Column: Undercurrents: There is a Tradition to American Torture

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday December 14, 2007

Nothing seems quite so odd as the contention made by advocates on both sides of the “waterboarding” issue that the use of torture is against American tradition. 

Which American tradition, one wonders. 

We could review the tradition of torture inherent in the American system of plantation slavery, for example, or the later Deep South lynchings of African-Americans who were forced to confess to various crimes—rape and murder—by the application of lighted torches to various parts of their bodies, or the use of such instruments as the “jack” in American prisons in the 1920s as described, from first-hand observation, in the 1932 book I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! by journalist and former prisoner Robert E. Burns: “The ‘jack’ is a relic of the ancient Spanish Inquisition—a medieval instrument of human torture. The three convicts sat on bench … [and] placed both hands and feet through holes specially arranged to receive them. … The Warden worked a long lever which locked the convicts’ hands and feet in the holes by means of the boards coming together on their ankles and wrists… The bench on which the convicts were sitting was pulled from under them. This left [them] hanging in midair by their ankles and wrists … Soon their bodies became taut and strained to the point of excruciating torture. There they hung in agony for one solid hour.” 

But we don’t have to go all the way to Georgia in the 20s for such examples. Witness the following testimony, recently published: 

“He put some handcuffs on my ankles, then he took one wire and put it on my ankles, he took the other wire and put it behind my back, on the handcuffs behind my back. Then after that, when he—then he went and got a plastic bag, put it over my head, and he told me, don’t bite through it. I thought, man, you ain’t fixing to put this on my head, so I bit through it. So he went and got another bag and put it on my head and he twisted it. When he twisted it, it cut my air off and I started shaking, but I’m still breathing because I’m still trying to suck it in where I could bite this one, but I couldn’t because the other bag was there and kept me from biting through it. So then he hit me with the voltage. When he hit me with the voltage, that’s when I started gritting, crying, hollering … It feel like a thousand needles going through my body. And then after that, it just feel like, you know—it feel like something just burning me from the inside, and, um, I shook, I gritted, I hollered, then I passed out.” 

The testimony is not from an international terrorist suspect imprisoned at the now-abandoned dungeons at Abu Ghraib, or from the Guantanamo Bay “interrogation” rooms, or from one of the various torture chambers supposedly maintained by the Central Intelligence Agency in various “friendly” nations around the world and outside the U.S. borders. 

The statement comes from Anthony Holmes, a former inmate of the Illinois Death Row, describing to Illinois Special State’s Attorneys how he was coerced and tortured into a 1974 murder confession by then Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.  

In one of the many hearings surrounding the Chicago police torture scandal, police officials stipulated that another former police detainee would testify to the following: 

“Melvin Jones will testify that on Feb. 5, 1982 … he was taken to an Area II interrogation room where he was handcuffed and questioned by Area II detectives concerning his knowledge and participation in a murder. When he failed to give information implicating himself in the murder, respondent Burge entered the room and told Jones that he was going to talk … Burge had Jones cuffed to a second ring and then produced and plugged into the wall socket a wooden box measuring approximately 10’’ x 6” x 6”, with tweezers and a long nail type device. … Burge pulled down Jones’ pants and shorts and, using the electrical device, shocked Jones three times, on the foot, thigh, and penis. While he was shocking Jones, Burge demanded that Jones talk. He told Jones that he had also shocked “Satan” (Anthony Holmes) and “Cochise,” forcing them to crawl all over the floor … Burge also tied a sock in Jones’ mouth. … Later, Burge also struck Jones with a stapler. When Jones continued to deny knowing anything about the murder, Burge again entered the interrogation room. He pointed a gun at Jones’ head, cocked it and told Jones he was going to ‘blow his black head off.’” 

In part because of the scandals surrounding the tortures under Burge’s command during the 1970s and 1980s at Burge’s Chicago Area II command center, then-Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of all 167 Illinois Death Row inmates in 2003, and the City of Chicago recently announced a $19.8 million settlement of the lawsuit of four alleged Chicago police torture victims. The Illinois special prosecutor’s report, issued in 2006, concluded that more than 200 African-American prisoners were tortured in Chicago police interrogation rooms in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Only in Chicago? Hardly. Try Oakland, California, friends. 

