Accepting Applications for Summer Internship

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 December 30, 2014.  A stipend is available.

Welcome Our New Associate, Shubra Ohri

People’s Law Office is pleased to welcome our new associate, Shubra Ohri.  Shubra is a creative and dedicated advocate who brings her passion for human rights both internationally and domestically to her work at People’s Law Office.  Shubra is currently using her extensive international human rights experience to present the Jon Burge torture cases to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva.  In Geneva, she is urging the Committee to call on the United States to comply with the provisions of the Convention Against Torture by providing redress to Burge torture survivors and holding those officers complicit in the systematic torture responsible for their violations of international human rights law. 

Update on Rasmea Odeh Trial

UPDATE ON RASMEA ODEH TRIAL
Friday, November 7 (Day 4 of Trial)

The trial against Palestinian-American Rasmea Odeh began earlier this week in Detroit.  Rasmea is being represented by Michael Deutsch of People’s Law Office, with co-counsel Jim Fennerty, another Chicago-based civil rights attorney, along with William Goodman and Dennis Cunningham.

Rasmea is on trial in Federal Court for failing to disclose a prior conviction in her immigration application to the United States.  The prior conviction was from Israel and related to a 1969 bombing at a supermarket in Jerusalem.  She had been arrested, interrogated and tortured by the Israeli military.  As a result of the torture, she confessed to involvement with the bombing.

Prior to trial, the judge made rulings limiting the defense.  One of the most significant rulings was prevented Rasmea or her attorneys from raising the torture she suffered or the psychological impact it had on her, which could explain her answers on the immigration form.  This was despite the judge finding her torture claims “credible.”

Trial began on Tuesday and the first day was spent selecting a jury.  Opening statements took place on Wednesday.  Arguing for the government, Assistant US Attorney Mark Jebson argued simply that Rasmea should be convicted for immigration fraud for failing to disclose her 1970 conviction.

During his opening argument, Michael Deutsch detailed Rasmea’s life.  He described how she lost the family home to Israeli settlers at a young age and explained how she was arrested and interrogated for weeks by the Israeli military.  Due to the judge’s ruling, he was unable to go into detail about the torture she suffered.  Deutsch also told the jury about Rasmea’s life here in the United States and how much respect she has in the community.  Deutsch closed by asking the jurors to remain fair and use their sense of justice to find Rasmea Not Guilty.

The prosecution presented their case Wednesday afternoon, calling agents from Department of Homeland Security and US Citizenship and Immigration Service.  The government’s case continued into Thursday morning.

On Thursday, the defense began presenting their case, calling UIC professor Nadine Naber to describe Rasmea and her work with Muslim and Arab women immigrants in the Chicago area.  Following Naber’s testimony, Rasmea took the stand.  Rasmea’s testimony went into her life growing up in Palestine where the family was forced from their home in 1948.  The family was forced to live as refugees before moving to Ramallah, where they lived during the 1967 war and occupation of the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza.  Ramsea then described her arrest by the Israeli military, her time as a political prisoner in Israel and her release as part of a prisoner trade.

Rasmea then went on to testify about the immigration process of coming to the United States.  She explained her English was weak at the time and she had her brother assist in filling out the forms.  She also testified that when there were questions about whether she had been arrested, her understanding was that those questions referred to arrests in the United States.

Rasmea’s testimony will continue today and she will be cross-examined by the government.  It is expected that closing arguments will follow her testimony and that the jury will begin deliberating on Monday, November 10.

For more on the trial
Earlier post from our site: Rasmea Odeh Trial to Begin Tuesday
Will Rasmea Odeh Go to Prison Because of a Confession Obtained Through Torture? in The Nation
Report on Rasmea Trial Day 2 by US Palestinian Community Network (USPCN)
Report on Rasmea Trial Day 3 by USPCN
Rasmea Odeh takes the stand in her own defense in Electronic Intifada
Press Release on Tuesday, November 4 from National Lawyers Guild

Motion to Dismiss Filed on Behalf of Animal Rights Activists

Today, attorneys representing animal rights activists Kevin Johnson and Tyler Lang filed a motion to dismiss the indictment charging them with violating the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA).  The motion asserts that the AETA is unconstitutional.

Kevin Johnson is represented by Michael Deutsch of People’s Law Office with co-counsel National Lawyers Guild member Lillian McCartin and Rachel Meerpool of Center for Constitutional Rights.  Tyler Lang is represented by Geoffry Meyer of the Federal Defender Program.

Kevin and Tyler are both animal rights activists and were indicted in July.  The government alleges that last year they released mink from a fur farm in rural Illinois and conspired to release fox from another fur farm.  The government claims that this non-violent act of releasing animals constitutes “terrorism.”  They each face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

The AETA, which we have written about before, was passed by Congress and signed into law in 2006, amending and expanding the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA).  The act makes “damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise” or “intentionally plac[ing] a person in fear of death or serious bodily injury” federal crimes of terrorism.

The motion filed today argues that the AETA is unconstitutional because it makes no distinction between loss caused by criminal acts and loss caused by boycotts and other constitutionally-protected activity, and that, in any event, punishing non-violent activity as “terrorism” is an unconstitutional denial of due process.

Our work representing Kevin Johnson is part of our continued commitment to combating state repression and defending activists who are labeled “terrorists” based on their political beliefs.

For more information on the case:
Read the Motion to Dismiss and Indictment
Read more about our work fighting political repression and representing activists
Read about our representation of Scott DeMuth, who was charged under the AEPA.
“Freeing Animals is Not ‘Terrorism’” by CCR
Read CCR’s case page: US v. Johnson

Rasmea Odeh Trial to Begin Tuesday

Michael Deutsch (left) and Rasmea Odeh (right)

Palestinian-American community activist Rasmea Odeh is scheduled to go to trial in Detroit on Tuesday, November 4.  Odeh, represented by Michael Deutsch of People’s Law Office and attorney Jim Fennerty is being charged in Federal Court for failing to disclose a prior conviction in her immigration application to the United States.

The prior conviction was in Israel and related to a 1969 bombing at a supermarket in Jerusalem.  Odeh had been arrested, interrogated and tortured by the Israeli military.  As a result of the torture, she confessed to involvement with the bombing.

She served 10 years in prison in Israel and after she was released, she traveled to Geneva where she testified about the torture she suffered at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces.  Odeh then lived in Lebanon and Jordan before immigrating to the United States in 1994.

Since living in the United States, Odeh has been an active member of the Palestinian-American community and became the deputy director of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN).  AAAN is a Chicago-based non-profit that provides services, organizes anti-discrimination campaigns and Palestinian solidarity work.

This Palestinian solidarity work has made AAAN the target of government surveillance.  In 2010 the AAAN was investigated by the FBI and the FBI raided the home of Hatem Abudayyeh, AAAN’s executive director.  As part of this investigation, the FBI wanted more information on Rasmea’s background and sent a request to the Israeli government to pull her file.

