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On Contact: Police abuse & torture

Chris Hedges discusses police abuse and torture with civil rights attorney Flint Taylor. Taylor’s new book is ‘The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago’. With his colleagues at the People's Law Office, Taylor has argued landmark civil rights cases exposing the corruption and cover-ups within the Chicago Police Department and throughout the city’s political machine, from the alderman to the mayor's office. The book takes the reader from the 1969 murder of Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and Panther Mark Clark – and the historic 13-year trial that followed – to the pursuit of chief detective Jon Burge, the leader of a torture ring within the Chicago Police Department that used barbaric methods including electric shock and suffocation to elicit false confessions from suspects – a violation of the UN Convention against Torture. Taylor and the People’s Law Office gathered evidence to bring suit against the Chicago Police Department, breaking the department’s “code of silence” that had enabled decades of cover-ups. The legal precedent they set has since been adopted in human rights legislation around the world.

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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss police abuse and torture with a civil rights attorney, Flint Taylor.

Flint Taylor: It doesn't really matter who the mayor is, if the mayor continues to be--to fuel this cover-up as exposed as it is here in the City of Chicago as we sit here today, and men and women still remain in the penitentiary who have been tortured and we continue with other lawyers and community activists and survivors and also families to fight these cases.  Here we are in 2021 and the torture started under Burge in 1972 and we still haven't had full resolution of these cases.  And the conscience of this city with regard to torture has not been completely cleansed in any regard.

CH: Flint Taylor, along with his colleagues at the People's Law Office, has dedicated nearly five decades to exposing systematic corruption, abuse, violence, and torture within the Chicago Police Department and throughout the city's corrupt political machine.  In his book "The Torture Machine", he chronicles the war police have carried out against poor people of color beginning with the 1969 assassination by the FBI and the Chicago police of the charismatic Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and Panther Mark Clark.  Taylor spent 13 years litigating the Hampton case, in the process exposing the routine torture.  The title of his book "The Torture Machine" comes from a field telephone reconfigured by Chicago police to administer electric shocks to those they were interrogating, along with a series of other torture practices including savage beatings and suffocation with plastic bags.  He led the campaign against police commander Jon Burge who honed his torture techniques while serving in the army in Vietnam and who elicited scores of false confessions through torture.  Joining forces with community activists, torture survivors, and their families, other lawyers and, local reporters, Taylor and the People's Law Office gathered evidence from multiple cases to bring suit against the Chicago Police Department officers and the City of Chicago.  He was one of the leaders in the successful campaign to end the death penalty in Illinois and obtain reparations for many of the torture survivors setting human rights precedents that have since been adopted across the United States.  Joining me to discuss his book, "The Torture Machine", is the legendary civil rights attorney, Flint Taylor.  So, Flint, you open with Hampton, the assassination of Fred Hampton, and perhaps you can lay that historical groundwork, why was Hampton considered such a threat to J. Edgar Hoover at the time the head of the FBI, and why was he--why was he a target?

FT: Chris, thank you for having me on your show.  It's an honor and a pleasure.  The Fred Hampton case, of course, is the one case where it is documented without a shadow of a doubt that the FBI and its COINTELPRO program was behind the assassination of Fred Hampton and the murder of Mark Clark.  And in terms of why Hampton was targeted, a 21-year-old charismatic leader here in the city of Chicago who was on his way to being a national leader in the party, we can go back to the COINTELPRO documents that were penned by Hoover and William C. Sullivan, his first lieutenant in the Domestic Intelligence Division.  And those documents in 1967 and 1968, before Hampton had become the leader that he became in 1969 in the Panthers, talked about neutralizing and disrupting African-American or Black leaders and their organizations and they--it named Dr. King, it named Malcolm X, it named Elijah Muhammad, Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, and all of those organizations that they headed up.  But what he also highlighted and underlined was that these organizations had to be stopped in forming coalitions, forming coalitions between Black organizations and organizations such as Young Lords, The Young Patriots here in Chicago, other organizations not only of color, but SDS and radical and revolutionary white organizations.  And Hoover was deathly afraid not only of the messiah, the Black Messiah as it were, but also of their organizations and the power and the threat of them coming together particularly in an era where not only Black power and Black liberation was at the forefront, but also the fight against imperialism and the war in Vietnam.

