An exposé in The Guardian this week alleges that the Chicago Police Department has been involved in horrific civil rights violations at what the paper describes as a "black site" at Homan Square, a former Sears, Roebuck, & Co. warehouse on the West Side. The timing couldn't have been better — the paper released the report on election day, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel was forced into a runoff, which means he'll likely be answering a lot of questions about the Guardian's work in the coming weeks.
The investigation, headed by journalist Spencer Ackerman, charges that the department has held people without due process, subjected them to "Guantanamo-like" tactics, and denied them access to representation. It fingers multiple cases of missing persons and one mysterious death in police custody — attributed to a heroin overdose — as signs that something is going deeply wrong at the facility, which the police department claims is a holding site for property and the site of several crime labs and offices.
Ackerman's research actually started with an investigation into Spencer Zuley, an investigator suspected of corruption and abuse at his time with the police department. He later moved on to Guantanamo Bay. The Guardian revealed deep-seated racism on Zuley's part, including racial profiling and slur-laden attacks on Black residents of the city. As Ackerman investigated, though, he learned that the problems at the Chicago Police Department ran far deeper than a single investigator.
It should come as no surprise that the majority of those who spoke to the investigators and provided information about their time at Homan Square were Black or brown, and poor. The Chicago PD, meanwhile, rushed to deny the claims, and U.S. papers gobbled up its canned press releases and regurgitated them for readers. Chief among the department's claims were statements that the facility operates entirely aboveboard with no abridgments of civil rights, let alone abuse of suspects.
But attorneys and sources say otherwise. Julia Bartmes, a lawyer in Chicago, told the paper that "It’s sort of an open secret among attorneys that regularly make police station visits, this place — if you can’t find a client in the system, odds are they’re there."
The Chicago PD doesn't exactly have a stellar record to begin with. In a city constantly stained with a history of corruption and dubious political practices, the police department has participated in beatings of protesters, bungled surveillance operations, scores of coerced confessions, perjury on the stand, and more. This report reveals a frighteningly systemic level of abuse at the Chicago PD — this isn't a periodic problem at individual stations, but a dedicated interrogation facility where civilians are funneled from other stations within the system.
So why didn't media outlets in Chicago cover the site? Tracy Siska, a criminologist working in Chicago, provided The Atlantic with a chilling answer to that very question:
I think that many crime reporters in Chicago have political views that are right in line with the police. They tend to agree about the tactics needed by the police. They tend to have by one extent or the other the same racist views of the police — a lot of urban police (not all of them by any stretch, but a lot of them) embody racism.
This isn't the first time The Guardian and other overseas papers have published detailed and troubling details on civil rights abuses and related issues in the United States. The fact that U.S. media isn't covering these issues is a huge problem — because Americans are counting on the media to inform them about what's happening in the world around them.
And according to Ackerman, what's happening at Homan Square is hellish. Detainees are put in shackles, deprived of food and water, subjected to sleep deprivation, repeatedly interrogated, and denied access to attorneys despite requests for representation. Some disappear as off-books detainees, while police officers refuse to read them their Miranda rights or provide information about the reason for their detention. In at least some cases, they aren't formally arrested — to get around the need for a paper trail.
"If they don’t 'arrest you,'" Siska explains, "nefarious things could happen and they could interrogate you without a lawyer. And they would move you around from district to district."
Homan Square is stark evidence of a post September-11th security landscape. While abuses occurred in police departments across the country long before the terror attacks, the creation of a heightened sense of fear in the country, buttressed with implicit support in the form of legislation like the PATRIOT Act, inevitably created situations like this one. Empowered with incredible leeway as long as they can claim they're fighting terrorism, police departments can skirt the law, infringing on the rights of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.
No human being should have to endure the torments of Homan Square, accused terrorist or not. However, The Guardian charges that those in custody at the facility were primarily involved in street crime, and that the majority had little to no resources for legal defenses, let alone protesting civil rights violations. That's not a coincidence: The Chicago Police Department has long targeted Black and brown residents who can't fight back, and the entrenched racism of the department is clearly carrying on, but now, the department can claim it's all in the name of anti-terrorism activities.
This is a country that has grown disturbingly complacent about civil rights violations. It's also a country where it seems that the government has become the real terrorist — the goal of terrorism is to strike fear into the hearts of a people, to intimidate them, to make them feel as though they never know where and when the next attack will come from, to force them to give up their values, freedoms, and beliefs. That's precisely what the American government is doing to its citizens and residents, and there are likely many other Homan Squares — Siska certainly thinks so.
I'm reminded of a stanza in Langston Hughes's "Let America Be America Again," published in 1936:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—/Let it be that great strong land of love/Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme/That any man be crushed by one above.
Later, in "Harlem," he asked the reader what happens to a dream deferred — whether it withers like a raisin in the sun, or explodes. The question he asked in 1951 is still relevant today, as we face down an America in which we can apparently illegally detain and torture citizens guilty of nothing more than being poor and alive while Black and brown.
This is not the America I want to live in, and it shouldn't be anyone else's America either.