Anthropology, Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Black Studies, Chicago, History

An Unflinching Excerpt from ‘The Torture Letters’ by Laurence Ralph

This week on the blog, we’re highlighting one of our most timely and important new releases—The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence, written by Laurence Ralph, professor of anthropology at Princeton University.  With compassion and careful skill, Ralph chronicles the long & complicated history of torture in Chicago, the burgeoning activist movement against police violence, and the American public’s complicity in perpetuating torture at home and abroad. Based on over 10 years of research, this powerful book tells a complex story through Ralph’s accessible collection of open letters written to protesters, victims, politicians, students, and many others.

Ibram X. Kendi says The Torture Letters is “indispensable.” Chicago Review of Books calls it “Lyrical and poignant. . . . a compelling and necessary look at the brutalism that inevitably emerges in the maintenance of racial castes, and the persistence of police violence today.” Read on for a short excerpt taken from Part III of the book, ‘Charging Genocide’.

An Open Letter to the Late Dominique “Damo” Franklin

I didn’t know you, Damo, while you were living. But I do know you in death. You died at twenty- three and were much loved by your friends and family. Nevertheless, as a teenager and as a young adult, you had experienced several run- ins with the Chicago police that had instilled in you a healthy fear of the cops— a fear familiar to many African American youth. I also know that on May 7, 2014, you had stolen a bottle of liquor from a convenience store, and when the police showed up, you ran. The officers chased you down the street and caught you. Once they handcuffed you, they used a Taser on you three different times. The third time, you fell and hit your head on a pole, lapsing into a coma from which you never awoke.

When I think about the circumstances of your death, I can’t help but remember the first man to expose police torture in Chicago, Andrew Wilson. I often think of you and Andrew together because his life and your death lead us to question what kinds of police violence we, as Black people living in this country, are willing to accept.

The police electrocuted Andrew with a mysterious device called the black box. Jon Burge supposedly engineered that box for the sole purpose of inflicting pain. The City of Chicago has now apologized to Andrew and the other Black men who were tortured in this way. What Burge did to Andrew Wilson is now considered unacceptable—unlike what the Chicago police did to you.

The police electrocuted you with a weapon we have all become familiar with, a device called the Taser. The Taser Company engineered the device for the sole purpose of incapacitating people who were deemed dangerous. The police tased you in broad daylight as a consequence of your alleged actions. But the City of Chicago has ever apologized to you or the other people the police have fatally injured in this way. When it comes to you, our government believes that the police acted within the scope of the law, and therefore, what those officers did to you— how they killed you— has been deemed “reasonable.”

I want to tell you, Damo, about the people in Chicago who disagree with this, as well as the efforts of your friends to protest your death. Eight young people from your hometown— some of whom you were  extremely close to, others who you knew in passing— formed a group called We Charge Genocide. They made a case, on the international stage, that the forms of police violence that we have come to accept, like tasering someone, can be just as horrifying as the forms that our government regards as intolerable, like planned torture. From the Taser to the black box, all the violence that exists on the use- of- force continuum has at least one thing in common: to some extent or degree, it is indicative of our country’s genocidal impulse to deliberately control marginalized groups.

I’m writing you now because your friends at We Charge Genocide have refused to let you be forgotten— they have refused to let the United States dispose of your memory. You deserve to know what they have accomplished in your name. Just seven months after you died, We Charge Genocide left for Switzerland to link your death to conversations about police violence at a global event called the Committee against Torture. The group’s goal was to convince the committee to recommend that the US Congress pass a data collection act that would document and monitor police violence— from stop- and- frisk and brutal arrests to torture and death.

The group was giddy at the prospect of international travel but weighed down, too, by the burden of their mission. Before boarding the flight, members took a picture at O’Hare Airport that featured Page, Todd, and Monica holding a sign that read #ChicagoForMarissa. This was meant for Marissa Alexander, a thirty- three- year- old woman who was serving a twenty- year prison sentence for firing a warning shot at her husband after he threatened to kill her. You know your friends, so you must know that cases like these, which are such vivid examples of the disproportionate punishment African American face, are always on their minds.

Early the next morning, the We Charge Genocide delegation arrived in Geneva. I wish you would’ve had the opportunity to visit this place with them. As soon as he stepped off the plane, Ric was struck by the differences between the United States and Switzerland. He heard an abundance of languages and accents—many more than in Chicago, where English, Spanish, and Polish are dominant. Geneva’s infrastructure also seemed in much better condition than infrastructure was at home. As he made his way around the city later that day, Ric found himself in the unusual position of actually enjoying public transportation.

Geneva was immaculately clean and picturesque, the Swiss Alps standing majestically in the distance, but what impressed Ric most was something that would have stuck out to you, too, I presume. During his strolls through the city, he rarely saw police officers. “No one stopped and frisked me when I was walking down the street, or asked me if I had any weed,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was targeted at all.”

Nevertheless, as exciting as it was for Ric and the other group members to be in a place that seemed so exotic, they knew they were about to engage in a daunting task: lobbying a room full of lawyers and UN officials for the privilege to testify before the Committee against Torture. The entire group had been nervous about this. Fortunately, while they were in Geneva, your friends received help from Crista Noel, a cofounder of a nonprofit called Women’s All Points Bulletin and a member of the US Human Rights Network. She became an important ally.

“We didn’t do all this work so that you can wear $20 T- shirts,” Crista told them shortly after they arrived. Yes, she was referring to the black T- shirts the group had planned to wear with your face on them as a way to represent you. But please do not take offense; Crista didn’t mean to dismiss you. She just didn’t want the group’s presence at the UN to merely symbolize your death. She wanted your death to spur change on behalf of the living.

After the group rode the train into downtown Geneva, they met with an eight- person taskforce, a group of lawyers and lobbyists and activists who, like Crista, volunteered for the US Human Rights Network. This group, which came to Geneva whenever it was the United States’ turn to present its case, had agreed this year to assist your friends and others who were attending the Committee against Torture for the first time.

As it turned out, Crista’s advocacy paid off. Later, on the same day they arrived, UN officials announced that We Charge Genocide would be asked to represent all the organizations from the United States whose reports centered on policing— a significant honor, and entirely unexpected. It is rare for the UN to host a youth- led organization, let alone ask that group to speak on behalf of other organizations. But as thrilled as they were with the opportunity that had been given them, knowing this crew as well as you did, it probably would not surprise you that they kept their excitement at bay with a healthy dose of skepticism.

“Why are they excited that we’re here?” Ric asked. “They should be scared.”

Ric reasoned that if the UN truly believed in the principles the organization espoused, it would be frightening to listen to a group of young people exposing the fact that a nation as powerful and influential as the United States had broken its treaties time and again, and to hear that young people like him and those who had accompanied him to the hearings were suffering inside US borders. In fact, your friends were deeply suspicious not only of the UN and the US representatives who would be speaking at the conference but also of the Committee against Torture itself. Would the committee really be willing to join them in their indictment of the most powerful nation on earth?

Your friends wondered whether their message was going to be taken seriously, or if they were just there to be Black and Brown kids in a photo op. Perhaps it was their skepticism that allowed them to remain steadfast in condemning their native land.

The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence is available now, on our website, all online booksellers, or your local bookstore.