When someone has a record like Flint Taylor’s, it’s tough to know where to begin. Few lawyers bring the kind of conscientious and thoughtful dedication to social movements that Taylor has. Over the course of his career as a radical lawyer, he has won millions of dollars in reparations for victims of Chicago police torture, freed people who were wrongfully imprisoned, and played a central role in bringing down the leader of the Chicago police torture ring, which was active for decades.
Back in August of 1969—while still a law student—Taylor co-founded the Chicago-based People’s Law Office. It was only a few months later that Taylor would find himself in the center of a high-profile political murder case. On December 4th, 1969, Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered by the Chicago Police Department during a pre-dawn raid. During the shootout, more than 90 bullets were fired into the apartment by the police (only one was fired out by the Panthers). Hampton, only 21 years old, was killed in bed next to his pregnant girlfriend. As the case played out over the next 13 years, Taylor and his team definitively established the FBI’s role in Hampton’s assassination as part of the COINTELPRO operation.
While The Torture Machine, Taylor’s new book, briefly touches on the murder of Fred Hampton, the central focus is the decades-long legal battle against Chicago police torture. The primary villain, police commander Jon Burge, seems almost to have been cast by Hollywood: beefy, imposing, and impossibly sadistic. For decades, Burge subjected Chicagoans, mostly African-American men, to gruesome acts of torture including suffocation with a plastic typewriter cover, electrical shocks to the genitals, burns, and beatings, in the process extracting false confessions which were then used to lock the victims up for crimes they did not commit.
While Taylor’s book is emotionally difficult, its unflinching recounting is an essential read. As he makes clear in the book’s conclusion, until we fully grapple with the history of American police violence and torture, and make serious amends to all the victims, its legacy will remain a stain on our society.
Eli Massey of Current Affairs sat down with Taylor to discuss his book, Fred Hampton, prison abolition, the legacy of torture in America, and more.
CA: Why did you write this book? What inspired you?
FT: Well, you know, for the entire scope or breadth of my career starting as a law student back in 1969, I have always been conscious of history and conscious of people’s history. As I got more involved in the cases, starting out with the Fred Hampton case, we started to become more self-conscious about the obligation that we had to not only be in court and fight cases, but to bring the evidence that we were uncovering—the realities that we were uncovering—to the public. We fought very hard during the Hampton case to do that under very strong opposition that not only suppressed the evidence initially, but when we were able to get the evidence, tried to keep it secret and only in our possession and the court’s possession. So that narrative, that power narrative, that people’s narrative that we felt we were forging in the Hampton case was something that started me on to the road not only of speaking about the history we were learning, the evidence we were learning, but ultimately writing about it…
By 2015, I had written quite a few pieces on torture for legal publications and also for other publications like the Nation and In These Times. So it seemed important to try to put into some comprehensive book that arc of history that I had been a part of, with a primary focus on the 30-plus years we had been involved in the torture cases, but also trying to weave into it some of the other cases, including the Greensboro incident with the Klan, weaving all of that into some kind of narrative that could be used, could be read, and students could use. And maybe at some point it could also be adapted to other media like a TV series or movie. My partner Jeff Haas did that almost 10 years ago when he wrote The Assassination of Fred Hampton, which was very well-received, and documented what he and I and others in the office—and outside the office—fought for those 13 years in the Hampton case. So I didn’t need to write the book on the Hampton case. I do have a chapter that starts out with the Hampton case, because it was such a significant part of the history of this office and my own personal history, and headed me on the road we were just talking about, but it quickly dovetails right into the main story.
CA: Why did you decide to become a lawyer? I know you got involved with the People’s Law Office as a student, working on Fred Hampton’s case. Can you talk about the PLO’s history and what set you on this path?
