A history of the movement to make Chicago pay for the crimes of former police commander Jon Burge.
Reparations for Chicago police torture “is 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.”
The 20-year reign of police torture that was orchestrated by Commander Jon Burge—and implicated former Mayor Richard M. Daley and a myriad of high ranking police and prosecutorial officials—has haunted Chicago for decades. In These Times has covered Burge and the movement to achieve a modicum of justice for his victims very closely over the years (you can read our past coverage here, here, here, here, and here). Finally, on May 6, 2015, in response to a movement that has spanned a generation, the Chicago City Council formally recognized this sordid history by passing historic legislation that provides reparations to the survivors of police torture in Chicago.
The achievement was monumental. And given that today is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, it seems like an apt time to reflect on the history of this movement—and how it won.
The right to financial compensation and full rehabilitation for Chicago police torture survivors who had no legal recourse was first raised in September 2005 by the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights in a submission to the UN Committee Against Torture, (CAT). The next May, Joey Mogul, an attorney at the People’s Law Office (where I work) again raised these issues to the CAT when she appeared before it. The call was taken up by Black People Against Police Torture, a grassroots organization, and its leader, attorney Standish Willis, who demanded, as part of their campaign against the 2016 Olympics being held in Chicago, that Mayor Richard M. Daley and the city of Chicago make a formal apology to all Chicago police torture survivors and provide financial compensation and psychological services to them.
These demands were reasserted in a shadow report submitted in December of 2007 to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Unfortunately, these demands got little attention in the local media.
In October 2008, Jon Burge was indicted by a federal grand jury in Chicago for lying about whether he tortured African-American suspects with electric shock, suffocation and other medieval techniques from 1972 to 1991. The indictment followed a $20 million settlement that was approved, in January 2008, by the Chicago City Council and awarded to four African American men who were tortured into giving false confessions and spent decades on death row for crimes they did not commit.
At the City Council session that January, from which Mayor Daley was conspicuously absent, African-American Aldermen Howard Brookins and Leslie Hairston offered an impromptu apology to the men. Veteran City Hall Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman reported Brookins as saying that “this city still owes [an apology to] these people, who spent years in prison and some on Death Row, who were tortured in ways that put Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay to shame. On behalf of the City Council and the corporation counsel, we apologize to all of you.”
Directly after Burge’s indictment, Spielman gave Daley, who was a longtime participant in the torture scandal both as Cook County State’s Attorney and as mayor, an opportunity to apologize. Two years earlier, in response to the release of the Cook County Special Prosecutors’ report that found Burge and his men to have tortured numerous black suspects, an embattled Daley had offered to “apologize to anyone.” This time, however, he waxed sarcastic, mocking in (characteristically less than articulate) response:
The best way is to say, “OK. I apologize to everybody [for] whatever happened to anybody in the city of Chicago. …. So, I apologize to everybody. Whatever happened to them in the city of Chicago in the past, I apologize. I didn’t do it, but somebody else did it. Your editorial was bad. I apologize. Your article about the mayor, I apologize. I need an apology from you because you wrote a bad editorial.
Laughing, Daley continued “You do that, and everybody feels good. Fine. But I was not the mayor. I was not the police chief. I did not promote him. You know that. But you’ve never written that, and you’re afraid to. I understand.”
Personally affronted by Daley’s sarcasm and disrespect, I challenged Daley to make a sincere apology, stating, “It is disgraceful and remarkably disrespectful to say that when he’s asked to make good on an apology to the victims of the most heinous kind of police abuse and torture in the history of Chicago, particularly when he and his first assistant, Richard Devine, were responsible over 25 years ago for not taking Burge off the street and prosecuting him. … Daley has repeatedly sided with Burge and against the victims of torture in scores of cases.”
The movement gathers momentum
In late June 2010, Burge was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, in significant part based on the testimony of Anthony Holmes and Melvin Jones, two men who were allegedly brutally electric shocked by Burge himself. However, neither of these men, like scores of their fellow survivors, had received any compensation, because they had never been officially exonerated for their alleged crimes and the statute of limitations had long since run out on their claims of torture.
