Victory for Movement: Chicago Agrees to Reparations for Police Torture Survivors
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his administration and lawyers and police torture survivors announced at a city council finance committee hearing that they had agreed upon a package for reparations. The package includes $5.5 million for survivors, public acknowledgment of torture and other non-financial benefits that will help families of survivors heal.
From 1972 to 1991, hundreds of people in Chicago, primarily people of color, were tortured by police under the command of Commander Jon Burge. No police officer was held accountable for torture because city officials failed to act before the statute of limitations expired. Survivors have received zero compensation for the brutality they endured. And, for years, a movement by civil rights attorneys, grassroots activists and human rights leaders have pushed the city to pass reparations for survivors.
At a scheduled hearing of the finance committee, which planned to discuss a reparations ordinance, Joey Mogul of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project and the People’s Law Office, declared, “We are proud to announce that we have reached an agreement on a historic reparations package with Mayor Emanuel, corporation counsel Steve Patton and the administration.”
“We are gratified that, after years of denial and coverup by the prior administration, Mayor Emanuel and his corporation counsel have acknowledged the harm inflicted by the torture and recognized the needs of the Burge torture survivors and families,” Mogul added.
A reparations ordinance with the agreed upon terms will be introduced in the city council and in the coming weeks the ordinance will be brought to a vote.
Mogul indicated that the package is “rooted in a restorative justice framework.” It acknowledges that torture was committed by Burge and “begins to make amends by providing meaningful redress for the torture survivors and family members.”
Individuals who were tortured by Burge or officers under his command between 1972 and 1991 at Area 2 and Area 3 in Chicago on the south side will be eligible to make claims. Each survivor will be eligible for an award of up to $100,000, but in order to be granted the award survivors will have to waive any claims of wrongdoing against the city.
The People’s Law Office has identified at least 118 individuals who are survivors. It is believed that anywhere from 50-80 people may be eligible for financial benefits.
There are survivors who have already won settlements. Individuals who were given a small settlement under $100,000 will have an opportunity to pursue further compensation up to the agreed upon cap.
The package also includes non-financial benefits that will make it possible for survivors and immediate family to be granted free tuition to pursue degrees at city colleges in Chicago. There will, however, be a cap of fifty “eligible free tuitions per year,” according to Patton.
Psychological counseling is one of the most critical parts of the reparations. A center will be setup on the south side in the general area where police torture took place.
Patton mentioned the Marjorie Kovler Center on the north side of Chicago provides services to torture victims, who come to Chicago and have been tortured by brutal regimes. “We’re going to draw on that expertise and apply it.”
Re-entry and social support services as well as senior care will be made available because “most of these victims are now senior citizens.” Patton also noted that health services and small business assistance will be made available.
Importantly, the package that the City Council passes will also include “public recognition” of torture. Emanuel already put forward an apology last year, but, according to Patton, a resolution consisting of a formal citywide apology supported by city council members will be enacted.
Chicago public schools will teach students in 8th and 10th grade history classes, beginning in the 2015-2016 school year, about the Burge cases of torture.
As Patton said, students will “analyze primary source documents to gain better understanding of the Burge case[s], review current cases of police brutality, explore different viewpoints on best ways to provide police oversight and accountability and assess the strengths and limitations of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights when it comes to protecting citizens from abuse.”
The city plans to construct a memorial to recognize the abuse and torture by Burge as well.
Both sides, the city and survivors, have agreed upon a criteria for awarding benefits. It depends on whether they have made any contemporaneous claims. It depends on whether the individual has made consistent claims over time about torture. It depends on whether physical or other demonstrative proof exists to show the claim is illegitimate. But, according to Patton, the city intends to operate with a “presumption in favor” of survivors, especially since the torture happened twenty to thirty-five years ago.