FT: Well back in the late ‘60s, of course, the Democratic National Convention was here [in Chicago] in ’68, and there was the police riot and all the brutality that arose from that, the arrests that arose from that. I had come to Chicago, as a law student, the week after the Democratic National Convention. I was at Northwestern, and I was just a kind of liberal Easterner without any real deep involvement in the movement, not really any movement, other than to go to an occasional demonstration on campus back at Brown [where I did my undergrad]. But there was a law student at Northwestern named Seva Dubuar who got me interested in working with these lawyers that, at the time, were at the Legal Assistance Bureau here in Chicago. Skip Andrew, Jeff Haas, they were branching out from what the Legal Assistance Bureau normally did, because they were politically very progressive or radical. So they were taking on criminal cases to defend Black Panthers, defend Young Lords, defend Rising Up Angry, and SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] people. Seva got me started working part-time with those lawyers. That was early in the spring of ’69. The Legal Assistance Bureau had always given these lawyers a very hard time. “That’s not our mandate, you’re not supposed to be doing this.” Ultimately, they put a lot of pressure on…Skip and Jeff to leave. Kind of an ultimatum: Either you stop doing this work or leave. They left… We, meaning those lawyers and the law students who were working for them…went out on our own and started an office [the PLO] in August of ’69 at Webster and Halsted. There are different stories about how we became known as the People’s Law Office, but the story that I like to tell is that it’s because we were representing the Black Panthers. The Panthers had people’s medical clinics, various “people’s” this and “people’s” that, and so we became the people’s lawyers. We took on the name the People’s Law Office, and it’s stuck ever since.
CA: You said the PLO was founded in August 1969. Not long after, on December 4th, 1969, Fred Hampton was murdered. What should people know and remember about Fred Hampton as an activist and community leader, and what lessons should be taken from his and Mark Clark’s murder by the Chicago Police Department (CPD)?
FT: That’s a deep question. Fred Hampton was railroaded into jail in May of ’69. And then we—and this is one of the first things I worked on at the People’s Law Office—had to get an appeal bond set while his case was on appeal. In August of ’69, the Chief Judge of the Illinois Supreme Court granted our request for an appeal bond. So Fred came out and this was the first glimpse I had of him and his power as a leader. We came to a church on the West Side. It was kind of a welcoming-home, revivalist type of gathering, which was predominantly African-Americans, from Panthers to just regular community people. But a few white people were there as well. Fred was just completely electrifying and dynamic, talking about when he was in jail and “hearing the beat of the people.” You instantly understood when you saw him speak, or met with him, or talked with him, and he was only 21. He had that leadership ability, that ability to communicate, that ability to galvanize people that few leaders, particularly young leaders, have. This came out of a history in Maywood where he was involved with the NAACP, but then he became radicalized and connected up with Bobby Rush, who was a leader in SNCC, and they started the Panthers in late ’68. Anyway, Fred came out of jail and he picked up right where he left off organizing.
A couple of months later, I had the honor of bringing him to Northwestern Law School to speak. I picked him up and brought him over from the West Side office. He seemed to me a little bit obsessed with the “pigs” as they were called at that time, the police that were following him, they were doing this, they were doing that. I was naïve enough to think, well, you know, this guy’s paranoid. That wasn’t my only reaction. I was learning about the repression, but it wasn’t that real to me. So when Fred was talking about it as a real thing, happening right before our eyes, that was a little much for me to understand. But we got to Northwestern. I expected that it would be like most left events in a conservative law school, maybe 50 kids would show up. But basically the whole law school was there, packed into Lincoln Hall, which seats a few hundred people. We went in there and this was really my first experience at public speaking… I did one of the introductions, and I basically stammered my way through it. It was quite embarrassing. Fred picked up on it. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he made some analogy between Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, and him and Bobby Rush, contrasting it to me, basically saying “you’ve got to get your act together.” But then he proceeded—I mean now he’s talking to white, privileged, mostly male law students in 1969, and he could talk to them too. He had this amazing ability, and what he was talking about was revolution with law students at Northwestern. It was very powerful.
After working to get him out with others in the office and meeting all the people that supported him in Maywood, and meeting Panthers, at the same time I was reading Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. All of this is happening, it’s the peak of the anti-war movement, SDS is demonstrating, a conspiracy trial is going on, the Conspiracy Eight trial is going on. So it was an incredible period. And it had a tremendous radicalizing impact on me and my fellow people at the office.
At the same time that we’re being radicalized, we’re dealing with all this on the legal front in the courts and in the streets, everything. And then there’s this bloody and shocking murder, the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark on December 4th, which was only a month or two after I had thought that he was paranoid in thinking the police were following him, when in fact they were not only following him, they were planning his assassination. Now what happened then was we all mobilized. All of the people that were working with the office, the law students, the lawyers, the paralegals, and all the spouses of the lawyers, mobilized to the apartment…Walking into that apartment, I think I mention in the opening of the book, was like a murder scene, which it was. But the police had inexplicably left it open, which is totally contrary to all police practices, then and now. We always thought it was either one of two reasons. Of course [the police] went there at 4:30 in the morning, it was predawn, but it was about to be dawn in the near West Side, in an African-American community where maybe not everyone totally embraced the politics of the Panthers, but they were supportive. There were breakfast programs in the community, there was a health clinic. I don’t know if it had started then, but if not, then shortly thereafter. So the police on the one hand may well have been fearful that if at dawn, they were still there, there could be some real uprising. The other possibility—and maybe it was a combination of both things—is that there was just a certain arrogance. “We can go down there, we’re going to do this, we’re going to put our story out, these are the Panthers, we’re just going to say there was a shootout. We know they have guns there, we’ll display those guns.”
