Yesterday, the Chicago City Council passed historic legislation to provide reparations for Burge police torture survivors. The package that was approved includes:
“a formal apology for the torture; specialized counseling services to the Burge torture survivors and their family members on the South Side; free enrollment and job training in City Colleges for survivors and family members (including grandchildren) as well as prioritized access to other City programs, including help with housing, transportation and senior care; a history lesson about the Burge torture cases taught in Chicago Public schools to 8th and 10th graders; the construction of a permanent public memorial to the survivors; and it sets aside $5.5 million for a Reparations Fund for Burge Torture Victims that will allow the survivors with us today to receive financial compensation for the torture they endured.”
Chicago is the first municipality in the U.S. to legislate reparations for survivors and victims of racist police violence. This victory was an improbable one. In his book “Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People” published in 2000, journalist John Conroy offered a bleak assessment of the city’s response to allegations about Burge and his henchmen’s torture:
“The citizens of Chicago were unmoved. The clergy showed no leadership; with the exception of a few mostly low-ranking ministers, religious officials were silent. In the absence of any clamor, politicians showed no interest. Reporters, hearing no complaint, conducted no investigations, and editorial writers launched no crusades. State and federal prosecutors, feeling no pressure from the press or the public, hearing no moral commentary from the religious quarter, prosecuted no one. Judges, seeing no officer indicted and hearing no officer speak against his comrades, could therefore comfortably dismiss claims of torture, and with few exceptions, they did.
I found I did not have to journey far to learn that torture is something we abhor only when it is done to someone we like, preferably someone we like who lives in another country (p. 240).”
Fifteen years later, I listened from the third floor of City Hall as the Mayor and members of the City Council apologized for the torture endured by over 118 Black people at the hands of Burge and his henchmen. It was a miraculous moment.
What changed between Conroy’s description of an apathetic public response to allegations of Burge’s torture and yesterday’s Council vote on reparations? I actually think that Conroy was too dismissive of the organizing that took place in the 1990s. He thought that the protests were mostly insignificant and small. It’s a reminder, I think, that our perspectives on historical moments that we inhabit can sometimes be myopic. Conroy could not have known that the organizing in the 90s would serve as a foundation and a road map for efforts into the future. He was right that the political class, the 4th estate and most of the public were generally apathetic about the allegations of police torture. But I think that he also underestimated the importance of the sustained resistance led by groups like Citizens Alert, Black People Against Torture, the People’s Law Office and more. There were small victories along the way. Our historic achievement yesterday is owed to those hard-fought wins. The organizing and activism that began in the late 80s took the form of protests, advocacy, litigation, and storytelling (including Conroy’s powerful investigative journalism). Struggle and organizing matter. Change is too often slow. But sometimes we do win.
I became immersed in the Burge reparations campaign last Fall. Over the past six months, a coalition of individuals and groups organized tirelessly to pass this legislation. We held rallies, sing ins, marches, light actions, train takeovers, exhibition-ins, and more. The price of being immersed in this struggle is to be a witness to unspeakable acts of cruelty committed against other human beings. Burge and his fellow police officers electrocuted, beat, suffocated and generally tortured dozens of people over two decades. The rooms where Commander Jon Burge and his fellow officers tortured and forced confessions from suspects were called the “House[s] of Screams.” Those screams echoed in my head yesterday as I heard the Chicago City Council vote on the reparations legislation for survivors of Burge’s torture. Slowly those screams became whispers: thank you for believing us and for refusing to forget, they seemed to say.
To focus on such harms is painful and can lead to despair. Yet by organizing for some justice for torture survivors, I’ve seen and experienced incredible kindness, selflessness and compassion. This is what sustains my hope. I’m convinced that injustice and oppression will not have the last word. Last night, I attended a gathering of friends and comrades who have in their own ways contributed to this struggle. Some have spent the better part of 3 decades fighting to bring some justice to the torture survivors. I was asked to say a few words and I had difficulty expressing my feelings and thoughts. As I reached for my words, I was overcome at seeing the now old Black men standing before me. A couple had been brutalized in the early 1970s. I wasn’t eloquent last night but my words were heartfelt. I held it together but when I got home, I cried. They were tears of relief, gratitude, and most of all of love.
