National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 18, 2003

Mary Powers
-- Jennifer McClory
Faith and the power of persistence

Catholic citizen wages decades-long fight to end police brutality


In the early morning hours of Dec. 4, 1969, a contingent of Chicago police staged a preemptive strike at the west side apartment of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. In the ensuing “shootout,” Hampton was killed and four other Panther leaders were seriously wounded. Within days it became clear the shootout was essentially an execution. More than 100 bullets had been fired into the apartment, many finding their target in the body of Hampton as he lay in his bed. Only one shot had been fired out at the raiders.

The Hampton incident had the effect of waking up Chicagoans to the acute problem of police brutality. Questionable shootings and beatings by police had become almost epidemic, particularly in black neighborhoods, but few outsiders noticed -- until the Dec. 4 raid.

Almost overnight, dozens of civil rights organizations sprang up, and a political movement was born that led to the election of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. Now, 34 years later, Washington is deceased, the movement is moribund, and the organizations that responded to the killing are mostly in mothballs.

But not Citizens Alert. This small organization, still operating out of a shoebox office in downtown Chicago with a miniscule budget, has achieved significant results largely through the unlikely leadership of Mary Powers, a white suburbanite. She credits her commitment to the teaching and encouragement of the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters who taught her at Marygrove College in Detroit in the 1940s. The impact of Catholic social thought and the experience of volunteering in the inner city while in college changed her, said Powers. “The problem of social inequality was so apparent,” she said. “There was so much to be done and so few to do it.”

Powers, now 80, is stepping down as leader of Citizens Alert -- though not out of the organization. Coming in as executive director is Harriet McCullough, another impatient activist with roots in the Catholic tradition. She was director of Chicago’s first Board of Ethics under Mayor Washington, has worked for Common Cause, and has long association with a range of political and judicial reform efforts. “Thirteen years in Catholic schools got me in the habit of seeing Christ in others,” she said, “and that instilled the idea that all people matter and deserve to be treated fairly.”

In that fateful December 1969, Mary Powers was in her mid-40s, living with her husband, Bill, and four children in the affluent Chicago suburb of Winnetka. Involvement in the local human relations committee and the Christian Family Movement at her parish, Ss. Faith, Hope and Charity, had only whetted her appetite for more direct action. So she traveled to Chicago to view Hampton’s bullet-riddled apartment and decided she could not put off the urge to do something. She discovered Citizens Alert with its broad mandate: to stop police abuse and brutality. She volunteered.

Beginnings of a 32-year dialogue

The task seemed impossible. The Chicago Police Department looked as impenetrable as the Pentagon. By chance, however, the group of white, suburban do-gooders learned of a little-known body called the Chicago Police Board. The board’s five members, all civilians, had immense responsibility: approving the police budget, passing on all department regulations and providing the final say on disciplinary action, including firing officers from the force.

In principle, it was a fully constituted board of directors. In fact, the board was a rubber stamp for the police superintendent, James Conlisk. When Powers and others finally learned when and where the board met -- no easy task -- they tried to attend, only to be told the meetings were not open to the public. Having done their homework, the Citizen Alert novices produced copies of the Illinois Open Meetings Act and the state statute creating the board as a public entity. They were then informed that the meeting room was too small for visitors. So, they agreed to stand or sit on the floor.

“When we walked into the room, the board was just dumbfounded,” said Powers. “This had never happened before.”

Board procedure was not difficult to follow. Everything Conlisk put before the members was passed unanimously without comment or discussion. The meeting lasted 10 minutes. “We said we’d be back next time,” recalled Powers. “We wanted to be educated.”

The next month the meeting had been moved to an auditorium at central police headquarters where a large number of visitors could be accommodated. Thus began an informal dialogue between the public and the overseers of the police department that has continued for 32 years.