CA: Legal guns though, right?
FT: Yeah. And [the police seemed to think], “they’re vicious Black Panthers engaged in a shootout and we’ll be heroes. The police will be heroes. [State’s Attorney Edward] Hanrahan will have a huge notch in his belt.” Hanrahan was the heir-apparent to the old Mayor Daley, the original Mayor Daley who was nearing the end of his career. And so the police just walked away from the scene. But whatever the reason, there we were. We started to write that counter-narrative, or to live it at that point.
CA: I wanted to ask about writing that counter-narrative. In the book you describe basically a kangaroo court (openly hostile judge, blatant suppression of evidence, prejudicial actions left and right) overseeing the Hampton case. In that situation it’s possible to win some important victories, as you did, but the deck seemed so stacked against you that I didn’t get the sense there was much hope in winning the case, and it might’ve had the perverse consequence of legitimizing a ruling that exonerated the FBI and CPD. Why, at the time, did you bother to proceed with the case? The appeal and beyond turned out well, but it could’ve easily gone other way, so why proceed?
FT: Well, I guess that’s a good question. Soon after the case became activated, which was in ’73, a series of events led to us unpeeling this onion of a cover-up and getting to the real truth of what happened. There was a certain phase in which we were able to move to a counter-narrative that at least competed with the police narrative. The counter-narrative was that it wasn’t a shoot-out, it was a shoot-in; the police went there with murder on their minds, and they fired 90 bullets to one. But of course the Feds didn’t indict anybody, and a machine judge exonerated the cops and Hanrahan when they were charged with obstruction of justice. So, yes, we were in a deep valley after all that happened. We still had this lawsuit, it had just come back from appeal, because this very hostile judge had thrown out the prosecutors and Hanrahan. But then it’s revealed that this [supposed Panther] O’Neal was an FBI informant. And of course that was a sea change in what we were doing and what it meant. There was suspicion all over the country during that period of time that the FBI was behind it, which was reasonable given what they were doing, but there was no evidence. Then it came out because the government wanted to use O’Neal in another trial that he was in fact an informant, and he was a client of ours, which made it even more remarkable. So now we have a case that’s alive and we have the tip of the iceberg about the Feds’ involvement. That gave us the motivation to go at a very new part of the case, a part of the case that was unknown, a part of the case that fit our understanding of what the FBI was about, not only philosophically, but in terms of what they were doing.
CA: Yeah, but you had a sense that it was conceivable the courts would rule in your favor, which doesn’t strike me as self-evident, based on just how prejudicial the court was.
FT: Well no, we didn’t have a sense at all the courts were going to—
CA: So then what was the point in going through the process?
FT: The point was—and we went from step to step, ok. It wasn’t like we were thinking that 10 years later we were going to end up where we ended up. But what we were doing was attacking, again, the narrative and seeing the opening to discover what really happened… This was a watershed case. We had this opportunity because we had this lawsuit to get to the depths of the FBI’s involvement. And we started out just knowing that this O’Neal character was involved, but we were able to use the discovery process to depose him, and also caught a little bit of a break because there was an honest U.S. attorney who turned over the floor plan [of the Black Panther’s apartment]. And once we got the floor plan we saw that the FBI had schemed for the raid. It also showed that that floor plan had been communicated to the raiders. So now we really had what we later called the first piece of a trilogy of documents that would show that this assassination–unlike the [Martin Luther] King assassination or the Malcolm X assassination, in which the documents certainly pointed to an intent to assassinate–here we had the actual connection shown in FBI documents. So we went from point one to point two to point three. Maybe if we’d thought, “oh, this judge is so bad, we’re never going to win this case,” but we didn’t, it really was more like, “well, we’re going to expose the FBI. We’re going to get to the bottom of everybody who was involved in the depths.” And that’s what kept us going. Because if we fight hard enough, we get the floor plan. We fight hard enough, we get the document that says COINTELPRO was behind it. We keep fighting and we get the 200 volumes, we get the bonus document. So that’s really what happened.
