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Podcast: Going to the UN Committee Against Torture to Call Attention to Rampant Police Violence

Page May, We Charge Genocide organizer

Chicago police officers have shot over three hundred people in the past five years. They have killed at least 89 people, predominantly people of color, in that same period. They have used force and received an astounding number of complaints about brutality from citizens in Chicago. Yet, Chicago police seem to enjoy a stunning level of immunity from accountability and justice.

In response to systematic police brutality and misconduct, a group of young organizers have formed a group called We Charge Genocide, which has submitted a “shadow report” to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) to call attention to police violence and further expose the issue as a violation of the anti-torture treaty. Organizers will, in fact, be traveling to Geneva in November to present their report to the UN Committee.

Page May, organizer with We Charge Genocide, joined “Unauthorized Disclosure” this week to talk about the group’s “shadow report” to the UN Committee Against Torture and the process of putting it together. She discusses police militarization, sexual assault by police, mass detention and harassment in the context of a system with a history that goes all the way back to the days of slavery in the United States. She also addresses where the name comes from, its historical basis and how it helps frame the group’s organizing efforts.

In the discussion portion, we discuss Israel closing the Al Aqsa mosque, US military plans to deploy “advisers” to the Anbar province in Iraq and the FBI impersonating repairmen and media organization, accused cop killer Eric Frein’s capture, and Josh Rogin and Eli Lake’s new job with Bloomberg.

The podcast is available on iTunes for download. For a link (and to download), go here. Click on “go here” and a page will load with the audio file of the podcast that will automatically start playing so you can listen to the interview.

Also, below is a player for listening to the podcast. You can listen to the podcast this way or you can go to iTunes and find the podcast listed there.

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Below is a partial transcript of the interview.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Why don’t you talk about how you came to this project and what we We Charge Genocide is and the historical basis for We Charge Genocide?

PAGE MAY: I’ve been doing activism predominantly around prisons and mass incarceration and prison abolition work for the last couple years here in Chicago. For me, there’s a lot of things that have brought me here that go really far back in my personal history and I have a lot of people who have sort of guided to this place. But it really took off for me when I read The New Jim Crow, which I think is the case for a lot of people. And what I found is if you want to talk about prisons, you have to talk about police. Right? They’re the gatekeepers to the prison system.

And so I’ve been doing organizing around prisons and policing for a few years, and back in May there was a young man named Dominique Franklin. He was 23-years-old and he was arrested for stealing a bottle of vodka or something at Walgreens. While in handcuffs, he was tased several times. He hit his head on a metal pole and he went to a coma and he died. And this was a young person who was friends with a lot of other youth organizers in the city, youth organizers of color. And it was this really intense moment where folks who had been organizing around police issues and folks who had been organizing with people in the city for a while recognized this overwhelming feeling that nothing can be done—that Damo [Franklin] is just another person and there’s no justice that we can seek.

As a response to that, one woman in particular, Mariame Kaba, the founding director of Project MIA, put out a call to friends and other organizers like myself to try and imagine a project that we could do in response to Damo’s death. That initial meeting is where our group comes from.

GOSZTOLA: So you’ve gone through this process of putting the report in to the United Nations and you’ve done this because you would like them to call out torture. But you have to work it through the different ways that they have legal interpretations for the different in the articles for the Convention Against Torture (CAT). Can you describe learning how to go about this process?

MAY: When we decided that we were going to go to the UN, it was originally in lieu of where our name comes from, that history. Because in 1951, the Civil Rights Congress filed a petition to the United Nations called We Charge Genocide and it documented 153 killings of black people, mostly by law enforcement. So we knew we wanted to go to the UN and then it’s been this really intense learning curve for those of us who have been working on really writing the report to figure out the logistics of all that.

Although our name is We Charge Genocide and we do think we are calling it what it is, we are specifically going to the UN to say, yes, this is torture and we want you to recognize it as such. We are engaging specifically the Committee Against Torture, which is the body of the UN which moderates the Convention Against Torture which is a treaty that outlines the measures that governments need to be taking on to prevent and address torture within its borders. And so, what we have to do is write a report called a shadow report that follows in the shadow of the report the United States has submitted.

The United States signed on to this treaty back in 1994 and every four years they’re expected to send an update to this committee saying here is how we are with complying with this treaty. Our report respond to some of the things that the US is saying in its report that we don’t think are sufficient in its response or that we think are misleading or that we think—Or just things that are missing in general, things that the US is not talking about at all. And we also though have to explain, we have to engage what the UN has asked the UN to respond to. We’re adding in to that information. So our report talks through here’s what the US is saying it’s doing and what’s wrong about that. Here’s what they’re not saying they’re doing and here is how we understand it fitting into this larger treaty. So we found the behaviors of the CPD to be in violation of Articles 2, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 of this Convention.

