Police Abuse

The Historic Roots of Homan Square, Chicago's CIA-Style Black Site

The Chicago Police Department didn't need the War on Terror to teach it to violate civil rights.


Police brutality in the wake of Ferguson is often framed in terms of militarization. Once upon a time, the narrative goes, law enforcement in American cities focused on community policing and non-violent methods. Then there was 9/11 and the War on Terror. Anti-terror money was funneled into police departments, which purchased or received military-grade equipment and were corrupted by the example of Abu Ghraib and a general domestic environment of paranoia.

This narrative informs the (excellent, horrifying) new report from Spencer Ackerman on a CIA-style black site* run by the Chicago Police Department (CPD)—an "off-the-books interrogation compound" where suspects are restrained, denied access to legal counsel, and sometimes beaten. Ackerman says that the site, at Homan Square, is but one of Chicago police practices that "echo the much-criticized detention abuses of the U.S. war on terrorism." He quotes Tracy Siska, a Chicago Justice Project activist, who said that "the real danger in allowing practices like Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib is the fact that they always creep into other aspects."

Ackerman and Siska aren't wrong here; Chicago policing does echo Abu Ghraib, and using torture overseas can affect domestic law enforcement. But the causality is confused. The CPD didn't need, and doesn't need, the War on Terror to teach it to violate civil rights. It's had decades of practice already (as Ackerman acknowledges.) The problem is not that the War on Terror is bleeding into domestic policing, but rather that the War on Terror and domestic policing are part of a single, vicious whole, in which tactics and ideologies are shared between military, police, and the public, allowing for state torture and violence both at home and overseas.

If modern Chicago police torture has a starting point, it's not 9/11 but Vietnam. Military policeman Jon Burge appears to have used portable electric generators to torture suspects in the Mekong Delta in 1968. He brought those techniques back with him to Chicago, where he became a police detective and tortured more than 100 black men between the early 1970s and the early 1990s. Many of these men were convicted on the basis of false confessions. Some of them are still in prison—even though Burge himself, who was convicted of perjury, has served his time and been released.

Chicago's City Council is considering a reparations ordinance that would allocate funds to compensate survivors, build a memorial and community center, and provide an official apology. The ordinance is a major step towards justice—but it's also important to realize that Chicago's history of police impunity, violence, and lawlessness didn't stop with Burge.

1011 S Homan Ave., Chicago / Google Maps

Longtime Chicago activist Mariame Kaba of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Young Women says she's heard rumors about the Homan Square site for at least a decade. But she also points out that police torture and brutality are hardly confined to one place or one location within the Chicago criminal justice system. The We Charge Genocide project, which Kaba has worked with, documents a regular regime of terror in black communities. Here's how one black man described an encounter with the CPD when he was 15:  

We're sitting in a house playing video games and we hear a banging on the door. Before we know it, the door is kicked down and there's five special ops officers with their huge M16s drawn, pointed at us: Three 15-year-olds playing video games. And they tell us get on the ground. They say if we move they are gonna kill us. "Don't look at me, we'll fucking kill you in a second!" Pointing their guns at us. Then they don't find anything. They let us all go, they laugh, try to joke with us, apologize, then leave out. And we're sitting there like, "What just happened?" They tear up the house. They stole money.

Perhaps you could dismiss this as an aberration. But then, Jon Burge and the Homan Square site—not to mention the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—suggest that police abuse in black communities is hardly unusual. Rather, it seems like the default.

So if police harassment, torture, and abuse are business as usual in Chicago, and indeed in the nation as a whole, why has Ackerman's article gotten so much attention? Partially because, while the Homan Square revelations aren't exactly aberrant, they're still striking. National Lawyers Guild member Sarah Gelsomino sounded incredulous and more than a little freaked out when she described her first encounter with the Homan Square facility. At that time she was trying to defend Brian Jacob Church, one of the "NATO 3," arrested in connection with protests against the 2012 NATO summit.