Rasmea’s case exemplifies the willingness of the federal government to use criminal legal system against the Palestinian-American community.  People’s Law Office is proud to represent Rasmea and to stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine.

Follow People’s Law Office on Twitter and Facebook for updates on the trial.

For more information about Rasmea’s case:
Listen to attorney Michael Deutsch and co-counsel Jim Fennerty speak about Rasmea’s case on Worldview on WBEZ

Tortured and Raped by Israel, Persecuted by the United States by Dahr Jamail in Truthout

Judge deals major blow to Rasmea Odeh’s defense by Charlotte Silver on Electronic Intifada

Federal Judge Won’t Delay Trial for Arab Activist in Detroit Free Press

 

To learn more about the work of People’s Law Office defending those targeted by the government, read the Political Repression page on this site

Mayor Emanuel Rides the Fence as Police Torturer Jon Burge Is Released From Prison

This article was originally posted in the HuffingtonPost on 10/10/2014.

by G. Flint Taylor.

On October 2, 2014, former Chicago police commander Jon Burge, who was convicted of lying about torturing over 100 African-American men at station houses on Chicago’s South and West Sides, walked out of the Butner Correctional Institution, having been released to a halfway house in Tampa, Florida. Meanwhile, in Chicago, a group of lawyers, activists, and City Council members, speaking at a widely covered press conference, renewed their demand for passage of a Torture Reparations Ordinance that would help to heal the lingering wounds left by the Chicago police torture scandal.

Burge’s 2010 conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice came nearly 20 years after his reign of racist terror finally ended. From 1972 to 1991, he led a torture ring of white Chicago detectives who routinely used electric shock, suffocation with plastic bags and typewriter covers, mock executions and brutal attacks on the genitals to obtain confessions from their victims. A team of lawyers at the People’s Law Office, including myself, documented 118 such cases. But a series of police superintendents, numerous Cook County prosecutors and a cover-up that implicated former Mayor Richard M. Daley (during his time as both mayor and state’s attorney) protected Burge and his men from prosecution until well after the statute of limitations had run out on their crimes of torture.

Like Al Capone’s prosecution for tax evasion, Burge could only be prosecuted for lying about what he and his men did, not for the deeds themselves. He was sentenced to the maximum term of four and a half years, and ended up serving three and a half before being released to a halfway house — a stark contrast to the fates of his victims, many of whom received life sentences on the basis of confessions that were tortured from them.

Despite his felony conviction, Burge continued to collect his pension (now more than $50,000 per year) while serving his time, and the Illinois Supreme Court recently decided four to three that he may continue to do so in the future. But the nearly $700,000 that Burge has already collected is little compared to what Chicago, Cook County, the State of Illinois and federal taxpayers have already expended as a result of the Burge torture scandal.

Chicago has spent more than $20,000,000 to provide legal defense to Burge and his men in the numerous civil damages suits brought against them over the years. Chicago, Cook County and the State of Illinois have paid out more than $66,000,000 in settlements to compensate the Burge torture survivors who were wrongfully convicted on the basis of false confessions. The city, county, state and federal governments have spent more than $15,000,000 investigating and prosecuting Burge. And his cabal of officers has received $22,000,000 in pensions to date.

The total financial damage to taxpayers as a result of the torture of over 100 black men that Burge oversaw, and the ongoing payouts to his collaborating officers, now exceeds $120,000,000, and will only keep growing.

While Burge’s conviction and imprisonment were rightly seen as a major victory for the ongoing human rights struggle against police torture, the battle has continued apace. As many as 20 Burge torture victims remain behind bars decades after their convictions, and the movement has focused on demanding new hearings for them at which they would be permitted to present the evidence of systematic torture that has come to light since their convictions.

Some of these men have won new hearings, while others have either been denied or are awaiting decisions from the courts or the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (TIRC) on their requests. A court appointed monitor is examining prisoner files and letters to determine whether there are additional prisoners who may be entitled to judicial review of their claims of Burge-related torture. And the TIRC, which was created by the Illinois Legislature in response to the demands of community activists, is also reviewing some 65 additional claims of torture and related abuse at the hands of detectives who, while not working for Burge at the time of the alleged torture, had previously worked for him.

While Chicago has spent more than $20 million defending Burge and his crew, the dozens of survivors who have not been officially exonerated have received little or no compensation. Working menial jobs or unemployed, with many in need of health services for their physical and mental trauma, a number of them have courageously stepped forward and testified against Burge or have otherwise spoken out about their torture.

Two leading examples are Anthony Holmes and Darrell Cannon. Holmes, who was the first known victim of Burge’s electric shock and suffocation tactics, was a key witness against Burge at his trial and sentencing nearly 40 years later. Cannon, who in 1983was subjected to electric shock and a mock execution by three of Burge’s henchmen, has become the leading spokesman in Chicago’s anti-torture movement, and his case is featured in Amnesty International’s current campaign against torture in the United States.

Both men spent decades in prison on the basis of confessions tortured from them, but Holmes has received no compensation, while Cannon received a $3,000 settlement before the torture cover-up came unglued.

The contrast between the official treatment of the torturers and their victims has spurred activists, torture survivors and lawyers working with the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project (CTJM) to campaign for the passage of a city ordinance that would address this appalling discrepancy. Introduced into City Council last October by Aldermen Joe Moreno and Howard Brookins, the “Reparations Ordinance” calls for the establishment of a $20 million fund to compensate torture survivors who have so far received little money or nothing at all.

The reparations would also include an official public apology from the City of Chicago and the establishment of a center on Chicago’s South Side where survivors and their families could receive treatment and educational and job training opportunities. Additionally, the ordinance mandates that the history of Chicago police torture be taught in Chicago’s public schools, and that memorials to the torture survivors be erected in the city.

As a result of CTJM’s work, the ordinance now has the sponsorship of a majority of the 50 Chicago City Council members. CTJM has also issued a formal request to all of the city’s major Democratic candidates for mayor, both declared and undeclared, to publicly support the ordinance. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who is considering challenging Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the 2015 mayoral race, has issued a strong endorsement of the ordinance, stating that “reparations for the survivors of Chicago police torture are long past due.”

In a written response to the October 2 Press Conference, Mayor Emanuel stated that “on behalf of the city of Chicago, I want to once again apologize to the victims and their families for the injustices they have suffered and reaffirm my pledge as mayor to do everything in my power to right these wrongs and bring a close to this dark chapter in Chicago’s history.” However, only six days later, in response to the pointed questioning of dogged City Hall reporter Fran Spielman, Emanuel at first equivocated, saying, a year after the Ordinance was first introduced, that “on the money piece, we have to study it,” and then, more negatively, that “there are things that were mentioned that we’ll work through. As it relates to [monetary] reparations, I need time to evaluate it. I don’t think that’s the course we should take.”

