CHICAGO – For an entire Saturday afternoon on February 23, 2013, the Mothers of Chicago Police torture victims addressed an audience of 200 people at the University of Chicago. Speakers took to the podium one after another to communicate the horrific experience of the state effectively disappearing their young sons.
Sometime during this afternoon session of the 2nd Peoples Hearing on Police Crimes, the voices of the speakers created a palpable cumulative effect that far exceeded any single voice.
James Daniels, whose brother Erwin Daniels was tortured and incarcerated by Chicago police, summarized the weight of emotion in the Hearing.
“Never before in my 50 years have I been in a room with such pain.”
For the Chicago Police, the children of these women were faceless, dehumanized targets. Their sons were young African-American and Latino boys from neighborhoods where the suspension of rights is the norm, where civil liberties and due process do not apply. Their children fit the metrics for potential deviance, making them permanent suspects, targets in a revanchist war waged against communities of color within the crumbling post-urban landscape of American cities.
The group of speakers was mostly made up of middle aged and senior women. Many had been engaged in a painful and taxing decades’ long struggle for the return of their wrongfully imprisoned sons, who signed confessions under the extraordinary duress of illegal torture methods. Chicago Police commander Jon Burge first practiced these techniques on the Vietnamese people as an interrogator during the US war in Vietnam. After returning home Burge implemented torture as a practice on young Chicagoans.
Bertha Escamilla spoke on behalf of her son, Chicago police torture victim Nick Escamilla. Escamilla continues to struggle with other mothers of torture victims, even after her own son was released from prison.
“We’re all sick. We’re all tired. But our sons are locked up,” said Escamilla. “We all need to get together. Please help. We all need to be with one another. We need to encourage people to come to this.”
Detectives working under infamous torture ringleader Jon Burge detained Nick Escamilla and beat him at the police command known as the “House of Screams.” Cops threatened to harm his family and his young child. Officers told Escamilla that they had worked on the case for 48 hours and were determined to close it.
“Officers know how to get confessions. They wanted to close the case,” said Escamilla.
In raising their voices, the Mothers exhibited strength and perseverance reminiscent of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who have publicly mobilized for the return of thousands of children tortured and disappeared by the Argentine state during the Dirty War, which lasted from 1975 until 1983.
Like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the mothers of the mostly teenaged boys who were kidnapped, tortured, and disappeared from public life by the Chicago police brought their experiences out from hiding, and made their stories visible.
In seeking freedom for their sons, the Mothers of Chicago Police torture victims had been forced to engage in a fight against coercive state power that had functioned to eliminate their voices from public discourse.
The voices of these Mothers stand in sharp relief to the silences of the police and the state, which have employed a variety of tactics to protect the authors of these crimes behind an ironclad code of silence.
Amanda Shackleford spoke on behalf of her son Gerald Reed, who in 1990 was tortured by Jon Burge’s detectives for hours until he signed a confession for a murder he did not commit. He remains imprisoned today.
“We are the family members of men that were tortured. And believe me, it is not a nice feeling,” said Shackelford.
“The officers who did this to my son… nothing ever happened to them. My son is one of the 5 who were proven to be tortured,” said Shackleford, referencing the recently defunded Illinois Torture Commission.
Though the Torture Commission reached the conclusion that Gerald Reed was tortured, he remains imprisoned where he is being denied necessary medical care due to prohibitive costs.
Jeanette Plummer spoke on behalf of her son Johnny Plummer, who has been imprisoned for 22 years since Chicago police extracted a false-confession through horrendous torture methods.
Johnny Plummer was 15 years old at the time of his torture. Jeanette Plummer said she still vividly recalls her son’s call to her from jail. He cried into the phone, “They beat me mom! They beat me!”
Jeanette Plummer remains hopeful that her son will return one day. “Our babies are coming home. They can’t hide it like they used to. Too many eyes are on them.”
Carolyn Johnson spoke on behalf of her son Marcus Wiggins. Wiggins was 13 years old when he was arrested, beaten, and tortured with an electric-shock device by Chicago Police detectives.
“They shocked him so much his jaw was locking,” said Johnson.
After Wiggins was freed, Johnson sued the officers who tortured her 13-year-old son. In revenge for the lawsuit, the very same officers who tortured Wiggins targeted him for arrest and attached a murder charge to him. While in custody, officers teased Wiggins about being tortured in their custody. Wiggins has since been in prison for 15 years of a life sentence.
These Mothers were making their voices heard as a call to political action for sweeping reforms that would institute democratic community control of the Chicago police and hold criminal police officers accountable for their actions.
Bertha Escamilla voiced frustration with the current process of holding criminal police officers accountable.
“These police officers have been investigated for years. Years! Nothing ever happens to them. They just send more men to prison,” said Escamilla. “We do not need to get these police officers investigated. We’ve done that. We need to put them in jail.”