Attorneys representing survivors, who negotiated with the city for a package, had sought a much larger fund for financial compensation. The city limited the fund to $5.5 million because of its current financial situation. Emanuel’s decision to spend taxpayer resources on a $55 million Marriott hotel in the South Loop or the more than hundred million dollars promised for a DePaul University sports arena may have something to do with the lack of millions of dollars to pay out to survivors.
“We do this not because this is legally required. We do this because we believe it is the right thing to do, both for the victims and their families and the city,” Patton stated. He later explained why Emanuel was taking the initiative to pass reparations.
Unfortunately, it overlooked—as Alderman Joe Moore informed him—the reality of why there has been any discussion at all in the city council about reparations. Years, if not decades, of work has been done pursuing some form of justice for survivors. If a movement pushing for the passage of reparations did not exist, nothing positive would be happening for survivors and their families who have suffered.
Anthony Holmes, an African American man who was tortured in 1972 and who was provided testimony that put Burge in jail, and Darrell Cannon, an African American who was tortured in 1983, testified during the finance committee hearing about their experiences.
Holmes recalled how officers pulled a machine with wires out of a brown paper bag. It was like a generator. His hand was handcuffed behind his back. He had handcuffs on his ankles. An officer put a plastic bag over his head and said to him, “Nigger, don’t you bite this plastic bag.” He bit the bag. The officer put another bag over his head.
“I thought I was dying,” Holmes explained. He was electrocuted. Three or four times he thought he was dead.
Cannon explained that November 2, 1983, is a “day that will live with me as long as I have breath in my body because on that particular day I found out that you can, in fact, terrorize a man.”
Officers played a game of Russian Roulette with a shotgun. According to Cannon, “They took a shotgun while my hands was cuffed behind my back and while I was standing out there one of the detectives told me and I quote, ‘Nigger, look around. Nobody is going to see or hear anything we do.” That officer also said to Cannon, “You can scream all you want but, nigger, before you leave here you’re going to tell us exactly what we want to hear.”
The shotgun was shoved into Cannon’s mouth. It chipped his teeth. He was made to believe the police were going to blow his head off.
After being tortured, Holmes confessed to a murder that he had not committed and spent thirty years in jail. Cannon falsely confessed to knowledge that a murder was going to be committed and was in prison for twenty-four years.
The trauma that survivors continue to endure was evident as Holmes testified. “It’s hard for me to speak on this. It always has been and it’s going to continue to be. But I try. I just need you all to understand what I am going through and what all the others are going through.”
Cannon struggled through his testimony but infused his passionate testimony with some remarkable optimism.
“Today is a historic day. It’s a historic day because we’re about to do something that’s never been done in any other city in the United States. I’m proud to be a part of this,” Cannon declared. “I’m going to buy me a motorcycle, and I am going to ride around City Hall one time. I’m going to do a lap and say, hey, thank you for finally stepping up and doing the right thing.”
Dorothy Burge, an African American mother with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, called attention to the impact on the whole African American community on the south side. She compared how police used torture to instill fear and control the community to lynchings in the South.
“It’s a way to get a whole community in line and because of that you have to behave very differently as an African American in the city of Chicago when you’re relating to the police. So, as an African American mother, because of this torture and police abuse, I have had to interact with my children in a way that other people would not have had to interact with their children. I don’t know any African American mother…who has not had to have this conversation with their children about how to behave when you are encountered by the police,” she stated.
If the City Council passes reparations, it will be the first municipality in the United States to take such an action to address police brutality.
Mogul noted during her testimony that Chile, Argentina, and South Africa have offered similar types of redress to survivors of systematic human rights abuses. In the United States, “Japanese Americans illegally detained in internment camps,” “women and men, mostly African American, who were subjected to forced sterilizations in North Carolina and survivors of the 1923 race riot in Rosewood, Florida,” have received redress.
Officials in the city did not believe survivors like Holmes when they first made claims that they had been torture. Those who pushed for reparations had to take their struggle to the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva, Switzerland, to force the city to acknowledge the issue of police torture. But, finally, survivors are close to achieving some form of justice that can help begin a process of healing that has been long delayed.