Internationalizing the Chicago Police Torture Cases: From Civil Rights to Human Rights

"Not just an American problem, but a World problem"

- Malcolm X

"We Charge Genocide"

- 1951 UN Petition of the Civil Rights Congress

When asked, Attorney Willis freely shares his ideas and recommendations for creative lawyering, litigation, and legislative solutions to social justice challenges. He is most often found hard at work, litigating cases and interrogating the status quo, forging creative legal solutions, and pulling together coalitions of people to address various issues. As a plethora of articles and media interviews chronicle, being grounded with a broken ankle and listening to constant media reports on international torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib struck the chord that Willis expanded upon to propose an international human rights strategy to escalate pressure and attention for the Chicago Police Torture cases while the Special Prosecutor's report continued to be delayed. He pulled a *241 coalition together, and after convincing them he was serious about the international strategy, the rest is history.

Primary inspiration supporting this novel approach to the Burge torture travesty was informed by Willis' training as a historian, including his doctoral studies with an international focus and significant scholarship on freedom and justice movements. This knowledge included an understanding of the historic 1947 petition to the United Nations by W.E.B DuBois on behalf of the NAACP, and "We Charge Genocide" - the original 1951 action by that name, in which African descendants in America took their plight to the court of international law and opinion.

To the General Assembly of the United Nations: The responsibility of being the first in history to charge the government of the United States of America with the crime of genocide is not one your petitioners take lightly. The responsibility is particularly grave when citizens must charge their own government with mass murder of its own nationals, with institutionalized oppression and persistent slaughter of the Negro people in the United States on a basis of "race," a crime abhorred by mankind and prohibited by the conscience of the world as expressed in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1948.

It is sometimes incorrectly thought that genocide means the complete and definitive destruction of a race or people. The Genocide Convention, however, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1948, defines genocide as any killings on the basis of race, or, in it (sic) specific words, as "killing members of the group." Any intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, ethnic or religious group is genocide, according to the Convention. Thus, the Convention states, "causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group," is genocide as well as "killing members of the group." We maintain, therefore, that the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government. The Civil Rights Congress has prepared and submits this petition to the General Assembly *242 of the United Nations on behalf of the Negro people in the interest of peace and democracy, charging the Government of the United States of America with violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Our evidence concerns the thousands of Negroes who over the years have been beaten to death on chain gangs and in the back rooms of sheriff's offices, in the cells of county jails, in precinct police stations and on city streets, who have been framed and murdered by sham legal forms and by a legal bureaucracy. Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, who appealed to the United Nations, and recalling the urging of Malcolm X to expose the problem of Jim Crow and systemic racism internationally, Willis determined to take the issue of police torture of Black men and boys in Chicago, Illinois, to the international arena to demand justice. He began explaining the rationale in town hall community meetings. When convincing the coalition of attorneys, activists, and lay people he convened, he often referenced a 1965 Rochester, NY speech wherein Malcolm illuminated the crucial distinction between civil rights law and human rights remedies:

For as long as you call it "civil rights" your only allies can be the people in the next community, many of whom are responsible for your grievance. But when you call it "human rights" it becomes international. And then you can take your troubles to the World Court. You can take them before the world. And anybody anywhere on this earth can become your ally. So one of the first steps that we became involved in, those of us who got into the Organization of Afro American Unity, was to come up with a program that would make our grievances international and make the world see that our problem was no longer a Negro problem or an American problem but a human problem. These historical precedents convinced Attorney Willis of the merit for African descendants in the United States to escalate their legal claims to the international human rights arena.