With the February 2015 mayoral primary fast approaching, Emanuel, whose assertions of concern for the needs of the African-American community all too often ring hollow, would be wise to consider the consequences of failing to support such a reasonable effort to heal the still festering wounds inflicted by the torture scandal. If he fails to quickly do so, the demand for a prompt City Council hearing, at which the compelling reasons for passage of the Ordinance would be fully aired, will become a powerful rallying cry for justice on behalf of the Burge torture survivors.

Chicago, like the country at large, has been sensitized to racist police violence by the events in Ferguson, Missouri. In July, two African-American youths were shot downby Chicago police officers, and a Chicago police commander has been suspended and criminally charged for torturing an arrestee by shoving a gun into his mouth.

In this racially charged atmosphere, Burge’s release serves to further energize the forces that are fighting for justice for the survivors of torture. Reparations and fair hearings will go a long way to finally affording closure to a scandal that has dogged Chicago for more than forty years.

Governor of Puerto Rico Visits Oscar Lopez in Prison

Terre Haute, Indiana
Alejandro García Padilla/ Governor of Puerto Rico
October 8, 2014
The morning was colder than anticipated: 48 degrees Fahrenheit. I arrived the night before in Indianapolis, Indiana, from where we left, driving for an hour and a half, to the Holiday Inn in Terre Haute. That morning we met to have breakfast with Puerto Rican Congressman Luis Gutiérrez. Then we left for Terre Haute Federal Prison. Arriving, the cold hit us again. We walked to the entrance. There we identified ourselves and waited a few minutes to enter.
 
That prison was built in 1938 and later adapted for current requirements. It’s made of dark brick. It looks well maintained, clear and clean on the inside. Photos of the building as it looked in 1938 adorn the lobby. While I looked at them, the guard called me to go in. We passed the first and second gates. Then we walked through an internal yard that leads to the main building. Walking out to this yard, it was still cold. I thought of all the souls gathered there since 1938. How many deserved it. How many didn’t. How many who deserved it never got there. How many who deserve it now aren’t there.
 
We arrived at the main building. Another gate. A hallway, another door, and then another gate. Then a waiting room with some one hundred chairs. Comfortable. Like an airport. Placed in line across from each other. They’re assigned by number. We sit down. At the other end, a family with a prisoner.
 
Soon, from a door at the other end, out came the man I came to see. A short man, showing his years. He looked at me and smiled. He’s the same as he looks in the photo published with the column this newspaper publishes on Saturdays. He went to the guard and then walked over to us. Luis hugged him and they greeted each other with affection, like people who have known each other for more than 40 years. Then I greeted him. I gave him a big hug, and he returned it. I told him about the solidarity of his people and the affection all of us in Puerto Rico have for him. We hugged strongly again. We sat down. 
 
For almost three hours we talked about his childhood in San Sebastián. About his life in Chicago. About people in Chicago at the time. About his friends. About people in Puerto Rico at the time. About people in Puerto Rico now. We talked about Vietnam, where he was declared a hero. We talked about why he joined the independence movement. We talked about the current problems in Puerto Rico and about the most important thing to resolve them: solidarity.
 
Oscar López Rivera has been in prison for 33 years. He hasn’t been accused of committing any violent act. He hasn’t been connected to any violent act. He was accused of conspiring. The line that divides “conspiring” from “thinking” is very fine. I don’t think Oscar would be a danger for the future of our country, of our community, or of our family. His sentence, far too excessive, violates the most elemental principles of humanity, sensitivity and justice. Oscar López Rivera owes no debt to society, and if he ever did, he paid it a long time ago. He hasn’t done us any harm. 
 
Who has harmed us are corrupt politicians or those who mortgaged the future, our present, borrowing without caring who had to pay. But they’re not in Terre Haute. What has harmed us are the advertisements of the Republican ultra right of the U.S. press, sponsoring a local political party. But they’re not in Terre Haute. What has harmed us are those who only worry about votes, or about their counterpart in the media, ratings. But they don’t even know where Terre Haute is. Who harms us are the parents who aren’t concerned about their children’s education. But they aren’t even interested in knowing about what Terre Haute is.
 
After about three hours, I asked him what message, if any, he wanted me to take to you. He thought for a moment. He said he was grateful for what has been done for his release. Then he spoke of hope and of solidarity. Yes. This man who has been in prison for 33 years. Who is already 71 years old. He still has heart and spirit to talk about solidarity and hope. What a lesson for so many people!
 
The time arrived for me to leave. I had to go back to Indianapolis to catch my flight. I wanted to talk longer with him. I gave him a big hug. I told him that we would keep working for his release. I asked God to bless him. He thanked me. I thanked him. 
 
Leaving, it was still 48 degrees Fahrenheit. But for me, now it was a warm morning.
 
I hope to greet that compatriot again, in Puerto Rico. 

Reparations Now!

Chicago Torture Justice Memorials

c/o People’s Law Office      1180 N. Milwaukee Ave.     Chicago, Illinois  60642 www.chicatorture.org

For Immediate Release:          October 2, 2014

CHICAGO — Today, a coalition of Chicago City Councilmen, torture survivors, activists and attorneys drew together to demand the passage of an Ordinance providing Reparations for the Chicago Police Torture Survivors.  The ordinance is currently pending in the Finance Committee, and it has the support of 26 Alderpeople, possible Mayoral candidate Karen Lewis, Mayoral candidate Dr. Amara Enyia and Amnesty International, USA.

The Chicago Torture Justice Memorial Project (CTJM), a group organizing around the Reparations Ordinance, called attention to the cruel irony that former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge was being released from prison today.  Burge will be able to enjoy the benefits of his police pension funded by Chicago citizens’ taxpayer money, while the vast majority of Burge torture survivors have not received a penny in financial compensation from the City or any services or assistance needed to heal from the effects of the torture they and their families continue to suffer from.

Burge was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury in June of 2010 after he falsely denied in a federal civil rights suit that he and detectives under his command engaged in acts of torture and physical abuse.  In January of 2011, he was sentenced to serve 4 ½ years in prison.  Today, he was released from the Butner Federal Correctional Institution to a halfway house in Florida.

Aldermen Proco Joe Moreno (1st Ward) and Howard B. Brookins (21st Ward) filed

the Ordinance in Chicago’s City Council on October 16, 2013.  The Ordinance is now supported by a total of 26 Alderpeople, including: Joe Moore (49th Ward), Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward); Roberto Maldonado (26th Ward), Pat Dowell (3rd Ward), Will Burns (4th Ward), Leslie Hairston (5th Ward), Toni Foulkes (15th Ward), Lona Lane (18th Ward), Willie Cochran (20th Ward), Ricardo Munoz (22nd Ward), Michael Chandler (24th Ward), Danny Solis (25th Ward), Walter Burnett Jr. (27th Ward), Jason Ervin (28th Ward), Scott Waguespeck (32nd Ward), Deborah Mell (33rd Ward), Rey Colon (35th Ward), Nick Sposato (36th Ward), Emma Mitts (37th Ward), Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward), Michelle Smith (43rd Ward), James Cappelman (46th Ward), John Arena (45th Ward), Ameya Pawar (47th Ward).

