L. Ralph: The Torture Letters

The Torture Letters. Reckoning with Police Violence

Ralph, Laurence
Anzahl Seiten
XXIV, 242 S.
$ 19.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Cristian Alvarado Leyton, Lateinamerika-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin

The second book of anthropologist Laurence Ralph is truly particular due to the uncommon subject – illicit police violence in Chicago – and the representation of ethnographical data in “open letters”. Having studied gang violence in Chicago before, the author focuses now on the social effects of police torture. Ralph claims that the resulting “legitimacy crisis” of society would feed back into violence while reproducing a cast-like system of oppression and exploitation (pp. xxi, 6).

The Torture Letters consists of 21 open letters addressed to 14 persons and to three groups: future mayors of Chicago (Introduction, Part IV), young Chicagoans of color (I, IV), two Black police officers and their superintendent (II), victims as well as anti-torture activists (III, IV, Conclusions) and finally ourselves as readers (Epilogue). The prologue sketches the general relevance of torture in Chicago; the appendix gives a more theoretical account of Ralph’s methods. The book’s structure emerged from dialogues with interlocutors, mirroring their references to different audiences (pp. xxif, 203), while the genre of letters “would help readers identify with the people being addressed” (p. xxiii).

Ralph wants to convey experiences and ways of making sense of illicit police violence (pp. xix, 187). Though its ubiquitous occurrence is well known in Chicago, “people in power” do not acknowledge it (p. xi), a paradox he names an open secret. Therefore, his “true goal […] was less about exposing police torture than investigating the openness of the secret” (p. xi). In a somewhat Freirean manner – “my insights are relevant only insofar as they matter to […] residents and can […] have an impact on their lives” (p. 70) –, Ralph tries both to analyze and contribute to fighting the social conditions that enable torture in democracy, foremost racism, impunity and the discursive spreading of fear, thus turning the anthropologist into a scholar-activist.

The metaphor of a “torture tree” is central to Ralph’s experimental work. It visualizes four interrelated elementary features of illicit police violence: the roots stand for the massive financial, political, and psychological “investment in fear” that simultaneously establishes the necessity of the police without which “society would descend into chaos” (p. 144). Ignoring the irrational side of violence, Ralph writes that this investment “maintains the enduring racial caste system” in the US (p. xvi). The spectrum of violence inflicted upon people identified as a threat, ranging from mistreatment to murder, is signified by the trunk (pp. xvi, 6ff.). Ralph stresses that the way to determine who is a threat is informed by racism, “equating Blackness and criminality” (p. xii). That Black people make up the disproportional majority of victims shows “the anger and loathing directed against Black criminal suspects – indeed, against entire Black communities” (p. 23). The tree’s branches stand for individual officers whose “everyday acts of police violence” (p. xvii) are then symbolized by its leaves. This metaphor helps us conceive “the systematic and routine nature of torture” (p. 53), which is not, as hegemonic representations claim, an accidental act in “a world in which the tortured exists but torturers do not” (p. 96). Vast resource spending induced by fear enables a constant violent submission and marginalization of specific people, lessening their life chances.

In two open letters addressed to “all the future mayors of Chicago”, Ralph explains that anti-torture programs etc. cannot eradicate torture because of its encompassing quality. Torture has then to be faced as a social phenomenon, rooted in long-standing racism, massive investments in fear and impunity (pp. 187, 190). Aside from these enabling conditions for torture, he stresses the significance of the “delicate tangle of connections” including kinship as it links “cops to judges to prosecutors to politicians” (pp. xi; 41, 93). Thus, future mayors should – and here Ralph’s narrative turns prescriptive – reallocate the nearly 1.5 billion US-dollar annually dedicated to policing, that is 40 percent of the city’s budget, into community development (pp. 4, 12, 138).

The following letters are written to youth of color (Part I). Detailing growing up in a racist society, Ralph refers also to his own experiences as a Black US-American (pp. 14ff). He describes a notorious police officer and decorated veteran, Jon Burge. His history of violence became public knowledge in the wake of the first civil suit against the city of Chicago filed in 1986 by Andrew Wilson, a murderer. Burge, who joined the police force in 1970, used a device to electroshock suspects, apparently “exported from the jungles of Vietnam” (p. 29). Ralph now makes his central point that everyone, even a murderer, has “the constitutional right not to be tortured” (pp. 38; 20–23, 27, 31, 38, 47, 176f., 180f.). Burge and around 25 colleagues who joined him in torturing suspects (p. 74) were and are protected, as he “never face[d] criminal charges for torture” nor has any police officer “ever been indicted for torture” (pp. 56, 96).

Part II addresses Chicago’s Black superintendent and “The B-Team”, Black police officers who were not compliant with torture and/or excluded from Burge’s “A-Team”. The few who denounced Burge faced demotions (pp. 69, 78); most were silent accomplices out of fear of retaliation (pp. 81, 88). At this point Ralph brilliantly outlines the power techniques which allow the cloaking of structural practices that belie democracy’s central tenets:

1. Career ambition, “a desire […] seemingly fundamental to our capitalist worldview” (p. 64): Officers receive benefits for remaining silent or else get punished while the chain of command forecloses contacting outsiders, strengthening dependencies (p. 90). Torture, once practiced, perpetuates itself as a technique of interrogation because confessions heighten the success rate – officers are “‘[…] supposed to know how to get information […]’” (p. 86).

