Apr 14 2015

Interrupting The Death-Making: Notes from Chicago

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.”

photo by Kelly Hayes (2/6/15)

photo by Kelly Hayes (2/6/15)

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.

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.