"It took us 17 hours to get to them," she said. "That whole time they were totally off the books. they were in no CPD database. We were calling every district and central booking in an effort to locate them. And were told repeatedly that they were nowhere in the system and they weren't in police custody."

The NATO 3 were kept shackled in a room. They weren't directly beaten or harmed, but Ackerman reports that there has been at least one death in the Homan Square facility, and another man was hospitalized with a head wound after his time there.

If you live in Chicago, or the United States, that's bound to make you feel uneasy. But the real reason that the Ackerman article has taken off, suggests Kaba, may be the fact that Ackerman quotes Church describing Homan Square as a domestic "black site." That terminology—generally associated with secret CIA prisons operated off American shores—ties into the narrative of evil foreign torture techniques being brought back to American cities.

We could see the warnings about torture tactics, and police militarization, as a kind of popularization technique. Chicago police don't need to learn from Abu Ghraib how to torture. But Americans may need to see Abu Ghraib in CPD in order to recognize the torture and violence happening here.

That's the optimistic view, anyway. The less positive take is that the obsession with torture and civil liberties abuses abroad makes it impossible for us to see how truly entrenched domestic police abuses are. When we act like police needed to go to Iraq to learn to torture, we forget our own history of lynching. When we say that 9/11 frightened us into civil liberties abuses, we forget that the American South, less than 200 years back, was one giant prison camp—a vast, unaccountable, antebellum Homan Square. For that matter Charles Graner, one of the guards who abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib, formerly worked at a Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute. Guards there were accused of beating and sexually humiliating inmates. If Abu Ghraib has come to the United States, it's only because the United States first went to Abu Ghraib.

To see "black sites" and torture as a new police innovation effectively "erases the histories of torture against many, many people," says Kaba. Hopefully Ackerman's report leads CPD to close the Homan Square site. But even if it does, the police in Chicago will undoubtedly continue to beat, torture, and hold people (especially people of color) without lawyers. Police brutality and impunity weren't invented on 9/11, and they weren't brought here from anywhere else. If we want a different kind of policing, we need to acknowledge the history, and the brutal Americanness, of the policing we've got.    

* CPD told The Guardian that it "abides by all laws, rules and guidelines pertaining to any interviews of suspects or witnesses, at Homan Square or any other CPD facility."

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  1. “He’s not wrong here”

    It’s time to retire this usage. If someone’s right, say “he’s right,” don’t use the begrudging term “not wrong.” Fess up that the guy has a point, then add the necessary disclaimers.

    1. “No, you’re not wrong Walter, you’re just an asshole.

    2. So, you understood what he wrote, yet still complain.

      Closet statist, always wanting other people to conform.

      Fuck off, pseudo-grammar nazi.

      1. not sure if serious

        1. pseudo-serious. cereal, even.

  2. Good to know they acknowledge it’s a CPD facility.

  3. Where’s Dunphy when you need him, so you can rub his face in this steaming pile of shit.

    1. According to a random poll the American people overwhelmingly support their heros in blue so no rubbing is required. Plus body cameras, weight lifting, Morgan Fairchild and booya bitches.



  4. Speaking of Chicago, Moody’s just downgraded their bonds to Baa2, a mere two levels above junk status.

    They’re almost Greece now. Couldn’t happen to a more wonderful city.

    1. Grade inflation, everyone’s a winner and every company’s a special snowflake. Why can’t they just use A, B, C, D, junk? Maybe with plusses and minuses.

      1. I believe someone a couple of years ago made the same observation. Why all the super-double-smiley face ratings?

        Why not something simple, like:

        A = Barring the Zombie Apocalypse, you’ll get your money back.

        Down to:

        F = California (Greece)

  5. Ackerman and Sisko aren’t wrong here;

    I know Sisko is the Emissary, but who the fuck is Ackerman?

