If only the mildest claims about it are true, Chicago’s Homan Square is a frightening escalation in the War on America currently being waged by domestic law enforcement. The Chicago Police Department has been using the building – to outside appearances, an equipment warehouse – as an off-the-book “black site” to detain suspects without charging them or giving them access to a lawyer.
Immediately, the similarities between Homan Square and the prisoner abuse scandals in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay are obvious. Many observers already refer to Homan Square as “Chicago’s Gitmo,” and activists have begun using a hashtag, #Gitmo2Chicago. Suspects taken into Homan Square are roughed up, bound in compromising positions for hours at a time, locked in cages that resemble dog kennels, and not processed through any official booking. Attorneys are turned away at the front door.
However, the comparisons to Gitmo are a little heavy-handed. Reports of Homan Square are grim, and we don’t know nearly all the abuses yet, but suspects are reportedly released within 12 to 24 hours. Guantánamo Bay detentions can last a lifetime. So far, only one death is confirmed within Homan Square, while at least nine have died in Guantánamo Bay. And as harrowing as it is to be snatched up on the street by police, thrown into a cell, and tied down without receiving charges or having an attorney present, the abuses at Guantánamo are far more severe.
The Guardian quotes Tracy Siska of the Chicago Justice Project as saying, “The real danger in allowing practices like Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib is the fact that they always creep into other aspects… They creep into domestic law enforcement, either with weaponry like with the militarization of police, or interrogation practices. That’s how we ended up with a black site in Chicago.” It’s rather illuminating that the problem with us torturing and imprisoning people without charge all over the world is that we risk repeating the behavior at home. When atrocities are committed here, they’re just atrocities; when they’re committed elsewhere, they set a bad precedent or are maybe too costly. Even the casual referrals to Homan Square as a “CIA-style black site” forgives the CIA for its crimes while indicting Chicago police for the same thing. Other nations don’t share our double-standard – if the outrage at the revelation of Homan Square is severe, just imagine how our torture program is regarded overseas. It’s little wonder we are widely seen as the biggest threat to world peace.
Intellectual and moral hypocrisies aside, Homan Square is a scary continuation of police militarization. From cowboy sheriffs in the Wild West to crooked cops during Prohibition, police abusing their power is really nothing new. Accusations have always included prisoner abuse, imprisonment without charge and denial of rights. But that a police department could actually have a designated, off-the-books facility to terrorize a population with might have been written off as paranoia or conspiracy theory in a more naïve time.
Yet there Homan Square stands, not even being denied. This is really one of the most disturbing features of American law enforcement – its brazen, brass-balled middle finger to public scrutiny. If Chicago police had any accountability to the public they serve, they’d be apologizing and promising to shut the place down, which is what’s being demanded by protesters. Instead, the department issued a boilerplate, legal-division-vetted statement on Homan Square: “CPD abides by all laws, rules and guidelines pertaining to any interviews of suspects or witnesses, at Homan Square or any other CPD facility.” This is a typical response to law enforcement criticism all around the country which translates to, “Shut up; go away; nothing to see here.” Other responses include victim blaming, arguing that certain matters are not in the public’s best interest to know about, and accusing critics of being soft on crime.
An off-the-record booking facility could, conceivably, have legitimate public protection applications. They’d be extreme – if police are breaking up a terrorist cell and don’t want the other members to know they’ve picked someone up, for instance. But police don’t like to let their weapons go to waste, even if there are no existing crimes that justify their use. That’s why SWAT vehicles and assault rifles are used in 3 a.m. no-knock raids for small-time pot possession. Similarly, Homan Square is used to detain the usual suspects: low-level drug offenders, activists, and minorities who looked like they might be up to no good. Even in Gitmo, a facility whose express purpose is to imprison the most dangerous enemy combatants, almost none of the detainees are ever charged with a crime.
Clarifying that Homan Square is not as bad as Guantánamo may be stating the obvious, but it doesn’t mean Homan Square isn’t a terrifying embodiment of our police state. And it would be naïve to think it’s the only one of its kind – where there is one appalling human rights violation, there are often many. Such abuses are sometimes bad apples, but they are often systemic – the product of training, encouraged from the top-down, and virtually always gotten away with.
Union busters, civil rights disruptors, COINTELPRO, drug warriors, and militarized tough guys are sadly representative of American law enforcement. But when it comes to comparing Guantánamo Bay to Homan Square, the perspective shouldn’t be concern over doing the bad things we do overseas at home. Now that we’ve had a closer look at the terrors the police state visits on us, we should be alarmed that we’re exporting even more extreme, unapologetic violence to the rest of the world and work tirelessly to shut it down on both fronts.