For decades starting in the 1970s, more than a hundred people, nearly all African-American men, endured torturous interrogations and detention under former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his crew of officers. It is one of the most notorious and awful instances of police misconduct in American history: The torturers performed mock executions and employed electrical shock, among other incredibly brutal tactics, leading to several known false confessions and wrongful convictions.
But now the victims are poised to receive some semblance of justice after Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced earlier this week that city officials are ready to dish out a massive reparations package.
"It was a very bad time in the city's history, and something has to be done to acknowledge it," said exonerated Illinois prisoner James Kluppelberg, whom Burge's officers beat so badly in 1988 that he urinated blood, records show. The beating forced a false confession, setting in motion a prosecution that cost Kluppelberg almost 25 years of his life.
The unprecedented reparations deal—which is expected to be approved by the city council—would reportedly include a formal apology, a $5.5 million fund for torture survivors, and other assistance ranging from free city college tuition for survivors and their families to counseling services. The city would also create a memorial, build or designate a center on the South Side of Chicago, and require eighth- and tenth-graders enrolled in Chicago Public Schools to learn about the torture cases as part of their history classes.
The notorious Burge—who still earns a police pension—was released from prison in 2014 after less than four years behind bars on a perjury conviction. For his criminal acts of torture, the statute of limitations has expired.
The city is trying "to bring this dark chapter of Chicago's history to a close," as Mayor Emanuel put it, and a robust history of local investigative journalism and grassroots activism deserves much of the credit.
"It was the power of the movement that made this happen," said Joey Mogul of the People's Law Office, who, along with Amnesty International and advocates from a group called Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, negotiated the agreement with the city. "In the last five months, there has been a truly intergenerational, inspiring movement."
Built on decades of outcry among communities impacted by the torture, the reparations ordinance was introduced in city council last fall, but then it stalled. The city's inaction was met with a flurry of activism from a coalition of 45 groups, including one called We Charge Genocide.
Advocates marched, participated in a "sing-in" at the city council, and hosted teach-ins about Burge's torture ring. On a freezing February evening, activists joined the Chicago Light Brigade in front of Mayor Emanuel's resident to illuminate a sign: "REPARATIONS NOW."
"Without that real concerted push, we would not be here for sure. We would not be here at all," said Mariame Kaba, who serves on the advisory board of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials. "We made this an untenable situation for them to ignore."
Buoyed by the Black Lives Matter protests, the coalition persisted. On the eve of a public hearing this week, city elites apparently decided to reach an agreement with the people.
"All of this is overdue," said former investigative journalist John Conroy, now director of investigations at DePaul University's legal clinic in Chicago. "This is a miracle."
It was more than 25 years ago that Conroy first wrote about the torture cases in a Chicago Reader piece titled "House of Screams."
"I was braced for a storm," Conroy said. "We got four letters in response to that article. Two were in favor of the torture, and two were opposed to the torture. For many years then, everybody was aware of the torture, but nobody wanted to do anything about it."
Burge was fired in 1993, and a decade later, then Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned four death row prisoners who had been tortured.
But Burge's legacy persists, Conroy added, "like a cancer."
"It's got nothing to do with a few bad apples," he said. "We're talking about a system that allows police officers to do this."
In recent months, Chicago made international headlines when a Guardian series revealed alleged police brutality at a "secret interrogation facility" at Homan Square, a police compound long known in its neighborhood for detaining and abusing individuals.
"They always say, 'Make it easy on yourself. Help yourself out,'" said Andre Wilson, a formerly incarcerated man from Chicago's West Side who says he has been detained at Homan and Fillmore, the intersection of Homan Square. "They put the handcuffs on me and slung me in the car. It's always Homan and Fillmore."
The Guardian series also reported that a longtime Chicago detective had exported his torture tactics to Guantanamo, and a recent Truthout investigation found that vast numbers of police misconduct allegations against young people have been purged and shooting deaths of citizens misclassified.
Related: Watch this episode of VICE Meets with journalist Radley Balko on the militarization of American police:
Around the same time news of the reparations announcement broke Tuesday, we learned that the city had agreed to pay $5 million to the family of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, whom police shot 16 times last October.
"The question that we've been raising for years is, have the underlying conditions that allowed Burge and the midnight crew to operate for so many years with impunity, have they changed?" said writer and human rights activist Jamie Kalven, who detailed McDonald's troubling autopsy results for Slate. "There's significant evidence that they haven't."
Dashboard camera video of the shooting, a "de facto execution," as Kalven put it, has not yet been made public—even in the face of federal and state investigations.
To move the reparations package forward, the city council finance committee must appropriate the money before a vote on the full resolution next month. The Chicago Police Department and its legal affairs department declined to comment for this story.
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