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Interview with Aaron Patterson: He Walks the Talk

by Stephanie Weiner |
March 1, 2003
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(Fight Back! Stephanie Weiner)
Aaron Patterson at the Comite Exigimos Justicia event only two days after he was released. (Fight Back! Stephanie Weiner)

Chicago, IL - Aaron Patterson is one of the four death row inmates pardoned by Illinois Governor Ryan on Jan. 10. Sentenced to die in 1989 for murders he did not commit, he is one of the many tortured by Area 2 Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.

The Chicago-based Aaron Patterson Defense/Free Mumia Committee has been one of the strongest defense committees in the city for many years. Since his release, he has used his every waking hour to advance the people’s struggle.

Patterson was released on a Friday afternoon. On Saturday, the very next day, he spoke at a noontime anti-war demonstration, explaining that the real terrorists are Mayor Daley and State’s Attorney Dick Devine - they are waging a war on the Black and Latino communities. He then raced up to the North Side to hear Governor Ryan announce his commutations. Although the governor’s event had already begun, Patterson demanded to speak directly with him about the wrongfully convicted. The governor spoke with him there and then. On Sunday, Patterson spoke at an event hosted by Comite Exigimos Justicia, to help demand justice for the wrongfully convicted from the Latino community and backed their demands to clean up Area 5 police station.

In the short time that he’s been out, he has done interviews with almost all the TV stations. He has done numerous interviews on Voice of the People radio shows. He was on the cover of the Chicago Defender, in a two-part Oprah show, the Chicago Reporter, Operation PUSH, the international media and at many town meetings.

He helped to organize delegations that demanded meetings with the Office of Professional Standards, the Police Board, the Justice Department, the mayor, the new governor, and the state’s attorney. One delegation, frustrated by State’s Attorney Dick Devine’s non-response, went with Patterson to Devine’s private home to invite him out for tea and discussion.

Recently, Aaron Patterson spoke at another anti-war demonstration that focused on stopping recruitment campaigns (done by the public relations firm Leo Burnett) which target African American and Latino youth. He was so inspired by the protest’s energy that he called channel 9 and told them that they needed to get down there right away - they were missing something important. And so they came.

By the time of the city elections, Aaron Patterson already had a list of independent candidates that he was supporting. He also backed the progressive mayoral candidate Reverend Paul Jakes, in an attempt to boot out the reactionary Mayor Daley.

Patterson organized a crew of people to testify before Springfield lawmakers, greatly helping the effort to win a vote to get the anti-death penalty bill out of committee and to the legislature’s floor. Recently, he testified about the abuses of the prisoners being held in the massive Department of Corrections jail complex at 26th Street and California. The next day, the newly-appointed head resigned and new rules were agreed on about video taping cell checks.

Days before the war started, Patterson spoke to a downtown crowd of 10,000 about an ‘impeach Bush’ campaign. On the first night that the war started, Patterson asked the crowd if they knew how to take the streets. He said, “I just got off death row, and people say that I had met the most vicious and evil gangsters around, but those people were nothing compared to George Bush! He’s the worst gangster around.”

Aaron Patterson walks the talk and gets results. Fight Back! interviewed Patterson shortly before Chicago’s most recent elections.

FB!: What are your goals now?

My immediate goals now are to help the candidates that have our agenda for justice to win in the run-off elections. I supported Reverend Paul Jakes for mayor. We have to get Daley and Devine out. My goals beyond that are to bridge the gap between the Latino coalitions and the Black coalitions. I’m working very hard to get an Innocence Commission established to get an avenue of relief for the many innocent men in prison.

FB!: Why do you think Governor Ryan signed the four pardons and commuted the sentences of all 167 death row inmates in Illinois?

We forced him. We put enough pressure on him so that he had to do it. We presented so much evidence that he was hard-pressed not to do right.

FB!: What do you think that you have accomplished so far since you have been out?

Well, it’s really too early to tell. I think I’ve helped build a good networking unity between Latino and Black coalitions. I think we’ve pressed State’s Attorney Dick Devine into taking action now about DNA testing. I think he’s talking about opening that up because of our pushing him. I can say that we had some impact on some immigrants that were fired because of documentation sweeps at a Target in Vernon Hills, so that they got their jobs back after protesting and calling the press in. We’ve got some lawyers and investigators looking into cases of prisoners that were wrongfully convicted. It’s too early to see the impact. We just keep pounding the pavement. We’re working all the angles – all the avenues.

FB!: Why do you think the prison issue is so big right now?

The prison issue is so big right now because it’s a multi-billion dollar industry that is targeted on Blacks, Latinos and poor whites. The prison issue is great for the ones who lock us up. It’s a very bad issue for us. We’re a commodity to them.

FB!: What do you want to say to the prisoners?

I support all the prisoners. I’m working 24 hours and 365 days a year to fight for them. To the wrongfully convicted, I know how it feels. I’m going to bat for you all. We’re going to Springfield to get an independent investigator to deal with this stuff. There’s too much politics and racism going on.

FB!: How is the war connected to the U.S. prison system problems?

The tactics look different but it is a very similar situation of domination, racism and greed being played out on the world stage. We have to stop the aggression because in both situations it’s about profit on the backs of minorities.

FB!: Any last thoughts for Fight Back! readers?

We have to do what the name of the paper says - we have to fight back. Everyone has to step up and do their part. We can make a difference.