Describing the need for the ordinance, Alderman Moreno said “The damage done by these individuals is irreversible and will remain a stain on Chicago’s reputation and collective consciousness for decades to come. It is our duty to help these victims and their families, and it is a moral and ethical imperative. It is our hope that the healing and forgiving process can begin with the passage of this legislation.”

Anthony Holmes, one of Burge’s first known victims, said in support of the ordinance, “Burge tortured me with electric shock and suffocation in 1973.  I was a witness against Burge at his perjury trial, but I have never received one penny in compensation because of the statute of limitations.  I now work delivering newspapers. The ordinance will bring some amount of justice to me and many other survivors.”

The Ordinance serves as a formal apology to the survivors; creates a Commission to administer financial compensation to the survivors; creates a medical, psychological, and vocational center on the south side of Chicago; provides free enrollment in City Colleges to the survivors; requires Chicago Public schools to teach a history lesson about the cases; requires the City to fund public memorials about the cases; and sets aside $20 million to finance this redress ­- the same amount of money the City has spent to defend Burge, other detectives and former Mayor Richard M. Daley in the Chicago Police torture cases.

The ordinance provides an equal amount of money — $20,000,000 — to compensate the survivors of Burge’s reign of torture as the City has already paid that amount to defend Jon Burge, Richard M. Daley and others responsible for these egregious acts.

“Now, that Burge has been convicted, no one can legitimately question that Burge and others engaged in these heinous acts of torture.  It is now time for the City of Chicago to take full responsibility for the egregious harm inflicted by Burge and his men and pass this legislation to provide the torture survivors and their family members the compensation and services they so richly deserve,” said Joey Mogul of the People’s Law Office and Chicago Torture Justice Memorial Project (CTJM), who represents Anthony Holmes and numerous other torture survivors.

Alice Kim, of CTJM said “It’s about financial compensation, but also a formal apology, a public memorial and history lessons in Chicago schools would go a long way towards fully reckoning with these horrific atrocities.”

Adam Green, University of Chicago professor and CTJM member said: “We call today for our elected officials, our leaders and our neighbors to stand up, at last, and right wrongs which devastated the lives of over a hundred young men and women from 1972 to 1991, discrediting our city for twenty years and beyond, to the present day.

CTJM looks forward to having a hearing on the Reparations Ordinance in the Finance Committee in the coming weeks.

Over 120 African American men and women were subjected to torture that was racially motivated and included electric shock, mock executions, suffocation and beatings by now convicted former Police Commander Jon Burge and his subordinates.  Although Burge was convicted for perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from the torture cases in federal court in 2010, scores of Chicago Police Torture survivors continue to suffer from the psychological effects of the torture they endured without any compensation, assistance, and they have no legal recourse for any redress.

 

Statement on the Ordinance Providing Reparations to the Chicago Police Torture Survivors

Adam Green (University of Chicago and CTJM) 10/2/2014

I speak this morning as one member of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial Project.  We are a fellowship of advocates, artists and researchers committed to a just, humane and accountable Chicago.  The fierce call for truth, along with unstinting support for inalienable human dignity, are cornerstones of all worthwhile endeavors, be they works of art, leadership of cities – or the joining into righteous struggles for change.

We call today for our elected officials, our leaders and our neighbors to stand up, at last, and right wrongs which devastated the lives of over a hundred young men from 1972 to 1991, discrediting our city for twenty years and beyond, to the present day.   We know that torture was committed in Chicago, by Jon Burge and detectives under his command, in Area Detective Stations 2 and 3 during this time.  We know this because those who survived torture, their families, and their advocates bore witness, filed suits, and marched in the streets, so that the atrocious story of their violation could be told and remembered.  But we also know – and cannot forget – that the shameful fact and searing memory of this torture was denied far too long by a government devoted to defending perpetrators rather than restoring victims, and ignored by too many in this city, tragically conditioned to believe that no action of law enforcement could, in fact, be judged too extreme.

This ordinance is a call, in solidarity with survivors of police torture and their families, for comprehensive reparations intended, first and foremost, to restore to them some measure of fairness and healing, against a balance of irreparable loss caused by gross physical and psychological harm, along with years of life thieved away through coerced convictions and often excessive prison sentences.  By engaging these Aldermen – our local representatives – to enact this ordinance, we are also asking all Chicagoans to join in restoring trust and wellbeing for these survivors and, through them, for the segregated and starved communities they grew up in, and live in today.

Such shared commitment to truth, justice and humanity, surely, represents this city far better than seeking to turn the page and close the book, absent healing for, and sincere atonement to, those who suffered the most from police torture in this city.

 

Alice Kim (CTJM Member) 10/2/2014

It is now known that over 110 African American and Latino people were systematically tortured by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his detectives, but this was not always the case. For years, no one believed the torture was happening. After he was tortured, Darrell Cannon drew these drawings from his cell at Cook County Jail. Still no one believed him. If you read Anthony Holmes’ testimony from Burge’s sentencing hearing in January 2011 he said that he tried to get help throughout the years, but no one listened to him. After serving 34 years for a crime he did not commit, Anthony said that he had no help and without any psychological counseling or other assistance, he slipped through the cracks.

Anthony and all of the torture survivors deserve better than that. This reparations ordinance was crafted based on the needs that the survivors themselves have expressed, from the hardships they continue to face. You don’t often don’t hear about cases like Anthony’s. The truth is scores of torture survivors and their families have not received any compensation or assistance whatsoever.

The survivors not only deserve to be financially compensated for the torture that was inflicted on them, they deserve support that will allow them to live healthy and productive lives; they and their families deserve to live with dignity; they deserve psychological counseling, vocational training, free education in our city colleges; they deserve an official public apology. Our communities deserve to have this history of torture taught in our public schools. And not unimportantly we, the people of Chicago and beyond, deserve public memorials to ensure collectively that we never forget this history and as a reminder for us to do everything in our power to keep this from ever happening again.

Jon Burge, Torturer of Over 100 Black Men, is Out of Prison After Less Than Four Years

BY FLINT TAYLOR

Today, former Chicago police commander Jon Burge, who was convicted of lying about torturing over 100 African-American men at stationhouses on Chicago’s South and West Sides, will walk out of the Butner Correctional Institution, having been granted an early release to a halfway house in Tampa, Florida.

