CHICAGO – In response to a national epidemic of police and vigilante killings, a two day “National Forum on Police Crimes” took place here, May 16-17. With some 250 people attending, the forum called for legislation establishing a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) in Chicago and elsewhere.
The Chicago branch of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression on the occasion of the organization’s 41st anniversary organized the forum. Founded in May 1973, the NAARPR developed out of the national and international campaign to free Angela Davis from a racist and politically-motivated frame-up. Over the years, numerous celebrated cases were won through the organizing efforts of the NAARPR including on behalf of the Rev. Ben Chavis, Joan Little, the Wilmington 10, and the Charlotte 3.
Concluding the two day forum, a public rally with Angela Davis was held at the Trinity United Church of Christ. In her address, Davis said mass incarceration and police killings stem from “structural and systemic racism rooted in the failure to fully abolish slavery.” Global capital expansion and its pursuit of profit, she said, fuel the prison-industrial complex. While money is spent on building prisons for profit, public education and affordable housing deteriorates, she said. Davis called for the abolition of prisons, disarming of police and freedom for all political prisoners held in U.S. jails from Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier to Chelsea Manning and the Cuban Five.
Frank Chapman, who headed the organizing committee for the weekend’s events, introduced Davis and talked about his own freedom from prison won through the efforts of the NAARPR in 1980s. Chapman who is field organizer and education director for the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression said that the NAARPR is needed now more than ever and urged rally participants to join. Chicago and Louisville are the two branches of the NAARPR active today.
The forum, held at the University of Chicago, opened with a panel discussing the various aspects of police crimes and the initiatives underway to end them. Lennox Hinds, founding general counsel of the NAARPR, framed the discussion and said, “Police are legally permitted to use deadly force. They have access to firearms 24 hours a day, on-duty and off-duty. They are free to kill anytime they suspect someone is guilty.” Black and Latino people are the most likely victims in cities with populations over 100,000, he said, making police abuse a fact of life in African American and Latino neighborhoods.
Rob Warden of the Center on Wrongful Convictions said Chicago is “the false confession capital of the world.” Recantations by people who have given false testimony are routinely rejected by the courts,” he said. Warden called for adoption of a public policy to encourage recantations.
Bernadine Dohrn, professor of Law at Northwestern University and immediate past president of the Children and Family Justice Center, urged support for a lawsuit that would make public all complaints of police misconduct. Of the 19,000 complaints filed of police misconduct, said Dorhn, only 18 led to a police suspension of a week or more. For 85 percent of complaints, police were never interviewed, she said.
Warden, Dohrn and others talked about the police use of torture to solicit “confessions,” citing the case of Jon Burge, a Chicago detective who was convicted of torturing more than 200 suspects between 1972 and l991. The exposure of Burge’s crimes led Illinois Gov. George Ryan to impose a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000.
Panelist Jeff Baker, candidate for Alderman representing Chicago’s Southside 21st Ward, called for enactment of a Civilian Police Accountability Council in Chicago. The CPAC model legislation would establish a democratically elected authority with power to directly present evidence of police crimes to a federal grand jury.
Among the participants at the forum were victims of police crimes and family members. Danelene Powell-Watts talked about her son, Stephon, who as a 15 year old autistic youth was killed by police in February 2012 because he held a butter knife. Watts-Powell is an autoworker and member of UAW Local 551 in Chicago. Members of her union local’s Solidarity Committee organized protests of the police killing of her son.
Mike Elliott, who chairs the UAW Local 551 Solidarity Committee, is also labor secretary of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. Elliott was one of several Local 551 members who participated at the forum, including at a labor breakout where discussion centered on how to strengthen the labor movement’s role in building a national movement against police crimes.
Hatem Abudayyah, executive director of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), highlighted rampant police profiling and harassment of Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities. A case in point is Rasmea Odeh, associate director of AAAN, who the Department of Homeland Security arrested in a politically motivated charge of giving false information on a naturalization application 20 years ago. Odeh faces a 10-year jail sentence with a trial set to begin June 10 in Detroit. Conference participants were urged to circulate a protest petition at (www.stopfbi.net).
Police violence against women was highlighted in remarks by Crista Noel who spoke about her friend, Rekia Boyd, who was murdered by police in March 2012 at the age of 22. Boyd was talking with friends when Chicago Police Det. Dante Servin approached the group and opened fire after allegedly mistaking a cell phone held by one of the youths as a gun. Noel launched a campaign for justice that led her to the United Nations where she filed a complaint before the UN Human Rights Commission. Responding to national and international pressure, charges were brought against the police officer, the first charged in a police murder in Chicago in decades. The case has yet to come to trial.
Nelson Linder, president of the NAACP branch in Austin, Texas, spoke about the increasing rate of racist police crimes in his city. In the four year period between 1999 and 2003, 10 of the 11 people who died at the hands of Austin police were African American or Latino in a city with an overwhelmingly white population. In 2004, said Linder, the Austin NAACP and the Texas Civil Rights Project invoked Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and filed a complaint detailing the systemic and widespread police misconduct of Black and Latino communities. The campaign led to demands that the U.S. Department of Justice cut off all federal money to the Austin Police Department.
“The Texas penal codes are penal codes from slavery,” said Linder. They require proof of “criminal intent,” a high bar in prosecuting police crimes. Linder advocated using “criminal negligence” as grounds for criminal charges against the police and called for establishment of a national data base of police crimes. “Once we understand the game we can win,” said Linder.
In panels and breakouts there was discussion of the many forms of police crime including racist and homophobic policing of LGBTQ people, incarceration and deportation of immigrant people, the militarization of the U.S. border with Mexico and the evisceration of the 4th Amendment through the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance.
The forum brought together many of the long time members of the NAARPR, including founding Executive Director Charlene Mitchell. At a fundraising banquet preceding the rally, Mitchell was honored with the establishment of the Charlene Mitchell Human Rights Award and Angela Davis was presented with the first award.
Many who attended the weekend events said they were energized by the national focus that the Forum provided. Though participants were largely from Chicago, many others came from New York, Nevada, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio and Missouri.
The Forum participants voted to organize campaigns in support of legislation for a Civilian Police Accountability Council and to establish a national coordinating committee to continue networking between local groups fighting police crimes and to coordinate national activities.
For more information about the work of the Forum and the NAARPR, contact www.naarpr.org or call 312.939.2750.
Pat Fry is a national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.
Photo: Pat Fry