Chicago anti-police brutality activist dies in police custody
June 4, 2004 | Page 5
NICOLE COLSON reports on the death of an anti-police brutality activist in Chicago.
"THIS WAS murder." Victor, a grief-stricken friend of May Ortiz Molina, could find no other way to describe May's death in the early morning hours of May 26.
As he and dozens of May's friends, family and fellow activists gathered that evening outside the Chicago Police Department's Area 3 headquarters--where May died in a prison cell--their anger was focused on the cops who killed her.
May was an activist against police brutality and corruption, and helped found the Families of the Wrongfully Convicted and the Comité Exigimos Justicia. She fought tirelessly to win a new trial for her son, Salvatore, who has spent 10 years in prison on a trumped-up murder charge.
That earned her the contempt of Chicago cops. "She was a target because she was against police brutality," May's nephew, Alex Hauad, told Socialist Worker. "They not only hurt her, but they hurt her family, and they hurt a lot of people who cared about her and loved her."
On May 24, police raided and ransacked May's home, looking for drugs. After allegedly finding 80 heroin packets in a purse, the cops took May and her son Michael Ortiz into custody around 10 p.m.
May, a 55-year-old grandmother who was wheelchair bound and suffered from diabetes and heart, liver and thyroid problems, was in obviously poor health. But the cops refused to let her use her wheelchair to leave her home. Instead, witnesses say that they dragged her out of her home and threw her into a paddy wagon, before taking her to jail.
She would spend the next 28 hours in police custody at two different police stations--before being rushed to the hospital, where she later died.
Police claim that they checked on May every 15 minutes while she was in custody--an absurd claim to anyone familiar with Chicago jails--and that she requested medical attention. But her friends and family know otherwise. "They took her to [the first police station at] Addison and Halsted, and she was already complaining," says Yvette Cruz, a member of the Comité Exigimos Justicia. "Her daughter went there with the medication and said, 'She needs her medicines.' They said, 'Wait until her fingerprints clear.'"
Over the next day, repeated requests that May be given her medications--even from her attorney--were refused. "I asked her whether or not they had been allowing her to take her medication, and she said, 'No,'" attorney Jerry Bischoff, who visited May in jail Tuesday afternoon, told the Chicago Tribune. "They ignored all of these requests and pleas from the family," Bischoff said. "They ignored me when I told them they should get her to the hospital, and she's dead."
The cops and coroner are now saying that May's death was caused by six undigested packets of heroin lodged in her esophagus, stomach and small intestine. But they can't explain how someone in police custody for more than 28 hours could have had tinfoil packets of heroin lodged in their throat for that amount of time.
Family and friends say that May was targeted because of her activism. "I feel that May has been framed and set up--I know that from the bottom of my heart," says Victor. "You tell me, is that justice? They got away with murder. They let her sit there and die in that place. A dog doesn't deserve to sit in that place."
In fact, May had recently opened an office on Chicago's West side as part of a campaign to draw public attention to police misconduct and wrongful convictions--and had planned a schedule of June events to bring light to the issue. "May was a firm believer in going out there and speaking," commented Yvette Cruz. "She spoke her mind. Sometimes she'd be at a press conference by herself in her wheelchair. May spoke at and went to everything, regardless of what these people were trying to do to her. "She has had problems, and we know she had been trying to move because she's had so many problems with the police. "It's time for America to wake up. We're paying attention to what's going on over [in Iraq], but look at what just happened here. We just tortured our own in our own cells."
The day after May's death, anger spilled over again at a meeting of the Chicago police board, where dozens of May's friends, family members and fellow activists had packed the room. "This was not accidental murder," Joan Parkin, a member of the Enough is Enough campaign and International Socialist Organization, told the police board. "This was premeditated. It wasn't enough that your officers, that the Chicago police department, operated a house of torture for 20 years using electroshock and the suffcation of Black and Latino men...There is no doubt that May Molina was murdered because she is one of the most outspoken political activists for the wrongfully convicted."
Throughout the meeting, police board members appeared uninterested as May's family and fellow activists demanded justice. But later, activists turned the tables on the police, as exonerated Illinois death row inmate Aaron Patterson led the crowd in confronting the police board members--up close and personal. "These meetings are too formal," Patterson said. "I suggest, starting today, as a matter of fact right now, that everybody in their seats, gets up and let's move closer to the police board." At that, audience members got up from their seats, chanting, "The people, united, will never be defeated," while police board members beat a hasty retreat.
The following day, Lori Lightfoot, chief administrator of the Office of Professional Standards--the office investigating May's death--refused to meet with protesters in public.
May's family and other activists are planning to keep up the pressure to hold the police responsible. "They want the community to be quiet," said May's niece, Monica Molina. "They want the community to not say anything, to not stand up for the people around them. That's not who she was...She was an activist."
Yvette agrees. "We're not going to stop fighting," she says. "That's what May would want. She kept saying, 'We've got to get together. We've got to get more people out here. Let's go out into the community.'"
Chicago's brutal cops
VIOLENCE AND misconduct by Chicago's "finest" is nothing new. As an activist fighting to clear her son Salvatore's name, May Molina knew the lengths that police go to get a conviction--the Chicago cops' long record of racism and brutality.
For years, Chicago police under the command of Jon Burge used torture--including electroshock, suffocation and brutal beatings--to try to get suspects to confess. At least 13 of Burge's victims landed on death row, and dozens more were sent to prison, based mainly on coerced "confessions."
In 1993, the Illinois Supreme Court concluded that Burge and his men had carried out years of "systematic torture." That embarrassed the city enough to force Burge into retirement. But no one--not Mayor Richard Daley, who was state's attorney at the time; nor Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine, who was an assistant prosecutor; nor the dozens of other officials and police personnel who were in and out of Areas 2 and 3 during Burge's reign of torture--ever said a word. Not a single cop known to have tortured prisoners has ever been charged with a criminal offense.
In fact, in 1998, Human Rights Watch investigators found that police brutality is widespread in Chicago, but is almost never punished. During 1996 and 1997 alone, the police department's Office of Professional Standards (OPS) had 6,000 excessive force complaints. "In 1996, during which more than 3,000 complaints against the police were filed with OPS," the Human Rights Watch report said, "the board decided six cases in which the superintendent sought dismissal based on excessive force charges: in one case, a firing was reduced to a suspension; in another, the charges were withdrawn (which usually means an officer resigned before a case was heard); and four officers were found not guilty."
No wonder the cops think they can get away with murder.