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Two fighters

Photo by Nancy Bechtol

For the first time since I can remember, Chris Drew won’t be at Community Media Workshop’s annual conference today and tomorrow.  [Update: Chris Drew comes through]

Normally he’d volunteer for a shift at the registration table and spend the rest of the time sitting in a corner, silk-screening and handing out art patches, and talking to anyone who’s interested about free speech and arts policy in Chicago.

This year he’s fighting a felony charge of illegal eavesdropping – he audiotaped his own arrest back in December 2009 as he challenged the city’s peddlar’s ordinance – and in April he announced that he’s fighting lung cancer.  I reached him by phone Tuesday but couldn’t talk much, since he was headed into a chemotherapy session at Cook County Hospital.

Details of his case are here (also see Newstips’ First Amendment two-fer).

An ACLU lawsuit challenging the eavesdropping law under which Drew is charged was dismissed earlier this year; that ruling is being appealed.  “We are concerned about people’s ability to monitor police activity in public,” Ed Yohnka said.  A Chicago Tribune editorial called the law “indefensible.”

Chris’s gentle appearance and manner can be deceiving:  he’s a fighter. “I have a ’60s bent to me,” he explained to Chicago News Coop in January. “I won’t back down. I won’t be intimidated.”

He’s been fighting for free speech in Chicago for years; he’s refused to back down in the face of an outrageous prosecution.  He’s been contacting legislators about fixing the eavesdropping law.  (And maybe a new arts-friendly mayor will take a new look at the peddlars’ ordinance?)

Meanwhile his art patch project is going nationwide, with exhibits scheduled in Seattle and San Francisco.  But under the financial strain, he sent out an e-mail recently saying the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center is in danger of closing.  Chris founded the center in 1987; it teaches silk-screening and holds an annual Art of the T-Shirt festival.  Donations are welcome.

Free speech for artists has been the fight of Chris’s life.  It’s expanded dramatically: now he’s defending free speech rights for all of us.  And there’s a new front.  In the midst of all this, he’s fighting for his life.  We’re pulling for you, Chris.

Meanwhile, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez should drop all charges against Chris Drew.  And the City Council and General Assembly should fix these laws.

Tiawanda Moore is another fighter.  There’s no telling how many young women are sexually harassed by police. Most, understandably, are too scared to complain about it.  Moore wasn’t.

When she went to police headquarters last August to file a complaint and Internal Affairs officers tried to dissuade her, she started recording them on her cell phone.  When they noticed, they arrested her under the same eavesdropping law that Drew is charged with violating.

Moore had a court date scheduled for today, with her attorney, Robert W. Johnson, continuing to press for a trial date.  The state’s attorney has won a series of continuances.

As CNC reported, Johnson argues that the Internal Affairs officers were violating the law, and the eavesdropping statute exempts people who have a reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed.

The prosecution of Moore is “just appalling,” said Melissa Spatz of the Chicago Task Force on Violence Against Girls and Young Women, which is supporting Moore.  “It’s certain to have a chilling effect on women who are harassed by police.”

It would be cynical to wonder if that was the point.

The task force has collected over 2200 signatures on an on-line petition calling on Alvarez to dismiss the charges against Moore.

Meanwhile, Spatz said there is no indication that any investigation is underway into the complaint Moore filed last summer, when she returned to police headquarters with her lawyer.

Gun range foes could get wildlife survey

[UPDATE 4-21 — The MWRD board voted 9-to-0 this morning to request a wildlife study for the area including the land proposed for a police firing range.]

Environmental activists opposing construction of a police firing range on the Southeast Side could get approval for a long-requested wildlife study at a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District meeting tomorrow.

The MWRD board will vote Thursday morning (April 21) on a motion to request a wildlife study by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on a140-acre area south of 134th, said commissioner Debra Shore.

Last year the board gave preliminary approval to a proposal to lease a portion of the area to the City of Chicago for construction of an outdoor firing range for use by Chicago and area police officers.

