The George Ryan mystery

LouPaulsen LouPaulsen at
Sun Jan 12 05:40:02 MST 2003

As the above New York Times article recounts, outgoing Republican Governor
George Ryan has commuted the sentences of all 167 death row inmates in
Illinois.  The previous day, he had issued pardons for 4 prisoners who had
been convicted of murder and sentenced to die on the basis of confessions
extracted by brutal torture, including beatings, electric shock, and
suffocation, by the Chicago Police.  (One of these, Aaron Patterson,
celebrated his first full day of freedom by speaking to the anti-war rally
in Chicago!)  In speeches televised live, Ryan recounted the details of the
police torture, the abuses of power by police and prosecutors, the use of
all-white juries, and the failure of the court system to provide justice
even after the truth about these horrors came out.

All of this is rather shocking to me personally and leaves me with an eerie
feeling of unreality.  I don't mean that the facts are shocking.  We in the
movement have known about them for years.  For that matter, the entire Black
and Latino communities have known about them for years.  The media have
known about them for years, in the wake of highly publicized cases where
death row prisoners have been exonerated after years of struggle.

All of the things in Ryan's statements have been known for years, but the
shocking and hard-to-explain thing is that a Republican Governor made these
true statements.  These indictments of the death penalty would be perfectly
in place in a movement newspaper, but you have to pinch yourself and make
sure that you aren't dreaming when you hear them from the governor!

When governors do things like this we on the left almost automatically write
that "the struggle forced them to do it", but in this particular case it is
not really true.  Of course there have been many demonstrations, rallies,
and so on, and a lot of anti-death penalty activists have done a lot of
great work over the years, and all of the attention and evidence that has
been generated by activists and volunteers were the necessary precondition
for Ryan's action.  But the movement never produced anything like the amount
of pressure that would actually force the bourgeois state to take such a
step.  The proof of this statement is that not a single WHITE politician or
official in the state, of either party, has supported his action.  The
Democratic governor-elect, Rod Blagojevic, who was endorsed by the Fraternal
Order of Police,  and the Democratic state's attorney for Cook County, Dick
Devine, both condemned his action.

Ryan is in fact rather likely to be tried, convicted, and jailed himself in
the near future.  Before Ryan was governor, he was Secretary of State of
Illinois.  This office issues drivers' licenses.  During his tenure, his
employees made a deal with some truck driving schools, whereby they would
sell licenses to the graduates, whether or not they passed the tests, and
put the money in Ryan's campaign fund.  Everyone involved except Ryan
himself has since been indicted and convicted on federal charges.  Ryan is
clearly next.

Thus, one of the popular explanations of Ryan's actions is that he is
skillfully preparing inmate public opinion so that when he goes into the
'big house' himself he will have friends inside.  I said as much to my wife
the other day, not entirely seriously, and she accused me of being a cynic.
She reminded me that, years ago, when convicted child rapist/murderer Brian
Dugan admitted to the rape/murder of another child for which Rolando Cruz
and Alex Hernandez had been tried and sent to death row, she had said "Why
would such an evil man admit to this crime?" and I had said, "Nobody is all
evil - Dugan's impulses may lead him to rape and murder children, but that
doesn't mean that he wouldn't save innocent people from death row."  So why
was it hard for me to believe that Ryan was sincere?  "Back then I was
talking about a child murderer," I responded, "but now we're talking about a
servant of the ruling class!!!"  But this doesn't entirely weaken the force
of her argument.

A second explanation is that Ryan is doing to stick it to his political
enemies.  Since the "licenses-for-bribes" scandal really got exposed a few
years ago, George Ryan has been pretty much a pariah in Illinois Republican
Party politics.  The losing Republican candidate in the recent election was
a man named Jim Ryan - no relation to George - who was a prosecutor in
DuPage County and was one of the people who tried to send the innocent
Rolando Cruz to the electric chair.  During the election, Jim Ryan went to
great lengths to condemn George Ryan so that nobody would confuse him with
the scandal-plagued governor.   George Ryan's anti-death penalty actions are
a slap in the face to these Republican prosecutors and officials who have
been distancing themselves from him for the last two years, as well as to
Democratic judges and prosecutors like Devine.

My own tentative working explanation is really sort of a
social-psychological one, and not really very Marxist.  Marxism is of course
a theory of class struggle, not a theory for predicting what individuals
will do, and in fact I think that Ryan's actions were the product of his
individual situation, in unusual circumstances which are not likely to
recur.  Politicians like to be cheered and honored.  In normal political
careers they win their cheers, honors, and positive reinforcement by serving
the bourgeoisie.  Because of the scandal, however, Ryan was in the position
of being a sitting governor who was isolated from his own party and
condemned from all sides.  I think he became so desperate for approval and
praise that he was open to the temptation of getting it from illicit sources
and by forbidden means: that is, from the oppressed community, death penalty
activists, and media people who have been progressive on the issue, and by
means of actually doing justice.  It's sort of an anti-Faustian scenario: a
man so desperate for positive reinforcement that he will buy his soul back
from the devil, as it were.

I might mention that Ryan is also the only U.S. governor to have visited
Cuba with a business delegation.  Of course it is in the interests of
capitalists in Illinois to sell their products in Cuba, so you can say that
it's not mysterious, except that the same is true of every other state, and
none of their governors have broken ranks and gone there.

On the other hand of course Ryan has also presided over budget cuts and
welfare takebacks and all sorts of other awful things in his time, so I
don't want to give a false impression of George Ryan as being some sort of
completely transformed man.  But it's very puzzling, no matter how you slice

Lou Paulsen

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