In 2000, Oakland attorney John Burris and several other law firms began filing a series of lawsuits against the Oakland Police Department alleging that four West Oakland-based OPD officers—who had come to be known as the “Oakland Riders”—had beaten suspects in an attempt to elicit confessions from them and, in some instances, planted evidence on them.  

The legal action took two tracks, with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office filing criminal charges against the four officers—Francisco Vazquez, Matt Hornung, Clarence Mabang, and Jude Siapno—and the civil lawsuits continuing in a separate action. Vazquez, the alleged ringleader of the Riders, allegedly fled the country and has never been brought to trial, but the other three were eventually acquitted. 

Meanwhile, however, the civil cases spread to involve more officers than the initial four Riders, eventually consolidated into the Delphine Allen v. City of Oakland federal lawsuit containing 119 plaintiffs. 

A December 2000 San Francisco Chronicle article reported that in the news article announcing one of the lawsuits, “Burris showed pictures of Delphine Allen, 21, who accused Vazquez and Siapno in the suit of kidnapping him on June 27 and beating him, while in handcuffs, in a remote location in Oakland after he objected to false drug charges. The picture showed Allen with a bloodied right eye.” 

A July 2002 East Bay Express article provided a more detailed account of that incident, based upon the recollections of Keith Batt, the 23-year-old former OPD rookie who blew the whistle on the Riders: “On his second week on the job,” the Express reported, “Batt said he and the Riders tangled with an African-American man named Delphine Allen while he was walking on 32nd Street. The four Riders—Mabanag, Jude Siapno, Matt Hornung, and Francisco “Choker” Vazquez—kicked, punched, and beat Allen while he was handcuffed and down on his knees, Batt later testified. Batt himself admitted to kicking Allen twice to impress the other cops, especially the field-training officer who would ultimately write his performance evaluation. But when it was all over, Batt later said, Mabanag seemed disappointed in his trainee; he wondered why the rookie only kicked Allen twice. “Why did you stop?” Batt recalled his supervisor asking him. Batt added that Mabanag lectured him “that he had never seen a trainee ... hold back as much as I had.” 

The City of Oakland took split positions on the Riders-Allen allegations. The City fired the four Riders officers over the charges of beating suspects, falsifying reports, planting evidence, and supported their criminal prosecution. According to the official settlement agreement report in the Allen v. Oakland civil litigation, however, “the City denied the allegations in the plaintiffs’ [civil] complaint”—the same allegations that formed the heart of the criminal complaint against the Riders—but at the same time “agreed to a negotiated settlement to avoid a potentially divisive and costly litigation and to promote and incorporate the best police policies and practices into the operations of the Police Department.” Oakland still operates under that court-monitored settlement agreement which includes, in part, reforms intended to prevent the type of excesses the Riders and their fellow officers were accused of. 

But the Riders excesses may not have gone away. The Burris law firm only this week filed another police brutality lawsuit for eleven plaintiffs and naming 16 individual defendant Oakland Police officers, alleging, among other things, that in the spring of this year, police searched a suspect’s rectum for crack cocaine with their fingers so hard in a North Oakland incident that the suspect began bleeding from his anus and passed out. According to the lawsuit, no crack was found. The city has not yet answered the new lawsuit, so this can still be considered only an accusation. 

The accusations in the Oakland cases do not amount to the level seen in the Chicago police cases—applying electrical shock to genitals—or the CIA’s water torture practices, but that’s hardly the point, is it? Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines torture as “the inflicting of severe pain to force information or confession.” It does not require that the infliction of that pain be by esoteric means, such as the rack or the corkscrew or wires connected to a hot electrical source. It can be as simple as a flashlight to the head, or a boot to the midsection. 

However it may be treated with shame like the odd cousin never let out of the closet while company is in the house, torture has been—and remains—an American tradition. To end that tradition, we must first stop pretending that it does not exist or feign shock and surprise when it resurfaces, as it does, periodically.