    1. The Emissary’s accountant, Morris

      1. It may be bigoted, but I only use Ferengi accountants, because, you know.

        1. The females aren’t allowed to wear clothes at home?

        2. Big ears = big butts?

  6. The biggest issue is that the CRIMINALS at that facility were BREAKING THE LAW and if they were not BREAKING THE LAW they would not be at the facility. Lesson learned: stop BREAKING THE LAW.

    1. And who is going to stop the CRIMINALS? You mean the CRIMINALS in BLUE? Wait, that’s what the CRIMINALS were wearing too.


  7. When Whites Get a Free Pass: Research Shows White Privilege Is Real

    “As they describe in two working papers, Redzo Mujcic and Paul Frijters, economists at the University of Queensland, trained and assigned 29 young adult testers (from both genders and different ethnic groups) to board public buses in Brisbane and insert an empty fare card into the bus scanner. After the scanner made a loud sound informing the driver that the card did not have enough value, the testers said, “I do not have any money, but I need to get to” a station about 1.2 miles away. (The station varied according to where the testers boarded.)

    With more than 1,500 observations, the study uncovered substantial, statistically significant race discrimination. Bus drivers were twice as willing to let white testers ride free as black testers (72 percent versus 36 percent of the time). Bus drivers showed some relative favoritism toward testers who shared their own race, but even black drivers still favored white testers over black testers (allowing free rides 83 percent versus 68 percent of the time).”


    1. I gotta get me one of those White Privilege cards – membership has its privileges!

      SNOTTY WAITER: I’m sorry, sir, we have no reservation in your name.

      ME [flashing card]: Do you have a reservation in the name of…Mr. White?

      WAITER: Ah, yes, sir, so very sorry, let me get a table for you right away.

      1. ” (from both genders ”

        Both genders ? BOTH GENDERS ? WTF ? everyone knows there are nore than two genders. Facebook identifies 4 or 5 genders. What is this “both” genders crap

        This study is obviously outdated and flawed.

        I say throw it out and start over.

    2. They should run a test on people with equal grades getting into college.

    3. So what do you want the government to do about this?

      Discriminate against whites?

      Do you want us to pay a tax for being white?

      Am I supposed to join the Democratic Party now?

      What are we supposed to take away from this?

    4. Show me pictures of how all 29 testers were dressed please. By simply dressing people a certain way I bet I can get those numbers reversed.

      1. Incidentally, I’m not sure how much an Australian study on perceptions of white and black is directly applicable to the American experience.

        What people in Australia perceive as “black” very well may be more approximate to how Americans behave when they perceive someone as Native American.

        Native Americans have traditionally been associated with some of the worst rates of…all manner of social problems, and I think those kinds of problems are typical of groups, like Australia’s aboriginals, that have been stripped of their land, had their culture assaulted, effectively marginalized, socially, etc.

        Anyway, when Australians are talking about “blacks”, I think they’re talking about aboriginals, and the Australian experience with those groups is hovering in the background. It isn’t just about their perception of someone with more melanin or less melanin.

        1. Watch this bit from Australia:


          Australian broadcasting is probably more politically correct than ours–but they have little or no experience with the American heritage of discrimination against blacks.

          Harry Connick Jr. has to explain why what they’re doing is offensive. They don’t know anything about black-face, and the idea that they would offend someone just for showing people in black-face doesn’t even occur to them.

          If that show had been made about Australia’s aboriginals, they might have yanked that station’s license.

          Moral of the story? How Australians react to aboriginals probably tells us very little about how Americans react to “blacks”.

          P.S. How Americans react to blacks probably doesn’t tell us much about the aboriginal experience in Australia either. Why would anyone think it does?

          …unless they’re already assuming what they’re trying to prove?

          1. Good points. There’s also the experiences of Australian bus drivers with aboriginals that is being ignored here. It’s just all-around, shoddy research, likely undertaken with a result in mind and a method designed to prove that result.