CA: So, very briefly, can you tell me what does being a people’s lawyer or movement lawyer mean to you? Sorry, I know it’s not an easy question.
FT: It means everything to me. It means and has meant that I’ve had the privilege to represent some of the most inspiring people and movements that you could imagine on the left, that when you get down or when you feel—I shouldn’t say defeated, but when you feel discouraged, you have examples starting with Fred Hampton and Rafael Cancel Miranda, the Attica brothers, or Maxine Smith, the first jailhouse woman lawyer in Illinois who we represented for many years, and she was thrown in the hole for two years. Or the widows of the murdered anti-Klan demonstrators in Greensboro, and of course all the torture survivors who in one way or another stood as examples as well as clients. And I could go on naming people, to say nothing of all the wonderful people in this office whom I’ve worked with and continue to work with, and all the young and many generations of lawyers who do this work or aspire to do similar work.
CA: I asked because as I was reading the book, I noticed that frequently you’re prevented from bringing the charges you’d like, or introducing crucial evidence, or in some other way stymied in the courtroom from exposing the politics that undergirds the cases you’re working on. You were barred by the judge in the Hampton case from questioning the FBI defendants before the jury about their role in the cover-up. You couldn’t use the term “raid” to describe the murderous assault. Jon Burge the Chicago police commander was finally convicted for obstruction of justice and perjury, not torture. And yet it seems like these kinds of roadblocks and prohibitions illustrate just how political these cases are. You write that: “As in all the major cases I would be involved in throughout my career, exposing the whole truth, and in the process establishing a people’s narrative, was of paramount importance.” Can you explain what a people’s narrative is and how you handle these kinds of barriers?
FT: Well as you say, sometimes the crucial evidence, at least initially, would not be admitted by judges who were hostile to us. That happened both in the Hampton case and in the Wilson cases, with [Judge] Duff and [Judge] Perry… They were basically adversaries rather than arbiters. But getting that evidence—we got it in different ways. In the Hampton case we got it through the discovery process after much battle. The initial evidence we got in the Wilson case was from Deep Badge, from an actual whistleblower who worked with Burge…
Because you can’t get it into evidence necessarily, people’s narrative includes that. People’s narrative is not only about the evidence you uncover about the lengths the government and the police and the criminal justice system will go to to repress, particularly people of color, poor people. It’s also about that process of the courts being facilitators of suppressing that evidence. So in the book I’m telling several stories. I’m telling the stories of who the people were, giving voices to the people who were the leaders and are the leaders in the movement, who were the victims or the survivors of the brutality. But I’m also attempting to show what lengths not only the police and government will go to but how judges facilitate that repression and that white supremacy. Exposing the court system, particularly judges, as well as marshaling and revealing the evidence itself is all part of writing a true people’s narrative.
CA: This is a good segue. I wanted to turn to the failings and shortcomings of the criminal justice system. The police torture perpetrated by Burge and his men was dramatic, shocking, and egregious. But many of the injustices of the criminal justice system are utterly banal and commonplace, and don’t make it to the front page of the Chicago Tribune. For example, you have overwhelmed public defenders who fail to adequately represent their clients; zealous DAs/State’s Attorneys that are more concerned with locking people up than with what the evidence supports; and overeager judges that set high bail for minor crimes. What would be your top three criminal justice system reforms if you could wave a magic wand and make them happen tomorrow?
FT: There are some tremendously dedicated public defenders, including my daughter, who’s a federal defender. But you’re right, there’s not enough of them.
CA: They’re overburdened.
FT: They’re completely overburdened and underfunded… You asked for the three major changes?
CA: Yeah, or reforms.
FT: You get some real questions in terms of reforms. Are they effective? It seems to me that you certainly want to change certain fundamental things about the criminal justice system, about the police. But you really have to go all the way back to the underpinnings of society, to the economic inequality, the fact that money is spent for police rather than mental health, for example, that programs that help to equalize the unfair economic system are being completely done away with. I don’t want to argue to put a Band-Aid on anything.
I’m intrigued by arguments that really fly in the face of conventional reform such as the abolition of police and abolition of prisons, which obviously raises a lot of practical problems in this society at this time. But I think that like a lot of things that seem unrealistic at some point in history, the people who are raising them now may be at a point where that would [represent] a real solution. You have the No Cop Academy [movement] here in Chicago.
CA: Costing $95 million.