There will be time in the coming days and weeks to reflect and to find my words. But for today, let it be known that here in Chicago, we were determined not to forget the atrocities committed in our names by the police. We resisted the violence of fading memories and fought to preserve the knowledge of atrocities for which we all bear some responsibility. We struggled with survivors of torture and yesterday, we won.
The 1970 edition of the “We Charge Genocide” petition included a preface by Ossie Davis. I recently re-read it and there was much that resonated with me. I’ve decided to re-publish his words not because I agree with every point that he makes or with all of the analysis but because I think that the essay echoes in our current historical moment. I’ve re-typed it faithfully.
Preface by Ossie DavisThis is not the first time the black people of the United States have issued a warning. W.E.B. Du Bois himself said it plain in 1900: “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”
We say again, now: We will submit no further to the brutal indignities being practiced against us; we will not be intimidated, and most certainly not eliminated. We claim the ancient right of all peoples, not only to survive unhindered, but also to participate as equals in man’s inheritance here on earth. We fight to preserve ourselves, to see that the treasured ways of our life-in-common are not destroyed by brutal men or heedless institutions.
We Charge Genocide! indeed we do, for we would save ourselves and our children. History has taught us prudence — we do not need to wait until the Dachaus and Belsens and the Buchenwalds are built to know that we are dying. We live with death and it is ours; death not so obvious as Hitler’s ovens — not yet. But who can tell?
Black men were brought to this country to serve an economy which needed our labor. And even when slavery was over, there was still a need for us in the American economy as cheap labor. We picked the cotton, dug the ditches, shined the shoes, swept the floors, hustled the baggage, washed the clothes, cleaned the toilets — we did the dirty work for all America — that was our place, the place where the American economy needed us to be.
As long as we stayed in that place — there at the bottom — we were welcomed to love and work in America. The murder practiced against us then was partial and selective. A limited genocide meant not so much to exterminate us — America still had a job for “good niggers” to do — as to warn us, to correct us, to use those of us who would not submit as examples of what could happen to the rest of us. Those who objected to being kept in their “place” at the bottom were beaten or killed for being uppity. Those who challenged our racist overlords, claiming for themselves and for us our rights as men and as citizens, were burned for being insolent; lynched to teach the rest of us always to stay in our “place.”
But a revolution of profoundest import is taking place in America. Every year our economy produces more and more goods and services with fewer and fewer men. Hard, unskilled work — the kind nobody else wanted, that made us so welcome in America, the kind of work that we “niggers” have always done — is fast disappearing. Even in the South — in Mississippi for example — 95 per cent and more of the cotton is picked by machine. And in the North as I write this, more than 30 per cent of black teenage youth is unemployed.
The point I am getting to is that for the first time, black labor is expendable, the American economy does not need it any more. What will a racist society do to a subject population for which it no longer has any use? Will America, in a sudden gush of reason, good conscience, and common sense reorder her priorities? — revamp her institutions, clean them of racism so that blacks and Puerto Ricans and American Indians and Mexican Americans can be and will be fully and meanfully included on an equal basis?
Or, will America, grown meaner and more desperate as she confronts the just demands of her clamorous outcasts, choose genocide? America, of course, is not an abstraction; America is people, America is you and me. America will choose in the final analysis as we choose: to build a world of racial and social justice for each and for all; or to try the fascist alternative — a deliberate policy on a mass scale, of practices she already knows too well, of murderous skills she sharpens each day in Vietnam, of genocide, and final, mutual death.
We Charge Genocide — not only of the past but of the future. And we swear: it must not, it shall not, it will not happen to our people.
August 17, 1970.
I’ve already received emails from people asking for my thoughts on the decision to criminally charge the 6 cops who killed Freddie Gray. I am getting ready to head to the airport and don’t have time for any in depth responses. I shared these very quick thoughts on Facebook and re-post them here for those who want to know what I think in this moment.