Burge’s 2010 conviction for perjury came nearly 20 years after his reign of racist terror finally ended. From 1972 to 1991, he led a torture ring of white Chicago detectiveswho routinely used electric shock, suffocation with plastic bags and typewriter covers, mock executions and brutal attacks on the genitals to obtain confessions from their victims. A team of lawyers at the People’s Law Office, including myself, documented 118 such cases. But a series of police superintendents, numerous Cook County prosecutors and a cover-up that implicated former Mayor Richard M. Daley (during his time as both mayor and state’s attorney) protected Burge and his men from prosecution until well after the statute of limitations had run out on their crimes of torture.

Like Al Capone, Burge could only be prosecuted for lying about what he and his men did, not for the deeds themselves. He was sentenced to the maximum term of four and a half years, and ended up serving three and a half before being released to a halfway house—a stark contrast to the fates of his victims, many of whom received death sentences or life in prison on the basis of confessions that were tortured from them.

Despite his felony conviction, Burge continued to collect his pension (now at $54,000 per year) while serving his time, and the Illinois Supreme Court recently decided four to three that he may continue to do so in the future. But the nearly $700,000 that Burge has already collected is little compared to what Chicago, Cook County, the State of Illinois and federal taxpayers have already expended as a result of the Burge torture scandal.

Chicago has spent more than $20,000,000 to provide legal defense to Burge and his men in the numerous civil damages suits brought against them over the years. Chicago, Cook County and the State of Illinois have paid out more than $66,000,000 in settlements to compensate the Burge torture survivors who were wrongfully convicted on the basis of false confessions. The city, county, state and federal governments have spent more than $15,000,000 investigating and prosecuting Burge. And his cabal of officers has received $22,000,000 in pensions to date.

The total financial damage to taxpayers as a result of the torture of over 100 black men that Burge oversaw, and the ongoing payouts to his collaborating officers, now exceeds $120,000,000, and will only keep growing.

While Burge’s conviction and imprisonment were rightly seen as a major victory for the ongoing human rights struggle against police torture, the battle has continued apace. As many as 20 Burge torture victims remain behind bars decades after their convictions, and the movement has focused on demanding new hearings for them at which they would be permitted to present the evidence of systematic torture that has come to light since their convictions.

Some of these men have won new hearings, while others have either been denied or are awaiting decisions from the courts or the Illinois Torture and Relief Commission (TIRC) on their requests. A court appointed monitor is examining prisoner files and letters to determine whether there are additional prisoners who may be entitled to judicial review of their claims of Burge-related torture. And the TIRC, which was created by the Illinois Legislature in response to the demands of community activists, is also reviewing some 65 claims of torture and related abuse at the hands of detectives who, while not working for Burge at the time of the alleged torture, had previously worked for him.

While Chicago has spent more than $20 million defending Burge and his crew, the dozens of survivors who have not been officially exonerated have received little or no compensation. Working menial jobs or unemployed, with many in need of health services for their physical and mental trauma, a number of them have courageously stepped forward and testified against Burge or have otherwise spoken out about their torture.

Two leading examples are Anthony Holmes and Darrell Cannon. Holmes, who was the first known victim of Burge’s electric shock and suffocation tactics, was a key witness against Burge at his trial and sentencing nearly 40 years later. Cannon, who was in 1983 was subjected to electric shock and a mock execution by three of Burge’s most racist henchmen, has become the leading spokesman in Chicago’s anti-torture movement, and his case is featured in Amnesty International’s current campaign against torture in the United States.

Both men spent decades in prison on the basis of confessions tortured from them, but Holmes has received no compensation, while Cannon received a $3,000 settlement before the torture cover-up came unglued.

The contrast between the official treatment of the torturers and their victims has spurred activists, torture survivors and lawyers working with the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project (CTJM) to campaign for the passage of a city ordinance that would address this appalling discrepancy. Introduced into City Council last October by Aldermen Joe Moreno and Howard Brookins, the “Reparations Ordinance” calls for the establishment of a $20 million fund to compensate torture survivors who have so far received little money or nothing at all.

The reparations would also include an official public apology from the City of Chicago and the establishment of a center on Chicago’s South Side where survivors and their families could receive treatment and educational and job training opportunities. Additionally, the ordinance mandates that the history of Chicago police torture be taught in Chicago’s public schools, and that memorials to the torture survivors be erected in the city.

As a result of CTJM’s work, the ordinance now has the sponsorship of a majority of the 50 Chicago city council members. CTJM has also issued a formal request to all of the city’s major Democratic candidates for mayor, both declared and undeclared, to publicly support the ordinance. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who is considering challenging Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the 2015 mayoral race, has issued a strong endorsement of the ordinance, stating that “reparations for the survivors of Chicago police torture are long past due.”

With the February 2015 primary fast approaching, Emanuel, whose assertions of concern for the needs of the African-American community all too often ring hollow, would be wise to consider the consequences of failing to support such a reasonable effort to heal the still festering wounds inflicted by the torture scandal.

Chicago, like the country at large, has been sensitized to racist police violence by the events in Ferguson, Missouri. In July, two African-American youths were shot down by Chicago police officers, and a Chicago police commander has been suspended and criminally charged for torturing an arrestee by shoving a gun into his mouth.

In this racially charged atmosphere, Burge’s release serves to further energize the forces that are fighting for justice for the survivors of torture. Reparations and fair hearings will go a long way to finally affording closure to a scandal that has dogged Chicago for more than forty years.

This article originally was published on October 2, 2014, in In These Times.

Puerto Rico’s Colonial Case in the United Nations

This in-depth essay looks at the history and current status of Puerto Rico’s colonial case within the United Nations. With interviews from Petitioners at this year’s Decolonization Committee hearings, it provides an overview and update of efforts in support of Puerto Rico’s independence before the international body.

Pic-1-UN-Photo_Joao-Araujo-Pinto

On June 23, 2014, the Special Committee on Decolonization of the United Nations heard more than 40 petitioners speak on Puerto Rico’s colonial condition. It then approved by consensus a resolution reaffirming “the inalienable right of the people of Puerto Rico to self-determination and independence in conformity with General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV).” Presented by a Cuban representative, members of the Committee from Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica also made supporting statements, some on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

But the Committee, created by the UN General Assembly in 1961, has adopted more than 30 similar resolutions since its first in 1972. Why hasn’t this affected a change in Puerto Rico’s colonial status? Were there other efforts within the UN prior to this?  And what more can be done within the UN to support the decolonization of Puerto Rico?

Part I—Background of the Case

Early Years of the United Nations

To observe the frustrated struggle of Puerto Rican independence advocates within the UN Special Committee is to observe the most recent chapter in the uphill battle such advocates have faced within the UN since its founding in 1945. Among the first to take on this challenge and opportunity were associates of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico. Lawyer and Party member Julio Pinto Gandía would serve as its delegate at the founding meeting in San Francisco, and the next year, as a result of an active and consistent presence, the UN would officially grant the Party observer status as a non-governmental organization. Thelma Mielke, an American pacifist, would be chosen by the Party to take up this post.