“We all just kept coming,” said Powers, “and gradually resistance ebbed.” The board began to listen to the stories, and though they could not judge the truth of the testimonies on the spot, said Powers, eye-to-eye contact with the public had an effect. It became clear that a fully independent civilian-staffed agency was needed to replace the Internal Affairs Department, the police department’s ineffective in-house investigation unit. The cause was taken up by the Chicago media and long established groups such as the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 1974, four years after that first meeting with Citizens Alert, the Chicago Police Board set up the Office of Professional Standards with 30 full-time civilian investigators empowered to examine all instances of police misconduct. The result has not been Camelot, and the office has had its ups and downs, but there’s general agreement the new system represents a major improvement.

The police board campaign illustrates Mary Powers’ standard organizational style for creating change. She is not confrontational or threatening. She is persistent. Like the drops of water that wear down the granite boulder, she and Citizens Alert have been relentless.

That approach was crucial in scrapping the outmoded Cook County coroner’s office. For decades in cases of a slaying by police, the coroner, Dr. Andrew Toman, presented his inquest findings to a coroner’s jury, which inevitably ruled justifiable homicide. In the early 1970s, Powers and others from Citizens Alert began attending the inquests, previously conducted in private, and began calling for reform of the system. The county board yielded to pressure in late 1972. A referendum proposing replacement of the coroner’s office with a Medical Examiner system overseen by the chiefs of the pathology departments of local medical schools won in a landslide.

Perhaps Citizens Alert’s longest (and still ongoing) project is the campaign to bring Jon Burge to justice. From the early 1980s, reports and rumors surfaced in Chicago that Burge, a well-known commander at two south side police districts, routinely used and authorized torture while interrogating suspects. Eventually, some 66 complainants, including 11 on Illinois’ death row, came forward with almost identical charges. They said Burge and his detectives employed methods such as electric shock, Russian roulette, partial suffocation and brutal beatings to obtain confessions. Many had evidence on their bodies to bolster the charges. Powers organized 53 community groups into the Coalition against Police Torture and Brutality, which pressed the state’s attorney’s office and the police board to take action.

For some 15 years there were charges and countercharges and a host of lawsuits. Burge managed to avoid conviction, despite mountains of evidence. Then in 1993 the Chicago Police Board fired Burge on the basis of the most irrefutable of the torture charges. The Chicago media rejoiced, but not Mary Powers. With his pension intact, Burge retired to Florida along with his 40-foot cabin cruiser, “Vigilante.” This was a long way from justice, said Citizens Alert, so it continued to campaign for the next nine years for a thorough, unbiased investigation.

Last April, the chief judge of the county criminal court named a former Illinois appellate judge of impeccable reputation to open up the Burge file for the possible filing of criminal charges. The investigation goes on. “We’ve been on this now for 20 years,” said Powers. “We intend to keep the pressure on.”

During the 1970s and ’80s, Citizens Alert obtained a number of grants from foundations and churches, which enabled the organization to hire a succession of executive directors. Some became community leaders in their own right. But the funds would inevitably run out, leaving Powers to rely on dedicated volunteers. It is still with volunteers that the organization responds to daily operations. The organization has not had paid staff in 17 years.

The arrival of Harriet McCullough as executive director may make a difference. McCullough, 56, is a big-picture, long-range organizer and an experienced fundraiser. In recent years she has run her own business providing training in ethics to police departments and community colleges. Much of her energy for doing good, she said, comes from her participation in the Catholic Sheil Center at Northwestern University. Though she was away from the church for some years, she missed “the mystery, the history, the smells and bells” and discovered she had to be part of a faith community. “Something deep in my core is fed by community and liturgy,” she said.

Meanwhile, Powers, whose husband is deceased and whose children are grown and on their own, will have more time to pursue causes in Chicago and elsewhere. She is currently working on one of her newer creations, the National Coalition for Police Accountability, which has had some success in setting up Citizen Alert-like organizations in other cities. “There’s still a lot to be done,” she said, “and so few to do it.”

Robert McClory, an NCR contributing writer, lives in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 2003

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