I’ll admit to being alarmed that people who call themselves having a structural analysis are rejoicing over cops being charged for Freddie Gray’s death. I am even more alarmed that smart people who know that the current system is unable to offer any actual ‘justice’ are all over my timeline canonizing a state’s attorney whose actual JOB it is in a system that would be ‘functioning’ to prosecute killer cops. The expectations are so low as to be self-defeating. I understand. But I am supremely dismayed.
I want to also add that those of us who have studied, researched, experienced and lived the criminal punishment system cannot suffer from the collective amnesia that pervades at times like these. If your concept of ‘justice’ means convictions for cops, then you should be very concerned because this current system as designed is unlikely to deliver. If your concept of ‘justice’ means prison time for cops, then you should be despondent because this system as currently constituted almost NEVER delivers that either. If your concept of ‘justice’ means Black people being able to live our lives free from state violence, then today is not a day of celebration. Sorry but I have to say it since others are selling something else.
I know for sure that there would not even have been charges against these cops without the uprising of young Black people and others in Baltimore and across the country. And activism, organizing matter tremendously. They do. But to transform a death-making system, our expectations have to be much higher. Celebrating charges is like celebrating crumbs. It really, really is. I understand why people do it but I think according great significance to charges misses the point and it also freezes people in place. It has the effect of demobilizing collective action. Just watch what happens over the next couple of days. The “wait and see” chorus, the “let the system work” chorus will be out in full force. Organizers have our work cut out for us in that climate.
Finally, it feels terrible to have to depend on a system that you know is illegitimate to adjudicate your “worth.” It really does. The criminal punishment system has ALWAYS been a tool in this country for enforcing and maintaining white supremacy. Yet that ‘analysis’ goes out the window as we are compelled by some to ‘celebrate’ charges and to ‘canonize’ public officials who under the rules of said system are SUPPOSED to prosecute killer cops.
P.S. That same State’s Attorney is also likely to be prosecuting protesters and so called ‘looters.’ She’s the STATE’s attorney. Not the “people’s attorney.” Please stay awake. Challenge the conventional narratives that you will be fed. Always be critical. (thanks to Tamara Nopper for always being on the ball).
It was unlikely that we would come to know her by her first name: Rekia. She was a 22 year old young Black woman when Dante Servin, a CPD detective, shot her in the head. In the political economy of memorials and public grieving, being a young Black woman is not advantageous. The names that we lift up (when we memorialize Black lives at all) are usually attached to cis heterosexual men. Sean, Rodney, Amadou, Mike, Tamir and now Freddie…
I was at the Nashville airport last Monday when my phone started ringing. Friends who were at Dante Servin’s trial were calling and texting to relay the news. Judge Porter granted the defense’s motion for a directed finding and dismissed the case against Servin. I was not surprised. I only felt sad for Rekia Boyd’s family. They did not get the justice that they sought. They waited three years for Servin’s day in court. They fought for over 18 months just for an indictment. No cop had been tried for killing someone in Cook County for 17 years. And last Monday, Dante Servin walked out of 26th & California a ‘free man’ ready to carry a gun and to patrol the streets again.
In Chicago, Servin’s acquittal led to a couple of small, heart-felt protests and some limited outrage.
A couple of weeks ago, I lamented how few people attended a rally on the first day of Dante Servin’s trial:
I can’t lie. I was disappointed in the turnout. I know, I know that there are hundreds of reasons people didn’t show up in numbers. A friend mentioned that perhaps the rain had kept them away. I stared at him. We both knew the truth. For all of the talk of Black Lives mattering, all evidence points to the opposite. Rekia’s life surely mattered to her family and friends. It matters to the small but determined group that showed up in solidarity with her family today. Beyond that though, no, Rekia’s life doesn’t matter in this country.
There is in fact a hierarchy of oppression as Black women, Black trans and gender nonconforming people have even less access to limited sympathy than do cis heterosexual Black men. To deny this is to be a liar. When we call out ‘who will keep our sisters?’ too often we are greeted with one or two lone voices in the wilderness but usually with silence.
