The Times They Are A’Changing


The indictment and arrest of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge on October 21 is yet another indication that a complete transformation of American life is underway. Along with the presidential election, the indictment of Burge, who has long been suspected of torturing and abusing suspects in the 1980s, shows that the way politics have been conducted in this country for the past 30 years is over. Or to put it in other words, a new generation is stepping up, kicking tail and taking names.

US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (at podium) speaks about the indictment of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge on Oct. 21 while Robert Brent (from left), special agent in charge of the FBI’s Chicago office; Mark Templehof, chief of the criminal section of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice; and Jeffery Cramer, assistant US attorney, look on.
Photo by Anjuli Maniam

Saying that Burge “shamed his uniform and his badge,” Fitzgerald explained that he was charging Burge for lying in court in a 2003 civil case:
“For his lies about torture and abuse, we intend to hold him accountable.”
“Police are sworn to uphold the law when others break it,” Fitzgerald added. “Burge broke the law when he was supposed to uphold it.”

Burge was a former high-ranking policeman who was fired in 1993 for allegedly torturing suspects personally and for overseeing other officers who did the same. They – allegedly – put plastic bags over suspects’ heads to suffocate them, shocked their genitals with electricity, and beat confessions out of suspects. Burge has always denied that the torture took place. But over the years, elected officials from both major political parties and at every level of government felt that the Burge case deserved more scrutiny. In 2003, former Republican Governor George Ryan pardoned four men who were sent to death row because of evidence Burge and his crew obtained. In 2007, the city settled a number of law suits about the torture allegations with a whopping $20 million. In September 2007, five aldermen wrote to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald asking him to prosecute Burge. U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1) has been urging the U.S. Congress to hold hearings about Burge’s actions.

One of the biggest chinks in Burge’s armor of denials was a 2006 report authored by attorneys Edward Egan and Robert Boyle. Egan and Boyle found that the torture claims were credible in dozens of cases they reviewed, but concluded that Burge could not be prosecuted. Too much time had passed since the men were in Burge’s custody and the statute of limitations on the actual acts of torture had expired. Many advocates for the torture victims thought that Burge could be charged for lying in court in 2003, when he denied the torture allegations in court during a civil trial in the case of Madison Hobley, one of the men on death row freed by Gov. Ryan. But Egan claimed that Burge couldn’t be charged that way because it was a “perjury trap.”

U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald, however, appeared to dismiss that conclusion. In what was an otherwise unemotional presentation, Fitzgerald bristled when asked about the ‘perjury trap’:

“I don’t know that the law has ever recognized a perjury trap, and if it has, this ain’t one,” Fitzgerald quipped. To him, a lie is a lie, and a lie in court is a crime.

The Burge indictments are an earthquake in local politics. Current Mayor Richard M. Daley was the Cook County State’s Attorney when Burge was – allegedly – torturing people. Daley and his first deputy, Dick Devine, who is now the outgoing state’s attorney, used evidence gathered in those torture sessions to put people behind bars and on death row.

Daley issued what a local daily newspaper called a “sarcastic apology” about those cases a few days after the Burge indictments. His dismissive attitude is probably due in part to the situation at the time Burge was most active. The drug war was raging in those days. Chicago saw some 1,000 murders a year and citizens – especially white, middle-class folks – were demanding action.

If Burge and others went too far in trying to crack down on the bad guys, many people thought it was a necessary evil. In their minds, the bad guys were exploiting the nation’s liberal laws and customs. For many people, the gains of the civil right era went too far. The ultra violent criminals who were targeted in the War on Drugs were direct descendants of the Black Panthers, the protests outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the Summer of Love. Essentially, Burge and his cohort were operating in the ‘70s and ‘80s on the mandate of a conservative reaction to the turbulent ‘60s.

But now, the public is demanding accountability for those people who exceeded their writ. Fitzgerald’s entire career has been based on cleaning up the messes left over from the last generation. He began his tenure as a federal prosecutor in New York, going after the men who tried to blow up the World Trade Center the first time, in the early ‘90s. Many of those men were Arab veterans of the secret battles in Afghanistan between the CIA and the decaying Soviet Union. Given that Burge was a Vietnam War veteran who likely developed his torture techniques of Viet Cong prisoners, it’s ironic that Fitzgerald has prosecuted at least two sets of Cold Warriors who brought their tactics to the home front.

More recently, Fitzgerald was the special prosecutor investigating abuse of power in the White House of the second Bush Administration. His successful prosecution of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, might have led to other arrests further up the ladder if President George W. Bush hadn’t commuted Libby’s sentence. It’s important to keep in mind that Libby’s crime was also about lying in court, in his case to cover up for the lies of his superiors who were fabricating a case for a U.S. invasion of Iraq to displace Sadaam Hussein, an erstwhile American ally who had become a problem for yet another set of former Cold Warriors.

Just as the Burge indictment suggests that people are sick and tired with the old ways, Chicago is also the springboard for all of those who are hungry for change at the national level. U.S. Senator Barack Obama successfully burst onto the national stage by transcending the racial and political swamp of Chicago politics. He predicated his argument on pulling out of the mire of Iraq. But the Obama campaign has gained momentum by overturning all of the old arguments about what makes the country run. On health care, education, abortion, religion, the social welfare system and now on the economy, Obama accelerated in the polls by getting away from the old, polarized paradigms. Even in personal style, Obama won by being different.

It is a fair criticism of Obama to say that he has refused to confront Daley and the other members of the ruling generation. It remains to be seen if he will deliver the change that he has promised. But his political success is a sure sign that people everywhere are hungry for something different, and that this new generation – a generation that has been maligned as disengaged and cynical – is willing to declare that the emperor is naked. This is a generation that does not confuse wearing your hair long or your jeans ripped for a political statement.

My own personal confirmation that the times are surely changing came as I walked out of the room where Fitzgerald held a press conference to announce the Burge indictment. There I saw Wallace “Gator” Bradley, a former gang leader who participated in more than his share of drug war battles. Now a political operative and ‘urban translator,’ Bradley expressed exhausted satisfaction with Fitzgerald’s targeting of Burge. And he attributed Burge’s going down to a shift in the national trajectory.
“The politics of change is what made a difference,” Bradley said. “If not for this election, they would have never made this indictment.
“The eyes of the world are on Chicago.”

If Bradley is correct about the global focus being on Chicago, than I can only join those who say: Finally.

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