At 19, Frank Chapman was wrongfully convicted of first degree murder and armed robbery and confined to a Missouri prison. Chapman said he was beaten by police and put in an isolation cell until he “confessed” to the crime.
The year was 1961; fourteen years later, he was freed with support from some of the same people who helped free Angela Davis. In the early 1970s, the professor and communist activist was accused of murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy charges. The campaign to free Davis resulted in the formation of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (NAARPR).
Now, at 71, Chapman is the field organizer and educational director of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), an affiliate of the national organization. Founded in 1973, its focus is stopping police crimes, which he describes as “the cutting edge of mass incarceration, the new Jim Crow.” In May, the Chicago alliance convened the National Forum on Police Crimes. Participants called for an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council to give people a voice in how their communities are policed.
The Chicago Reporter talked to Chapman the week that the Illinois Supreme Court allowed Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge to keep his pension despite his 2010 conviction for lying about the torture of hundreds of suspects.
Why are the goals of the Chicago Alliance important?
We cannot have the police force trample over democracy. Right now, we have on record over 100 cases of people (in Chicago) who were tortured and sent to prison. We’re a democracy? And we’re torturing people to send them to jail? There’s the Eighth Amendment that forbids cruel and unusual punishment. That’s why we have to stop the police who violate the principle [on which] this republic was set up.
How do these issues affect the city of Chicago specifically?
One very important way is it costs taxpayers a tremendous amount of money. The city of Chicago has been making settlements and paying victims hundreds of dollars. They make settlements, pay off the victims and don’t prosecute the police. You’re paying off all that money to maintain a system that needs to be reformed to keep police on the streets who should be punished for their crimes. In the city, schools are closing, and there are higher unemployment rates where police are committing crimes. Why are we spending so much money to protect the police when we have grave social problems we need to address?
The other major thing is these people who were tortured and sent off to prison, the impact [it has] on families has been very traumatic. People who have no criminal record or no criminal background, people who are law-abiding members of the community are made to suffer by mistakes police make, and the system is not making an effort to correct it. I know mothers who have been fighting for their children to be released from jail for over 20 years. Think of what that mother is going through.
What are the challenges in promoting these issues?
The main challenge is getting people who are the victims involved, motivating them to become involved, to stop being victims and start becoming freedom fighters. The other problems, I expect. I don’t expect the police to call us one day and tell us they’ve had a change of heart. I don’t expect City Hall to lend us a hand of brotherhood. We expect the system to be resistant. But people are stronger than the system.
What have officials said about the Civilian Police Accountability Council?
Right now, we’re at the very beginning of it. There have been a number of public officials who have been supportive of what we are doing, but they are not going to organize this fight. We’re going to have to do that. They are going to have to feel the pressure of the people.
What was it like in prison?
My experience in prison was horrific. When I went to prison back in 1961 there were intense racial situations. Prisons were racially segregated, and the conditions were very harsh and very poor. In a black cell block, there were four to six people. In a white cell block, there were one to two people. All the menial dirty jobs were done by black people. The guards would beat you and put you in solitary confinement — and in some cases extend your sentence by sending you back to court.
What would you tell the families of people who have been wrongfully convicted?
I would say to them that until we do a mass movement engaging a large number of people, their family members are not going to get out of jail. The authorities are not going to respond. Periodically, these wrongs get accumulated, people speak out. We’re going through one of those periods right now. We’ve got to put pressure on the government to exonerate all these prisoners and let them go. The state needs to step up so they can get adequate psychological care and help them be productive members of society again.
Rahm Emanuel issued an apology last year (for the Burge case). We responded to that saying, sorry is not enough. That’s not going to help people mend their lives. They’re going to need assistance. It impacts their family and friends. It’s not just a tragedy, it’s an injustice.
How did you endure 14 years in prison knowing that you were innocent?
My saving grace is that I got involved in the struggle. I met prisoners who were political. … They were reds, communists. I met prisoners who were black nationalists and prisoners who were part of The Nation of Islam. I was young and bitter and angry about what had happened to me. I listened to these people trying to find (political) solutions to my personal problem. Looking at the injustices in the system and getting involved in fighting against them is what rescued me.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.