May 08 2016

Reparations Won: One Year Later…

I’m in the midst of a major life transition. After over 20 years of living and working in Chicago, I’m moving back home to NYC in a few days. As such, I’ve had no time to blog. I am hoping to get back to more regular blogging in mid-summer once I’m settled.

On Friday, I celebrated the one year anniversary of Chicago passing reparations for police torture survivors with friends and comrades. To commemorate the milestone, Kuumba Lynx released a short video that I had the honor of narrating.

This is how they describe it:

Today marks the 1 year anniversary of the Reparations Ordinance being passed for the Chicago Police Torture Survivors, which is the first time Reparations has been given for Police terrorism in the history of the United States. Our youth created documentary series “Journey to LTAB” begins in the summer of 2014 when the nation was exploding with police brutality after the Mike Brown and Eric Garner murders. After an unjust police search and arrest happens to one of the members of Kuumba Lynx, the youth within Kuumba lynx took the streets with their city to fight police brutality within the streets of Chicago. Using their art as a vehicle for activism, KL searches for their 3rd LTAB title. Taking the city by storm and putting light on issues that wouldn’t have been before. Throughout the year leading up to LTAB 2015, our work became connected to the fight for Reparations in Chicago, which “is the product of decades of activism, litigation and journalism and the culmination of a concerted six-month inspirational, intergenerational and interracial campaign co-led by Amnesty International – USA, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, Project NIA and We Charge Genocide,” and was driven by the Police Torture Survivors themselves, family members, Black People Against Police Torture and countless other organizations and communities’ work. We want to share this piece of our series that highlights this historic movement narrated by Reparations Now! organizer Mariame Kaba and the role Kuumba Lynx was honored to play in it.

This is the first sneak peak of the series we have released because of the importance of today’s anniversary. As we look back a year later, we look forward to debuting this 13 episode online series June 1st on KL We Get Free Media platforms. Please tune in and share to support Youth Powered Media.

May 07 2015

Police Torture, Reparations and Echoes from the ‘House of Screams’

photo by Kelly Hayes (5/6/14)

photo by Kelly Hayes (5/6/14)

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).”

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/6/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/6/15)

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.

Apr 03 2015

Guest Post: On Reparations, the Run-Off, and Confronting Police Torture in Chicago

The following is a post written by my friend and comrade Alice Kim. It is re-published from her blog “Dancing the Dialectic.”

Earlier this week at the last mayoral debate in Chicago’s unprecedented run-off election, the scene outside WTTW Studio was a strange mix of about 75 Rahm supporters from Local 73, mostly middle-aged white men some wearing hard hats, carrying their shiny blue “I’m for Rahm” placards, a larger group of residents from the northwest side of Chicago protesting airport noise, and then there was us.

We were a small, some would say rag tag, group of about a dozen activists armed with a beautiful “Reparations Now” banner made by local artists and a sound system. Among us were queer activists, long-time prison abolitionists, torture survivors, and an NEIU student who learned about the protest from one of his teachers. Thanks to the power of amplification and to the chagrin of the pro-Rahm contingent, we were able to drown out their “Four More Years” chants with “Mr. Mayor if you care, we want reparations, fair and square” – a chant we had repurposed from our friends demanding noise-free air.

photo by Andy Thayer (3/31/15)

photo by Andy Thayer (3/31/15)

No fans of Rahm were in our group, but our purpose at the debate was not to support one candidate over another. Since attendance inside WTTW was by invitation only (and none of us had been invited), we gathered outside waiting for the candidates to arrive. Flanked by union Rahm guys and angry homeowners fed up with airport noise, we had a very specific message for the candidates: reparations for Chicago Police torture survivors.

The story of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his torture practices is chilling: Burge and his detectives tortured 119 African American men and women in their custody using torture tactics ranging from electric shock and suffocation with a typewriter bag to mock executions. These brutal interrogations elicited confessions that were often the primary evidence that was used to convict these defendants. For decades, activists have organized to expose these torture practices; hold the officers responsible accountable; and seek justice for the survivors of torture.

In 2010, 17 years after Burge was fired from the Chicago Police Department, he was found guilty of obstruction of justice and lying about the torture and subsequently sentenced to four and a half years in prison. Yet, justice remained elusive for Burge’s victims who continued to suffer from the trauma of the torture they endured. Over a year and a half ago, the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials worked with Aldermen Joe Moreno and Howard Brookins to introduce the Reparations Ordinance in City Council as a means of offering holistic redress to Burge torture survivors. With this ordinance, we tried to articulate a more meaningful vision of justice by not only seeking financial restitution for the survivors but also a trauma center on the South Side of Chicago that offers counseling and job training for all those who have faced police violence; curriculum in Chicago Public Schools that teaches about Burge torture; free education in the city colleges; a public memorial; and an official apology by the City.

To date, 29 Aldermen, more than half the City Council, have signed on in support of the ordinance. Yet, until recently, the ordinance remained stalled in the Finance Committee without a hearing despite growing support. Finally, in the wake of renewed activism by a coalition of activists, the ordinance was granted a hearing. Dozens of supporters were present at the Finance Committee’s meeting last month when the hearing was announced. Indeed, since last October, reparations supporters of the ordinance have been a regular presence at City Hall. We have staged sing-ins and die-ins in the lobby of City Council chambers, held press conferences announcing developments in the Burge saga, delivered over 35,000 signed signatures on a petition supporting the ordinance to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and set up pop-up memorials and exhibitions in front of the Mayor’s office.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/18/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/18/15)

The reverberations of the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson were acutely felt here in Chicago where we have been confronting our city’s own brutal history of police violence. As the mayoral election unfolded, the deafening silence of nearly all of the candidates on issues of police misconduct was not lost on those of us who had been fighting for reparations. If we wanted the candidates to address Burge torture, it would be up to us to make it so.

We called on all of the candidates to support the ordinance and invited them to publicly declare their support at a citywide rally for reparations held on Valentine’s Day, the same day that Burge was released from his prison sentence. Former contender Dock Walls was the only candidate who showed; Chuy Garcia had previously issued a statement of support after multiple appeals by reparations activists; and Bob Fioretti acknowledged his support on the day of a rally at City Hall where activists were specifically calling out Council members who did not support the ordinance. We never heard back from Willie Wilson and only heard from Emanuel via media reports where he repeatedly made evasive and non-committal statements in response to reporters’ questions about the ordinance.

Emboldened by the Black Lives Matter movement, the reparations campaign – with CTJM and our friends at Amnesty International, Project NIA, and We Charge Genocide at the helm – has taken on new life in the last few months. In addition to our visits to City Hall, we have held marches, rallies, and teach-ins in multiple neighborhoods and communities. We have used the power of social media to build public support and we have tweeted thousands of messages to the mayor. We have called, e-mailed and lobbied our City Council through good old-fashioned meetings to discuss the ordinance. We even took our message the mayor’s home one evening, spelling out “REPARATIONS NOW” in bright lights, a creative tactic organized by the Chicago Light Brigade.

photo by Kelly Hayes (2/6/15)

photo by Kelly Hayes (2/6/15)

From Mayor Emanuel’s doorstep to the last runoff debate, we have insisted that the Reparations Ordinance is one tangible concrete way to show that Black Lives Matter. As we prepare for a public hearing on the ordinance, I am hopeful that we will win a measure of justice for Burge survivors who have already waited too long. Come April 7, I hope we will elect a mayor who is more receptive to the needs of torture survivors and all the people of Chicago. But I know that whoever is in office, reparations activists will continue to insist that the lives of torture survivors matter.