Burge’s conviction provided a platform to continue the call for restorative justice, and Holmes, Jones, and lawyers from the PLO, along with Alice Kim, a veteran activist who was working with the Illinois Coalition Against Torture, seized the opportunity to raise the issue of compensation and lack of psychological counseling for all torture survivors on a wide-ranging public stage. The demand was later included in a petition that urged a sentence for Burge that was commensurate with his underlying crimes and accounted for his refusal to accept responsibility for his serialized torture.
In late 2010, Mayor Daley announced that he would not run for re-election. A few months later, Jon Burge was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in federal prison. At the sentencing hearing, Holmes spoke through tears, saying: “What I wanted to ask Burge. … Why did you do this? Why would you take a statement you knew was not true? You were supposed to be the law. He laughed while he was torturing me.”
Following Holmes’ moving testimony and the imposition of the sentence that many felt was far too short, we took the opportunity to again publicly raise the apology issue, telling the press that “the new mayor will have to apologize to these victims of torture.” That new mayor turned out to be Rahm Emanuel, who won easily that spring.
On the heels of Burge’s conviction, a group of artists and educators joined forces with activists and PLO attorney Joey Mogul to form an organization that would become known as the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM). Devoted to restorative justice, CTJM’s first project was to call on artists and activists to propose how they would memorialize the Chicago Police torture cases and the struggle for justice for victims.
At the June 2011 launch of the project, the group publicly announced its intention “to honor the survivors of torture, their family members, and the African-American communities affected by the torture,” and put out a public call for people to submit proposals for the memorials.
A second attempt at a mayoral apology
Two months later, the continuing police torture scandal landed squarely in Emanuel’s lap after a federal judge ruled that Daley was a proper defendant in exonerated torture survivor Michael Tillman’s civil damages suit. On the heels of the ruling, PLO lawyers, who had brought Tillman’s suit, subpoenaed Daley to give sworn deposition testimony.
Fran Spielman led her story in the Sun-Times on the Daley ruling as follows: “Mayor Rahm Emanuel walked a political tightrope Wednesday on the explosive police torture allegations that continue to surround convicted former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.” Emanuel refused to comment on Daley other than to say that the city would pay for his lawyers as they had done for Burge for the previous 23 years. We again responded, accusing Emanuel of adopting the “same head‑in‑the‑sand line” that the city did under Daley,” while further publicly contending that
He doesn’t need to do that. He’s not involved in this. He should bring a fresh eye to it. Not only should he resolve these cases so taxpayers can compensate the victims rather than the torturers. He should apologize to the African American community and to the victims for this pattern of torture.
A few days later, Emanuel told Spielman that it was “time to end” the torture cases and that he was “working toward” settling the outstanding cases. He refused Spielman’s invitation to apologize and, in an apparent reaction to our accusation, added
I answered one question. Some people say, “This pulls Rahm into it.” … That’s wrong. … This is like the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. This is the law. [Daley’s] allowed to have the cost of his legal defense … That’s it. I’m not part of it.
In January 2012, the Human Relations Committee of the Chicago City Council held a hearing on a resolution proposed by the Illinois Coalition Against Torture that declared Chicago to be a “torture-free zone.” The subcommittee was chaired by Alderman Joe Moore, who would later become a strong supporter of reparations.
The resolution, which was backed by a petition signed by 3,500 people, was thought by many to be symbolic only, and several witnesses who testified at the hearing, including Chilean torture survivor and human rights activist Mario Venegas and myself, raised the issues of financial compensation, an official apology and funding for the treatment of all police torture survivors. With little fanfare, the full City Council, in a 45-0 vote, subsequently passed the resolution.
The issue of an apology again hit the local headlines in the summer of 2012, as the Tillman case was settled with the city, giving Daley another pass when it came to his being required to detail his role in the torture scandal under oath. In a Sun-Times op-ed, in the media firestorm that accompanied the settlement and in a subsequent editorial, the demand for an official apology was again raised. Emanuel’s response continued to be no.
