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As Part of a Reparations Deal, Chicago Teens Will Learn About Police Brutality in School

As part of a massive deal to compensate survivors of police abuse, Chicago Public Schools will teach eighth and tenth graders about the horrific legacy of Jon Burge.

Darrell Cannon addresses the media after the Chicago City Council voted to give reparations to those who, like him, have been tortured by the police. Photo by the author

After decades of denial, Chicago is officially coming to terms with its notorious history of police torture by creating an unprecedented reparations package for survivors. Passed unanimously by the City Council on Wednesday amid sobs and a standing ovation, the hard-fought, sweeping deal includes a formal apology, a $5.5 million fund for torture survivors, and other assistance ranging from counseling services to free city-college tuition for survivors and their families. As part of the new package, the city will also create a memorial and build or designate a counseling center on the city's South Side.

"We can never bring total closure," said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the largest gathering of the city's torture survivors—15 men, representing scores of other known victims—and their families. "We will be there for as many tomorrows as you need as we try to heal as one city."

But for Darrell Cannon, a torture survivor who spent two decades behind bars after falsely confessing to murder charges in 1983, the opportunity for compensation is not the most important victory. Instead, topping his list is the requirement that Chicago Public Schools teach eighth and tenth graders about the city's history of torture.

"Finally, this ugly, dark chapter in the history of Chicago will now be analyzed by a lot of potentially brilliant minds," Cannon told VICE. "This is the kind of conversation that needs to be in school."

Cannon is among the more than 100 people, mostly African American men, who were violently detained and interrogated by a gang of rogue officers serving under former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. Detectives tried to suffocate 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. These sanctioned tactics and the trauma they brought to survivors, their families, and their communities are among the most egregious cases of police misconduct in American history.

"It's a disgusting history in Chicago, but it's important that we don't forget about it," said Chicago alderman Joe Moreno, co-sponsor of the reparations ordinance. "This happened in our city—not in Iraq. In Chicago."

Making history, as the defamed Burge has done, is one matter, but writing history—especially one about torture, to be learned by Chicago teenagers—is another. An implementation team with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials will work with the city to ensure all aspects of the reparations package are met, according to Mariame Kaba, a CTJM advisory board member who also works with Chicago Public Schools on school-to-prison pipeline issues.

"History has always been a potentially radicalizing force that allows you to look back in order to look forward," said Kaba, who helped develop the 2013 pamphlet Historical Moments of Police Violence: Jon Burge and Chicago Police Torture.

A Chicago Public Schools spokesperson said in an emailed statement to VICE that the curriculum will teach eighth- and tenth-graders to make a connection between the facts surrounding the Burge torture era and the protection of civil liberties as defined in the Bill of Rights. The high school students will also "delve deeper into the Burge case, examining the implications of police accountability."

In practice, however, teaching these lessons alongside the realities many students face is fraught with systemic challenges.

"The big obstacle here is teachers aren't trained to confront these kinds of issues, and they're uncomfortable doing so," said Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). On top of this, when it comes to civil rights education, Costello said, "There is no uniformity whatsoever and virtually no accountability. Nationally, standards vary from state to state."

According to the 2014 SPLC "Teaching the Movement" report, fewer than half of US states today include in their main curriculum any information on Jim Crow laws and only 11 states included mentions of the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan (Illinois was not one of them). In some states, curriculum is left entirely to local districts. Other states have minimal to zero content standards for social studies curriculum.

"Marginalized students need to understand why they're marginalized, and if you pretend that they're not, and you think we haven't engineered a society in which they're marginalized, then you have no credibility," said Costello, who taught high school history for 18 years.

In Chicago, some high school kids have direct experience with law enforcement as part of their daily lives, whereas in other neighborhoods, teens are largely unexposed to police. For the latter group, the Burge torture is just a history lesson, but for many of the city's kids, the legacy of brutality isn't exactly abstract, as evidenced by the city's latest payout of $5 million to the family of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who police shot 16 times last October.

"There are certain dangers of teaching about egregious human rights violations by the police in the past tense," said Jamie Kalven, director of the Invisible Institute, which recently pioneered the Youth/Police Conference at the University of Chicago. "This history of this horrible saga of police torture in Chicago—it has to be paired with contemporary realities."

The rift between Chicago Police and communities of color—in part caused by the Burge torture and the city's repeated disavowal of it—will only deepen by teaching kids about what police did to their neighborhoods, according to Art Lurigio, a psychologist and criminal justice professor at Loyola University in Chicago.

"That's the last thing we need in the African American community," Lurigio said. "Your identity and views are in formation as a teen. It's going to add to anger and resentment."

But if teaching about this history causes mistrust among youth, it's well-deserved, says former investigative journalist John Conroy, who first wrote about the Burge torture cases in a Chicago Reader piece titled "House of Screams."

"The city has done nothing to stop police officers who abuse suspects from continuing to abuse suspects, not over weeks, but over years and decades," Conroy told me.

VICE talked to three Chicago high school juniors who are in the middle of their US history courses. All three testified to the lack of depth in some of their civil rights lessons. They also saw the merits of learning about the city's history of torture, but with caution.

"I feel students will respond terribly and be horrified," said Nancy Ngo, 16, of Lane Technical College Preparatory High School. "I already know how harsh police officers can be."

Gabriela Perez, 16, who has four uncles and two family friends who are Chicago Police officers, said, "They should have a high school for [the police] instead of us. We are the people that are facing the problem, and the cops are the ones that are doing that. It's not the people, but it's the cops that should learn about it."

At the only all-girls public high school in Chicago, which has a predominately African American student body, 17-year-old Gloria Purnell said, "If you're forced to learn about it, it would definitely open your eyes. I don't think the girls from our school would act differently toward the police, but they definitely have an animosity toward the police."

Illinois earned a "D" in the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Teaching the Movement" report for how it teaches the civil rights movement. Racism and resistance to the civil rights movement is not included in major curriculum documents. Failure to confront these difficult lessons is a problem, as is casting them as tales of oppression without a sense of civic engagement, according to the SPLC's Maureen Costello.

Still, as Cannon sees it, this is a major shift toward greater law enforcement accountability.

"Anytime you on the right side of the law, it feels good," Cannon added. "Now it's a new day and we will say 'Never again.'"

Follow Alison Flowers on Twitter.