Today we have like 2.5 million.
This idea that we could somehow deal with crime by locking up more people for longer periods of time, that was the ethic that kind of took over—particularly the war on drugs and this idea that we needed to be harsher and [offer] less rehabilitation in prisons.
Q: Do you see this trend continuing?
A: The pendulum is starting to swing slowly back the other way—I think because of the financial problems that we’re experiencing. I don’t think there’s a strong sentiment among legislatures or judges that, “Oh, we’ve locked up too many people and we’re being too harsh.” But we’re spending too much money on prisons … and that’s what I think is causing the pendulum to slowly move back.
The federal sentencing guidelines are not mandatory anymore—judges can look at them but they don’t have to follow them in federal court. That’s a good development. There are rulings by federal judges about keeping people locked up indefinitely in isolation units; they’re starting to say that mentally ill people shouldn’t be kept isolated. So there’s a beginning of some liberalizing or progressive movement, but it’s slow. The pendulum has swung so far the other way, it’s going to take a while to swing back. But I’m optimistic.
Outraged by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s statements concerning the killing of Eric Garner, Patrick Lynch, the longtime leader of the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the NYPD’s officers union, recently made the outrageous assertion that the Mayor had “blood on his hands” for the murder of the two NYPD officers.
In Milwaukee this past fall, the Police Association called for, and obtained, a vote of no confidence in MPD Chief Ed Flynn after he fired the officer who shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed African American; subsequently, the union’s leader, Mike Crivello, praised the District Attorney when he announced that he would not bring charges against the officer.
In Chicago, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), a longtime supporter of racist police torturer Jon Burge, is now seeking to circumvent court orders that preserve and make public the police misconduct files of repeater cops such as Burge, by seeking to enforce a police contract provision that calls for the destruction of the files after seven years. And in a show of solidarity with the killer of Michael Brown, Chicago’s FOP is soliciting contributions to the Darren Wilson defense fund on its website.
Such reactionary actions by police unions are not new, but are a fundamental component of their history, particularly since they came to prominence in the wake of the civil rights movement. These organizations have played a powerful role in defending the police, no matter how outrageous and racist their actions, and in resisting all manner of police reforms.
In June 1966, New York City Mayor John Lindsay, responding to widespread complaints of police brutality, called for a civilian review board. Five thousand off duty NYPD cops rallied at City Hall in opposition, and the head of the PBA, leading the campaign against civilian review, intoned that “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups, with their whims and their gripes and shouting. Any review board with civilians on it is detrimental to the operations of the police department.” Invoking the specter of increased crime, the PBA mounted a massive public relations campaign against the measure, and it was defeated in a referendum that year.
In 1975, in response to proposed budget cuts that included police layoffs, the PBA ordered a rampage through the city’s black and Puerto Rican communities, with thousands of off duty cops waving their guns, banging on trash cans, and blowing whistles for several nights until Mayor Abe Beame obtained a restraining order.
Ten years later, after Mayor Ed Koch revived the issue of civilian review in the wake of a white cop killing Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly and mentally ill black woman, the PBA again condemned the idea, staged a work slowdown in response to the attempted prosecution of the officer, Stephen Sullivan, and pressured Koch into reinstating Sullivan even though he had been criminally charged with the killing.
In 1992, when David Dinkins, the first (and only) African-American Mayor of New York City sought to implement a civilian review agency to investigate allegations of police misconduct, the PBA organized another City Hall rally in protest. This time,the crowd of officers numbered 10,000, with PBA members hurtling barricades, jumping on cars, blocking the Brooklyn Bridge and kicking a reporter. Some of the rally’s participants carried signs showing Dinkins with a bushy Afro haircut and swollen lips, with racist slogans, including ones that ridiculed him as a “washroom attendant.”
In the mid-1990s, the independent Mollen Commission, appointed by Mayor Dinkins to investigate police corruption,documented widespread police perjury, brutality, drug dealing and theft in the NYPD, and found that “by advising its members against cooperating with law-enforcement authorities, the P.B.A. often acts as a shelter for and protector of the corrupt cop.” These findings were seconded by senior NYPD officials and prosecutors who were quoted by the New York Times as saying that they would continue to “have trouble rooting out substantial numbers of corrupt officers as long as the P.B.A. resists them.”
