Above photo: Aaron Cheney demonstrates on October 27, 2008, outside the federal courthouse in Chicago, Illinois, where former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge was attending a hearing on charges he obstructed justice and committed perjury for lying while under oath during a 2003 civil trial about decades-old police torture allegations. Scott Olson / Getty Images.
This month, the movement against Chicago police violence celebrated the fifth anniversary of the passing of the historic reparations ordinance. Born out of more than three decades of legal and political struggle waged by an intergenerational and interracial movement comprised of torture survivors, their families and lawyers, activists and their organizations, and a handful of progressive journalists and politicians, the reparations package provided:
- A full and public mayoral apology;
- $100,000 payments to each of the approximately 60 living police torture survivors who had not received compensation from lawsuits;
- A center where victims of police violence could meet and receive professional counseling;
- Teaching of the history of police torture to students in the Chicago public schools;
- Job training and free public college education for torture survivors and their families;
- A public memorial dedicated to the survivors of police torture.
Police torture, in the form of electric shock, suffocation with plastic bags and typewriter covers, mock executions, and brutal beatings with rubber hoses and nightsticks, most often to the genitals, accompanied by all manner of racist threats and insults, was brought to the southside of Chicago in 1972 by Jon Burge, a police detective, back from a tour as an interrogator in Vietnam. With a midnight crew of self-anointed “asskickers,” Burge terrorized more than 125 Black and Brown suspects with these tactics over the next two decades, obtaining confessions that sent their victims to prison and, in some cases, to death row. With willing accomplices at the highest levels of the police department, the state’s attorneys’ and mayor’s offices (most prominently Richard M. Daley), and the Cook County judiciary, and aided by an impenetrable code of silence, this official terrorism remained an open secret while Burge was rewarded with numerous promotions for his good work.
In 1989, the coverup began to unravel during the civil rights trial of Andrew Wilson, a particularly egregious victim of Burge and his men. After Wilson was picked up in 1982 for the alleged murder of two white police officers, Burge orchestrated a regimen of torture that included electric shock to Wilson’s ears, nose and genitals, burning on a hot steam radiator, bagging and beatings to obtain a confession which sent Wilson to death row. During the civil rights trial, an anonymous police source, later dubbed “Deep Badge,” contacted Wilson’s lawyers and detailed the depth and breadth of the systemic and racist torture regime. Armed with this roadmap, Wilson’s lawyers set out on a decades-long campaign to uncover and publicly expose this evidence.
It was then that the concept of reparations was first suggested by one of the anti-torture organizations that had formed in the wake of the revelations made by Deep Badge. However, there were more immediate demands that were taken up by the movements and their lawyers for the next two decades, including the firing of Burge; new trials, exonerations, pardons and damage awards for some of the torture survivors, including five men previously on death row; Burge’s criminal prosecution; international recognition of Chicago police torture by the United Nations Committee Against Torture; and public hearings before the Chicago City Council and the Cook County Board.
During 2006 and 2007, Black People Against Police Torture, (BPAPT) and the National Conference of Black Lawyers demanded that Mayor Richard M. Daley apologize to all Chicago police torture survivors and provide financial compensation and psychological services to them, and conducted a series of town hall meetings to discuss these demands. BPAPT incorporated this relief into a proposed Reparations for Police Torture Victims Act, which called for the establishment of a center that would provide psychological treatment and vocational assistance, as well as community education and political advocacy, and for the appointment of an Innocence Inquiry Commission to investigate and determine credible claims of factual innocence from torture victims. These demands were later reasserted to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and in 2009 the Illinois Legislature passed the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission Act, which established a commission to review incarcerated survivors’ claims of torture that arose under Burge’s command and to refer meritorious cases to the criminal courts for hearings on those claims.
In June of 2010, Burge was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, primarily on the testimony of several torture survivors, and in January of 2011, he was sentenced to federal prison. Shortly thereafter, a group of artists and educators joined forces with activists and attorney Joey Mogul to form the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM). CTJM called on artists and activists to propose how they could memorialize the torture cases in order “to honor the survivors of torture, their family members, and the African-American communities affected by the torture.”