CH: The techniques that the FBI used to assassinate Hampton--and you exposed much of this, kind of lay out how they operate.  Let's begin with the informant, O'Neal, and, of course, this was something that was part of Malcolm X assassination, they withdrew the--or they arrested the--his bodyguards outside.  There were nine informants inside the ballroom where Malcolm was assassinated.  And the person who allegedly pulled the shotgun out from under his coat was never charged because he perhaps had FBI links.  But talk about, because--but you really exposed the mechanisms by which they went after Hampton and finally killed him.  So please talk about especially the informant that they used and how they drugged him the night before, et cetera.

FT: Well, the informant was named William O'Neal.  William O'Neal, and he was not only an informant, he was a provocateur.  And he was--got his way up close and personal with the Panthers and particularly with its leadership, Fred Hampton, Bobby Rush.  And he was reporting directly to the Racial Matters Squad and Roy Martin Mitchell at the FBI.  And what we were able to document with the help of the Senate Church Committee on Intelligence back in the mid-'70s was that this informant, O'Neal, had mapped out a floor plan of the apartment where Fred Hampton and Deborah Johnson, his fiancee, would be sleeping.  And they passed that on, the FBI and his control, to the raiding police officers and the state's attorney, Edward Hanrahan, who planned the raid.  And we documented not only later after fighting years in court, that O'Neal did this, we got this floor plan but that O'Neal was rewarded for the--setting up the raid, that he was given a bonus by Hoover and his men in Washington for setting up the raid, $300 as it were, 30 pieces of silver.  And that it was--this reward was because of the tremendous value that O'Neal had played in setting up the raid.  And also we obtained a COINTELPRO document, the counterintelligence document, the program that we alluded to earlier, which claimed the raid which, of course, was executed by local police and the prosecutor here in Chicago was part of the COINTELPRO program.  And that document was dated the day before the raid.  So that trilogy of documents established not only that the FBI and COINTELPRO was behind the raid on Hampton's apartment, but showed us the importance of the provocateur, William O'Neal, in set--not only setting up this raid, but also in attempting over the time that he was in the Panthers in setting up Panthers to be arrested, setting up Panthers in encouraging criminal activities of the kind of classic provocateurism that we saw in the '60s with the Clan and the FBI informants, and we've seen throughout history with regard to FBI and local informants.  So that was one of the major stories that we uncovered during the 13 years of litigation in the Fred Hampton case.

CH: Although it was never finally determined who drugged Fred Hampton the night before, was it?

FT: No, it wasn't.  What--we were able to have an independent toxicologist look at the blood of Fred Hampton after he was murdered.  And she found that there was a large amount of secobarbital in his system.  Now everyone knew that Fred didn't use drugs, so the question is how did those drugs get into his system?  The government and the state fought very hard to discredit the evidence that Fred was drugged, but our toxicologist was very, very independent and bulletproof as it were.  So the question became how did he--how was he drugged.  O'Neal, of course, denied it but he was in the apartment the night before, he had access to Fred.  Some people in the--survivors in the apartment said that he served drinks and food to Fred the night before, so circumstantially it could well have been O'Neal or it could have been someone else like with Malcolm, there were many unidentified informants in the Chicago Black Panther party in 1969.  We perhaps will never know for sure who drugged Fred Hampton, we just know that there's no way that Fred Hampton would have laid in his bed and been shot through the head after the police came in, if in fact he had not been drugged, and the toxicology confirms that.

CH: And that's the pretty important point that you speak about in your book, that the police are already in the apartment and one of them walks--apparently just walks in the bedroom where Hampton is prone on the bed and shoots him through the head, is that correct?

FT: Right, we--there were two bullet holes through Fred's head, he--there was blood all over the bed and Deborah Johnson, who was in bed with him and pregnant with their son, was taken out of that room.  And at that point, Fred was still lying there and hadn't moved really.  And then she heard two more shots, and before that she heard an officer say "he's barely alive, he'll barely make it", and then two shots and then "He's good and dead now."  So that was the evidence that established the murder.

CH: I want to read from your book, this is the reaction--this is in the process of litigating that case.  "The judge also refused to admit a police radio tape on which unknown officers cheered when it was announced that Fred was taken to the morgue.  And on which one said in unwitting affirmation of our evidence that is the time to catch them, when they are in bed.  We also offered as evidence the chilling picture of smiling cops carrying Fred's body out of the apartment."  This really was part of a war.  I mean, we don't know much about it, so this--the litigation that you did is extremely important in giving us a window into a small piece of activity by the FBI.  But this was being carried out nationally, and of course I think, you would probably agree the vast part of this activity, despite the church commission probably to this day remains unknown, would that be correct?

