U.S. Youth Take Police Violence Charges to the UN Committee Against Torture

A new generation globalizes the struggle.

Salim Muwakkil December 11, 2014

During the U.S. response to their report to the UN, Chicago youth staged a protest, standing with their fists in the air for over a half hour. (Photo courtesy of We Charge Genocide)

Stan Willis has no doubt that inter­na­tion­al pres­sure helped jail for­mer Chica­go police com­man­der Jon Burge, head of the city’s infa­mous corps of tor­tur­er cops. Willis is an attor­ney who defend­ed many of Burge’s more than 100 vic­tims and was lat­er instru­men­tal in the push for Burge to be pros­e­cut­ed. After we were repeat­ed­ly rebuffed in the courts here, I con­vinced my activist col­leagues to take the Burge tor­ture case to the inter­na­tion­al stage,” he says.

On November 11, We Charge Genocide member Asha Rosa, 20, told the UN, 'In Chicago, the police are a source of violence and are completely unaccountable.'

In 2008, Willis and oth­ers tes­ti­fied about Burge before the Unit­ed Nations Inter­na­tion­al Com­mit­tee to Elim­i­nate Racial Dis­crim­i­na­tion. Burge was arrest­ed lat­er that year, and even­tu­al­ly con­vict­ed — unfor­tu­nate­ly, only on charges of lying about the tor­ture ring, and he’s now free after serv­ing less than four years in prison. But Willis main­tains that with­out glob­al pres­sure, Burge nev­er would have seen the inside of a jail cell.

This strat­e­gy is being adopt­ed again in the wake of the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri. In Novem­ber, Brown’s par­ents trav­eled to Gene­va, Switzer­land, to tes­ti­fy before the UN Com­mit­tee Against Tor­ture. Although their tes­ti­mo­ny was pri­vate, they were said to have read from a state­ment that rec­om­mend­ed the arrest of Dar­ren Wil­son and an end to racial pro­fil­ing and racial­ly based police harass­ment across the juris­dic­tions sur­round­ing Ferguson.”

They were joined by We Charge Geno­cide (WCG), a group of black youth who are putting the issue of police vio­lence in Chica­go on the inter­na­tion­al stage. The name derives from a 1951 peti­tion signed by W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robe­son, among oth­ers, and deliv­ered to the Unit­ed Nations by the Civ­il Rights Con­gress. The peti­tion alleged that the U.S. gov­ern­ment treat­ed its black cit­i­zens in a man­ner con­sis­tent with the UN’s def­i­n­i­tion of geno­cide; that is, com­mit­ting acts with intent to destroy” black Amer­i­cans in whole or in part.”

In the same spir­it, WCG sub­mit­ted a report to the UN Com­mit­tee Against Tor­ture alleg­ing that the Chica­go Police Depart­ment reg­u­lar­ly engages in tor­ture. They were invit­ed to give tes­ti­mo­ny along with Brown’s par­ents. On Novem­ber 11, WCG mem­ber Asha Rosa, 20, told the UN com­mit­tee, In Chica­go, the police are a source of vio­lence and are com­plete­ly unac­count­able.” The del­e­ga­tion made an inter­na­tion­al rip­ple when it walked out of the hear­ing as the U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tives offered their defense. We were insult­ed by their sug­ges­tion that 330 police in the past five years being pros­e­cut­ed could even begin to rec­ti­fy the vio­lence Black and Brown com­mu­ni­ties expe­ri­ence at the hands of the police and the state,” the group said in a lat­er statement.

Willis is heart­ened by these renewed attempts at glob­al out­reach. Dur­ing their tes­ti­mo­ny, WCG mem­bers wore shirts com­mem­o­rat­ing the police killing of Dominique Franklin, a black youth in Chica­go whose fam­i­ly Willis rep­re­sents. Nor has he giv­en up the fight to bring inter­na­tion­al pres­sure to bear on the Burge case. He helped write Tor­ture in the Home­land,” a report pre­sent­ed to the UN com­mit­tee in Gene­va that chron­i­cles in detail the sins of Burge-era police tor­ture and calls for inter­na­tion­al accountability.

Willis was inspired to think in terms of glob­al sol­i­dar­i­ty by the Pan-African­ism of the mid-’60s and 70s that fol­lowed in the foot­steps of glob­al­ly mind­ed black icons like Dubois, Robe­son and Mar­cus Gar­vey. An inter­na­tion­al per­spec­tive changed my view of the world,” Willis recounts. I believe this kind of glob­al syn­er­gy ener­gizes the move­ment everywhere.”

Willis is adamant that inter­na­tion­al pres­sure can have a real impact. For exam­ple, many think that Cold War com­pe­ti­tion helped spur the Civ­il Rights Act, as the Unit­ed States respond­ed to Sovi­et charges that racial dis­crim­i­na­tion was akin to Nazism.

So what about Fer­gu­son and the issue of police vio­lence? The nation­wide protests over the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Gar­ner — and the fail­ure of grand juries to indict — have put the Unit­ed States under an uncom­fort­able spot­light. The UN can’t real­ly do any­thing to the U.S.,” says Willis. But I’ve learned glob­al pub­lic opin­ion is very powerful.”

Appar­ent­ly, and thank­ful­ly, that les­son has pen­e­trat­ed anoth­er generation.

Sal­im Muwakkil is a senior edi­tor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Sal­im Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s his­toric black radio sta­tion, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Pho­tographs from the Harold Wash­ing­ton Years.
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