Partly in response to my words & as a balm for my and others’ demoralization, some friends and comrades organized a beautiful show of support and solidarity for Rekia. My friend Kelly, one of the organizers of the light action, wrote:
But tonight, after a great deal of discussion and reflection, my friends and I decided to offer what we could to those who are mourning, discouraged, and in need of hope. We decided to offer a bit of light and action, in the hopes that seeing a message for Rekia projected in the night sky, in the heart of our city, might make them feel a little less disheartened, and a little less alone. It’s a small offering, to be sure, but it is one that is made with love, and with a great deal of hope.
I was very moved by the light action. I have struggled for a couple of weeks to adequately convey my emotions. I found some words after reading a post titled “No One Showed Up To Rally For Rekia.” While the title suggested an absence of people at the rally, the post began with this sentence: “Last night in New York City’s Union Square, a modest crowd of between 30 and 50 people (depending on who you ask) showed up to rally for Rekia Boyd and Black women and girls who’ve been killed by police.” So, in fact, some people (albeit a small number) did attend the rally.
The title of the post grated. I thought of those few dozen people who took the time to show up for Rekia and her family. Perhaps they were members of the choir so to speak but they were definitely somebody. One of the organizers of the rally noted on social media that she was frustrated that those people who did show up (mostly black women) were being dismissed and overlooked. She suggested that this was both an erasure of black women’s labor as organizers and a discounting of the fact that we regularly show up for each other even when others do not for us. She was right on both counts.
I often remind others of the importance of lifting up the choir, of insuring that those who do show up know that we are grateful for and value them. I’ve lectured others on the importance of never taking the choir for granted. Yet as I struggled with my demoralization, I disregarded my own admonition. Those of us who show up matter and as Kelly has written: “…what we are doing together matters, and must continue.” In a sense, I had written myself out of the story of resistance against Rekia’s killing. I had erased myself as a Black woman who shows up for other Black women across the spectrum and who understands that I cannot live without my life.
There is a lot of pain and anger about the invisibility of Black women, trans and gender-non conforming people in struggles against state and interpersonal violence. Rightly so. It hurts to be erased and overlooked. But it’s important, I think, to simultaneously recognize those who do, in fact, insist on making these lives matter too. It’s always both/and.
Later today, some of us in Chicago will show our solidarity for our comrades in Baltimore and also for Rekia and others killed in our own city. Join us if you can! We’ll be lifting up the choir.
I am very happy to publish this poem by Ebony Delaney. Ebony is a woman who is currently incarcerated in a California men’s prison. Her poem came to me via a reader of this blog named Tyler who corresponds with Ebony. They share poetry, books, and short stories with each other. I am honored to share Ebony’s work here.
An attorney friend of mine was kind enough to break down the Dante Servin acquittal for me. I am a lay person and not a lawyer. If you are like me, you were likely confused about all of the information that has been circulating regarding this case. My friend has generously agreed to allow me to post these thoughts anonymously. This helped me better understand the issues in this acquittal. I hope it helps others.
Update: If you are in Chicago, you are invited to the Legal Teach-in for Rekia Boyd on April 29th at 6 pm. Details are HERE.
The Dante Servin Acquittal
Issue #1: Judge Porter’s Decision to Grant the Directed Verdict is Shocking and Rare
Judge Porter granted the defendant’s motion for directed verdict at the conclusion of the State’s case. This means that after the State closed their case, before the defense put on their case, the defendant asked the judge to find that the State’s case was so weak that the case should not move forward. When ruling on a defendant’s motion for directed verdict, the judge must look at the facts presented in the State’s case in the light most favorable to the State, assuming inferences in the light most favorable to the State, and then determine that a reasonable person could not find that the State could prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. See People v. McCord, 46 Ill.App.3d 389, 392 (1977). It’s a very high standard and motions for a directed verdict are almost never granted. If a judge grants a directed verdict, the defense doesn’t even need to put forth their own evidence to challenge the State’s case. The judge evaluates the case on the State’s facts only, in the light most favorable to the State, and then finds that it’s impossible for the State to succeed. In a case involving the shooting death of a young female, it’s shocking that the judge granted the defendant’s motion for directed verdict, acquitting Servin of all charges. The result was that Officer Servin did not have to testify and prosecutors were never able to cross-examine him. This is unsettling both because the judge prevented the prosecution from supporting their case in cross-examination of the defense witnesses, and because he failed to provide the emotional benefit to the family of having Officer Servin explain his actions on the stand.
