Civil Liberties

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."