Local environmental groups argued that the gun range would disturb migratory birds in wetlands on the MWRD land and north of it in Hegewisch Marsh, where the city planned a major nature center.   The areas are part of the Calumet Open Space Reserve designated by the city several years ago.  Two ponds on the MWRD property are designated as National Wetlands.

The wildlife study would be “just a matter of due diligence on our part as the landowner,” said Shore.

It would also be “a big victory for the rank and file, for grassroots people,” said Carolyn Marsh, conservation chair of the Chicago Audubon Society.  “I wish it weren’t such a struggle to get what is just common sense.”

Marsh has been persistently pressing for a wildlife survey since she accompanied biologists from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on a walk-through of the area requested by the Southeast Environmental Task Force last summer.

IDNR reported it was “unable to determine” whether state protected species might be nesting in the area, and gave its approval to the project.  But nests of two significant though unprotected species, great egrets and great blue herons, were seen in trees nearby.

“When I saw those birds I said by gosh, we’re going to fight this,” Marsh said.

She kept digging and found an IDNR survey which found 139 nests of the endangered black crowned night heron on the site in 1985 – which had failed to turn up in an IDNR data base search for evidence of endangered species.

The Audubon Society maintains that even without evidence of endangered species, construction and operation of a firing range would violate the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by harassing the egrets and blue herons.

“That’s how species become endangered, because we’re continually encroaching on their habitat,” said Peggy Salazar, executive director of SETF.

SETF maintains the firing range is inappropriate in the open space reserve, which the city has recognized as the most significant wetland and natural area in the city.

MWRD still has to give final approval to the project after the city finalizes the plan and the City Council votes on it, Shore said.

Chicago police: a history of encouraging violence

A video captured and released by WBEZ may present evidence of what’s long been considered a common practice by Chicago police – picking kids up, taking them to a dangerous neighborhood, and dropping them off to fend for themselves.

The incident captured in the video is not an isolated event.  On 848 today, WBEZ’s Samuel Vega and Robert Wildeboer said that in less than an hour of talking with Humboldt Park residents, they came up with two individuals with stories of being picked up by police – for no reason, because of how they look, presumably – and dropped off in dangerous territory.

The practice has a long pedigree, and at least once before it  came to widespread attention — more than 20 years ago.  Here’s part of an old article, written by Barbara Ferry and myself and published in the (U.S. weekly) Guardian on November 8, 1989 under the headline “Racism, police brutality escalate in Daley’s Chicago”:

Calvin McLin and Joseph Weaver, both 14 years old, both short and slight and wearing suits and ties, led a march of 1500 African Americans through Bridgeport, the neighborhood of Mayor Richard Daley, on October 21.  At one corner the marchers, who had been chanting and singing civil rights anthems, waited silently as a group of ministers knelt and prayed.

It was the corner where, two months earlier, two Chicago police officers had dropped the boys off into the hands of a white gang, which chased them down and beat McLin unconscious….

The abduction and abandonment of Weaver and McLin was one of a series of recent incidents that have brought the issue of police brutality to the fore here.  Following another such incident – the September 10 police killing of an unarmed black man [Leonard Bannister] – the City Council’s police and fire committee held four days of hearings.  The hearings brought to light numerous cases of racism and brutality by police and highlighted the police department’s failure to discipline officers accused of such abuse.

Appearing before the committee, Daley stated his opposition to police brutality but insisted it was a minor problem and not connected to race.

McLin and Weaver testified on the first day of hearings that they were picked up by two white police officers for curfew violations as they left a White Sox game.  They were struck by one of the officers as they were let out in Bridgeport, an area with a long history of racist attacks on blacks.  A gang of white youths chased them, and when McLin fell they beat him unconscious. The two officers and several young white residents have been indicted in the case.

Here, from an old file, is what Mary Powers of Citizens Alert testified to at the 1989 City Council hearing:

Although dumping suspected gang members in another gang’s turf has been a Chicago police tactic for many years, this recent incident has as its victim two innocent boys on their way home from a White Sox game.