As reported in the Sun-Times, Emanuel told reporters when asked by Spielman why he didn’t see fit to apologize:
I am focused on the future of the city, not just about the past. I wanted to settle this, which is what we have done. I also wanted to see this dark chapter in the city’s history brought to a close. I think we are achieving it. And to learn the lessons from this moment so we can build a future for the city.
Calling it a missed opportunity for Emanuel to show that there had been a “true changing of the guard,” we responded by asserting that it would be “an important symbolic act that would help to heal this community,” and that Emanuel would have to be “tone-deaf to the African-American community not to understand that that community still feels very strongly that justice has not been done, and that the city still stands on the wrong side of the issue.”
Later in the year, CTJM presented an ambitious series of cultural and educative events on the history of torture. At this important stage of the movement for reparations, CTJM co-founder Joey Mogul, drawing on the ideas advanced during the previous several years, input from the torture survivors and community members, and relevant precepts of international law, drafted the original Reparations Ordinance.
In June 2013, in recognition of Torture Awareness Month, I raised the issue of torture reparations:
What if Mayor Emanuel, on behalf of the city and its police department, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, on behalf of the county and the state’s attorneys’ office, stood in front of the old Area 2 “House of Screams” at 91st and Cottage Grove and issued a joint apology to all of Chicago’s citizens, together with a pledge to create a reparations fund to compensate those still-suffering survivors of Chicago police torture who were cheated out of lawsuits by the cover-up of the scandal? This fund could also be used to provide treatment for the psychological damage inflicted and for job training. Perhaps Burge and Daley’s publicly funded lawyers could be “persuaded” by the City and its taxpayers to return a healthy portion of their ill-gotten gains to help to fund this effort. Then and only then will the true healing begin.
A Mayoral Apology
That fall, in September 2013, the city settled two more torture cases brought on behalf of exonerated torture survivors for a total of $12.3 million. One of the survivors, Ronald Kitchen, had spent 13 of his 21 imprisoned years on death row. Confronted once again by Spielman, Emanuel reversed his field and offered an impromptu apology:
I am sorry this happened. Let us all now move on. This is a dark chapter on the history of the city of Chicago. I want to build a future for the city. … But, we have to close the books on this. We have to reconcile our past. … Yes, there has been a settlement. And I do believe that this is a way of saying all of us are sorry about what happened … and closing that stain on the city’s reputation.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle praised the mayor for his apology, saying that it was “long overdue and entirely appropriate.” In a powerful statement, she acknowledged the role that county prosecutors had played in the torture conspiracy, and further stated that
You’ve got to ‘fess up and acknowledge the difficult, problematic parts of your own history if you’re ever going to make any progress forward. Denial gets you nowhere. Refusing to acknowledge those reprehensible parts of our national or local history is self-destructive in the long run.
We took the occasion to again raise the concept of reparations and for the first time called for the City to establish a $20 million fund—an amount equal to that which had been paid out by the City to private lawyers to defend Burge, Daley and their cohorts—to compensate the survivors who had no legal recourse because of the official cover-up. Until then, we exhorted, “the wound on the city of Chicago will not heal and its conscience will not be cleansed.” The city, through its corporation counsel Steve Patton, publicly rejected the demand for compensation, saying that “it would be very difficult to justify spending taxpayer dollars to settle a claim that’s barred.”
On the heels of the apology, Mogul, relying on reparations legislation passed in other countries, revised the reparations ordinance to include further input from torture survivors, their family members and communities. The ordinance specifically called for an official apology, compensation to the survivors, tuition-free education at Chicago City Colleges for all torture survivors and their families, and a center on the South Side of Chicago that would provide psychological counseling, health care services and vocational training to those affected by law enforcement torture and abuse. Repeating the call for the $20 million fund, the ordinance also called for the Chicago Public Schools to teach about the torture cases and the city to sponsor the construction of public torture memorials.