The Times further quoted these officials as complaining that the PBA, “fortified with millions of dollars in annual dues collections . . . is one of the most powerful unions in the city. As an active lobbyist in Albany and as a contributor to political campaigns, the P.B.A. has enormous influence over the department and is typically brought in for consultations before important management decisions are made.”
In the Abner Louima case, the PBA’s role extended beyond reactionary advocacy and agitation to active participation in a conspiracy to cover-up the brutal crimes of its members. In 1997, an NYPD officer sexually assaulted Louima in a Precinct Station bathroom by violently shoving a broken broomstick into his rectum. His attacker and three of his police accomplices were charged with criminal civil rights offenses.
Evidence in the criminal proceedings revealed that a PBA official had chaired an early meeting with the implicated officers, one of whom was a PBA delegate, at which they fabricated a false story designed to exonerate one of the conspirators. Even after the officers were convicted, the PBA continued to defend the officers, both publicly and with financial support, and to advocate for them with their fabricated version of events—with none other than Patrick Lynch claiming that “people with a political agenda have fanned the flames of this incident,” leading to an “innocent man . . . being punished beyond belief.”
More recently, Lynch and the PBA, together with the NYPD sergeants and captains associations, after condemning Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin’s order that sharply limited the NYPD’s discriminatory stop and frisk policies, unsuccessfully sought to appeal her order after Mayor de Blasio made good on his campaign promise not to appeal.
And this past year, confronted with another indefensible case of NYPD violence, PBA President Lynch again went on the offensive. In August, after the medical examiner determined that Eric Garner’s death at the hands of officer Daniel Pantaleo was a homicide by means of a chokehold, Lynch declared that the examiner was “mistaken” in finding that the death was a homicide, and that he had “never seen a document that was more political than that press release by the [medical examiner].”
In a classic case of doubletalk, he further asserted that it was “not a chokehold. It was bringing a person to the ground the way we’re trained to do to place him under arrest.” He chastised Mayor de Blasio for not “support[ing] New York City police officers unequivocally.”
In December, Lynch praised the Staten Island Grand Jury’s decision not to charge Panteleo, while accusing Garner of resisting arrest, brushing off two police misconduct lawsuits—one for sexual assault during a search— brought against Panteleo and idolizing him as “literally an Eagle Scout,” a “model” cop, and “mature, mature” officer.
In Chicago, the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents CPD patrol officers, has a similarly notorious history.
Handmaiden to the rioting cops who indiscriminately and brutally beat demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention,the FOP held a reunion of their 1968 troops in 2009 at the FOP Lodge. They proudly displayed pictures of some of the wanton police brutality on their website and, in an attempt to rewrite history (and the Kerner Commission’s findings of a “police riot”), trumpeted that “the time has come that the Chicago Police be honored and recognized for their contributions to maintaining law and order—and for taking a stand against Anarchy. … The Democratic National Convention was about to start and the only thing that stood between Marxist street thugs and public order was a thin blue line of dedicated, tough Chicago police officers.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, the FOP, demonstrating its reactionary and racist essence within its own ranks, aligned itself against the forces that were fighting to bring affirmative action to the CPD. The Afro American Patrolman’s League led the battle and was confronted in their legal struggle at every turn by disgruntled white officers and the FOP.
In 1990, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution that declared December 4 “Fred Hampton Day.” On December 4, 1969, Hampton, a dynamic young Black Panther Party leader, was slain in his bed by Chicago police in what, by 1990, had been documented and widely accepted in the African-American community as a politically motivated murder. Surprisingly, Mayor Richard M. Daley did not oppose the resolution. But the FOP most certainly did.
FOP President John Dineen launched a lobbying campaign to repeal the resolution, publicly belittled the BPP’s service programs and slandered Hampton, who was considered to be a martyr by many African Americans and activists, as a person who “dedicated his life to killing the pigs.” History repeated itself in 2006 when, after the City Council unanimously voted to rename the block where Hampton was murdered “Chairman Fred Hampton Way,” FOP President Mark Donahue organized the families of slain CPD officers to lobby for its rescission, while publicly voicing his cop membership’s “outrage” and “disbelief” at the decision.