The next year, CTJM presented a series of cultural and educative events and drafted the original Reparations Ordinance. Public demands for reparations, including a mayoral apology, were made when several lawsuits brought on behalf of exonerated survivors were settled, and in September of 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel reluctantly apologized to a reporter and said it was time to move on.
CTJM then revised the proposed ordinance to specifically include an official apology, a $20 million compensation fund, free education at Chicago City Colleges for all torture survivors and their families, and a center that would provide psychological counseling, health care services and vocational training. It also provided that the torture history would be taught in the Chicago Public Schools and the city would sponsor the construction of public torture memorials.
CTJM member Alice Kim then met with Alderman Joe Moreno, and obtained his political sponsorship for the proposed ordinance. In October of 2013, Moreno and fellow alderman Howard Brookins introduced CTJM’s Ordinance into the Council, and CTJM members subsequently obtained additional aldermanic support.
In April 2014, the reparations movement was strengthened by the entry of Amnesty International into a coalition led by CTJM. Amnesty helped to organize a rally, march and vigil where participants each carried a black flag, emblazoned with the name of a different one of the 119 known torture survivors. Each name was read and the corresponding flag was presented, with each flag holder then forming a line facing City Hall.
Later that year, other activist groups, including Project NIA, a grassroots organization devoted to ending the incarceration of children and young adults by promoting restorative and transformative justice practices, and We Charge Genocide, an intergenerational effort dedicated to centering the voices and experiences of the young people most targeted by police violence in Chicago, joined the coalition, adding creative leadership, energetic youth and an infusion of young people of color. The number of aldermanic sponsors grew as a result of the diligent work of CTJM, and a petition drive was initiated. Karen Lewis, the iconic president of the Chicago Teachers Union, announced her support.
In October 2014, outrage boiled up as Burge was released to a halfway house. At a CTJM sponsored press conference, participants called for the city council to finally hold a hearing on the ordinance while contrasting Burge’s release with a full pension to that of the survivors who had not received “one red cent.” The local NBC TV affiliate and the Chicago Sun-Times editorialized in favor of reparations, while Emanuel was reportedly “riding the fence” on the question.
Contemporaneously, CTJM and We Charge Genocide members appeared in Geneva before the UN’s Committee Against Torture, where they raised the issue of police torture reparations. A few weeks later, the committee recommended that the U.S. support the passage of the reparations ordinance.
Torture survivors Darrell Cannon and Anthony Holmes, joined by Marc Clements, and several mothers of imprisoned torture survivors, continued to be the face of the movement. In December, the coalition led a five-mile march to City Hall, where the marchers delivered petitions signed by nearly 45,000 people, to the Mayor’s office, and then protested in the hall.
As the February 2015 mayoral primary election approached, the effort to raise the profile of reparations intensified. CTJM now had a majority of the 50 alderpeople committed as sponsors, and a significant number of other politicians, aldermanic candidates and community organizations had also come aboard, as had progressive mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Just before the election, the Reparations Movement held a Valentine’s Day rally attended by an overflow crowd. CTJM distributed a scorecard that recorded which politicians supported the ordinance, and those (including the mayor) who did not. Numerous attendees wore black T-shirts distributed by CTJM which had the Chicago flag — with a fifth star, black in color, added to represent the torture survivors — emblazoned on the front. Subsequent actions included a light display in front of the mayor’s house that spelled out “Reparations Now,” teach-ins, a city hall “sing-in,” Sunday church presentations, and demonstrations on city trains and outside of mayoral debates.
Soon after, Chicago Corporation Counsel Steve Patton requested a meeting with CTJM at which the city would present its plan for reparations. CTJM’s meeting team met with the city on several occasions throughout March and early April, with the main bone of contention being financial compensation. Ultimately, a compromise was struck so that each of the living survivors would receive $100,000.
On May 6, 2015, Alderman Moreno presented the reparations resolution and ordinance to the full City Council. Fifteen survivors and several mothers were in attendance. During his presentation, Moreno called out each of the survivors’ names and each person stood. All 50 Council members then spontaneously rose, faced the men, and applauded. Emanuel then delivered a powerful official apology directly at the standing survivors on behalf of the city.
