"In the U.S. Guilty means you are a bad person."

August 25, 2020

I just finished reading a book that really impressed me in its format, its content, and its honesty. The name of the book is The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence by Laurence Ralph. Mr. Ralph explores the history and background to the trial of Richard Zuley. Mr. Zuley was a top Chicago policeman and detective for over 30 years. In his role as detective on the south side of Chicago, he often brutalized and tortured people who were arrested and suspected of committing a violent crime. One of his victims, Andrew Wilson, who was convicted of murdering two Chicago policemen subsequently sued Mr. Zuley for damages incurred during his interrogation. Remarkably after two trials, a jury awarded Mr. Wilson $1 million. $900,000 went to his attorneys and $100,000 went to the families of Mr. Wilson's victims. 

Mr. Ralph, who is an ethnographer and a professor at Princeton University, presented this story as a series of letters. The letters are written to the current police chief of Chicago, to the future mayors of Chicago, to Chicago's Youth of Color, to other policemen who knew about the torture but felt powerless to do anything, and to young black activists who brought a petition to the United Nations charging Chicago police with genocide. Through patient and careful research Mr. Ralph discovered that many people within and without the police department knew about Mr. Zuley's torturing suspects. In fact, the torture could not have gone on for so long if people had spoken up. But other officers were intimidated by Mr. Zuley, others just turned away because the people being tortured were "bad people."  

Mr. Ralph has a remarkable discussion with a Guantanamo survivor, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was tortured often and on for 14 years. Incredibly--or not so incredibly, one of Mr. Salhi's torturers was the same Chicago policeman, Richard Zuley. According to Salhi, Zuley told him and another Guantanamo detainee that "it did not matter to him whether the man was innocent or guilty. It didn't matter because to Zuley, this was a bad guy."  "It seems to me, Slahi went on, "that in the U.S., guilty means that you are a bad person. But is it supposed to mean that? In a democratic country, I thought that guilty is supposed to mean that you did this or that crime.  Does it matter from a legal perspective whether you were a good or bad guy? I don't think so. But this `bad guy' mentality is brought up over and over in interrogations (pp.160-161)."

I thought about this exchange between Ralph and Slahi as I was reading the latest news of police violence that occurred in Kenosha, WI. I know Kenosha since I lived in Madison, WI for 15 years. I had occasion to travel around the state. How is it that police could gun down an unarmed black man in front of three of his young children?  How do all these horrific acts of police violence happen? One answer is that too often it doesn't make any difference whether a person committed a crime or not, all that matters is whether a person is a bad guy or not. Too often the police perceive people of color-especially men-as bad guys therefore deserving of being punished, abused, even killed. 

Needless to say, our country was founded on the ideal that people were judged innocent until proven guilty of committing a crime. Too often we judge people on how we perceive them and not on what they may have or not have done.  


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