Chicago cops target community activist

Aaron Patterson at a Chicago rally Jan. 11, 2003, after his release from death row.

Photo: Chicago Indymedia

On August 5, Chicago police and federal agents arrested community activist, former death row inmate, and police torture victim Aaron Patterson. The arrest is the latest case of police harassment against those who fight back against police abuse and torture in the city.

Patterson is well known in Chicago for his campaign against his own frame-up in 1986. Patterson had been convicted and sentenced to death for a double murder of an elderly couple on Chicago’s south side. His conviction was based on an unsigned confession extracted after hours of torture. Patterson managed to scratch messages with a paperclip into a bench in his holding cell describing the torture.

For the seventeen years Patterson was in jail, he continuously raised the issue of his forced confession. At the 1989 hearing when he was sentenced to die, he yelled at the judge, “You’re holding me for a murder I didn’t even do!”

For 14 years on death row, Patterson, continued to speak out about the torture he was subjected to-producing pamphlets, audiotapes, and writing to newspapers and anyone else who might listen.

Patterson felt so strongly about his campaign to prove his innocence and bring justice to those who had tortured him and others that he turned down a plea offer presented by State’s Attorney Dick Devine. The deal would have allowed Patterson to go free if he admitted to guilt in the murders and stopped talking about torture. This story was reported in the Chicago Tribune in October 2001.

Patterson was finally released from death row on Jan. 10, 2003, as one of four men granted clemency by then-Governor George Ryan. At the same time, Ryan also commuted all Illinois death sentences to life in prison based on evidence of torture and other issues including prosecutorial misconduct, the use of jailhouse snitches, and inequities of race and class in sentences imposed for violent crimes.

According to an internal investigation by the Chicago Police Department, a police commander and his officers tortured Patterson and over 60 other African American men during the 1970s and the 1980s.

The investigation found that electric shocks to the genitals, beatings designed not to leave marks, psychological terror and tying plastic bags around prisoner’s heads were all tactics former Chicago police commander Jon Burge and the officers under his command used to force confessions.

Since his release from death row, Patterson has been fighting tirelessly to gain accountability from the police who tortured him as well as from Devine and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. On Jan. 11, 2003, without any sleep following his release the previous day, Patterson addressed 2,000 people at an antiwar demonstration.

Protesters hold signs of police frame-up victim May Molina during a press conference outside Chicago Police Headquarters May 27, 2004.

Photo: Joeff Davis/

Cops strike back

Patterson’s arrest in August has all the marks of a vendetta. He is facing drug and weapons charges based on a sting operation by an informer. The informer had charges against him dropped and was paid $6,000 for setting up Patterson. Patterson claims he was attempting to expose police corruption.

The phony charges against Patterson follow a pattern of arresting those who fight back against the long history of police abuse and torture in Chicago.

In May 2004, May Molina was arrested on drug charges and died in jail after being denied access to her prescribed medication. She had worked with the community group Families of the Wrongfully Convicted in order to free her son Salvador Ortiz. Like Patterson, she had been active in the antiwar movement as well as in the fight against police brutality.

In 1998, Jeremiah Mearday was arrested several times after he waged a successful campaign to have two cops who arrested and brutalized him fired. Drug charges against Mearday were ultimately dropped.

The timing of Patterson’s arrest was also suspect. The sting operation took place the day after a judge ordered cop commander Jon Bunge to testify in a lawsuit against the city police for brutality. Patterson was one plaintiff in that suit.

While activists rally to Patterson’s defense, there is no let-up in the campaign to expose Chicago’s police torture record. During Bunge’s testimony in court on Sept. 1, protestors chanted, “Jail Jon Bunge, enough is enough!” Bunge invoked the Fifth Amendment, refusing to incriminate himself with his testimony.

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