When the Charter of the United Nations was signed, its Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories (Chapter XI) applied directly to the case of Puerto Rico. By Article 73 of that text, the United States found itself obligated to promote the well-being of its people, and to submit yearly reports to the UN Secretary-General detailing their economic, social, and educational conditions. An ad hoc committee was then formed in December 1946 to ensure these international obligations were carried out.

Thelma Mielke, only person to exercise observer status in the UN on behalf of a Puerto Rican organization. Source: Lydia Collazo Cortez/Facebook

Besides pressuring the U.S. to follow through with its obligations, the Nationalist Party also submitted its own reports on a more regular basis, sometimes bi-weekly, to delegates at an unofficial level. On August 26, 1947, it even filed a petition for audience with the Secretary-General, and to appear before the ad hoc Committee. With only India, Egypt, and Russia insisting petitions be heard, the other members of the Committee, which by rule was composed of an equal number colonial and non-colonial powers, either voted against or abstained, resulting in the Party being denied its request. This was the first major event in the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence within the UN.

Effects of the Commonwealth Formula

In 1948, as the U.S. government was preparing to draft a constitution to mask its colonial relationship with Puerto Rico, it passed a law criminalizing independence sentiment on the island. In response, Nationalists organized an uprising initiated on October 30, 1950. According to uprising leader Elio Torresola, the fighting was to conclude with the coalescence of all forces in Utuado, when they would seek the supportive intervention of international organizations, such as the UN. The day after it began, UN observer Thelma Mielke wrote the Secretary-General asking that the case of Puerto Rico be considered in the General Assembly. The response given by an assistant two days later was “the Secretary-General is not in a position to take action on the matter.” Disappointed, Mielke was further informed on November 6 that, without explanation, her observer status had been removed.

Letter to Thelma Mielke from UN noting her loss of observer status. Source: pedroapontevazquez.com

By then, more than 200 National Guard members activated by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín were well on their way to quelling the uprising, having bombed by air the towns of Jayuya and Utuado, and arrested more than a thousand. With many Nationalist leaders in prison, the Commonwealth Government was constituted on July 25, 1952. Immediately, the U.S. took action to clear its obligations under the UN. With support from its imperial allies, the abstention of others, and the symbolic endorsement of the new colonial government, the U.S. succeeded in getting the UN General Assembly to pass Resolution 748, officially removing Puerto Rico from the list of non-self-governing territories on November 27, 1953.

Part II—The Passing of Resolution 1514

UN Resolution 1514 Presents New Opportunities

Resolution 748 was a major blow to the case of Puerto Rico within the UN. With Puerto Rico disguised as a ‘free associated state,’ the U.S. and its allies maintained its strategic bloc preventing any consideration of the territory by the UN for years. What would mark the end of this period of imperial hegemony would be the adoption of the landmark Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (Resolution 1514) on December 14, 1960. Proclaiming the need to bring colonialism to “a speedy and unconditional end,” the resolution established self-determination as an inalienable right of all peoples. In a resolution passed the following day, three status alternatives were clearly defined for specific use in determining whether a territory had reached self-government.

Because the U.S. Congress maintained absolute control over Puerto Rico under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution despite the ‘free association’ represented by the Commonwealth, the significance of these resolutions was not lost on independence advocates. Thus, when the UN established the Special Committee on Decolonization on November 27, 1961 to oversee the application of Resolution 1514, the opportunity to raise the case of Puerto Rico before the organization once again clearly presented itself. The Committee met for its first time on March 1, 1962.

Ché Guevara during 1964 UN speech where he expressed solidarity with Puerto Rico on behalf of Cuba. Source: telegraph.co.uk

Immediately, the Committee received a document by the Movimiento Pro-Independencia (MPI) formally requesting an audience with the Committee, and that the Committee visit Puerto Rico to survey its conditions. Then a member of the Committee, the U.S. exercised its usual pressure to prevent any Puerto Rican independence organization from being recognized within the UN, resulting in the document being ignored without even being acknowledged as received. Nevertheless, in 1972 the Special Committee would at last address Puerto Rico. Through the committed work of various groups, and the active solidarity of Cuban ambassador to the UN Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, a breakthrough was finally achieved that year when the Committee passed its first resolution in favor of the Caribbean territory’s inalienable right to self-determination and independence. This resolution opened wide the doors of the UN for Puerto Rico after nearly being closed nineteen years earlier in 1953. A new chapter in its international struggle had begun.

Part III—The Contemporary Context

Plebiscites and U.S. Government Status Initiatives After Resolution 1514

Since the first in 1972, there have been 33 resolutions by the Special Committee affirming the applicability of Resolution 1514 to Puerto Rico. Each by their nature invalidates Resolution 748, which the U.S. uses to argue Puerto Rico as being outside the Committee’s jurisdiction. On the island, four plebiscites (1967, 1993, 1998, and Nov. 6, 2012) that have taken place to measure status option preferences have also resulted in no U.S. Congressional action. Human rights expert Wilma E. Reverón Collazo has outlined the problematic nature of these plebiscites, most notably in a discussion paper she presented at the 2013 Regional Seminar of the UN Special Committee in Ecuador.

Wilma E. Reverón Collazo at the 2013 UN Regional Seminar in Quito, Ecuador. Source: inhep.blogspot.com

In her discussion paper, Reverón Collazo highlighted five commonalities of the plebiscites: 1) each were realized without consideration of international law despite coming after the passing of Resolution 1514; 2) none were binding on the U.S. government; 3) none have compelled or succeeded in getting the U.S. to take action based on the plebiscite results; 4) none were preceded by a non-partisan, non-sectarian educational campaign informing people in detail of the consequences of each option; and, 5) none obtained the consensus or participation of all the political parties, each being boycotted by one party or another.

Similar initiatives by the U.S. government have also proved futile. An Ad Hoc Advisory Group begun under President Nixon in 1973 and concluded under President Ford in 1976 drafted legislation to provide the island greater autonomy that never went to Congress. A policy developed by President Carter in 1978 that would have had the executive branch supporting all possible status options, and a call by President Bush in 1989 for Congress to authorize a referendum, also concluded without Congressional action. These efforts are noted in a 2011 report produced by the most recent U.S. initiative, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico begun by President Clinton in 2000. Created to examine status and voting process proposals, the Task Force was continued under President Obama in 2009 with the added responsibility of seeking advice and recommendations on various island policies and issues. Besides going nowhere, these initiatives also ignore the terms laid out under international law regarding decolonization.

The Non-Aligned Movement and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States

International support for Puerto Rico’s independence, beyond coming from several governments, also comes from two notable international bodies, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Established in 1961 by twenty-five newly independent countries seeking to promote national sovereignty, cooperation, and social justice, NAM has strongly supported the application of Resolution 1514 to Puerto Rico since its Second Summit in 1964 Cairo. This support was actually a factor in the UN Special Committee finally taking up the issue in 1971, and the passing of the previously mentioned resolution of 1972. NAM, currently with 120 member countries, continues to play a role at its summits by calling for the UN General Assembly to address the case of Puerto Rico, most recently in 2012 Tehran.