FT: Well, yes, there were raids across the country, most of them were locally or originated in the sense that police led the raids.  We see it in LA only four days after the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.  We see it in Chicago several raids, mostly police raids with some FBI raids, but if you use that template that was used here in Chicago that the FBI was behind the police raids as well as orchestrating their own raids and their own arrests and their own provocateurism, and all the kind of tools and techniques of disruption, and illegal and unconstitutional conduct that COINTELPRO use, then you see a broader, broader plan which was basically embraced publicly by Nixon, by John Mitchell, the Attorney General, and by Jerris Leonard, he's head of civil rights quite ironically, and Hoover, all of whom who targeted the Panthers not only secretly but also called them out publicly as the greatest threat to this country and talked about how they had to be stopped.

CH: Well, when we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the police war against people of color with civil rights attorney, Flint Taylor.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the police war against people of color with civil rights attorney, Flint Taylor.  So you go on from the Hampton case.  I mean, there's much that you uncover including of course the systematic use of torture.  And you then go after the police department, the Chicago Police Department.  But this--let's not limit it.  I mean, you know, police departments in major cities are also carrying out these kinds of techniques.  We'll talk a little bit about Burge.  But what I find fascinating is that transference of knowledge, especially in the case of Burge, people who had served in the military in Vietnam, had been present or complicit in the torture techniques that we're using especially this field telephone, this appears on the cover of your book, brought these techniques back into the inter-cities and used them against American citizens.  So perhaps you can speak about torture as a technique.  We're talking about, you know, across the country, without a doubt, thousands, if not tens of thousands of people--again, mostly poor people of color, railroaded into prisons on false confessions.  You have heroically exposed some of those false confessions and have been able to free people.  But tell us how--you know, what's happening behind the scenes, you know, what are the techniques that they use and how did it become institutionalized?

FT: Well, the Burge torture was somewhat unique in the extreme that it--that it took in terms of electric shocking people and suffocating people, dry submarino as it were, and mock executions, the kind of techniques that were internationally-used not only in Vietnam that--where Burge learned this, but, you know, in South Africa under apartheid, in Central America in those regimes.  But it was not thought to be used here in this country.  But Burge brought it back and used it again and again and again over a 20-year period against African-American suspects in Chicago on the south side.  But the broader question that you ask is these techniques or similar techniques to get false confessions or to get confessions, some of which may be true, some of which may be false, somewhat--who knows?  But torture, of course, cannot be countenance no matter what it's used for.  And torture, as defined by the United Nations, is much broader than just using electric shock or suffocating someone is, of course, using coercive tactics whether it'd be psychological or whether it'd be physical to obtain confessions or to punish.  And, of course, that's what we see every day in the police stations across this country, to get confessions and send men and women, particularly men and women of color, to the penitentiary.  And that, of course, has been a major aspect of mass incarceration over the years.  And that was a mass--an important aspect of what happened.  And what continues to happen not necessarily with electric shock and suffocation here in the City of Chicago, but detectives are still coercing confessions--coercing false confessions and people are still being sent to the penitentiary on the basis of these confessions.

CH: You chronicle in the book many cases of people who are innocent, profess their innocence, but finally are so broken that they agree to sign just to stop the torture.

FT: Yes, definitely.  We started out with one remarkable case, the Andrew Wilson case, African-American man who was charged and ultimately convicted of killing two white police officers.  And he was brutally and repeatedly tortured with all the techniques that I previously mentioned.  And we went to trial and represented him on an--on a civil rights case claiming that he was tortured by Burge and his men.  And during that case, an anonymous police source who we dubbed "Deep Badge" told us that, "Hey, you're not just looking at one extreme case, this is a pattern and practice of racist white supremacist torture that everyone in the police department of power, and the States Attorney of Cook County who was at that time Richie Daley who went on to be the long-time mayor here, they all knew about it, they call countenanced it, they all used those confessions to send people to the penitentiary and to death row.  And so over the years, we uncovered--and some of those cases are chronicled from their testimony in my book, over a hundred and twenty-five cases of African-American men who were tortured under Burge's twenty-year regime.  And during that period of time, he went from a detective fresh from Vietnam and the tactics that they used on the POW camp that he worked on, from detective, to sergeant, to lieutenant, to commander.  And as commander, was when we were taking him on in federal court, and the evidence that we were able to uncover led to a reinvestigation, led to him being fired and ultimately decades later, led to him being sent to the penitentiary for lying about torture.