            1. Some people might say that assuming the aboriginal experience in Australia is identical to and indicative of the experience of African-Americans–just because both groups have darker skin?

              Some people might say that’s racist.

    5. I ride a variety of types of public transit in the metro Boston area.

      I can explain this for you very simply.

      I see people of all different races occasionally have their Charlie Card fail.

      When that happens, some people immediately become aggressive with the bus driver or T station attendant and start cursing that the machine is lying, that the transit authority (whichever one) can go fuck itself, and that they aren’t paying shit.

      Some people act really confused, like they can’t understand why their card isn’t working, and like they can’t speak English or recognize Roman alphabet characters.

      Some people facepalm themselves and sheepishly admit that they forgot to add money to their card because they’re dumbasses.

      The first group of people don’t get any assistance. From anyone. The latter two groups of people often do – someone else will swipe their card to help them out, or the bus driver will look the other way, or the station attendant will wave them through.

      What race do you think each of these groups is most likely to be? The available choices are White, Black, and Asian.

      And you may say that my perception here is exactly what is creating white privilege, because I’m falsely perceiving a pattern where there isn’t one, and that colors whether I’d personally choose to help someone out. But I’ve been aware of that accusation for many years and have deliberately kept this matter under observation for a long time. It’s not just a perception.

      1. The fact that black people don’t tip very well is a documented truth. That’s what scientific studies are for.

        I wonder how that might affect how black people are treated by waitresses and cab drivers.

        1. According to some people on these very boardz, the tipping requirement is racist.

          The logic flows as thus:

          That which is harder to do for poor people than for people of means is racist. Poor people are disproportionately black. Tipping, raising the cost and therefore being ‘harder’ to do is ipsofacto racist.

          1. The studies show that poorer tipping hold true across the socio-economic spectrum. It’s not just poor blacks who don’t tip well.

            1. Yes it is.

              Wealthy blacks are the worst tippers.

              Even to other blacks but especially so to whites waiting on or providing a service to them*.

              *From some one who has lived the life. Not from someone who has read a study.

              1. Which makes you racist?

                I don’t know where you get the idea that people will take anecdotal evidence over presumably (albeit unsited) semi-accurate academic evidence.

        2. And, by the way, continually referring to this as a ‘black site’ is racist. Unless what they mean is that this is where the Chicago Democratic Machine sends its black people. If it’s the latter, then carry on.

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  9. Okay, Lefties, now that we have documentation of a black site on U.S. soil, will you PLEASE stop calling libertarians “paranoid”? You keep using that word, but I don’t think it means………yada yada yada…….

    1. Okay, Lefties, now that we have documentation of a black site on U.S. soil, will you PLEASE stop calling libertarians “paranoid”?

      You forgot to mention that black site is being run in the heart of entrenched GOP territory where there’s no gun control or diversity.

      1. And you ignore that the city where this site is located,while being in the heart of GOP territory, is bluer than blue, and overwhelmed with gun control and diversity.

      2. *Chicago* is “entrenched GOP territory where there’s no gun control”?

        You are high on crack. Back here on earth, Chicago is a Democrat-leftoid pesthole with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country (besides the other usual suspects, NY and CA).

        1. Please adjust your sarcasmometer…

  10. Chicago policing echos Abu Ghraib.

    It may be the other way around. Maybe these sites have been up for a long time, and they’re “training centers” for the WOT.

    1. You’re more accurate than you give yourself credit for.

      Didn’t it come out that law enforcement was ‘consulting’ on ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques to the CIA?

  11. How else should we deal with those who are being uppity?

  12. Smoke on the water dude.


  13. If my memory serves me correctly, and it usually does, Spencer Ackerman was the member of the JournoList who said that his fellow “progressives” ahould go around and knock the teeth out of their enemies. And if you look at him, the idea that he could ever knock anyone’s teeth out seems rather laughable.

    Is there a better source for this story than this guy?