Olga I. Sanabria Dávila at the Non-Aligned Movement's 2012 Summit in Tehran, Iran. Source: otropuertoricoesposible.org

CELAC, on the other hand, was only recently created in 2010. Composed of thirty-three independent countries in Latin America and the Caribbean desiring an end to the historic influence of the U.S. in that region, CELAC offers Puerto Rico a new international platform. In a “Forum for a Free and Independent Puerto Rico” held last January in Caracas, the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, announced his proposal to integrate Puerto Rico as a member of CELAC. This proposal, should it gain the active support of all 33 member countries of CELAC, would produce a significant development in the case of Puerto Rico on the international level, and provide greater impetus for the UN General Assembly to take it up. In one of four interviews following, Wilma E. Reverón Collazo further explains why.

Part IV—Interviews with Special Committee Petitioners

Recent Petitioners in the Special Committee on Decolonization

While preparing this essay, I had the opportunity to interview four petitioners from this year’s Special Committee hearings. Two presented on issues directly related to Puerto Rico’s colonial condition, while the others presented more in regards to the status issue.

Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan—

Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan. Source: nlg.org

Since filing a petition last year with the National Lawyers Guild before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging human rights violations in Vieques by the U.S., Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan has had the opportunity to promote it in various places. This was her first time testifying before the United Nations.

Connecting Puerto Rico’s status to the case of Vieques, Bannan said: “One cannot discuss Vieques and the military occupation and destruction of the island without discussing the colonial context of Puerto Rico. Were it not for the fact that Puerto Rico is a colony of the U.S., the US Navy never would have expropriated and bombed Vieques. If Puerto Rico were a sovereign nation, no other foreign military agency would have been able to commit the atrocities as it did in Vieques without it being considered an act of war.”

“Organizations and Viequenses have been providing testimony before the Decolonization Committee for many years,” Bannan added. “And each year the Committee reaffirms its position that the military use of the island violates international human rights law and principles, and that the subsequent clean-up is both an inadequate remedy and is not being appropriately administered.”

“While the United States’ unofficial position is not to recognize or give credence to the Committee’s conclusions or recommendations,” Bannan went on to say, “it provides a much needed voice to the people and countries that remain colonized and thus have been stripped of political power, such as Puerto Rico and Palestine. The body is important because it provides a forum for issues related to the colonial status to be raised, including the ongoing military presence and repercussions of it in Vieques. Additionally, the resolutions issued by the body contribute to what is known as customary international law, or a compilation of official opinions, statements and conclusions issued by bodies such as the UN that contribute to developing human rights norms and principles.”

Jan Susler—

A Chicago-based lawyer, Jan Susler has petitioned before the Special Committee for a number of years on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild-International Committee. Presenting before the Committee several issues related to Puerto Rico’s status, we spoke with her specifically about Oscar López Rivera, whom she is currently attorney for.

Jan Susler testifying before the Special Committee. Source: nlginternational.org

“It’s a world body,” Susler said on the importance of the Special Committee as a forum for Oscar’s case. “A lot of times Puerto Rico is not so visible to the rest of the world. This is one moment when Puerto Rico is important to the world, so it’s enormously significant in campaigning for Oscar’s release.”

Susler added, “Resolutions have been adopted by consensus, without a vote, and people are impressed that this world body has taken a position.” This position includes support for Oscar’s release. “One of the presenters this year from Puerto Rico asked the Committee to make an intervention directly with the U.S. on Oscar’s behalf,” she told me. “The previous chair from Ecuador also went to U.S. representatives in the UN and did talk about Oscar.”

While she agrees Oscar’s imprisonment is symbolic of Puerto Rico’s own colonial bondage, Susler went further to say: “He’s also a symbol of resistance and hope for many people. And it goes beyond the question of Puerto Rico’s colonial case. It’s a humanitarian concern issue, and the Committee recognized that this year and last. The sense of unfairness and level to which the U.S. has gone to keep him in prison continues to outrage people, and it is a very uplifting and significant thing that this struggle is recognized on that level. After they passed the resolution, a number of ambassadors spoke, and many mentioned Oscar.”

Susler sent me a copy of her presentation before the Committee. You can download it here.

Wilma E. Reverón Collazo—

Co-President of the Movimiento Independentista Nacional Hostosiano (MINH), Wilma E. Reverón Collazo is a practicing attorney based in San Juan. Invited in recent years as a human rights expert from the Puerto Rico Bar Association to UN regional seminars, she provided me insight into the present situation at the UN in light of recent developments.

As a general statement to open our conversation, Reverón Collazo stated: “the Special Committee’s influence is limited because Puerto Rico is not on list of non-self-governing territories. The U.S. has used that as a way of asserting their position that the UN has no jurisdiction, and that Puerto Rico is a domestic internal affair. They don’t recognize the intervention of the Committee and refuse to apply international law.”

“Last year there was a delegate sitting in the U.S. bench during the hearings on Puerto Rico, but he did not say a word,” Reverón Collazo told me on the level of U.S. participation. “Most of the time his head was in his hands. In May 2013 there was a regional seminar in Quito. The U.S. sent emissaries, and though we exchanged some words, they did not participate publicly. This year there was another regional seminar in Fiji, and the lady present from the U.S. Embassy took notes but said no words. At this year’s hearings there was someone from the U.S. delegation, but he sat behind where his sign was. He was there, but not officially. What can we take from all of this? At least they’re listening.”

Wilma E. Reverón Collazo testifying before the Special Committee. Source: copronu.blogspot.com

Reverón Collazo did have more promising information to share. “If there has been any positive political situation for Puerto Rico to finally get to the UN General Assembly,” she said, “it’s next year because of several factors.” One of these factors is the creation of the regional body CELAC in 2010. “The way the UN works, it is of utmost importance that you have the support of your regional group. Puerto Rico has been gaining the support of the Latin American community, but not as staunchly and clearly as right now following two declarations made by CELAC, especially the last one in June in Havana. They specifically mandate CELAC to appear on behalf of Puerto Rico in the Decolonization Committee, and to work with the Committee to seek and propose solutions to the question of Puerto Rico. If we manage to really bind the 33 countries making up Puerto Rico’s geographic region, and get those 33 votes behind Puerto Rico’s case, we will be better able to get the question of Puerto Rico into the General Assembly.”

“A lot of the fears have to do with uncertainty after so many years under U.S. rule, and since we‘ve never been an independent country,” Reverón Collazo said, reflecting on the hesitation many express towards independence on the island. “People are still lost and don’t believe they can survive on their own. We need someone, like the UN, to say that when a territory transitions to independence there are these programs that can help, these funds available, and that this is not going to be a leap into the void. That educational process is vastly needed in Puerto Rico.” Suggesting that aiding such a process is the biggest contribution the Special Committee could make right now, she would ask it to “visit Puerto Rico to hear what the people have to say on the island’s condition, and receive consultations on the possibility of a constitutional assembly on the status question. The community knows the UN must not be an arbiter, but an institution to give information and orientation, and that ensures these processes are done in a fair, non-partisan manner.”