In the early 1990s, the FOP began its campaign— which it continues to pursue to this day—of defending Jon Burge and his fellow police torturers. In November 1991, the emerging evidence of a pattern of police torture by Burge and his cadre of all-too-willing enforcers compelled the City of Chicago to initiate administrative proceedings before the Chicago Police Board in order to fire Burge and two of his co-conspirators for the brutal electric shock torture of Andrew Wilson. Since the city was no longer financing the torturers’ defense, as it had in the civil rights damages case brought by Wilson, the FOP stepped up and gladly assumed responsibility.
The FOP and its spin-off organization, the Burge-O’Hara-Yucaitis Family Fund Committee (BOY), then set out on acampaign that sought not only to raise money for the defense, but also to viciously attack Burge’s victims and the lawyers from the People’s Law Office, (including myself) who had brought much of the damning evidence to light. They falsely accused us of fabricating the evidence of systemic torture and of making millions from exposing the scandal. They also organized a raucous fundraiser at a local union hall where Burge was lionized by thousands of cops and prosecutors.
After a six-week evidentiary hearing, the Police Board fired Burge and suspended one of the other charged officers. Dineen called the decision a “travesty of justice,” and only weeks later the FOP announced that it intended to enter a float honoring Burge and his compatriots in the annual South Side Irish Parade—a parade in which Chicago Mayors and numerous other politicians regularly marched. The public outrage and cries of racism that followed the FOP’s announcement were swift and strong, and the FOP was forced to withdraw the float.
A few years later a federal judge, quoting Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” ordered that a number of police files that documented the systemic nature of the torture “with all its pus flowing ugliness” be released “to the natural medicines of air and light.” The FOP intervened in the suit, seeking to overturn the order, and continued to pursue its battle to suppress the files with an unsuccessful appeal.
In 2008, the FOP again became actively involved in defending Burge after he was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying under oath about whether he tortured African-American suspects. The FOP Board, without putting it to a vote of its membership, pushed through a resolution to pay for Burge’s lawyers in the criminal case.
Defending its decision, FOP President Mark Donahue asserted that Burge, despite the more than 100 documented cases of torture that had been amassed against him over the years, had been unfairly tarnished by allegations from criminals, and that politicians and lawyers for Burge’s victims had fueled a media hysteria which “caused Jon Burge to be the ‘poster child’ of alleged police torture in this city for an entire generation.” Invoking what can be described as the FOP’s unrepentant motto, Donahue vowed that it “will stand with the police officer every time.” A group of African-American officers unsuccessfully challenged the decision in Court, stating, “We do not support torture. We do not condone torture. We do not embrace torture. We will never support that type of behavior on the department.”
In 2011, Burge, despite his high-priced FOP-financed defense, was convicted of three felonies and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in federal prison. Nonetheless, the Police Pension Board, which was comprised of four former or present CPD officers and four civilians, voted 4-4 on the question of whether Burge should be stripped of his pension, which he had been receiving since 1997. By law, the tie was resolved in pensioner Burge’s favor.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed suit, seeking to reverse the decision, and the FOP defended the ruling, with an FOP-financed private lawyer arguing on behalf of Burge. The case was appealed all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which, in a 4-3 decision this past summer, ruled in favor of Burge and the Pension Board.
This appalling history is not limited to New York, Chicago or Milwaukee by any means. Other notable examples include Detroit in the mid-1970s, where the Detroit Police Officers Association challenged police reforms and affirmative action initiatives which sought to stem rampant police brutality against African Americans with a lawsuit; after it lost its case, it orchestrated a police riot.
In Los Angeles in the early 1990s, African-American Mayor Tom Bradley condemned the state court jury verdict which absolved LAPD officers of criminal charges for brutally beating Rodney King, by stating that the verdict “will never blind us to what we saw on that videotape,” and further stated that “the men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD.” In response, the L.A. Police Protective League reacted with a vengeance that, according to Police Chief Richard Riordan, lasted for years.