2. Avoiding knowledge or “remaining willfully unaware” (p. 78), for instance by withdrawing physically when torture is about to happen or by overlooking signs of torture inscribed on the victim’s body. Another variant consists of dismissing evidence. Even if evidence in favor of suspects is recorded, it is gathered in so-called “street files” illegally kept away from attorneys (pp. 76f.).

3. Nurturing racism and other denigrating stances, because “by hating and condemning people, we actually make them more vulnerable for torture” (p. 31).

4. Language politics, e.g., using “misconduct” or “abuse” instead of “torture” in public (p. 92), which reinforces the “inability to address forms of extreme police violence” (p. 95). Hypocrisy or an intended neglect of allegations by stubbornly repeating “national ideals such as freedom and a fundamental respect for individual liberty and human rights” (p. 125) pertains to this aspect as well as censorship (pp. 148f.).

5. Protection by superiors and impunity in manifold forms (pp. 91f., 95f., 173–176).

In part III, Ralph calls on living and deceased victims and anti-torture activists. These letters have the deepest historical range, going back to the early 1950s when Black activists accused the US government of genocide at the UN. The author describes how their struggle motivated a group of young Chicagoans in 2014 to testify at the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva. Realizing the persistent danger of being “subjected to ‘slow violence’” by agents of the democratic state so that “one’s humanity [is] steadily annihilated”, allows one to perceive such a violent marginalization as “a form of genocide” (p. 104).

The last part IV recounts Mohamedou Slahi’s experiences with police officer Zuley, whose history of violence had led to his recruitment as an interrogator in Guantánamo Bay. Held captive for 14 years without being charged with a crime, Slahi’s case documents the transnational effects of Chicagoan police’s “institutional culture of racism” that “helped torture to grow” (p. 59). Here Ralph elaborates on a peculiar idea of guilt. While we are taught that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, police practice follows an alternative idea: the guilt of “bad guys” rests with law enforcement. Understanding Blacks and/or Muslims as “inherently prone to criminality” (p. xii), highlights the target of illicit state violence per se: inherently dangerous “Others” (pp. xif, xxi, 160f.).

Minor critiques refer, first, to Ralph’s choice of data. Why does his study focus mostly on cases from the 1980s if “systematic torture in Chicago’s precincts had begun at least a decade earlier” (p. 215, n. 2, x)? What about recent cases of torture (pp. x, xviii)? Why is the Vietnam War – or the 1960s in general for that matter – analytically absent despite its presence in the descriptions of perpetrators (pp. 45, 60f, 78)? Unlawfully killing and torturing the “Other”, informed by a similar notion of “guilt”, was an ordinary experience for many US-Americans in the Vietnam War[1], of whom thousands, including Burge, entered the police force later on. I was also surprised by the analytical exclusion of Black radical movements and elites. Remember, for instance, the “Chicago 8”-trial in 1969 in which Judge Hoffman denied Bobby Seale, then Chairman of the Black Panther Party, his constitutional right to represent himself and ordered him to be shackled, tied to a chair and gagged in court over several hearings. Moreover, the torture tree does not account for the agency of Black “people in power” such as Barack Obama or superintendents. Finally, Ralph’s fine observations would have been enriched by a dialogue with fellow anthropologists in order to add comparative analysis and contextualization, particularly as to the US governments’ promotion of torture well before 9/11.[2]

My second critique refers to Ralph’s account of his fieldwork and sources. While he offers a discussion of selected research methods (pp. xviiiff, Appendix), the conditions and experiences of his fieldwork are held vague. Repeatedly stating that he conducted research for “more than a decade” (pp. xi, 21, 31, 59, 165), it is unclear where, when, how he actually conducted fieldwork and interviews. Maybe references to native anthropology could have helped here. Interlocutors also remain superficial. Of the more than 100 persons Ralph says he has spoken with (p. 203), less than 30 are cited, and then mostly once or twice only. Nearly all interlocutors lack personal characteristics, unlike victims and perpetrators whose descriptions rest on published sources. Printed sources are hardly cited by page, many observations, scene descriptions and references lack sources altogether, even citations (p. 184), thus making it difficult to assess Ralph’s argument.

Yet he has accomplished an excellent work. Ralph’s radical critique of the structural racism of US-American society, of power-holders and their proteges, of dangerous and hegemonic ideas about “guilt”, cuts through many of our Western ideals we hold dear, offering important directions for future work. Writing this review in Germany, the relevance of his study is immediately evident: a few years ago, public servants declared “rescue torture” legitimate while police forces’ unlawful violence and racist stances are only reluctantly debated, if at all. Maybe Ralph’s greatest though saddening achievement lies in his exposing the utopian ring of ethical commonplaces prevalent in democracies. In excellently tackling democracy’s open secret and providing us with devices how to continue doing so, Ralph truly honors the best quality of anthropology: cultural critique.

[1] Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves. The Real American War in Vietnam, New York 2013.
[2] Didier Fassin, Enforcing Order. An Ethnography of Urban Policing, Cambridge 2013; Lesley Gill, The School of the Americas. Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas, Durham 2004.

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