KHALEK: This is obviously centered around Chicago. Are there other areas around the United States where people of color, particularly black people shot and killed by police, are organizing to emulate what you’ve all done?

MAY: Yeah, we understand our context. This problem isn’t new and that we’re not unique as a group responding to police violence responding to young people of color. This has been happening historically for a long time and it’s been happening geographically across a wide range of space. And specifically even with the Convention Against Torture, which is one committee of the UN, there are many other groups that have submitted reports documenting police violence.

We’re actually a part of the US Human Rights Network’s delegation specifically under the working group of police crimes, which I believe has over eleven groups who wrote papers documenting police violence as torture. Within that you have, Israel Hernandez in Miami. You have Mike Brown. There’s a statement from Ferguson that’s submitted there. And all of that is connected to the work we are doing. All of that is a great opportunity for us to work together with these other groups across the country and paint the sort of national epidemic and explain that this is not just Chicago. It’s everywhere, although Chicago certainly has some very specific things that we want to see changed. [*Note: Mike Brown’s mother is going to the UN in November and you can read about that here.]

GOSZTOLA: One of the things that I know you said when you were giving your presentation at the Hull House in Chicago was that the United Nations has actually called out the Chicago police specifically. And you thought that they called out the New Orleans Police Department too in relation to their response after Hurricane Katrina? But there’s a lot that you lay out in the report and is there anything particular that you found to be striking when you were going through and becoming familiar with everything that was going to go in this report?

MAY: The two police departments that you highlight have been called out. The New Orleans Police Department was called out, again, because of community activists submitting shadow reports and engaging in this process, calling out the actions of the New Orleans Police Department after Hurricane Katrina. And then, in Chicago, the CPD has been called out because of the Jon Burge torture cases. Again, you see organizers that had been working to try to bring that issue to justice in some way for many, many years and then the UN was one really important landmark in that struggle.

So the CPD has been called out around Jon Burge. What we’re adding is it wasn’t just Jon Burge and the police officers that have been implicated. This is something that happens. Youth of color experience ongoing and pervasive violence on a daily basis.

There was a lot that found shocking. The report’s based on youth testimony so I spent many hours just listening to young people’s recordings and reading their statements of experiences they’ve had at the hands of the police that are just really horrific. And I never really cease to be surprised at how brutal young people are treated, but I also—I think statistically there was a lot of interest and surprise at the rate of impunity with which the police are brutalizing people in this city.

If you look at complaint records, you see this alarming rate at which people complain but then it doesn’t lead to any penalty at all. So right now there’s been a lot of buzz around the bond officer list [PDF]. And it names 662 police officers who between May 2001 and May 2006 had at least ten or more misconduct complaints made against them. If you look at that list, out of the 662 police officers, 508 of them had no penalties ever within that. So out of 10,735 complaints, only 219 actually had a penalty. And most of them are very minor penalties so like violation noted or a reprimand. And I think that impunity was really surprising.

And Chicago has had a lot of organizing in the past around the lack of accountability, and that’s part of why IPRA was even started, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), was as a response to the rate at which police were brutalizing people but not being penalized. But we’re seeing is IPRA isn’t really fixing that. We’re not better off yet.

GOSZTOLA: Can you talk to us about what it’s like for the youth who are able to come and share their experiences because I would think that you’re giving them a very valuable outlet for something they may not know how to handle privately?

MAY: Yeah, I think personal narrative is an extremely important part of organizing. That a huge part of We Charge Genocide is documentation, documenting our stories and using them as a tool for education. I think that it’s an important outlet for young people that we’ve created to share their stories because it helps us remember or understand that we’re not alone.

I grew up in rural Vermont and remember feeling overwhelmed with feeling that my family had a lot more interactions with police. It felt like my family—It felt like a personal thing. When I moved to Chicago and went through some political education, [I] started to learn this was systemic and that this is something that people of color experience disproportionately. So, I think that telling our stories helps us see that. To hear from other people that they are also feeling these things is really, really important.

It’s really, really important to be recognized. It’s really, really important to be affirmed. So all of this has been a central part of our work and I think a really powerful part of our work. We’re going to the UN and we’re going to be bringing our stories. We’re going to make sure they’re going to know about Damo. They’re going to know about what we as people have experienced. That behind all the numbers are real people, real pain, real struggle. And that’s what gives this trip so much meaning, I think.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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