And more recently, in Seattle, the Police Officers’ Guild mounted a verbal attack on then-Mayor Michael McGinn after he stated, in response to the shooting of a Native American word-carver, that the Seattle police force had no place for officers who did not share his commitment to racial justice.
Whether unions which represent police officers, correctional guards and other law enforcement officers are the same kind of workers’ organizations as other unions, which can potentially be used to further the interests of the working class as a whole, has been vigorously contested by many progressives and leftists over the years. But the disturbing history of these powerful organizations makes it very clear that they mirror and reinforce the most racist, brutal and reactionary elements within the departments they claim to represent and actively encourage the code of silence within those departments. They are far from democratic, with officers of color and women having little or no influence.
In truth, police unions further the-all-too-accurate conception that the police are an occupying force in poor communities of color, and are antithetical in principle and action to the progressive principles of the labor movement.
As protests against police misconduct and racial injustice sweep the nation, a panel of the Illinois Appellate Court Tuesday, December 23, 2014 upheld one of the largest mass arrests in the city’s history.
Occupy Chicago protesters, represented by pro bono attorneys with the National Lawyers Guild of Chicago (NLG), People’s Law Office (PLO), and Durkin & Roberts had won an earlier lower court decision dismissing their 2011 arrests as an unconstitutional violation of their First Amendment rights. The case, City of Chicago v. Tieg Alexander, et al., 1-12-2858, dates back to October of 2011, when approximately 300 activists associated with Occupy Chicago were arrested on two consecutive Saturdays in Grant Park.
Ninety-two of the arrestees challenged their arrests and were victorious in the Circuit Court, which struck down the ordinance used to arrest them. Today a panel of the Illinois Appellate Court overturned that decision, in a rollback of First Amendment rights.
“The policing in these cases illustrates Rahm Emanuel’s shameful corporate agenda, designed to elevate corporate interests and erode the rights of everyday people,” said Sarah Gelsomino, attorney with the People’s Law Office and National Lawyers Guild. “It’s outrageous that the City continues to waste our money on prosecuting activists for a petty curfew violation.”
NLG attorney Molly Armour stated: “Today’s decision strikes a blow to protest movements at the very moment we see how essential they are to the national dialogue and to affecting fundamental social justice. As lower court recognized — public spaces should be reserved for the People and the moments in our history where dissent is essential.”
“The National Lawyers Guild will continue to demand protections for those who challenge injustice,” Gelsomino says. “The fight to protect freedoms of speech and assembly is vital, especially now as protests against racist and oppressive policing sweep the country.”
The NLG continues to support people’s movements in the streets with its Legal Observer™ Program and in the courts defending those arrested. While disappointed in the ruling, the NLG remains steadfast in its commitment to the fights for social, economic, and racial justice.
The National Lawyers Guild was founded in 1937 and is the oldest and largest public interest/human rights bar organization in the United States. Its headquarters are in New York and it has chapters in every state.
Appellate Court Opinion
Illinois Appellate Decision – December 23, 2014
Documents from Trial Level Court
Decision Ruling in Favor of Occupy Chicago – September 27, 2012
Occupy Chicago Reply to City – February 10, 2012
Original Occupy Chicago Motion to Dismiss – November 4, 2011
A man who served 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit shouldn’t have to plead for a pardon.
But that’s Gordon “Randy” Steidl’s plight.
He was released from an Illinois prison on May 28, 2004 after U.S. District Court Judge ruled Steidl probably would have been acquitted on charges he stabbed to death two people in 1986, if the jury had heard all the evidence.
When Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan chose not to pursue an appeal in Steidl’s case, he became the 18th person to be exonerated since 1977 after having been sentenced to death.
Once out of prison, Steidl faced the same discrimination that other ex-cons faced.
His job prospects were nil to none when a prospective employer learned he had been convicted of a double murder.
In 2011 and 2013, respectively, he successfully sued the Illinois State Police, the Paris Illinois Police Department, and Edgar County, and settled with those entities for a combined $6 million.