    1. I am pretty sure this guy can kick your ass, so I would watch out.

      1. Fred Armisen is not amused.

  14. If this stuff is true it’s not too surprising. Cops were noted for backroom rubber hose operations for decades. The practices were curbed a bit by the Miranda decision and public scrutiny. But the evil didn’t start with Vietnam, despite the prevalent superstition that all bad things in America began then.

  15. How much does the Democratic Party machine in Chicago plays into this, with political patronage, and deference to the police as part of that machine?

    In order to have a black site operate for so long, it must help to know that the prosecutors’ office is under the thumb of the machine.

    That must create a culture of invulnerability. When the winners of elections are always Democrats, eventually who wins the election isn’t about winning votes–it’s about whom the Democrats want to nominate; i.e., politicians are effectively appointed by the Democrat leadership.

    How do you make the police feel like they’re going to be held responsible when the mayor, the district attorney, the superintendent of police, and everyone else who wins an election (or is appointed by someone who does) are all beholden to the police union for their jobs?

    When a dominant party system (like Chicago’s) effectively acts like a single party state, it shouldn’t surprise anybody–especially in terms of its contempt for voters, when they act like a single party state.

    Why should they care about voters?

    As bad as brutality and corruption have been in Chicago over the years since the 1960s, they’ve never been so bad that a Republican would actually become mayor. There hasn’t been a Republican mayor in Chicago since 1927.

    1. Well said.

    2. I wonder what percentage of America operates under an effective one-party system?

    3. Chicago is now a non-partisan city, so technically there will never be a republican mayor. I think there needs to be more facts regarding this black site. Chicago doesn’t deny it exists and in the decades it’s been around 1 person died there of a heroin overdose and one person resisted arrest and got a head wound. Did they deny phone calls to lawyers? When the majority of people that go to chicago jails don’t want to call anyone and just want to get processed I think it’s rare when a white protestor gets upset that the mean police violated their civil rights. The protestors were probably having a hissy fit and the cops said make a call or take a rest, we’ve got better things to do. Personally I think this is overblown. There is more corruption in New York and Florida than in Illinois, it’s just that the headlines are more interesting in chicago.

      1. The issue has nothing to do with phone call allowance. People detained at this facility are not placed in booking records. They have been “disappeared”.

        1. CPD has records of everyone that has ever been there. They are just not placed in the computer system linked to booking right away. But they are allowed to make a phone call, it’s my understanding unless they are resisting arrest. Just because the lawyers for the couple of protestors didn’t like being taken where murderers and gangs are taken and being treated like royalty fuck them. They wanted to get arrested and they got their wish. They got the full experience. This place is hidden because it doesn’t exist, meaning, SJW’s created the story that this is some evil tourture chamber when it’s really not.

          1. Citytrekker|2.28.15 @ 6:46PM|#
            “CPD has records of everyone that has ever been there.”

            And Nixon had tapes, too.

      2. I don’t know about Florida, but I think New York and Illinois are neck-and-neck.

      3. One person has died there that we know about.

        There are no reliable statistics about a black site. That’s what makes it a black site.

        I think it’s safe to assume that the reason the place wasn’t transparent was because they were hiding something.

        Apparently, one of the most notoriously corrupt police departments in the country has been hiding things there for fifty years.

        1. 1 person died of a drug overdose. “That we know of” which can be said after every statement of fact.
          CPD has records of everyone that’s ever been there.

          If a chicago cop asks you if you want to make a phone call, you should respond, yes. If you respond, fuck you, or I’m going to sue you, or I’m a white hippie and you are a mean pig cop, then you will wait in a cell for a bit and probably won’t get to tweet about being arrested.

          1. Citytrekker|2.28.15 @ 6:53PM|#
            “CPD has records of everyone that’s ever been there.”

            Which is a bit of a strawman, it seems; from the story:
            “It took us 17 hours to get to them,” she said. “That whole time they were totally off the books. they were in no CPD database. We were calling every district and central booking in an effort to locate them. And were told repeatedly that they were nowhere in the system and they weren’t in police custody.”

