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From Chicago to Geneva, a Call for Police Accountability for Violence and Torture

We Charge Genocide, a coalition of Chicago activists, is turning outside the US criminal justice system to force accountability for police misconduct by taking their complaints to the United Nations.

Activists including members of We Charge Genocide at Chicago's National Moment of Silence event honoring victims of police brutality. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

We Charge Genocide, a coalition of Chicago activists, is turning outside the US criminal justice system to force accountability for police misconduct by taking their complaints to the United Nations.

It’s been more than 55 days since unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot dead in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and the police officer accused of killing him has yet to be arrested.

It’s realities like the one currently playing out in Ferguson – and what African-American communities have seen as a lack of police accountability on the ground for decades – that have helped spur a group of activists in Chicago to turn outside the US criminal justice system to force accountability for police misconduct.

Instead, they are taking their complaints to the United Nations.

We Charge Genocide, a coalition organizing against police brutality in Chicago, will send six organizers to present a report to the UN Committee Against Torture on November 12 and 13. At issue during the committee’s 53rd session will be whether the US government is fully abiding by the Convention Against Torture.

By We Charge Genocide’s estimation, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) is torturing youth of color. “The CPD’s conduct constitutes torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment as defined by the Convention, and occurs at extraordinary rates, disproportionately against black and brown youth, and with impunity,” Page May, an organizer with We Charge Genocide, told Truthout.

The issue of impunity has come to the fore in recent months in Chicago. In several cases of fatal police shootings over the summer, including that of Warren Robinson and Roshad McIntosh, eyewitnesses said the victims had their hands up or told the officer not to shoot. And in the 11th police district, where McIntosh was shot, a police commander was recently indicted for shoving a gun into someone’s mouth. An investigation later found the commander, Glenn Evans, had drawn 36 complaints in eight years.

We Charge Genocide’s report for the United Nations includes youth testimony and data, which May said, “reveal the depth and breadth of the problem in Chicago – a problem that includes the CPD’s continued and ongoing pattern of routine, invasive and degrading harassment of young people of color.”

She gives a laundry list of abuses: “Youth report – with alarming regularity – instances of intimidation, involuntary and abusive searches, theft of property, beatings and excessive force and sexual assault by the CPD.”

Among the demands of We Charge Genocide is that the Chicago Police Department “institute sufficient systems for preventing, documenting, reviewing, investigating, and providing redress and compensation for police violence against youth in Chicago.”

Because the United States signed and ratified the torture convention, May said the group’s hope is that their report will compel the United Nations to take action.

“We are asking for the United Nations to recommend that the federal government intervene and provide oversight of the Chicago Police Department, and help manage reform of the Chicago Police Department,” she said, also demanding “that the US Department of Justice open a pattern and practice investigation of the CPD’s treatment of youth of color and seek the entry of a consent decree that requires the CPD to document, investigate and punish acts of torture.”

May pointed to the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation into the Cleveland police department as an example of what they’d like to see in Chicago. The probe, announced in March 2013, will investigate whether police in Cleveland regularly use excessive force.

Todd St. Hill, an organizer with We Charge Genocide who is also going to Geneva, said that the best way to make the most of the UN visit is to connect it with organizing on the ground. The visit to Geneva will “put an appropriate label as to what’s going on in the city as far as police relationships [with] people of color.”

But beyond that, St. Hill said, he hopes the group’s next steps will focus on concrete goals such as demanding oversight of the Chicago Police Department or calling for reparations for young people who have been affected by aggressive policing.

The group takes its name from a petition of the same name to the United Nations in 1951 by the Civil Rights Congress. The full name of the petition was “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief From a Crime of The United States Government Against the Negro People.”

It’s also not the first time that activists have brought criminal justice accountability issues in Chicago to the United Nations, though none have done it in isolation. This past August, the United States Human Right Network traveled to the 85th meeting of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva to present on what they called “the criminalization of race” in the United States. Among the group were activists who have been organizing on the ground in Ferguson.

In the case of the Tamms Year Ten campaign, which was working to shut down a supermax prison in Illinois that held people in solitary confinement for decades, bringing the pressure of the UN to bear on the issue was a turning point.The announcement in June 2012 that the UN’s torture investigator was considering investigating Tamms and whether its use of solitary confinement amounted to torture helped propel the state to close the facility in early 2013.

Non-Carceral, Pro-Accountability

A key aspect of We Charge Genocide’s organizing is that they have a broad critique of the “carceral state” and the ways in which it uses prison to solve social problems. For the people on whose experience We Charge Genocide focuses – people of color, LGBTIQ people – imprisonment has been used as a form of social control, May said.

To then see prison as the answer to police accountability issues is short-sighted, she told Truthout. “We don’t really see the problem [with the police] being a few bad apples. The solutions are just individualistic and don’t address police violence,” she said. “Instead we are looking for some immediate ways that will start to reduce the harm.”

These can range from having police officers wear body cameras, as is being piloted in New York City, to campaigns that demand reparations for victims of police violence.

For St. Hill, the group can also play an important role in illuminating the connections between policing and other social issues.

Knowing that the most heavily policed communities also suffer from poverty and violence, and looking for substantive ways to have accountability for police also leads to a conversation about substantive ways to address violence.

“Instead of putting more police on the streets, can we have more counselors, more schools, more trauma centers?” he said.

Broad Effects

In a city that is home to some of the most well-known voices in African-American politics, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, recent organizing efforts are notable for their focus on youth and queer experiences of police issues.

The Black Youth Project (BYP), a Chicago-based research and activism organization focusing on ending criminalization of black people and fighting the prison-industrial complex, is one of the organizations that is part of We Charge Genocide.

“We approach the issue of criminalization from a black, feminist and queer way,” Charlene Carruthers, national coordinator for BYP’s on-the-ground organizing project called Black Youth Project 100, told Truthout. “Even if the media portray the story of police violence in a particular way, the work that we do is also about how it impacts black women and girls – and also all the black folks who are LGBTQ.”

One of BYP 100’s main organizing projects is to push the City of Chicago to reallocate the money spent on marijuana arrests to education and other social services. For this project, Carruthers said, a longer-term focus on police accountability will be essential.

A Tragic Reality

Since the eruption of protests in Ferguson, We Charge Genocide has seen “quite literally an upsurge of interest in what we’re doing,” May said.

“If we can get the message out that rage is justified,” she said, the hope is that more people will fight what they see as dangerous policing in their own communities. And, as in Ferguson, any time could be the tipping moment. “Mike Brown was the bucket overflowing with the final drop,” she said.

A Cop Watch training the group held near the end of the summer couldn’t accommodate the people who were interested in participating, and the group was able to raise nearly $12,000 in a week through an online fundraising campaign to send the six organizers to Geneva.

It’s helped radicalize St. Hill and, he expects, many others. “I think my [negative] experience with police definitely impacted why I organize around these specific issues,” he said. “Seeing another younger generation coming up and dealing with this in a more intense way than I’ve ever had to inspired me to be a part of this movement.”

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