In April 1991 two police officers, James Serio and Kathleen Moore, went on trial in the McLin-Weaver case.  They claimed they’d been at dinner and at the district station at the time of the incident; the prosecution said they were the only male-female team assigned to a cage car in the district that night.

The two victims identified Moore, who they said struck McLin before releasing the two in front a group of hostile white youths; she was also identified by two women who witnessed the incident.  None could identify the driver of the squad car.

McLin testified he heard the driver tell his partner, “We`ll take them over to 45th (Street) because it`s kind of rough over there.“

The two officers were acquitted in a bench trial; Judge Ralph Reyna rejected the identifications by the victims and witnesses as unconvincing.

The Task Force to Confront Police Violence noted the “spiritless prosecution” of Serio and Moore, saying the police department “once against evaded responsibility for the crimes of ethnic intimidation and police brutality” and adding, “There is little likelihood that the Chicago Police crimefighters in the 9th District will ever take the initiative to solve this crime.”

In 1992 the Police Board fired Serio and Moore.  The People’s Law Office filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of McLin and Weaver, charging a departmental failure to control abusive practices, which the city settled for a significant sum.

It does not seem like anything was done to end the practice, however.

It’s not clear from the video recovered by WBEZ whether any crimes have been committed by police in this instance, though what the cops are doing here is clearly inappropriate (the police department called it “unbecoming conduct” in a statement to WBEZ).  It should be easy to identify the officers and the victim in this case, and a full investigation seems unavoidable.

But is it possible that the longstanding, common practice by Chicago police of encouraging gang violence – which calls to mind the first Mayor Daley’s famous, arguably accurate statement that the department’s mission is not to create disorder but to preserve disorder – which, indeed, calls into question the department’s commitment to reducing the murder rate – is it possible that practice can be called to account?  Is it possible that it can be ended?

The city’s political and police department leadership may or may not have the will.  But sustained public attention and outrage would go a long way to checking this practice.

Migratory bird habitat threatened by firing range plan

Environmental groups are opposing a Chicago Police Department plan to build a firing range in a Southeast Side wetland area that’s a habitat for rare migratory birds.

The first and possibly last public hearing in the community on the subject – announced just four days ago – takes place at noon tomorrow (Saturday, October 30) at the UAW Hall at 13600 S. Torrence.

Despite having recommended that the area remain as open space in the Calumet Land Use Plan, the city is seeking a 39-year, $10-a-year lease from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District for the 33-acre site, located in a larger area owned by the district along the Little Calumet River and south of 134th Street.

Two ponds in the MWRD property, the O’Brien Lock Marsh and Whitford Pond, are designated as National Wetlands by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Judith Lihota, president of the Calumet Ecological Park Association.  The shooting range would be right next to Whitford Pond and nearby the site where Ford is planning to build an environmental center.

The range would have capacity for 40 shooters and be operated from 8 a.m.  to 8 p.m., according to a noise study done for the city.

On a recent tour of the area with city and state officials, Lihota saw blue herons and white egrets.  The shooting will certainly drive off the birds, further reducing limited nesting options for migratory and wetland birds in the area, she said.

There are many abandoned industrial properties where a shooting range could be sited without disturbing sensitive wildlife areas, according to the Southeast Environmental Task Force in a blog post.

Residents learned of the plan when the proposal appeared on an MWRD board agenda in June, Lihota said.  She said the city and police department have refused requests to do a wildlife study of the area they want to take over.

MWRD is expected to vote on the proposal November 4.

‘Demilitarize Chicago’

With state and local governments drowning in fiscal crisis across the nation, Mayor Daley recently illuminated the great blindspot of American governance:

“Just think of all the money that we spend on wars to save the world,” he said at the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards in February. “Today we can’t save America. Why do we always have to go to war, continually, why can’t we rebuild America?” (See John McCarron’s report in the Tribune.)

While local budget cuts and mass layoffs leave vital human needs unmet and drag down prospects for economic recovery, we spend as much on our military as the rest of the world combined.  And discussion of this fact is taboo in ruling circles.

