Senator Obama told the New York Times this week that he wants to stand out on the campaign trail. How about standing up against torturers and those who cover up for them, not just in Gitmo -- but in his hometown of Chicago?
Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and officers serving under him stand accused of torturing some 200 mostly African-American men in custody in the '70s and '80s. In 2002, after a criminal investigation, four who had been sentenced to death and spent over a total of 70 years behind bars on false confessions extracted through torture were pardoned, Governor Ryan issued a moratorium on executions and a package of reforms was passed. Running for US Senate, Obama was rightly proud of SB15, his piece of that reform package, which required the videotaping of interrogations. When asked by an interviewer in 2004 why African Americans in particular should support his campaign, Obama pointed to his "track record of effectively working on behalf of the issues that they care about... I come out of a legislative session where I sent twenty-five pieces of legislation to the Governor's desk, including landmark videotaping legislation of interrogations and confessions, the first in the nation."
The Senator's work in the area of detainees rights and policing is a piece of his record he'd like the media to consider when they're accusing him of lack of expertise, but there's plenty more to be done. By the time SB 15 passed, the electric-shocks to-the-genitals, bags-over-head treatment had stopped, but justice has never been served. To this day, Burge (who was finally fired in 1992) is drawing a pension in Florida. He and the others have never been prosecuted. In 2006, a four-year, investigation costing Chicago tax-payers $17 million confirmed the allegations but declared it too late to act. Now Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley stands accused of running out the clock on the statute of limitations.
Daley - who abandoned his tradition of neutrality to back Obama in this year's Democratic primary -- has been involved in this story from the start. In 1982, he was Cook County's top prosecutor (the presiding state's attorney) when evidence linking Burge to torture was first brought to him by the superintendent of police. For eight years thereafter, he collaborated in prosecutions of Burge's victims -- and took credit for a high conviction rate -- without taking action to investigate. Now Daley is Mayor, his former assistant, Richard Devine, is Cook County state's attorney, and his brother, Bill Daley, is a senior adviser to Senator Obama.
Chicago justice-seekers have never given up. Not long ago, they testified in Geneva before the UN Committee against Torture. The Committee demanded action and the global scrutiny could count conceivable count against Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid. Independent prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald announced a federal investigation this September, not only to examine the torture, but also to review what looks a whole lot like a conspiracy to cover up (on which the statue of limitations wouldn't apply.) Most recently, on October 17, local Congressman, Bobby Rush (D-Il) wrote to committee chairman John Conyers (D-Il) requesting a Judiciary Committee hearing in the House.
I was just in Chicago, where this is the issue among would-be Obama supporters is ho. "[Obama's] been very silent on this issue here. We haven't really pressed him on it because he's been involved in what he's been involved in. We also realize he's playing the politics of it all and Daley is a major, major actor in all of this. And he has to keep his fences mended," said Flint Taylor of the People's Law Office who has represented victims of torture in Chicago for the last twenty years.
But if Obama wants to show courage, confronting one of his own hometown cronies could do it. Obama knows this issue and he knows what's right. A Senate investigation anyone?
Next: tackle homophobia.
* * * A shorter version of this article originally appeared in The Nation.