But money can’t buy back 17 years of a man’s life, nor can it buy a good reputation.
Despite his freedom, Steidl is stuck in a prison without bars.
Unlike most of the men in Illinois who were facing a death penalty, Steidl was white, and from the small town of Paris, Ill.
It was sheer genius on the part of advocates pushing for a moratorium on the death penalty, to make Steidl the face of the anti-death penalty movement in Illinois.
“His case, conviction and ultimate exoneration was a key catalyst in our efforts to abolish the death penalty in Illinois,” said Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen A. Yarbrough in a letter dated Dec. 17 addressed to Gov. Pat Quinn.
“It’s time that his sacrifice — 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit — is honored,” she said.
Although there was enough evidence to convince a U.S. District judge that Steidl was the victim of a tainted prosecution — evidence that included unreliable witnesses and questionable forensics, apparently Quinn is having a difficult time seeing Steidl’s innocence.
“Each case varies. Some require more time, more review than others,” said Katie Hickey, a spokesman for the governor.
“Some of them are still under consideration and this is one of those cases that has not been acted upon. Once the governor has reached a decision, he will continue… he will continue to work on petitions as expeditiously as possible, including this one,” Hickey said.
She pointed out that when Quinn took office six years ago, he faced a backlog of 2,838 clemency petitions.
“After he got in office, the numbers started to go up and the governor has acted on 3,358 petitions. He has made it a real priority,” Hickey said.
But Steidl’s wrongful conviction isn’t the only shocking clemency petition languishing on the governor’s desk.
Anthony Dansberry has been incarcerated since 1991 and his clemency petition has been on Quinn’s desk for four years.
Dansberry’s lawyers claim he has spent 23 years in prison for a murder he did not commit because he was tricked into signing a confession.
He is accused of mugging a 77-year-old suburban woman who later died.
Dansberry, who has a low IQ and cannot read, said he thought he was signing release papers when he was actually signing a prepared confession.
Without clemency, Dansberry will be in prison until he is eligible for parole in 2029.
Quinn has only a month left in office and there is an estimated 3,000 clemency petitions on his desk. It is unlikely that everyone crying out for mercy will be heard.
But there’s no excuse for ignoring the blatant injustice that Steidl and Dansberry’s incarceration represents.
It would be a waste of power to leave these egregious cases as unfinished business.
with regard to the acts of torture committed by CPD Commander Jon Burge and others under his command between 1972 and 1991, the Committee notes … that a federal rights investigation did not develop sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that prosecutable constitutional violations occurred. However, … despite the fact that Jon Burge was convicted for perjury and obstruction of justice, no Chicago police officer has been convicted for these acts of torture for reasons including the statute of limitations expiring. … [S]everal victims were ultimately exonerated of the underlying crimes, [but] the vast majority of those tortured—most of them African Americans—have received no compensation for the extensive injuries suffered.
I am deeply concerned at the disproportionate number of young African Americans who die in encounters with police officers, as well as the disproportionate number of African Americans in U.S. prisons and the disproportionate number of African Americans on Death Row. It is clear that, at least among some sectors of the population, there is a deep and festering lack of confidence in the fairness of the justice and law enforcement systems. I urge the U.S. authorities to conduct in-depth examinations into how race-related issues are affecting law enforcement and the administration of justice, both at the federal and state levels.
December 10th is International Human Rights Day, which was first declared in 1950 by the United Nations in order to “bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” On such an important date, it is appropriate to illuminate the recent proceedings before the United Nations Committee Against Torture, (CAT), and the findings that the CAT made in response.
In mid-November, representatives of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project and We Charge Genocide, the parents of Michael Brown, and other activists journeyed to Geneva, Switzerland and presented evidence concerning law enforcement violence and torture in Chicago, across the United States, and at Guantanamo, to the experts of the CAT. When representatives of the United States Government presented its defense to the documented charges, many in the activists, led by the We Charge Genocide delegation, stood and unfurled signs in silent protest. On November 20th, the CAT issued its findings on these and other related human rights issues.