FT: Yeah, to spend the money on something like mental health and other programs rather than on training cops. Ok, so a lot of reforms are raised around training. On the one hand you could say, “Oh, alright, well they’re going to do better training. Maybe that’s a good thing.” But these folks are [saying] no, that’s not a good thing. Why train [the police] better? Their job is to be an occupying force in the communities…and that money can be put to better use somewhere else. And same with prisons. Reforms that are beneficial and good cut down the people that go to prison. Obviously fighting for non-money bonds and getting a lot of nonviolent people out of prisons and jails is good. On the other hand so many of the people that are in jail and prison have mental health issues, the idea that they are going to go back on the street with no programs, insufficient drug treatment programs, or insufficient economic job opportunities: that’s a problem. But if you reach all the way to abolition then you get into a whole other set of issues. What do you do with people who are extremely violent or have committed violent acts?
CA: You speak approvingly of prison and police abolition, but then you spend your career working to lock people like Jon Burge up. Do you feel there’s any kind of tension or contradiction there?
FT: Sure, after Burge was convicted there was quite a debate in the left community or at least [we] discussed it as well: What kind of sentence do we want for him? This was several years before the idea of police abolition had gained the traction that it has in the left community now. There’s a tension there because obviously the survivors of torture wanted him to get as serious a sentence as they had gotten.
CA: Was that all of the survivors, or the majority?
FT: Pretty much, our clients did [want him to receive a serious sentence]. Yeah, I can’t speak for everyone, but they wanted him to taste the prison that they had suffered. And most people in the community who were very upset with what happened and how it not only impacted those who were tortured, their families, and the community, and all of that, [felt] there needed to be retribution of some sort. And you see it again now with [Jason] Van Dyke who killed Laquan McDonald. It raises those same issues. I have to confess it’s a contradiction that I haven’t totally resolved myself. But, yes, I’ve spent most of my life trying to expose what Burge did and ultimately get him charged, sort of like the Klansmen who murdered those children in Birmingham in the ’60s and the quest that’s gone on for decades to get justice. Yeah, there’s a balance there. I don’t know, if you had a just society you wouldn’t have torture, number one. Number two, if you did have that kind of official misconduct there might be alternative ways to deal with it other than through prison. I’m not an expert on abolitionism and I’m not an expert on understanding the programs and the alternatives, the restorative justice that gets talked about. But I know enough to know that those folks are serious and that’s a serious alternative, that it’s not an absolute possibility at this point, but it’s something that needs to be seriously looked at.
CA: I really appreciate how thoughtful and honest that answer was. I wanted to ask about the death of Jon Burge. What thoughts went through your mind when you heard he had died on September 19th, 2018?
FT: There’s an expanded epilogue that you don’t have…Because I had deposed him as recently as 2016, and after he’d been jailed and out, and the last couple of times I deposed him he was very weak, very sick, couldn’t walk basically. The last time he was in wheelchair, he was on oxygen. His lawyer told me that he didn’t think Burge was going to live very long. For like 2.5 years I sort of had it in the back of my mind, well, he’s going to die soon, what would I say? How would I react? I thought it over. Of course there is a very strong principle in society in general: Don’t talk ill of the dead. If you can’t saying anything good about somebody, don’t say anything. On the other hand, that would be kind of inconsistent with the fact that we had spoken out at every opportunity about him, and not only him but about [former Mayor] Daley and all about what the torture scandal meant. Should we use [his death] as another occasion to talk about the truth of the torture scandal? Sure enough, Burge didn’t die for a long period of time; when he finally died this past September…I reconnoitered with people in the office…to talk about what I would say, and if I should say it. And we decided that the principle, don’t speak ill of the dead, was something we’d follow this time, that we wouldn’t use this as an occasion to further the narrative. And [torture survivor] Darrell Cannon called me, and he said they [the press] are calling me, and so we all decided we would not comment. [Torture survivor] Anthony Holmes didn’t comment, Darrell didn’t comment, I didn’t. But it turned out that the press—we didn’t need to comment. The front pages talked about him.
CA: That’s his legacy.