As Darrell Cannon summed it up, torture reparations were “something that sets a precedent that has never been done in the history of America. Reparations given to Black men tortured by some white detectives. It’s historic.”
Implementation of the Ordinance
The first order of business was to determine who was entitled to the $100,000 stipend. The city agreed that most of the men on CTJM’s proposed list were entitled to compensation, but challenged a small number of them. Mini hearings before an arbitrator were conducted in those cases, and all but two of the men won their cases. The money was distributed in early 2016.
The Chicago Torture Justice Center was opened in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood in 2017. Its important work includes providing professional counseling, supporting incarcerated and freed survivors, and doing educative work. Survivors serve on the Center’s advisory board and work at the Center on fellowships. The Center also coordinates a speakers’ bureau for survivors to speak about their experiences.
In September of 2017, representatives of the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), standing together with then police superintendent Eddie Johnson and torture survivors Darrell Cannon and Anthony Holmes, announced the curriculum for teaching the history of Chicago police torture to CPS’s eighth- and tenth-grade classes. After meeting resistance in some of the predominantly white neighborhoods where many Chicago police families lived, and from the reliably racist Fraternal Order of Police union, the curriculum began to be taught during the spring semester of 2018. A compelling feature of the program was and is the personal appearances of torture survivors at many of Chicago’s public schools. Death row exoneree Ronald Kitchen spoke at Lincoln Park High while Darrell Cannon spoke to hundreds of students at Lane Tech. Students were deeply moved by the presentations, making the connections to the racism and police violence in their own lives, while the survivors and their experiences were validated by the rapt attention of the students and their teachers, and the avalanche of letters that they received after they spoke. As Kitchen put it, “Sometimes I [am] at a loss for words when I see a lot of young people actually taking heed to the things that’s happening in our neighborhoods.”
A great deal of effort has also gone into the planning and design of a public memorial. In June of 2019, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials unveiled its proposed memorial — a round stone monument, created by local artists, that listed the names and dates of those tortured by Burge and officers under his command and also would provide a public space where people could gather. Former Mayor Emanuel did not set aside funds to build the memorial before he left office, and incoming Mayor Lori Lightfoot, despite saying almost a year ago that she “feels strongly that in order to build a better future for Chicago, we must start by never forgetting its past — including the darkest chapters,” and that “we will review any and all proposals that honor the victims and survivors of injustice,” has yet to commit any funds for the memorial’s construction.
Meanwhile, Chicago activists continue to demand that the mayor make good on the city’s promise, while fighting against continuing police violence, for real community control of police, and, ultimately, for abolition of oppressive police occupation in communities of color.
Reparations as an Example
The Chicago reparations movement offers a shining example to movements across the country, and in the past few years, activists in other cities have pursued their own calls for reparations. In Little Rock, Arkansas, the family of Eugene Ellison, a man fatally shot by the police, together with the largest police violence settlement in Little Rock history, obtained an official apology from the city manager at a ceremony where a memorial bench was dedicated to Ellison. In New Orleans, the City settled 17 police violence cases that were representative of the official lawlessness that reigned before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced the $13.3 million settlement at a press conference after a prayer meeting with the victims and families. He hugged the mother of one of the slain victims and issued an emotional apology, saying that he wanted to express “how intensely sorry I am to the members of these families and to the people of the city of New Orleans for the actions that were taken during that fateful time, when these individuals were looking for people to protect and serve, and they got the exact opposite.” In Greensboro, North Carolina, activists are seeking to place the 1979 Greensboro massacre of anti-Klan demonstrators in the school curriculum, and in Philadelphia, former mayor Wilson Goode has apologized for his ordering of the deadly 1985 bombing of MOVE headquarters and is calling on the current administration to do likewise.
The passage of reparations for Chicago police torture was and is truly historic and will hopefully continue to be an example to activists nationally and around the world, demonstrating, in the words of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton, that if you dare to struggle, you dare to win.