During a recent visit to Chicago, I had the great privilege of meeting Darrell Cannon, a courageous, determined and generous man. He took time to share his painful story with us. He invited us to share the story, which I will attempt to do in this post, while being conscious that I cannot account all the atrocities he has been through. If it is important to denounce these atrocities and to restore justice for the people concerned, we also have lessons to learn from this story.
The story of Darrell Cannon is also the story of more than 110 African American men, who were victims of torture by the hands of Commander Jon Burge and his team of white detectives working for the police services of Chicago. Between 1972 and 1991, these men inflicted physical and sexual abuse, including brutality, electric shocks to the genitals, suffocation with plastic bags, anal penetration with sticks, and sleep deprivation. The torture did not limit to physical and sexual abuse; it also included verbal and psychological violence. For example, the location where the police officers inflicted electric shocks was called "the nigger box" and some men were threatened to be hanged like "the other niggers", which reinforces the racist nature of the torture. Darrell Cannon and these other men were victims of torture because they are black.
Darrell Cannon, like several of these men, was judged and convicted of a crime based on a confession he made under torture. Cannon was incarcerated for more than twenty years. He shared with us the physical and psychological pain he suffered while being tortured and the challenges he's been through while being incarcerated -- including the loss of multiple family members -- and the challenges he confronted when he was released.
To this day, none of the police officers have been found guilty for the atrocities they committed, despite the abundance of evidence demonstrating the existence of such a system.
Darrell Cannon now identifies himself as a survivor of torture. He told us, with a certain pride, how he survived these atrocities and how he continues to resist to a system that legitimizes racism, even in its most extreme forms. He broke the silence. With other survivors and allies of the community, he requires reparations for all these men who were victims of torture, including access to a fair and equitable trial.
What are the lessons to be learned?
After hearing the painful story of Darrell Cannon, after expressing our sorrow, anger and admiration, we asked ourselves if a similar situation could occur in Canada. I would like to think that it is impossible, that our police officers would not be capable of such cruelty. But the majority of the citizens of Chicago did not think that such a system could exist in their city... Besides, isn't it a dangerous attitude to think that we are safe from this kind of situation? Would we even be ready to take seriously into account the words of a person who would denunciate a similar situation in Canada?
The Canadian context is different than the American one, where the inequalities are even more marked and where the incarceration rates are higher, mainly among racialized groups. However, Canada is not exempt of social inequalities. If racism is present in individual behaviour, it is also supported by structures and institutions, as evidenced by the over-representation of minority groups (visible minorities, Natives, etc.) in the child welfare system, in prisons and penitentiaries. Several groups have also denounced profiling practices used by many police services throughout the country. Oppression can manifest itself in extremely violent ways, like in the case of torture, but it manifest itself often in a much more subtle and insidious way, being less visible and more difficult to denounce.
In this context, it is important to stay vigilant against injustice that can be present in our justice system and to denounce the ones who are kept to our attention, in alliance with individuals and groups who are directly concerned. It is also essential to fight against the social inequalities that make some groups more likely to be in contact with the justice system. More generally, we need to question racism and the persistence of the privileges that our society gives to white people.
If we, as white people, cannot completely understand the experience of racism on a daily basis, we can try to position ourselves as allies in the combat against racism. As Darrell Cannon reminded us that, if we close our eyes and do not denunciate racism, we are also being part of the problem.
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