No one wins the blame the victim game

Above: Governor George Ryan (IL).

By the way the media portrayed it, you would have thought that Illinois Gov. George Ryan walked into their living rooms wearing a belt full of dynamite.

Two days after Ryan’s Jan. 9 announcement that he was granting pardons to four death row inmates — Aaron Patterson, Leroy Orange, Stanley Howard and Madison Hobley — the Chicago Sun-Times featured an extended interview with Ollie Dodd, the mother of a woman alleged to have been killed by Hobley. “[Y]ou just have to cry,” she said. “There ain’t nothing I can do… It’s easy for Gov. Ryan to make those decisions.” Following Ryan’s announcement that the death sentences of 163 others would be commuted to life in prison and another four would be released in four months time, both the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune featured full-page stories documenting the protracted grief of Illinois families who belived that their loved ones’ killers were in line to get a lethal injection.

Chicago’s ABC News Channel 7 featured an interview with one of the most quoted of the victim’s families, Dawn Pueschel, whose brother and sister-in-law were beaten to death in 1983: “I feel like we’ve been murdered all over again … Gov. George Ryan is not God and he has no Christian values of any kind and he should be ashamed of himself for what he’s done.”

While there were plenty of accolades, many of the news stories fit a formula all too familiar to those who follow the news on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: pit the righteous rage of greiving families against the perpetrator of an incomprehensible act without considering the forces motivating the individual. In the drama over Ryan’s announcements, Ryan became the suicide bomber.

The parallels between Illinois’s criminal justice system and Israel’s occupation tactics do not end with media portrayals of grief-stricken families. Until two weeks ago, Illinois had 171 people on Death Row. Many of those on Death Row claimed they were tortured into confessing to crimes they did not commit; a Chicago Police Department report released in 1993 recorded more than 50 incidences of arrestees alleging they were tortured into confessing at the same police station. Those confessions were later used as evidence against them at their trials.

Israel legally sanctioned the use of torture against Palestinians detained by Israel’s secret police, the Shabak, until two years ago; human rights groups report the practice is still widespread. The torture was aimed primarily at extracting confessions out of Palestinians accused of engaging in terrorist acts. The Israeli Public Committee Against Torture claimed 85 percent of Palestinians detained between 1988 and 1992 were tortured. In July of this year, the Palestinian Prisoner Society reported that 95 percent of Palestinians detained in the first half of 2002 were tortured.

Ample evidence exists to support claims that Illinois and Israel are arbitrary and racist in pursuit of alleged criminals. According to a report by the Illinois Department of Corrections, of the 43,000 people in prison in Illinois, 63 percent of them are African-American; only 15 percent of the Illinois population is African-American. Israel currently holds more than twice as many Palestinians from the Occupied Territories in prisons or detention facilities as Israeli citizens in domestic prisons according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. In the U.S., the biggest crime you can commit is being a black man; in Israel and its occupied territories, it’s being Palestinian.

Surely the parallels between Israel and Illinois were far from Ryan’s mind when he made his historic, if politically suicidal, announcement. But the foundation of systemic injustice that characterizes the Illinois criminal justice system was forced to the forefront of his heart by the time he made his speech in Chicago. This was not just because Ryan had a spiritual awakening one night and felt obliged to take responsibility for his role in perpetrating corruption. If so, Ryan would also have pointed out that during his term in office he led the fourth largest state prison-building boom-right behind California, Texas and New York state-including a new Supermax prison which permanently places problem prisoners in solitary confinement and is currently being challenged in several states as being unconstitutional. Ryan would also have taken responsibility for his role in leading Republican efforts to privatize certain prison sectors such as the facilities in Dixon, Illinois, turning Illinois inmates into virtual slave labor in corporate-run for-profit penal institutions.

Ryan’s soul searching only came in direct response to more than two decades of grassroots organizing that pressured Ryan for the entirety of his time in the governor’s office. It is no small coincidence that despite the parallels in the cases of Aaron Patterson and several other Death Row inmates, the four that were unconditionally pardoned were the ones who had a sustained movement acting in their names. This movement grew up to encompass people from all over society, ranging from students and journalists to former judges and prosecutors, from the mothers of Death Row inmates to the sons of Chicago police officers. Together, they worked tirelessly to urge an individual with a direct role in perpetrating systemic injustice — namely George Ryan — into publicly owning up to it.

