Reparations for police torture in Chicago

May 6, 2015

Marlene Martin reports on a possible step toward justice for victims of police torture.

FOR NEARLY 20 years, from 1972 to 1991, former Chicago police Commander Jon Burge orchestrated a group of police officers to torture African American and Latino suspects at Area 2 and 3 police headquarters in Chicago's South Side.

Now, the men who suffered this barbaric treatment in an attempt to get them to confess have a chance to receive reparations for what they went through.

Last month, members of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials and Amnesty International announced an agreement on a torture reparations package after meeting with representatives of the mayor's office. An ordinance approving the reparations will come up for a vote in the Chicago City Council's Finance Committee on May 5, followed by a vote of the full City Council on May 6.

The ordinance, the first of its kind, would set aside $5.5 million in compensation to be divided among torture victims. It would also include specialized mental health counseling for Burge torture victims and their families, free enrollment and job training in City Colleges for victims and their family members, the creation of a permanent public memorial to acknowledge that torture took place, and a required history lesson in Chicago Public Schools about the Burge torture case.

Demanding reparations for the victims of Chicago police torture
Demanding reparations for the victims of Chicago police torture

This ordinance would be much-needed help for torture victims. It would also serve as a public acknowledgement of the sickening wrong that was committed against them and confirm that the city of Chicago recognizes that they deserve reparations for what they suffered.

FOR THE men who suffered torture by mock executions, suffocation with typewriter bags, electric shocks to their genitals and beatings, the city's acknowledgement of torture and the compensation fund are incredibly important.

Still, $5.5 million split among an estimated 55 or more victims who are still alive would let the city of Chicago--which continues to pay Jon Burge his pension of $3,000 a month, even after he went to federal prison for his involvement in torture--off cheap.

Under the settlement, torture victims judged by an arbitrator to qualify could receive somewhere around $100,000, depending on the total number that the sum is split among. That's far less than individual victims received in settlements after civil lawsuits: Ronnie Kitchen and Marvin Reeves each got $6.15 million, Madison Hobley $7.5 million, and Aaron Patterson $5 million.

The reparations money would go to Burge victims who no longer have any legal possibility of filing a civil lawsuit--and the compensation is for the torture and physical abuse suffered by the victims, not their years of wrongful imprisonment, as was the case with those who won settlements in the lawsuits.

For former torture victims like Darrell Cannon and Anthony Holmes--two former torture victims likely to be compensated if the ordinance passes--who have struggled financially since they were released from wrongful imprisonment, the compensation is desperately needed. And they recognize the important precedent that would be set in Chicago of awarding the victims of police abuse with reparations.

As Cannon--who was electrically shocked in the genitals and had a shotgun put in his mouth while Chicago police played Russian Roulette--said:

This is historic. For those of us who have been fighting and struggling to set a landmark, this is that landmark. This is the moment. What we do here will not be undone. People across the country will talk about Chicago. It would be the first bill in the U.S. that would provide reparations for law enforcement conduct.

JOEY MOGUL, an attorney with the People's Law Office, and a member of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, who was one of the key negotiators of the reparations proposal, emphasizes the impact that the ordinance can have against police abuses today:

This would be the first time in history that Black people have ever won compensation for being abused by the police. We are hopeful this passes, because it will give another measure of accountably to police abuse. Prosecution of officers often has dismal levels of success, and it doesn't do anything for the victims. This ordinance would provide some measure of financial compensation, as well as provide psychological counseling for those who have suffered abuse.

Mogul says she hopes the ordinance could serve as a model for activists in other cities.

On the other hand, Mark Clements, an outspoken activist, has criticisms of the reparations proposal. Clements was arrested as a teenager and tortured into giving a false confession that was used to convict him--he spent 28 years in prison before he finally won his freedom. But the officers who tortured Clements didn't directly work under Burge at that time--they did shortly afterward--so Clements' name isn't on the list of victims who could receive compensation or assistance.

Clements says he wishes all of those tortured by police were included on the list--and that the total money in the settlement was greater:

It means we have to keep fighting. I know how hard people worked to get this passed, and I understand that this will help a lot of people. But still, the money isn't enough--it should have been more, in my opinion. And we can't let city officials sweep this under the rug. Men are still locked up in prison who were tortured under Burge. We still have to fight to win them hearings on those claims.

Clements' point goes back to a question raised by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's apology to Burge's victims in 2013. "My goal," Emanuel said, "is to both close this book--the Burge book--in the city's history, close it and bring closure for the victims and make sure that we take this as a city and learn from it." But Emanuel's emphasis on "closure" and "putting it all behind us" leaves behind the dozens of torture victims still in prison.

The ordinance establishing torture reparations, which is expected to pass, will be an unprecedented step forward in delivering justice to the victims of police abuse and violence. But activists will have to keep the pressure on officials to fully and quickly implement the reparations--and continue mobilizing to win justice for all victims of police violence, including those who still remain behind bars today.

An important chapter of the Burge book is about to be written. But we shouldn't let Emanuel close the book.

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