FT: Yeah, that’s his legacy. It was right there on the front page. The [Chicago] Tribune did a point-by-point. The only thing they missed was the release of [torture survivor] Jackie Wilson [who was convicted based on a coerced confession]. The Sun Times pulled out past quotes that I and Darrell had made, which we certainly couldn’t have made that day but really encapsulated, talked about crimes against humanity—I think that’s how I characterized it—and Darrell talked about KKK with badges. They played those quotes and people like [journalist] John Conroy spoke out, Jesse Jackson said something. It was the right decision to be restrained at that time and let our work speak, which it did over the years in the headlines and in the articles…. That’s how we dealt with it. I think there’s something in the book about, I’m talking to the filmmaker on the “L” [train] after I deposed Burge for probably the last time, and how on the one hand I didn’t really feel all that hatred that maybe Darrell or Anthony, people who were tortured by him felt, and sympathy might not be the right word, but when you see someone who is slowly dying, suffering, there’s a certain part of you that can sympathize with that, no matter how terrible his legacy is. Burge’s legacy is going to live on. It’s going to live on in the schools where it’s being taught, it lives on in this book. But the narrative is strongly demonstrated by how the media reacted to him and what they wrote about him. They also put Daley in the thing, which was as important a part of the narrative as Burge in some ways.
CA: I wanted to ask about what leads a person to torture. I get the sense that for you, police torture and abuse are not merely a matter of bad leadership. You describe some of the personnel overlap between the Fred Hampton/Mark Clark murder and Burge’s torture. But what would you say is the cause?
FT: Well, [journalist] John Conroy wrote a whole book on that. He has some very distinct theories. His book was called Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, about people who would go home, sit around the dinner table and afterwards be perfectly nice to their family, after they’d gone out and tortured people. What my personal view of it is—I certainly see partly what John is saying, but when I look at these particular leading lights of torture here in Chicago, I see a combination of racist, white supremacist attitudes that allows one to dehumanize people who are black or people of color, and then with regard to the big three of the torturers—Burge, John Byrne, and Dignan—they all had the Vietnam experience. At least two of them—Burge and Dignan—were deeply involved in either participating in torture and killing in Vietnam, or in Burge’s case also working in a POW camp and being involved in, most likely witnessing, hundreds of Vietnamese people being tortured with electric shock. It was a simple jump or an easy move from the dehumanization that they did in the name of the United States in Vietnam to the kind of dehumanization and torture that they did on the South Side of Chicago against black people instead of against Vietnamese people in the name of law and order to get confessions. How do you justify it to yourself? Either you’re a total sociopath, which I suppose you could probably characterize these guys as being, but you also justify it by dehumanizing the victim. “Well, he’s black, he’s a gang leader, he committed murder.” All these kinds of things that you can use to justify the unthinkable, in order to torture.
CA: But you would think that if they were truly sociopathic they wouldn’t need that kind of justification. And clearly racism was a major factor, but there are plenty of racist cops who don’t torture people. The Vietnam piece is interesting, and you seem to suggest in the book that some of the torturers suffered from PTSD. Do you think that played any role?
FT: These guys were also extremely macho. I asked a few of them about PTSD and of course they were completely dismissive of it and I think one of them called it “gobbledygook.” But we see that these kind of mass killings, some of them are military people who clearly were suffering whatever you want to call it, PTSD, or whatever it is that that could be part of it. It’s a combination of things I think. But we’ve never seen any psychological evaluations of these guys. We just know what they have done. And we just know who they did it to. And we just know what they said when they did it. And we also know that they were encouraged. And we also know that it became part of a system of law enforcement that was countenanced at the highest levels in order to reach a goal, which was to prosecute people, to get convictions, to get confession, to put people on death row. And it fed on itself, because as Burge became more successful and his Asskickers [Editors’ note: That is indeed what they called themselves] became more successful, he got promoted. I think there was testimony at his sentencing that he went from flat foot, a regular cop, to commander in the fastest time in the history of the Chicago Police Department. What does that say to people under him? I’m not sure I’m answering your question. But I’m not sure there is one answer. But you have got to go back to the dehumanization and white supremacy and racism, and the idea of law and order at any cost. You’re right, some people didn’t [torture]. Some people were appalled by it. But even those people didn’t come forward. The Code of Silence kept the lid on this for decades except within their own circles.
CA: I wanted to ask about the impunity of the American government for the torture it has engaged in. President Obama said: “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” Guantanamo remained open. On the campaign trail, Trump said he’d “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Then, as president, he proceeded to appoint Gina Haspel as CIA Director. Despite having overseen torture in the past, she insists she’ll now behave differently. There’s very little deterring American government officials from the continued use of torture, particularly as we’re seeing George W. Bush and other odious ghouls rehabilitated and praised as decent, honorable men. It’s not clear that torture ever really ended, and it would be shocking if it hasn’t ramped up under Trump. Given these facts, was it a mistake for Obama not to prosecute Bush administration officials for torture?