With regard to the ongoing Chicago police torture scandal, which the CAT first cited in its 2006 findings, and the ongoing police violence against African American and Latinos in Chicago, the CAT first addressed the need for specific legislation making torture by law enforcement officers a federal crime. Referencing the Law Enforcement Torture Prevention Act which has been introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Danny Davis on two separate occasions, and which would make police torture a federal crime without a statute of limitations, the Committee found:
The Committee reiterates its previous recommendation (A/55/44, para. 180 (a) and CAT/C/USA/CO/2, para. 13) that the State party should criminalize torture at the federal level, in full conformity with article 1 of the Convention, and ensure that penalties for torture are commensurate with the gravity of this crime. It recommends the re-introduction of the Law Enforcement Torture Prevention Act, a bill which contains a definition of torture and specifically criminalizes acts of torture by law enforcement personnel and others under the color of law.
Later in the Report, the Committee again addressed the Chicago police torture scandal, stating that:
with regard to the acts of torture committed by CPD Commander Jon Burge and others under his command between 1972 and 1991, the Committee notes the information provided by the State party that a federal rights investigation did not develop sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that prosecutable constitutional violations occurred. However, it remains concerned that, despite the fact that Jon Burge was convicted for perjury and obstruction of justice, no Chicago police officer has been convicted for these acts of torture for reasons including the statute of limitations expiring. While noting that several victims were ultimately exonerated of the underlying crimes, the vast majority of those tortured –most of them African Americans–, have received no compensation for the extensive injuries suffered (arts. 11, 12, 13, 14 and 16).
The Committee then renewed its call for torture prosecutions and gave a strong endorsement to the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project’s ongoing campaign for financial, psychological, medical, and educational reparations for the survivors of Burge related torture by calling on the Government to provide for the “redress for CPD torture survivors by supporting the passage of the Ordinance entitled Reparations for the Chicago Police Torture Survivors.” Reparations such as those sought in Chicago are called for by General Comment 3 to Article 14 of the UN Convention Against Torture.
The CAT also stated, in response to a Report presented by We Charge Genocide, that it was “particularly concerned at the reported current police violence in Chicago, especially against African-American and Latino young people who are allegedly being consistently profiled, harassed and subjected to excessive force by Chicago Police,” and with the “frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals.” In response, it urged the authorities to “ensure that all instances of police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officers are investigated promptly, effectively and impartially by an independent mechanism with no institutional or hierarchical connection between the investigators and the alleged perpetrators.”
Use of Tasers
The Committee also examined law enforcement’s use of Tasers on unarmed citizens:
The Committee is concerned about numerous, consistent reports that police have used electrical discharge weapons against unarmed individuals who resist arrest or fail to comply immediately with commands, suspects fleeing minor crime scenes, or even minors.
The Committee further stated that it was “appalled at the number of reported deaths after the use of electrical discharge weapons,” singled out the recent cases of Israel “Reefa” Hernández Llach in Miami Beach, Florida, and Dominique Franklin Jr. in Sauk Village, Illinois, and emphasized “the need to introduce more stringent regulations governing their use.” It also urged that tasers be used “exclusively in extreme and limited situations –where there is a real and immediate threat to life or risk of serious injury– as a substitute for lethal weapons and by trained law enforcement personnel only,” that tasers be prohibited from use on children and pregnant women, that they be subjected to “principles of necessity and proportionality” and that they be “inadmissible in the equipment of custodial staff in prisons or any other place of deprivation of liberty.” The Committee also urged “the State party to provide more stringent instructions to law enforcement personnel entitled to use electric discharge weapons, and to strictly monitor and supervise their use through mandatory reporting and review of each use.”
Prisons, the Death Penalty, and Juvenile Justice
The CAT also addressed the death penalty, numerous systemic human rights violations within the prisons and jails of the U.S., and juvenile justice. After hailing the abolishment of the death penalty in six states since its last report, the Committee condemned the torturous suffering that has accompanied numerous executions across the country, referencing the use of untested lethal drug cocktails, and called for a moratorium on the death penalty and commutation of death sentences “with a view to abolish” this draconian measure. It also condemned sexual and other related prison violence, particularly against LGBTI and mentally disturbed prisoners, the proliferation of deaths in custody, the shackling of pregnant prisoners, and the use super max prisons and other forms of extended solitary confinement. It also recommended the prohibition of solitary confinement for juveniles and the placement of juveniles in adult prisons, and the abolishment of life without parole sentences for juveniles regardless of the crime for which they were convicted. Additionally, the CAT endorsed the enhanced use of alternatives to prison.
