No, the Homan Square story is not overblown

The Guardian’s and the Intercept’s coverage (see links at bottom) of Chicago’s Homan Square detention site has been making a splash lately. As you might guess, I am glad to see this story making a big splash. I’ve seen a range of reactions, from appalled to cynical and more.

But while many people have been horrified, some people don’t seem to get why this story would be a big deal. There’s no talk of waterboarding or force-feeding. There’s stories of physical abuse, but they aren’t as sensational as Chicago’s Jon Burge era torture stories. There’s this attitude that calling it a “black site” or presenting it as torturous and horrifying is overblown – okay, so they didn’t get to talk to a lawyer for many hours, they didn’t get booked right away, unfortunate perhaps, but not so terrible in the grand scheme of things.

Some of this is people not taking non-sensational-sounding physical abuse as seriously as they should. Punching restrained people, stepping on their genitals, putting them in “kennels,” sensory deprivation, deprivation of food and sleep, forced exposure to extreme temperatures…guess what, that’s all really bad. I don’t think that’s the whole story, though.

I think people who see it as overblown have not thought hard enough about what it would be like to be grabbed and taken to a place where nobody knows what happened to you, there’s no record of what happened to you, you are just gone, erased from the world for as long as the people holding you want, kept completely at the mercy of people who are hostile to you. If “as long as the people holding you want” turns out to be “only” 12 hours, or 24, that doesn’t make the psychological impact of not having known how long it would be go away. It’s not overblown to report that such a thing is happening as a major and horrifying story.

Three of the people who have spoken about their experiences at Homan Square were protesters at the 2012 NATO Summit hosted in Chicago – one of the NATO 3, and two others who were arrested with them. I was also at the 2012 NATO Summit protests, acting as a street medic. I didn’t know about specific facilities, but I remember it being pretty widely known that they’d been disappeared for a few days. I remember reading it on my phone in articles about the arrests. This was something activists on the ground were talking about. It was really scary, especially in the context that we were all in where the police were constantly watching, following, sometimes detaining people walking down the streets or raiding a place. I was constantly worried about being targeted while I was there – after all, only a few days before I’d arrived, a bunch of street medics were harassed and briefly detained while eating pizza. And police were always watching the medic headquarters. One of the first things I was told when I checked in was not to walk anywhere alone. Though sometimes I had to, to get back to where I was staying, and the first night of the protests I was followed away from the protests to the train at night by someone who was probably an undercover. So yeah, I was worried about being disappeared, and I wasn’t the only one either.

I’m speaking here from an activist’s perspective, rather than that of a black or brown person living in an overpoliced neighborhood, because I am the former and not the latter. But especially given that black and brown police accountability activists were aware of this facility where people were disappeared because stories got around (see links below), I expect that what I felt for a few days, some of Chicago’s residents felt all the time. Imagine walking around your neighborhood in fear of just being erased – probably only for a day or two, but you don’t actually know – and maybe if the story seemed overblown to you at first, it won’t anymore.

Coverage of Homan Square:

All the Guardian’s ongoing coverage
NATO Summit arrestee “TarheelDem” tells his Homan Square story back in 2012
The Atlantic interviews a police accountability activist about Homan Square
The Intercept interviews former detainees
CBS interview with former detainee and member of the NATO 3 Benjamin Church
The Beachwood Reporter podcast
Al Jazeera talks to lawyers whose clients were detained in Homan Square
The Columbia Journalism Review looks at why the Homan Square story isn’t being widely covered in Chicago
The Beachwood reporter has a nice roundup of interviews

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