Issue #2: Judge Porter’s Legal Reasoning is Questionable
Judge Porter granted the defense’s motion for a directed verdict based on Illinois law that supports a bizarre outcome. Even though this bizarre legal support exists, the judge had other options to support a different ruling. I’ll first explain his ruling, then explore the other options.
The judge accurately noted that all of the charges the State brought against Servin required the State to prove Servin acted recklessly. The judge then found that the State only introduced evidence that Dante Servin acted intentionally (not recklessly). As a result, the judge ruled as a matter of law that the State could not succeed in their case because Servin acted intentionally, not recklessly. The logic of this ruling is based on a technical matter of law; if someone intentionally shoots someone, they did not act recklessly, and vice versa (if they shot recklessly, they didn’t do so intentionally). There is support for saying this is the law in Illinois. See People vs. Sipp, 378 Ill.App.3d 157 (2007). The bizarre outcome of the application of this law in this context is that a defendant (like Servin) could assert first degree murder as a defense to any charges regarding reckless behavior (freely admitting that he intentionally killed Rekia Boyd) and then be acquitted of all charges (more serious murder charges would then be prevented under double jeopardy). This is obviously a bizarre outcome, particularly when considering that the law has long found that intentional conduct is more culpable then reckless conduct (intentionally killing someone versus accidentally doing so because of reckless conduct).
Although Judge Porter’s opinion is written to make it look like his hands were tied by the above law, the judge had several other options to deny the defendant’s motion for directed verdict. First, the judge could have done what all lawyers are trained to do: instead of rely on the cases that he relied on in his ruling, he could have distinguished those cases from the present case in front of him (if the judge wanted to find a hook, they are distinguishable). For example, the legal issue in front of him was a directed verdict, whereas the cases cited in his ruling dealt with jury instructions. Those are different legal issues and he could have distinguished those cases on that ground. Similarly, the judge could have ruled that as a matter of law, if the defendant’s self-defense claim turned out to be unreasonable, “unreasonable self-defense” equates to reckless conduct. In addition, the facts in the cases cited in his ruling are different than the facts in the Servin case. For example, in the Sipp case, the defendant shot and killed his intended target, whereas Servin shot and killed an unintended victim. The defendant in Sipp also looked at the intended target as he shot him, whereas Servin shot over his shoulder and behind him while driving away. He could have distinguished this case on that ground. These are hooks that judges often use to distinguish prior cases from the present case to rule that those cases do not apply to the present case. In the end, all he needed was something to say that a reasonable person could support reckless charges based on the facts of this unique case.
Driven to a deserted field on the far Southside of Chicago, Darrell Cannon was scared to death. It was 1983 and the police wanted a confession. Darrell was terrorized with Russian roulette while being called a nigger. Officers attached cattle prods to his genitals and electrically shocked him. After hours of torture, he confessed to murder and spent over 20 years in prison. Fourteen of those caged inside a torture chamber called TAMMS supermax.
There isn’t enough money on earth to make up for such violence and torture. Apologies don’t erase the impact(s) of state-sanctioned violence. These things are true and yet such transgressions demand redress. Over the past few months, I’ve written about a re-animated campaign to pass a reparations ordinance for Burge torture survivors. The ordinance was introduced in October 2013 and had been stalled in the Chicago City Council. I’m on the advisory board of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) which is the group that introduced the ordinance. I’ve had a long-standing interest in the Burge police torture cases but only fully engaged over the past 6 months to pass the ordinance.