FT: Of course. But we can look back—and I think there’s a reference to this in the book: Although Obama was a reformer in the Illinois legislature when he was a State Senator, around the questions of death penalty, he never was against the death penalty per se, abolishing it. When you look back over the politicians we were successful in getting support from in one form or another, Obama was not among them. What was swirling around the whole death penalty question back in the early 2000s was that it was being imposed on people that were victims of torture. The Death Row 10, or Death Row 12, as it became later. Obama was silent about that. He could have spoken out about that. So we get an idea about his avoidance of the issue of torture right in his own backyard here in Chicago. Yes, he should have prosecuted [Bush administration officials]. He should have been much more forceful in terms of the torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo…
CA: Black sites around the world.
FT: Yeah, rendition, of course. But he wasn’t. I suppose the apologists will say “well, you know he didn’t have the power to do that.” In the same way that he didn’t take on economic recession or depression or whatever you want to call it. I think it’s also indicative of his middle-of-the-road politics and that he made a calculation that politically it wasn’t worth it to him to take on the prior administration, to take on the crimes that those people committed. Yeah, it would have set a different tone if he did. But he didn’t.
CA: Laquan McDonald. I wanted to get your thoughts on the Van Dyke conviction. It makes no sense to me that he was found guilty of second degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery, but innocent of official misconduct. The finding was of course symbolically powerful: it illustrates that Van Dyke wasn’t behaving all that differently from so many other cops who got off scot-free. What he did was second degree murder, but it wasn’t a violation of police policy. What do you make of that weird split?
FT: Well, as you can tell from the book, juries do very strange things for reasons that sometimes they can explain. The courts also keep the lawyers a lot of times and the press from talking to the jury to find out what exactly the thinking was, if they had a coherent thought about it. But a lot of times it’s just compromises going on. Six or seven people on the jury say one thing, three or four say another. How are we going to work this out? When it’s a civil case and it’s about money, a lot of times it ends up as a compromise about the amount of money. In criminal cases we see the kind of compromises perhaps made in Laquan McDonald’s case which is “no first degree murder,” but second degree murder. Then because, I think, it was serious, really serious, they found guilty on each of the 16 shots, showing that none of the shots were justified. They were all aggravated battery. But the reason they didn’t go for first degree murder was because he was a cop. Because he was a cop he had more justification than an average person would. If you or I stood and shot somebody 16 times because they were staggering down the street and looking a little hostile and maybe even with a little knife, we’d get first degree murder. But he didn’t because he’s police and has a defense that non-policemen don’t. The official misconduct, yes, it’s a symbolic thing, but you could say that they thought, well, that’s not as significant as 16 counts of aggravated battery and second degree murder so we’re not going to find that. I guess I don’t see the significance in that necessarily, but I do in the second degree versus first degree.
CA: But the point is he was doing his “job,” so no official misconduct. It’s an incoherent sentence, I mean it feels like that to me anyway.
FT: Yeah, I guess you could look at it like he got off on the top end for first degree murder and he got off on the bottom end for official misconduct, probably for the same reason, because he was a cop. And he had a defense as a cop that individual people don’t have, to murder, and also, because he was wearing his uniform and had his gun and thought that he was acting as a cop, so he was.
CA: I don’t know if you saw, but Darren O’Brien and Jennifer Bragg have been hired by Van Dyke for his appeal and they defended Dante Servin, the police detective that killed Rekia Boyd. So that’s kind of interesting.
FT: Well it’s interesting, Darren O’Brien…One of the things I and others at Northwestern did was to get a special prosecutor appointed in the Koschman case, and Darren O’Brien was dirty in that case. He was a state’s attorney and he was one of the ones who helped to engineer the fact that Vanecko, the nephew of Daley, didn’t get charged, which speaks volumes about who he is. On the other hand, Jennifer Bragg, she represented torture survivors. So it’s quite a—
CA: So she represents police and torture survivors?
FT: Well I don’t know that she represents police torture survivors anymore. See, her specialty is appeals. And I think she was involved in Leonard Kidd’s appeal. If you’re a defense lawyer and you don’t really have a firm set of politics then you’ll take on—it’s the old lawyer’s thing, you know? You’ll represent anybody. Everybody deserves a defense. And she apparently has made some bones around the Dante Servin case, so they figure she’s a good one to bring in. I’m disappointed in her. I was disappointed in her before. I’m not disappointed in Darren O’Brien. I would expect nothing less of a guy who has the track record that he has.