The Reparations Ordinance is Introduced into city council
Armed with the ordinance, CTJM member Alice Kim, who had been a leader in the fight against the death penalty and police torture, met with Alderman Joe Moreno, who had a history of fighting for death row torture survivors, and solicited his support and leadership on the reparations ordinance. Moreno agreed to sponsor the ordinance and enlisted Alderman Howard Brookins, Jr., who was the chair of the City Council’s African-American caucus, to be a co-sponsor.
Members of CTJM then took on the task of meeting with numerous progressive members of the council, explaining the ordinance and obtaining, one by one, their endorsement. Martha Biondi, a professor of African-American history at Northwestern University, who fought for reparations for slavery and had previously testified in support of such resolutions in City Council, played a crucial role in obtaining this important additional aldermanic support. Two of the enlisted aldermen, Joe Moore and Roderick Sawyer, joined Moreno and Brookins as strategists who provided valuable assistance to this effort.
A hearing on the ordinance was scheduled for March 2014 before the council’s Finance Committee, which was chaired by the politically powerful Alderman Ed Burke. But the hearing was postponed after an aide to Alderman Brookins was indicted by the U.S. Attorney on corruption charges only days before the hearing was due to begin.
In April 2014, the reparations movement was further buoyed by the entry of Amnesty International into a nascent coalition headed up by CTJM. Amnesty decided to turn its attention to police torture in the U.S. and agreed to sign on in support of the reparations ordinance. In doing so, it featured Darrell Cannon, who had been subjected to electric shock and a mock execution by two of Burges’s main operatives.
Several of Amnesty’s staffers helped to organize a rally, march and vigil in downtown Chicago during the organization’s national convention in April 2014. Participants in the rally each carried a black flag, created by CTJM members, emblazoned with the name of a different one of the 119 known torture survivors. In a moving ceremony at the end of the rally, each name was read and the corresponding flag was presented, with each of the flag holders then forming a line facing City Hall.
As the year wore on, other activist groups, including Project NIA and We Charge Genocide, joined the coalition that led the campaign to get the reparations ordinance passed, adding new and creative leadership, including Mariame Kaba and Page May, energetic youth and a strong 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. The movement got another shot in the arm when Karen Lewis, the iconic president of the Chicago Teachers Union, who at that time appeared to be mounting a strong challenge to Emanuel in the upcoming mayoral primary, publicly announced her support for the ordinance.
In October 2014, outrage over the continuing torture scandal boiled up once again as Burge was released to a halfway house after serving three-and-a-half years of his four-and-a-half year sentence. CTJM conducted a well-attended press conference that was covered in the local news, at which torture survivors, their lawyers and other CTJM members called for the city council to at long last hold a hearing on the ordinance while contrasting Burge and his release with a full pension to that of the survivors who had not received “one red cent.” The local NBC TV affiliate editorialized in favor of reparations, while Spielman, after once again inquiring of Emanuel, reported that he was “riding the fence” on reparations:
At one point, Emanuel appeared to crack the door open to the idea, telling reporters that there are “a number of things” that the reparations ordinance demanded that he was prepared to “look at and work through. On the money piece, we have to study it,” the mayor said, without ruling it out. “As we get ready for what we have to do from a financial standpoint, there must be some way to address those whose statute of limitations has run out. But that doesn’t mean there’s only one way to do it.” The mayor was asked whether that answer should be construed as a “yes, no or maybe.” With trademark sarcasm, he replied, “I don’t know. You’ve got all three answers.”
In response, we pointedly raised the upcoming election and emphasized Emanuel’s lingering unpopularity in the African-American community for having closed 49 public schools:
There is still a tremendous amount of outrage at the unfairness of Burge getting his pension, the city paying $20 million to defend him and not compensating men who have gotten little or nothing despite being tortured by Burge. The political repercussions of him not supporting this important ordinance cannot be overstated.
Stepping up the pressure
In the fall of 2014, CTJM worked with the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights to submit a shadow brief calling on the United Nations Committee Against Torture to specifically recommend that it call on the U.S. Government to support the Reparations Ordinance. CTJM member and PLO attorney Shubra Ohri and We Charge Genocide members journeyed to Geneva, Switzerland and appeared before the CAT where they raised the issue of torture reparations, which are guaranteed under Article 14 of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, and staged a dramatic demonstration to highlight continuing racist police violence in Chicago. A few weeks later, the CAT specifically recommended that the U.S. support the passage of the reparations ordinance.