Daley also asked what happened to the anti-war demonstrators – were they just against the wars when George Bush was president?

Well, they’re back (never went away, actually) – the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism is holding its annual protest marking the anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq with a rally at the Federal Plaza (5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 18) followed by a march down Michigan Avenue.

CCAWR, which welcomed Mayor Daley’s “conversion” in February, is calling on the Mayor to follow through by demilitarizing peace marches and schools.  Since 2003, peace marches have faced an intimidating array of hundreds of police officers in full riot gear.  And with ten military academies, open doors for military recruiters, and JROTC in nearly half the high schools, CPS is the most militarized school system in the nation, according to activists.  (See AFSC for more on schools.)

Conroy’s play at Northwestern

The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern is presenting a staged reading of “My Kind of Town,” John Conroy’s play about the Chicago police torture scandal, Monday, March 8 at 6 p.m. at Thorne Auditorian at Northwestern’s law school, 375 E. Chicago.  It’s free.

The Center has produced a short video to promote the performance.  Conroy explains the play asks “how this happened, why it happened for so long, why are twenty men still in jail on the basis of suspect confessions, and why only one man has been indicted after 35 years.”   And he and others tell why a drama may be the best way to tell the story:

Another wrongful conviction?

The Tribune reported Friday that the state supreme court ordered a new trial for Salvador Ortiz, noting that two witnesses who identified Ortiz in a 1992 murder later recanted.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions points out something the Tribune’s account missed: the witnesses actually recanted prior to the trial.

Judge Dennis Derbach ruled the recantations weren’t credible — and convicted Ortiz on the basis of the initial, recanted identifications, sentencing him to 47 years in prison.  No physical evidence connected Ortiz to the murder.  Derbach also denied two post-conviction petitions based on new affidavits from eyewitnesses who identified others as the killers.

When, on the second petition, the appeals court finally overturned Derbach, the state’s attorney challenged that ruling.  But the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the appeals court, ruling unanimously and citing “compelling evidence of actual innocence.”

There’s a bit of a backstory:  Community activists have long maintained that Ortiz was set up for the murder charge after he spoke out in another case.

In 1989 Ortiz was one of several witnesses who picked out Juan Johnson in a lineup.  Johnson was charged with murder – but before his 1991 trial, Ortiz went to his attorneys and said the identification had been coerced by Detective Reynaldo Guevara of the Area 5 gang crimes unit.

In Johnson’s 2004 retrial, Ortiz testified that Guevara had shown photos of Johnson as the individual who should be identified in the lineup. (As Newstips reported in June, CWC has uncovered several cases where Guevara showed photos to witnesses in order to influence their identifications.)  The suggestion carried an implied threat of retaliation, he said.

Johnson was acquitted.  In June a federal jury awarded him $21 million in compensatory damages, the largest such award in Chicago history.

It was after Ortiz first spoke out that detectives from the same Area 5 unit – which unfortunately is best known for spawning cocaine and gun dealer Joseph Miedzianowski and several other corrupt cops – arrested him and charged him with murder, based on witness accounts the supreme court has now found to be tainted.

Ortiz, who’s now 40, has spent 17 years in prison “for a murder that all known eyewitnesses say he did not commit,” says CWC.

New ruling on police disclosure

With the city aggressively defending its power to keep documents on police misconduct secret (from the public, from City Council members, from civil rights lawyers), Jamie Kalven details a recent court ruling that undercuts the city’s arguments for withholding information — including the notion that officers’ privacy rights would be violated, or that investigations finding complaints “unfounded” are irrelevant.

And more dramatically, he reports, last month Federal District Court Judge Milton Shadur ruled that “the complaint files of a group of officers who served in the Special Operations Section — disbanded in 2008 in the midst of a metastasizing scandal involving charges of racketeering, kidnapping and attempted murder for hire — may be made public.”  Kalven gives the big picture and lays out the issues.

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