Photo by Alison Flowers
Starting in 1971, more than 100 people, mostly black men, were forced to confess to serious crimes at police headquarters on Chicago’s South Side, part of a sanctioned torture campaign that continued for almost 20 years under then Police Commander Jon Burge.
“They had a ball torturing me,” said Darrell Cannon, a torture victim who spent two decades in prison after falsely confessing to murder charges in 1983. Detectives suffocated Cannon, performed mock executions by stuffing a shotgun in his mouth, hit him with a rubber hose, and shocked his testicles with a cattle prod. “It was something that they liked doing,” he added.
The police brutality of the Burge era—and the years of cover-up that followed—fueled a deep mistrust between minorities and law enforcement in Chicago that has persisted for decades. While some victims have received millions in settlements, others, like Cannon, have not. Meanwhile, Burge, who is serving a federal sentence for perjury and obstruction of justice, continues to receive $54,000 a year in pension pay.
As recent incidents of police brutality gain national attention, they also provide a small window for local activists to push for justice. After more than three decades, advocates have managed to get an ordinance in front of the Chicago City Council that would provide $20 million in reparations to compensate, care for, and commemorate the torture survivors. And supporters say momentum for the ordinance is reaching a boiling point. Last month in Chicago, hundreds of protestors joined a national moment of silence to honor Brown and other victims of police brutality, standing in a federal plaza as law enforcement stood watch. (The Chicago Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.)
“The Ferguson case serves as stark reminder that police abuse of authority is not something from the distant past,” said Chicago Alderman Joe Moore said.
Drafted by the People’s Law Office and the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial project, the ordinance would serve as a formal apology to the survivors. It also calls for public memorials about the torture cases and for a history lesson to be taught in Chicago Public Schools, as well as free enrollment in city colleges for the survivors and family members, and a counseling, medical and vocational center on the South Side. It has the support of victims’ advocacy groups, as well as human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Black People Against Torture.
“Everybody knew about the torture, and the torture became to me, as an African-American woman, like a lynching,” said activist Dorothy Burge, who is part of the collective supporting the ordinance. “It is a way for us to start the healing between the city of Chicago and communities of color.”
But sponsors of the ordinance said the biggest challenge to passing the measure will be overcoming concerns about the cost of reparations, especially in light of Chicago’s troubled municipal finances. “The major challenge we face in getting this passed is overcoming concerns about the cost to the city of providing reparations during these very lean fiscal times,” said Alderman Joe Moore, a co-sponsor of the ordinance.
For now, at least, the ordinance remains at a standstill in the council’s finance committee and needs to be called for a hearing in order to survive. Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, the chairman of the finance committee, did not respond to requests for comment on his plans.