This kind of accountability is the first step in finding true justice. Nowhere is this more apparent than when viewed through the eyes of families and friends of those whose lives have been taken from them. Illinois families are now looking to the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Office to explain how proven killers got off Death Row. But under current Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, this very same state’s attorney’s office introduced confessions it knew were tortured out of plaintiffs as evidence, used police officers it knew tortured suspects as witnesses and refused to prosecute police officers implicated in torture. This same state’s attorney’s office, currently under Richard Devine, still refuses to release DNA evidence that exonerate scores of men sitting in Illinois prisons.

Instead Devine focuses the media on Ryan’s acts. Immediately following Ryan’s announcement about the four Death Row pardons, the Daily Southtown quoted Ryan as saying, “If you’re going to send these four people out on the street, there’s no limit to what you can do… How can you, in good conscience, just wave this wand and let all these people off death row? He did not level with the victims’ families.”

The current media debate over whether to canonize or crucify Ryan, including the coverage of families impacted by his decision, provides just the cover needed by officials in Illinois’s government. The public’s focus on Ryan’s deeds diverts attention away from theirs, past and present. Continuing on its destructive path of retribution over justice, the same officials who scammed the system into wrongfully convicting and sentencing scores of innocent men are now going after Ryan for his alleged involvement in a major licensing fraud scandal that has indirectly resulted in the deaths of several Illinois motorists. Ryan should be investigated for his possible role in such a scandal, but these indictments were nowhere in the picture until Ryan’s announcement two weeks ago.

Such tactics are disturbingly reminiscent of Israeli accusations of corruption against Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority in spring of 2002, when Israel levelled most of the West Bank and the Knesset implicated Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in election fraud. The Illinois state’s attorney seeks vengeance against Ryan for tarnishing its name while ignoring its own role preventing justice for Illinois families. Meanwhile, the Israeli government seeks vengeance against Palestinian refugees as retaliation for suicide bombers without owning up to how its occupation infrastructure endangers the very Israeli lives it is charged with protecting.

The kind of accountability that forced Ryan to speak out is needed now more than ever in Illinois as well as Israel because without it, no family can know peace. When society allows those with the power to decide the fates of so many to dodge the bullet for so long, it is not just a society of perpetual victims that it creates-it is a society of constant perpetrators as well. Perhaps the most shameful example of such a society is that it allows the aggrieved to be manipulated into believing that the shedding of more innocent blood in response to the spilt blood of innocents is acceptable. Once justice is replaced by retribution and vengeance wins out over reconciliation, there is no such thing as innocence anymore.

For Palestinians who have been living under occupation for nearly four decades, justice seems as probable as a miracle in the face of Israel’s insatiable thrist for retribution. But it was just 16 years ago that one man sat in an Area Two police station being tortured, 12 years ago that he was put on Death Row, ten years ago that the man responsible for his torture was allowed to get away with it and five years ago that his pleas of innocence seemed lost in appeals. And it was just three years ago that the movement behind him got the governor to declare a moratorium on executions, six months ago that the same governor agreed to consider pardoning him and two weeks ago that an innocent man walked free. It was not a miracle that freed Aaron Patterson-it was a movement.

No St. George appears to be on the horizon to work the miracle of pardoning Palestinians for being Palestinian, but everyday-people in Israel, including more than 470 Israeli reserve soldiers, are stepping up to take responsibility for their role in the conflict. Progress is slow, far too slow, but there is movement nonetheless. Indeed the movement against Israel’s occupation continues to gain momentum in the U.S. and Middle East, despite the scampering of political leaders in both places intent on covering up their roles in the situation. Perhaps the story of Aaron Patterson’s release can provide some small hope for those resisting the occupation.

Aaron Patterson is free today, but the movement behind him has not stopped. Demands for accountability are moving forward just two weeks after his release. Next on the list are former Illinois State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley and current Illinois State’s Attorney Richard Devine. Both men continue to deny requests for meetings, but it is only a matter of time before the movement catches up with them as well. When it does, the families of victims whose suffering seems to know no end might also find their innocence again, and society can finally begin to walk the path of justice.

Charity Crouse is a member of Chicago-based Not In My Name, a group of American Jews opposed to Israel’s occupation. For four years she covered the cases of Aaron Patterson and other wrongfully imprisoned inmates as Editor of StreetWise newspaper.