By Joey Mogul, NLG Chicago
The City of Chicago made history on Wednesday May 6 when it passed legislation providing reparations to survivors of racially motivated police torture committed by infamous former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and detectives under his command from 1972 to 1991. It represents a bold break with the status quo, representing the first time that a municipality in the US will provide reparations to those harmed by law enforcement violence.
Chicago’s reparations package was driven by the inadequacy of traditional legal remedies to compensate individuals and communities for systemic harm. After decades of litigation, activism, and investigative journalism, the truth about systemic torture of African Americans by white detectives to secure confessions—involving electric shock, suffocation, and mock execution—was exposed. Yet full accountability proved elusive. The statute of limitations precluded Burge and his men from being held criminally or civilly responsible for their crimes of torture (although Burge was ultimately convicted in 2010 for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about the torture he and others committed). They enjoyed decades of torturing with impunity, courtesy of a cover up by the CPDs chain of command and governmental officials, including former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Moreover, the limited remedies offered by civil litigation—financial settlements that were often meager and practically unavailable to the vast majority of survivors— were inadequate to address the trauma and material needs of the torture survivors, their family members and communities.
Burge’s legacy of torture left festering wounds that remain open to this day. Many survivors continue to suffer from nightmares and flashbacks, grappling with PTSD that has gone untreated for decades. They live under a shroud of shame, guilt, and anguish that undermines their ability to form relationships. Survivors’ family members were also left to contend with their secondary trauma in isolation, after their family members were ripped from them. As whispers of the torture spread, entire communities lived in fear that they or their loved ones would be disappeared from street corners or homes into the bowels of the police stations. The torture, like lynchings, served to terrorize entire African American communities.
Recognizing the lack of redress for these systemic harms, Standish Willis, founder of Black People Against Police Torture, and 2014 NLG Law for the People Awardee, made the initial call for reparations. Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM), a grassroots group of artists, activists, attorneys and survivors, amplified this call by asking police torture survivors and the larger community to imagine how they would propose to publicly memorialize these cases. Through art charrettes, teach-ins, and community dialogue, CTJM sought to spark the collective imagination of the community to conceptualize what was necessary for the City to provide in order for individuals and communities to heal from torture. This call served to redirect everyone’s attention beyond the usual cries for accountability for police brutality and to focus on holistic means of meeting the needs of impacted communities, and offering positive visions for healing and repair.
Given the glaring lack of precedent in the U.S., CTJM looked to the U.N. Convention Against Torture’s principles of restitution, rehabilitation, compensation and public acknowledgment and relied on the expansive scope of reparations provided for atrocities committed under the Pinochet regime in Chile when drafting the essential elements of the original legislation. Ultimately, the reparations package, brought to fruition by an inspiring multi-racial and intergenerational campaign led by CTJM, Amnesty International , Project NIA and We Charge Genocide, within the larger context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, achieved far more than any individual criminal prosecution or lawsuit could afford. In addition to financial compensation to all living survivors, it includes an apology by the City of Chicago for the torture committed, settling the historical record and placing this systemic practice of torture beyond dispute. The reparations package includes the creation of a center on Chicago’s Southside where survivors can access specialized trauma counseling services. It also includes benefits like free tuition at City Colleges for the torture survivors and their families. Further, as part of this process of narrating and commemorating what Burge torture survivors endured, Chicago will create a permanent, public memorial and teach about the cases to all 8th and 10th grades in Chicago Public schools. By inscribing these cases both figuratively and literally into the collective memory, generations to come will ensure torture is never again committed in our name. Darrell Cannon, a key activist in the campaign for reparations and a Chicago Police torture survivor noted on May 6th, “We made history today. We are doing something that no other U.S. city has done. It is the right thing to do.” ■
Featured Image: Darrell Cannon, activist and Burge torture survivor. (School of the Art Institute of Chicago/Tamms Year Ten)