          2. If the records exist, but are kept from superiors or the regular methods of checks on power, then they are–in effect–not there. Plus, your claims have even less evidence then this article.

            I’m not sure we should write this off as case-closed, but given the CPD’s antics in history, and general corruption in the system, I think we should consider it 100% possible.

            Look at J. Edgar Hoover’s rise of the FBI early on, and then his reign as Director.

    4. I don’t think it plays into it that much. Police violence and lack of accountability is a national and bipartisan problem. And I don’t think it’s about police unions either; that suggests that it’s police unions forcing politicians to adopt this kind of tactic, which I don’t think is the case, really.

      That being said, if the Republican party were able to distance itself from white identity politics enough to attract black voters, that would be fantastic, and it might well change the calculus around police violence in healthy ways.

      1. On your first point, I think I agree. I’m not an expert on Chicago politics, but the Democratic machine of Chicago, as far back as the Daily days, at least, didn’t really deeply involve the police unions. It was a racial conglomeration and a worker’s union conglomeration.

        Perhaps things have changed, it has been a long time.

        I do think that Chicago lives under a de facto one-part system, but that’s a separate issue, and one that sort of shows the sort of governing you have in Chicago, and why it is falling a part.

        Even in my home state of Kansas, where the reds are in power most of the time, it isn’t anywhere near as bad as Chicago. We do have opposition.

        1. Daley*, whoops.

  16. Since this black site has been around for so long, what did the mayors Daley (both of them) know and when did they know it? Or are they going to get a pass?

    1. The last mayor Daley is implicated in the Jon Burge torture case; he was the D.A. when Burge was torturing people, and he refused to investigate despite accusations of torture, and despite folks telling him false confessions had been obtained in cases he was prosecuting.

      1. There have been some efforts to hold Daley accountable for that, but they haven’t been successful so far, unfortunately.

  17. In the country I thought I grew up in, this place would be surrounded by Federal Marshals – stuffing cops into paddy wagons to face charges.

  18. The whole world is watching!

    Oh, wait, not any more.

  19. The only way this is going to be fixed is if someone intimately involved with the Chicago community, say a community organizer, gets elected to higher office, like the Presidency, so that they can appoint someone else familiar with the Chicago community as Attorney General. That would shut this shit down for sure.


    1. Seems to me that Rahm Emmanuel has already let an inordinate number of serious crises go to waste.

      I think he thought that job was going to be a springboard to national office–and maybe the presidency.

      It’s run by the machine. It’s securely Democrat, but you’re only secure insofar as you protect the interests that need reforming the most.

      Now, there isn’t enough water in Lake Michigan to wash the Chicago off of him. His only hope now is that Hillary will make him whole in the White House again.

      1. Me thinkum you readem tracks pretty good paleface.

        Is that racist ?

      2. I’m not sure the country wants another Chicago-styled Democrat after Obama. Perhaps the Country wants another democrat, but they also want “change.” Emmanuel was never a political mastermind, and I agree, he thought he was going to be the next President (Hi, Meet the Press Host at ABC), but he was wrong.

        Plus, seeing the indestructible Democratic coalition nearly collapse under Emmanuel is hilarious, remember when the TEACHER UNIONS were protesting Emmanuel? That was gold.

        The days of Chicago Mayors choosing presidents are over. The only reason Emmanuel is going to continue in power is probably because Obama is powerful in Chicago, and Emmanuel is one of Obama’s proteges.

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  21. You nailed it exactly. Torture in the american incarceration system is nothing new. Spencer Ackerman’s choice of linking it to Black Sites was a brilliant propaganda move. (In the positive sense of the word).

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  23. Paranoid nonsense. You folks need to just come to terms with the fact that you’re more Al Sharpton than Ayn Rand.

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