Today, CTJM announced the framework of a deal with the City of Chicago on the reparations ordinance. “Rooted in a restorative framework and reflecting critical provisions of the original Reparations Ordinance filed in October of 2013, the reparations package the City has agreed to includes a myriad of remedies that aim to meet the concrete needs of the Burge torture survivors and their family members. It will include:
1. A formal apology from the Mayor and City Council for the torture and abuse committed by Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and police officers under his command;
2. A permanent public memorial acknowledging the torture committed by Burge and his men;
3. Inclusion of a lesson in the Chicago Public Schools 8th and 10th grade U.S. History curriculum on the Burge torture cases;
4. Provision of trauma and other counseling services to the Burge torture survivors and family members at a dedicated facility on the South Side of Chicago based on the model of services provided by the Marjorie Kovler Center and Heartland Alliance;
5. Free tuition or job training at Chicago’s City Colleges for Burge torture survivors, their family members, including grandchildren;
6. Job placement for Burge torture survivors in programs designated for formerly incarcerated people;
7. Priority access to City of Chicago’s re-entry support services, including: job training and placement, counseling, food, housing & transportation assistance, senior care, health care, and small business support services;
8. Financial compensation to the Burge torture survivors who are still with us today.
The City will set aside $5.5 million to establish a Reparations Fund for Burge Torture Survivors. Every person found to have a credible claim of torture or abuse committed by Burge or his men at Area 2 and 3 Police Headquarters from 1972 to 1991 will receive the same exact amount from the fund.”
Though we did not obtain everything that we wanted (particularly in terms of the financial compensation), all of the provisions of the original reparations ordinance are reflected in the final deal. We wanted and want more. However, the reality is that most of the Burge torture survivors have no recourse to sue the City, some remain locked up today, and they are getting older. They have been left with nothing but their needs. This legislation will provide a path to address those material and other needs. The ordinance was conceived as a living memorial. It is an abolitionist document that asks us to imagine and enact different forms of justice.
Daily we are inundated with all kinds of violence, suffering and pain. This can lead, as Howard Thurman (1961) has written, to “a kind of devastated deadness.” We can begin to feel powerless, impotent. Organizing is how I interrupt the violence and death-making to catch my breath. Organizing is an attempted rupture of the oppressive and death-making status quo. Organizing is about contending with and building power. Organizing means never being satisfied and always demanding more. Organizing has its own grammar, cadence, and music. But above all, organizing is fueled by and creates hope. Marshall Ganz is right:
“Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.”
And I know that for some, hope is in short supply these days. And why should it not be? We are witness to and experience the daily annihilation of black people at the hands of the state. We know how disposable we are. We are always aware of the precarity of our existence. What does it mean to “win” within the strictures of an unjust oppressive society? Why bother to resist?
We resist, I think, because we are entitled to live, to breathe, to be. In his well-known 1966 speech at Berkeley, Stokely Carmichael said: “I am black, therefore I am.” Yes, exactly and also I resist, therefore I am. I’m blessed to know Darrell Cannon. His experience of torture has animated my organizing. Watching him speak at today’s hearing was both inspiring and gut-wrenching. As he recounted his torture, he cried. “I’m crying because I am mad,” he told a packed room, “I’m still mad.” I resist too because of Darrell.
I resist because of the torture survivors still caged in Illinois prisons. I resist because I want those who were tortured and are no longer with us to know that we have not forgotten. Refusing to forget is resistance. We remember through organizing and struggle. Julius Lester (1968) wrote that his slave ancestors’ “lives were lived on a spider web stretched over the mouth of hell.” I’ve always felt those words viscerally. I believe that Burge’s victims’ “lives were (also) lived on a spider web stretched over the mouth of hell.” So we owe them the fight for some justice. We owe it to them not to forget. We owe that to ourselves too.
Decades of struggle in Chicago have led to today. Small ‘victories’ have paved the road: getting Jon Burge fired from the police force, a perjury conviction, survivors telling their stories and being believed. Soon this ordinance will be a brick in the long road to justice. There is still more work ahead to pass the ordinance and beyond it. Organizing is a marathon.
Darrell Cannon says that he cannot forget his experience of torture. Now the history and legacy of that violence will be taught in Chicago Public Schools. The future will remember Darrell’s torture too. His life matters. In the words of Dr. Joy James, #BlackLivesMatter because we make them. Making #BlackLivesMatter is our work here in Chicago, the ordinance is a contribution to that goal.