Monday, August 19, 2013

Real Life Superhero: An Interview with Mark Clements and Bernardine Dohrn

I’m a sucker for super heroes and the endless stream of Hollywood movie remakes offering me a thrilling escape where justice is always served. But this weekend -- as torture survivor Mark Clements celebrated his four year homecoming anniversary, as Whittier parents stood their ground as the City of Chicago demolished the school’s field house turned community center, as the people of Egypt continued to face violence and repression to defend the democratic aims of the revolution they made -- I was starkly reminded of our real life superheroes, the freedom fighters who struggle every day for a better world.

On this day, four years ago Mark Clements won his freedom from twenty-eight years of wrongful conviction. As a sixteen year old, he was tortured by Chicago police, forced into confessing to a crime he did not commit, and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Behind bars, he worked relentlessly for his freedom. His superhero power was his sheer determination alongside his uncanny ability to maintain hope against hope. And his special weapon was the stacks of paper that he was known for carrying around on the inside – papers that might convince “someone to listen.”

Last week, I sat down with Mark and Bernardine Dohrn, a long-time freedom fighter who met Mark in her efforts to abolish juvenile LWOP. I’ve known Mark and Bernardine for years – I’m proud to call them my good friends – and they have an amazing story that I wanted to capture in their own words. Here’s a glimpse of our conversation - my questions merely act as a catalyst to illuminate the forging of a beautiful friendship and a shared commitment against the criminalization of Black and Brown youth.

conspiring for a better tomorrow -- Bernardine, Mark, Alice 

AK: You were sixteen years old when you were arrested, tortured, and wrongfully convicted. Who were you back then?

MARK: When I was sixteen years old, I was an uneducated kid. I wouldn’t say misguided – but without education. I was a paperboy. I was just a kid. I was the skinniest kid you could ever imagine. My mother used drugs then, and I would go find her. My brother would be like, she’ll come home. But I’d go find her and bring her home. I would say that this put choices and responsibilities on us that should not have been on us as young children. But neither one of us made any irrational decisions that should have amounted to a prison sentences.

I didn’t see the violence of this world. I didn’t see the racism of this world. Even though I knew that racism existed, I always had a habit of treating people the way that I would want to be treated. Despite the fact that maybe their views may not be on my same level.

Do you think that people are born racist or want to be racist? No. So I always looked at that fact that perhaps it was their father or mother or their generation that kind of like caused them to be this way. But I personally never knew anything about Jon Burge or anything about torture upon African Americans until it happened to me. I haven’t made it a secret – but without Bernardine, I’d still be in prison.

BERNARDINE: I don’t think that’s true. My piece is such a small piece. I’ve never met anybody – and I’ve had a long life of knowing people who are prisoners and done a little bit of jail time myself – who worked as hard and as relentlessly at their own freedom and to prove their own innocence. He deserves 100% of the credit for his freedom. He wrote people relentlessly who would work for his freedom.

AK: How did you learn about Mark’s case and what stood out to you about it?

BERNARDINE: About 10 of us drove down to Pontiac to interview juveniles with LWOP. I had Mark’s file – and I think it was given it arbitrarily. It was a very thin file of information that we had. It said quadruple homicide, 16 years old, mentally retarded. And that’s about it. Based on the file, my expectation of him couldn’t have been more off.

Mark had a stack of paper higher than him. We were going to give him an explanation of who we were…but he already knew exactly who we were. He knew the other juvenile LWOP people. He was so far ahead of us. He was so obviously self-educated, literate, not retarded, and a passionate, creative organizer on the inside.

There was no forensic evidence against him – just the confession. So all I did was make the phone calls to get him the kind of investigative team who would be able to put the money into looking up an old case like this and getting the case in front of the special prosecutor. I simply was a catalyst in this thing. Mark really organized for his own freedom.

MARK: She took the initiative – and for that I will always be grateful to Bernardine.