CH: And yet during that whole period when you were publicly exposing systematic torture, then-state senator Barack Obama did not utter a word and as you point out in your book, endorsed Daley who had been the attorney-general overseeing this empire for the mayor's office.

FT: You notice that, yes, in the book.  It was--at the time, I didn't think quite so much about it because Barack Obama was just Barack Obama, he was a state senator, he was doing some decent things in terms of reform of the death penalty, but he never spoke out against the death penalty.  And my daughter heard him speak when she was in sixth grade and she came back and was wondering why he wouldn't come right out against the death penalty because the kids in the sixth grade at that point were definitely against the death penalty or many of her classmates and she were.  But, yes, when you look back on it, we had a few politicians who were progressive and courageous enough to stand with us as we fought through the many, many chapters of exposing the police torture and trying to bring some modicum of justice.  Unfortunately, Barack Obama wasn't one of those people.

CH: Well, he took the seat.  He defeated one of them, didn't he?

FT: Well, he ran--the only--yeah, he took a defeat from Bobby Rush, the only time Obama ever lost was against former Panther defense administer, Bobby Rush, who, of course, was a co-leader with Fred Hampton, and escaped his own assassination because he didn't happen to be in the apartment on the night of December 4th.  And Barack took him on and Bobby soundly beat him in the--I believe it was the--I forget what kind of race it was, might've been a state senator race or whatever.  But I think he learned his lesson about how to pick his spots after Bobby beat him on his own turf.

CH: Let's talk at the last few minutes about the culture of the police, which you know very well, all of these charges are coming out and police are holding fundraisers for Burge, the torture is now publicly verifiable.  There's this code of silence within the police.  Talk to us about the institution itself and its, kind of, orientation to the outside world.

FT: Well, Chris, as you know, you can trace the history of policing to the south and the slave patrols, and you can trace it to the anti-labor thugs that were police in the early 1900s.  And that culture has continued.  And that culture as African-Americans became more front and center in the attacks, they became the focus of the police and the police culture.  And that culture, of course, the code of silence, covering each other's backs no matter how racist or violent the conduct of the police is, is a trademark of that culture.  And that kind of culture is something that starts at the top with the powers that be.  And, of course, you can analyze it in terms of the protection of property under capitalism, you can analyze it in terms of what the police are supposed to do.  And they are in fact in the communities of color and poor communities, an invading force, an oppressive force.  Not a force that serves and protects, but a force that imposes the laws of the power structure and the white supremacy that is showing them in society.  So when we talk about defunding police, we need to take more of a look at some of the more fundamental changes that people in the streets are talking about in terms of abolition and defunding.

CH: Well, one of the things at the end of the book that I found fascinating is you talk about the amount of money that cities, in essence taxpayers, put out to defend police officials who carry out torture, you know, lethal attacks.  You said, "According to public records which I have obtained and updated since 2005, the scandal across the city and county in taxpayers, $140,000,000 by the end of 2018.  The federal tab for investigating Burge and his confederates and for prosecuting Burge was an additional unknown amount.  Burge had collected $900,000 in pension money.  Chicago police officers implicated in the torture scandal had collected an additional $31,000,000 in pension pushing the still-mounting total past $170,000,000."

FT: Well, I guess I need to update my book because that meter keeps running and I guess that now we're getting close to $200,000,000.  And what's interesting is not only did Daley, as the mayor, not only did Rahm Emanuel, as the mayor, continue in one form or another to fund the defense of these cases in court, but now we have Lori Lightfoot who ran on a progressive approach, and there was a torture--a torture case that she put to trial rather than to settle in the last year or two, cost the city another $10,000,000.  So it doesn't really matter who the mayor is, if the mayor continues to fuel this cover-up as exposed as it is here in the city of Chicago as we sit here today, and men and women still remain in the penitentiary who have been tortured and we continue with other lawyers and community activists and survivors and also families to fight these cases.  Here we are in 2021, and the torture started under Burge in 1972 and we still haven't had full resolution of these cases and the conscience of this city with regard to torture has not been completely cleansed in any regard.

CH: Great.  Thank you.  That was civil rights attorney and author Flint Taylor on his book, "The Torture Machine."

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