Darrell Cannon and Anthony Holmes, now joined by Marc Clements, and several mothers of imprisoned torture survivors, continued to be the face of the movement. Holmes had received nothing, while Cannon had received a paltry $3,000 settlement more than 25 years ago—before the cover-up began to unravel. In December, Amnesty, CTJM, Project NIA and We Charge Genocide led a five-mile march from police headquarters to the Mayor’s Office at City Hall, where the marchers delivered petitions signed by nearly 40,000 people, and then peacefully demonstrated in the hallway outside of his office.
As the February 2015 mayoral primary election approached, the effort to raise the profile of reparations intensified as well. CTJM now had a majority of the 50 aldermen committed as sponsors, and a significant number of other politicians, aldermanic candidates, and community organizations had come aboard as well. After a concerted effort by the coalition, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who had replaced Karen Lewis as Emanuel’s main opponent after Lewis had been diagnosed with brain cancer, declared his support for the ordinance.
Ten days before the election, the Reparations Movement held a rollicking rally in a downtown temple attended by a multi-racial and multi-generational overflow crowd. CTJM distributed a scorecard, designed by CTJM member Carla Mayer, that recorded which politicians supported the ordinance, and those (with particular emphasis on the mayor) which did not.
Many of the attendees wore black tee shirts designed by Mayer and distributed by CTJM which had the City of Chicago flag—with a fifth star, black in color added to represent the torture survivors—emblazoned on the front. The rally was timed to coincide with Burge’s release from the halfway house, which followed by a week Burge’s latest refusal to admit any responsibility for his actions, once again in a sworn deposition during which he invoked his Fifth Amendment right in response to all questions asked.
The demand for the long postponed hearing on the ordinance was the rallying cry. Other actions in support of reparations included a light show in front of the mayor’s house that spelled out “Reparations Now,” teach-ins, a “sing-in” at city hall, Sunday church presentations throughout the city, and demonstrations on CTA trains and outside of mayoral debates. The movement refused to let up.
Talk and fight
A few days after the Rally, Chicago Corporation Counsel Steve Patton called PLO lawyers to suggest a post-primary election meeting with CTJM representatives at which the city would present its plan for reparations.
Patton—who, before becoming corporation counsel had negotiated a multi-billion dollar settlement on behalf of several leading tobacco companies—cautioned that the meeting would not take the form of negotiations, and that the city was not inclined to provide any compensation to the survivors. We responded that CTJM’s position was that compensation was a non-negotiable requirement, but CTJM decided to accept the invitation in order to learn what the City had planned and to lobby for its complete reparations package.
CTJM put together a meeting team that included two PLO lawyers, a representative from BPAPT, three CTJM members and two representatives from Amnesty International. Patton headed up a group that included representatives from the mayor’s Legislative, Legal, and Human Relations Departments. The first meeting was convened shortly after Emanuel had suffered a surprising setback in the primary election, as he had not won a majority of the vote and was therefore required to face Chuy Garcia in an early April runoff. Non-financial issues were at the forefront of the initial discussions, but the team insisted that financial compensation had to be part of the legislation and continued to demand a hearing on the original ordinance.
Alderman Burke had at long last set a hearing date for the week after the April election on April 14, in the wake of the coalition publicly announcing it was going to attend and disrupt the Finance Committee meeting unless there was a hearing set on the ordinance. Both sides fully understood that, depending on the outcome of the discussions, the city, and Mayor Emanuel, would, to paraphrase Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, either be “buried” or “praised” at the hearing.
The team met with the city on several occasions throughout March and early April, and the guardedness that in several instances escalated into outright hostility, was gradually replaced by a mutual spirit of cooperation as both sides recognized the other’s good faith and worked out the agreed upon parameters of the non-financial issues. At various times, Aldermen Moore, Brookins, and Moreno joined the discussions.