BERNARDINE: Mark’s case was startling to me not only because he was innocent but because of who he became in prison. I think that this is important. Some of the JLWOP prisoners are innocent or at the most, played a very minor role in a murder, and some of them actually committed the murders and became somebody else. You have a range of culpability, but what you have in common is their youthfulness, that they were children at the time And as the Supreme Court has said, children are categorically less culpable. In this sense Mark is quite a unique organizer and activist. His own innocence makes him fierce about other people’s innocence. He also recognizes that people change and that these sentences are draconian because they don’t take into account people’s ability to mature and come into their own humanity. That combination of factors is what Mark represents. People grow and develop. I hope I still do.

MARK: You learn every day. When you stop learning, you’re dead. And as long as we stereotype young kids – I don’t care what color they are – you’re going to have police go out and falsely arrest people. For young people to be stereotyped as some type of criminal, I have a problem with that. This society today is very dark. We’ve made great strides in reforming the criminal justice system, but what good is reform if we still have people in prison who are innocent? There are Burge torture victims you never hear about because they never confessed to the crime. These are some of the tough issues that we must try to expose as activists.

Chi4Trayvon Rally -- Nathson Fields, Mark Clements, Alice Kim, Darby Tillis

BERNARDINE: I was just in California working with the hunger strikers a pelican bay. And I’m in California – a progressive state where white people are the minority – and you say, well in Illinois we abolished the death penalty and we closed TAMMS (I’m comparing TAMMS to Pelican Bay) and we closed three prisons last year. I just want to note what’s been accomplished because when you’re in another state and you look at it – it’s kind of amazing and dramatic – even as we have a long way to go to unravel what’s been built since the 80s in terms of a carceral state.

AK: Can you talk about the efforts to abolish juvenile LWOP?

BERNARDINE:  JLWOP was prohibited by international law…the US is the only country in the world that has such a sentence for children who commit crimes. It’s a proxy that shows everything wrong with how justice for youth works. It’s wildly racially disproportionate, 80% of the hundred men in prison in Illinois are African American and Latino. There’s one woman who has a campaign for her freedom that Amnesty International has taken on. She’s a changed person and she’s done 20 years already. All of these guys were tried as adults. If they had been born with a Glencoe address (well there’s one from that area but he’s an anomaly) but everyone else has a South Side or West Side address. No consideration was given to their youth, to their role in the crime, and they had no chance to show who they’ve become. It shows you how vengeful as a culture we are toward children and toward children of color.

AK: Can you share some of the joys and challenges that you’ve experienced since you’ve been out?

MARK: The biggest joy for me was walking out of prison and having my daughter pick me up and actually leaving without any chains. I wanted to get completely off of these people’s property. Let’s go. I would say the second biggest joy was watching Burge be sentenced even though he was not really found guilty of torture. What I would like to see achieved by 2014 is for Governor Patrick Quinn to sign legislation that outlaws juveniles from being sentenced to natural life.

For me, the most hurtful thing is seeing mothers suffer who still have torture victims locked up or seeing any mother suffer. I was at least able to spend two homecoming anniversaries with Mom before she passed. Mom used drugs well into her thirties but she abandoned using and I saw a difference in her character and her drive to fight for me. I will always be thankful for my mother because if it was not for my mother I would not have had a voice and people would not know about my situation. She worked with the People’s Law Office and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression when most people were weary of getting involved in the fight.

I have a vision of my moms – I take her everywhere I go – she’s in my heart. Now, seeing the mothers of the torture victim – their anguish, their tears, their hurt, their disappointment in trying to get their son’s home – it motivates me to fight harder. Without these mothers, I might have left this a long time ago – there’s a lot of stress involved with this – but I take my hat off to the mothers and ask them to be strong.

Whenever I talk to Mark, I’m astonished by his compassion and determination. He and the other torture survivors have every reason to be bitter and angry, yet they are a testament to our humanity. There’s so much we can learn from him, the survivors, the mothers, and each other. As he said, “when you stop learning, you’re dead.” Today, I take my hat off to Mark Clements, a real life (super) hero in his own right.


  1. Thanks for sharing this great interview. I especially appreciated Mark's last paragraph about the strength he has received from the mothers in the movement.

  2. thanks for reading. the moms are a powerful force!