CA: What criteria do you have for deciding whether or not to take on a case and represent someone? Politics is obviously a factor. But does the guilt of the individual play a role? Does whether or not you think you can win the case? Does whether they are indigent?
FT: Yeah, I mean those are all factors in certain cases, in certain kinds of cases. We from the beginning would not take a rape case, for example, unless there was a very, very serious question about [mistaken] identity. Indigency is important. Guilt or innocence? Well, depends on, like I said, if it was a rape case and you felt there was a good chance the person did it, you wouldn’t take it. The only possible way we would represent a cop was if there was some sort of racial discrimination or—
CA: Whistleblower maybe.
FT: Yeah, like Frank Laverty. We had one case where a black cop was undercover and the white cop decided he was a drug dealer and beat him up and so that was kind of the unusual case…But you may win or lose a case certainly…There are some cases that may seem somewhat outrageous or seem like, on its facts, the person was wrong, but you look at it and evaluate it as a lawyer and say, “this is going to get thrown out on an immunity argument.” So, for instance, you can’t sue a prosecutor, except in very limited circumstances, and cops have immunity for certain kinds of actions…But certainly there’s a strong viewpoint we have that if there’s real racism involved, if there’s discrimination involved, if someone’s involved in a political activity, demonstrations, that kind of thing, those are the kind of things that we’re going to be more attracted to taking, even if they’re harder cases. I think we have a reputation for taking the hard cases. And I think we continue to do that, but we evaluate. We have to. We’re a small office. We’re not publicly funded, so we have to reach a balance between doing the kinds of things like Jackie Wilson’s case which, we made no money whatsoever on it, and getting enough money to make it to our 50th anniversary which comes up in next August.
CA: That’s exciting. Mazel tov! In the concluding page of the book you observe that “The complete Chicago police torture narrative traces an unbroken line of white supremacist violence from slavery, Black codes, convict leasing, and lynching to Jim Crow laws and police torture in Chicago. Torture is baked in to Chicago’s law enforcement agencies and its judiciary, and has been condoned and covered up by politicians at every level, in every party…The truth is that it will never be ‘behind us,’ and Chicago’s collective conscience will not be cleansed, until and unless the City of Broad Shoulders, and the nation as a whole, reckon fully with the systemic racism of law enforcement, of the criminal courts, of mass incarceration, of the death penalty, and of the political power structure.” Explain what you mean, particularly when you say “reckon fully with the systemic racism of law enforcement, of the criminal courts, of mass incarceration, of the death penalty, and of the political power structure.” Lay out what that reckoning might look like.
FT: Reckoning. Oh my God.
CA: I mean people on the left love to talk about how we need to “reckon with racism.” But you don’t very often get specifics about what that actually looks like. It’s hard work and we’re forging our own path here, but I think it’s crucial. Everyone can use this sort of rhetoric and point out the obvious problems in our society, but if we don’t articulate what that specifically means, the reckoning is never going to happen.
FT: Well that’s true, but we’re just lawyers.
We can point out problems and we can analyze the reasons for the problems. But the solutions are harder. That’s what the people in the movement are struggling with, and they don’t always turn to the lawyers to necessarily give them those definitive or not even definitive answers. So without avoiding answering your question, there are a lot of encouraging things that are happening in the movements as we look today. Right, we see what the Movement for Black Lives is doing. We see the abolitionist ideologies that are being put forward. We see the fights that are going on to have open borders and to abolish ICE, and it’s such an important thing. You see the planet-saving movements. People who are really struggling and trying to come up with alternatives to fossil fuels and all of that. That’s where, in those movements, that’s where the hope is for reckoning. Now you’re asking me specifically about reckoning with mass incarceration and racism, but it’s all a part of the same, right? Reckoning with racial inequalities, not just in the criminal justice system, but environmental justice, racial justice, and economic obviously. That all has to come together…That reckoning is going to take a lot of hard work. It’s going to take a lot more struggle. That’s why I end the book with “la luta continua” [the struggle continues]. We need to turn to our young people to come up with those solutions. We thought we had solutions in the movement, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and here we are now. We need the solutions that keep this planet functioning.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Flint Taylor will be speaking in Charlottesville, VA at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on Tuesday, May 7 at 7:00 pm and Thursday, May 9 in Montgomery, AL at Read Herring at 5:30 pm.
If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.