The elephant in the room—compensation for the survivors—was discussed with some trepidation, and as the self-imposed deadline approached, CTJM and its negotiating team, with some reluctance, agreed internally upon a bottom line of $100,000 per survivor. Based on an estimated pool of 120 potential survivors, CTJM adjusted its demand to $12 million. The city responded with an offer of $2-3 million.
Shortly before the hearing, the negotiating team re-evaluated the size of the pool, reluctantly decided to remove the deceased survivors from eligibility for financial compensation, and calculated that in all likelihood the actual compensation pool would be more in the neighborhood of 50 to 60 people, making the $100,000 per survivor realizable at $5-6 million. The city had reluctantly come up to $5 million and was holding firm, but in a last ditch phone call to Steve Patton, a compromise of $5.5 million was given as the final offer. CTJM polled a number of survivors, all of whom were enthusiastic about the compromise number, and the offer was accepted on the eve of the hearing.
At the Finance Committee hearing, which was held in the main city hall chamber and was packed with supporters of reparations, the team’s agreement with the city, which had been incorporated into a resolution and an amended ordinance, was detailed by Joey Mogul, who had employed expert leadership throughout the reparations campaign, and by Patton, followed by testimony in support by Cannon, Holmes, Amnesty International USA’s Executive Director Steve Hawkins, CTJM and BPAPT member Dorothy Burge and myself. The amended resolution and ordinance, which the committee approved unanimously, provided for financial compensation to the living survivors; non-financial reparations for living survivors, and for the immediate families of all survivors, living and deceased, that included psychological counseling at a South Side center, job training, and free education at the City Colleges; an official apology; required teaching of the torture scandal in the Chicago public schools; and a public memorial.
Alderman Moreno presented the resolution and ordinance to the full City Council on May 6. Fifteen survivors from as far away as Atlanta and several mothers were in attendance to bear witness to the historic event. They sat together, some with family members, in the audience, and during his presentation, Moreno called out each of the survivors’ names and each person stood. The Council members then spontaneously rose, turned, faced the standing men, and, in a moment of high emotion, applauded them. After other aldermen, including Moore and Brookins, spoke, Mayor Emanuel delivered an apology that far surpassed expectations:
This is another step but an essential step in righting a wrong, removing a stain on the reputation of this great city. Chicago finally will confront its past and come to terms with it and recognize when something wrong was done and be able to be strong enough to say something was wrong.
Directly addressing the torture survivors and their families, the mayor continued:
I want to thank you for your persistence. I want to thank you for never giving in and never giving up and allowing the city to join you on that journey to come face-to-face with the past and be honest enough and strong enough to say when we are wrong and try to make right what we’ve done wrong. This stain cannot be removed from the history of our city. But it can be used as a lesson of what not to do and the responsibility that all of us have.
The resolution and ordinance were adopted by the council, and the survivors, their families, Amnesty, CTJM, Project NIA and We Charge Genocide members, the lawyers and all of the people who joined the movement for reparations and made the victory possible joined in the celebration that followed.
Over the course of the struggle, the movement had once again looked internationally both for support and for examples—Chile, Argentina and South Africa, to name three. The examples here in the U.S. were precious few: Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II, the descendants of the African-American victims of the deadly 1923 race riot in Rosewood, Florida and the victims of the mass sterilizations in North Carolina. The movement was also inspired by the continuing struggle for reparations for enslaved African Americans, the movement to fully document and memorialize lynchings in the South and, most importantly, by the survivors of Chicago police torture.
While full compensation for the pain suffered at the hands of the torturers was not (and could not be) obtained—a reality that was pointed out in a Sun-Times editorial that otherwise commended the historic accomplishment—the reparations package is both symbolically and in fact substantial and unique, particularly given that the survivors had no legal recourse.
Hopefully, the victory for reparations for Chicago’s torture survivors will serve as a beacon to others across the country who are fighting against racist police violence. In the words of Darrell Cannon, reparations for Chicago police torture “is 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.”
By: Flint Taylor
This originally was published in In These Times on June 26, 2015.