Olga I. Sanabria Dávila—

Active internationally around Puerto Rico’s colonial status since 1986, Olga I. Sanabria Dávila has served as representative of the Puerto Rican Committee of the United Nations for the last eight years. In our conversation, she outlined this year’s developments in the UN with respect to the island, and commented on potential decolonial processes.

Immediately, Sanabria Dávila pointed out two parts of this year’s resolution that directly address recent events. One part mentions the rejection of the current status in the 2012 plebiscite, further stating that, “that status prevents [the people] from taking sovereign decisions to address the serious economic and social problems of Puerto Rico.” Another part concerning the recent status debate in Puerto Rico notes several proposals for a constitutional assembly on status, highlighting “the ineffectiveness of consultations originating in the United States,” and, “the principle that any initiative for the solution of the political status of Puerto Rico should originate from the people of Puerto Rico.”

“These are elements that have to do with the present political moment and status debate,” Sanabria Dávila told me. “In Puerto Rico the credit standing has been downgraded. That makes the fiscal situation in Puerto Rico very challenging. And this situation is difficult to resolve because the colonial status is like an economic straitjacket.” On the recent status assembly debate, she said: “The PPD had promised they would carry out a status assembly, and it was somewhat widely supported by the independence movement. But when the Obama administration said they would assign a law providing 2.5 million dollars for the Puerto Rican people to hold another plebiscite, they went with that instead.”

“In Puerto Rico,” Sanabria Dávila added, “the idea of a status assembly as a more viable way than plebiscites of initiating a decolonization process is gaining ground. The consensus adopted would go to the Puerto Rican people to be approved, and once this happens Washington would have to listen. The U.S. has to support a mechanism that is a true exercise of the sovereignty of the Puerto Rican people, and the plebiscites they continually promote do not help. The status assembly gives them that opportunity.”

Olga I. Sanabria Dávila at a CUNY Grad Center panel on the status question. Photo by the author

As far as bringing Puerto Rico’s case to the UN General Assembly, Sanabria Dávila had this to say: “The fact that CELAC is supporting helps. When we bring the case to the General Assembly, countries from other regions will ask for the position of your region. So CELAC’s support helps a lot. Of course that NAM has historically supported decolonization also helps, but it’s important that our region states their support for the case of Puerto Rico at the UN, the highest international body. What happens in Puerto Rico is also crucial. The campaign to bring its case to the General Assembly has to be further articulated.”

Turning our focus to the Diaspora, Sanabria Dávila pointed out the continuous process of migration, stating that because of it, “Puerto Ricans in the Diaspora continually have an interest in Puerto Rico and its political status, even though some generations at this point might not be that interested.” Regarding its participation in a status assembly, she said, “a few models, including one by the Puerto Rico Bar Association, which independence sectors generally support, has a component dealing with the right of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. to participate, and to be elected as delegates for a status assembly. This model is beginning to gain ground, but there is still a lot of work to be done in Puerto Rico and the Diaspora.”

“There is a way of determining who are nationals of a country, regardless of whether they live in that country or not,” Sanabria Dávila further explained. “Generally, if you were born in the country, you’re a national. If both or one of your parents were born in the country, even if you were born outside and continue to live there, you are also considered a national. In the case of Puerto Rico, there are whole classes of people who fall under that category that would be eligible for election as delegates to a status assembly. The process would have to be originated in Puerto Rico, but the Diaspora has a good level of organization whereby some kind of structure could be elaborated to allow its participation.”

Part V—Conclusion

Thoughts Going Forward

Although the United Nations has presented a challenge to advocates of Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination and independence since it was founded, as the highest international body it nevertheless remains an important platform for the promotion of this right. While the UN is limited in influence due to Puerto Rico’s removal from the list of non-self-governing territories in 1953, the Special Committee on Decolonization has produced 33 resolutions since 1972 in favor of the Caribbean territory’s right to independence. In light of this, efforts to bring Puerto Rico’s case to the UN General Assembly should, and will, continue. Recent developments, like the support of CELAC, the regional bloc created in 2010, ought to serve as motivating factors to intensify international advocacy work so that a significant development in Puerto Rico’s condition can occur sooner rather than later.

The United States must recognize Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination, and look objectively and supportively at decolonization proposals originating from the island. The idea of a constitutional assembly recently debated on the island may provide one opportunity. Olga Sanabria told me that, though the situation is constantly changing, one of the more supported assembly models also calls for the participation of civil society organizations, such as environmental, women’s, community, youth, and LGBT groups. Such an act of national sovereignty requires incredible social engagement, only heightened by the Diaspora’s right to participate in the process. If this project were to gain momentum, with broad participation founded in an unbreakable commitment to Puerto Rico’s decolonization, the U.S. may be compelled to abide by its resolutions. The UN would then play a significant role in overseeing the subsequent exercise of sovereignty.

For now, the current situation must be addressed. As challenging as this situation may seem from a historical perspective, unfolding world events have produced new opportunities. To let them pass us by would be to ignore the UN’s call for a speedy and unconditional end to colonialism. How seriously we choose to work towards these ends in the coming years will determine how long it will take to see the beginnings of the construction of a new Puerto Rico founded upon self-determination and independence.

References
  • Pedro Albizu Campos. Memorandum on Non-self-Governing Territories and the United Nations, Nov. 17, 1947. Escritos (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2007).
  • Loida Figueroa. El caso de Puerto Rico a nivel internacional. Editorial Edil, 1979.
  • Carmen Gautier Mayoral. El nacionalismo y la descolonización internacional hemisférica en la posguerra. La nación Puertorriqueña: ensayos en torno a Pedro Albizu Campos (Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1993).
  • Carmen Gautier Mayoral; María del Pilar Argüelles. Puerto Rico y la ONU. Editorial Edil, 1978.
  • Ana M. López; Gabriela Reardon. Puerto Rico at the United Nations. North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), 2007. Accessible here: https://nacla.org/article/puerto-rico-united-nations.
  • Juan Mari Bras. Puerto Rico, el otro colonialismo; Intervenciones en la Organizacíon de Naciones Unidas y el Movimiento de Países No Alineados (1973-1981). Comité Central, Partido Socialista Puertorriqueño, 1982.
  • Ramón Medina Ramírez. El Movimiento Libertador en la historia de Puerto Rico. San Juan, 1970.
  • Marisa Rosado. Pedro Albizu Campos, Las llamas de la aurora: acercamiento a su biografia. Ediciones Puerto, 2008.
  • Miñi Seijo Bruno. La insurreccion nacionalista en Puerto Rico 1950. Editorial Edil, 1997.

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