Guantanamo and the Use of Torture
The Committee expressed “its deep concern” that the U.S. Government “continues to hold a number of individuals without charge at Guantanamo Bay detention facilities” as “enemy belligerents” whom the U.S. claims it is “entitled to hold” “until the end of the hostilities.” The CAT then reiterated that, in its view, this “indefinite detention constitutes per se a violation” of the U.N. Convention Against Torture. It cited to evidence that out of the 148 men still held at Guantanamo, only 33 have been designated for potential prosecution, in violation of international fair trial standards, and further articulated its concern that “federal courts have rejected a significant number of habeas corpus petitions.”
With regard to the conditions of confinement at Guantanamo, the Committee “remained concerned about the secrecy surrounding conditions of confinement,” and noted “the studies received on the cumulative effect that the conditions of detention and treatment in Guantanamo have had on the psychological health of detainees.” It cited the nine deaths in Guantanamo during the period under its review, including seven suicides, repeated suicide attempts, and the “recurrent mass hunger strike protests by detainees over indefinite detention and conditions of detention.” Additionally, it condemned the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strikes, sometimes reportedly administered in an unnecessarily brutal and painful manner, which “constitutes ill-treatment in violation of the Convention.”
The Committee called on the U.S. Government to
And, most significantly, the CAT reiterated its earlier recommendation, set forth at CAT/C/USA/CO/2, para 2 that “the State party should close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, as instructed in section 3 of Executive Order 13492 of 22 January 2009.”
The Committee also decried the lack of prosecutions for, and transparency about, numerous apparent criminal acts, including homicides and enforced disappearances, committed by CIA operatives, the U.S. military, and other U.S. agents at foreign locations including in Afghanistan, and as part of the U.S. Government’s rendition program. It condemned the continued use of sleep and sensory deprivation, including blindfolds, goggles, and earmuffs, as interrogation techniques. It also called for an absolute bar to torture in all forms and circumstances, including where terrorism is alleged, and for the “declassification and prompt public release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s secret detention and interrogation programme with minimal redactions.”
The Michael Brown case
Despite a compelling closed door presentation by Michael Brown’s parents, the CAT did not expressly mention the unjustified shooting of Michael Brown in its Report. When queried about this omission, a Committee member stated that the CAT “has to respect the decision” of authorities not to prosecute Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson. However, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad, in response to the Ferguson Grand Jury’s decision, issued a statement which articulated a “deep concern” about U.S. racism and its connection to law enforcement violence:
I am deeply concerned at the disproportionate number of young African Americans who die in encounters with police officers, as well as the disproportionate number of African Americans in U.S. prisons and the disproportionate number of African Americans on Death Row. It is clear that, at least among some sectors of the population, there is a deep and festering lack of confidence in the fairness of the justice and law enforcement systems. I urge the US authorities to conduct in-depth examinations into how race-related issues are affecting law enforcement and the administration of justice, both at the federal and state levels.
On this, the 74th annual International Human Rights Day, it is well past time for U.S. and local governmental officials to heed the recent findings of the U.N. Committee Against Torture and the urgings of the High Commissioner by implementing the systemic changes that the Committee has so powerfully recommended in its Report. To continue to ignore the problems that the CAT has identified and the remedies it suggests will doom people of color here and abroad to further racist law enforcement violence and the continuation of a fundamentally unjust criminal justice system.
People’s Law Office is happy to announce that Rasmea Odeh, beloved community leader, is being released on bond and going home. PLO attorney, Michael Deutsch, is part of Rasmea’s defense team.
Press inquiries: Hatem Abudayyeh, 773.301.4108, firstname.lastname@example.org