When we close our eyes, we can imagine a 13-year-old Black boy, walking home from school, free of fear of sirens, screams, and handcuffs. That little boy is able to walk home feeling the concrete against his sneakers. He’s bopping his head to music playing, looking forward to exploring what the world offers a budding young soul at the precipice of adolescence, a world full of endless possibilities. A society where his gangly body can grow as tall as his DNA has decided it needs to be. His girth as wide as his biology has preordained. His voice a rolling timbre like onyx and midnight skies.
In this imagined world, a tall, big, deep-voiced Black boy’s childhood is not erased by premature adulthood. It is not inverted with racist imagery of a demon with bulging eyes, as Darren Wilson described Mike Brown before he murdered him in the street. Or how Cleveland police misidentified 12-year-old Tamir Rice as an adult before his 2014 shooting death. Or the way Chicago police incorrectly categorized 16-year-old Pierre Loury after shooting him dead in 2016. We smile in comfort at this vision of Black childhood and Black humanity free from criminalization and the blinding shackles of anti-Blackness.
But this is not the world we live in. And it’s never been that world, well before the deaths of Mike, Tamir, Pierre, or so many others.
On Sept. 25, 1991, 13-year-old Marcus Wiggins was apprehended by Chicago police and tortured into signing a false confession to a shooting that he was ultimately found to not have even been at by the courts. Marcus was shocked by an electric instrument the Chicago Police Department (CPD) nicknamed the “nigger box.” One of the lawsuits filed by Wiggins’ family described it as “a box with a round knob on it and two cords, each with a small paddle, extending from it.” The lawsuit further detailed that the box was used to shock him until “his eyes closed, his jaw clamped together, and he felt like he was falling unconscious.”
CPD Commander Jon Burge had introduced torture techniques he learned in Vietnam and trained a cadre of officers in “interrogation techniques.” With detectives under his command (a group known as the Midnight Crew), Burge tortured more than 120 Black and Latinx men, women and children at Chicago Police Headquarters from 1972 to 1991. The torture tactics included placing cattle prods on people’s genitals, suffocating them with typewriter covers, mock execution with firearms, and beatings with black jacks, telephone books, and rubber hoses.
Anthony Holmes, who was tortured by Jon Burge and his colleagues for more than 20 hours, was also shocked in the box—in May 1973, almost two decades before Wiggins was subjected to the same violation. Anthony, a founding board member of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, explained that Burge and Detective John Yucaitis repeatedly electrically shocked him and suffocated him with plastic bags, while subjecting him to racial slurs and threats.
“It felt like a thousand needles going through my body. It felt like something just burning me from the inside, and I shook, I gritted, I hollered, then I passed out,” Anthony said. “He just kept shocking me. When he took the bag off my head, I said I’d say what he wanted me to say.” Another false confession, thanks to torture.
More than 45 years later, Anthony is still dealing with the health effects of this abuse. According to him, a cardiologist who examined him two years ago remarked that the electric shocks did the damage of five heart attacks. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t suffer,” he said during an April 2015 hearing, adding, “Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m gonna be alright.”
Anthony was sentenced to up to 75 years in prison and was paroled in March 2004 after serving 33 years. Upon release, he played a leading role in winning Chicago’s historic reparations ordinance for survivors of police torture, the first and currently only such ordinance in this country’s history.
Showing the nation the way forward
Ahead of the 2020 elections, reparations has been repeatedly in the news and on the lips of prospective presidential candidates, opponents, organizers, and everyone in between. But those mentions of reparations have focused on compensation for the descendants of those enslaved in the United States.
Seldom has the conversation turned to the most recent example of a reparations win in the country. On May 6, 2015, after decades of organizing, the Chicago City Council passed a reparations ordinance for incalculable torture inflicted on scores of Black and Latinx people by Chicago police. Many of the arguments against reparations say that the idea of compensating survivors is simply unrealistic. But this ignores both historical examples of reparations across the world—for survivors of the Holocaust or of U.S. Japanese internment camps during World War II—and also the Chicago win. The country should look to Chicago for solutions on how reparations can be imagined and turned into tangible policy. The Chicago Reparations Ordinance offers invaluable lessons for how to do this on a national scale.
The harm caused by Jon Burge and his men devastated individuals, families, and communities of color, causing generations of emotional torture. The CPD’s actions secured confessions that were used to amass scores of wrongful convictions and sent 10 people to Illinois’ notorious death row who were exonerated in 2003.
The torture also left psychological marks, scarring the survivors who continue to struggle with trauma, depression, anxiety, and diminished will to live. Incarceration and trauma separated and isolated survivors from their loved ones, creating mistrust and vulnerability in familial relationships and producing shrouds of shame, guilt, and anguish.
The first call for reparations for survivors of Burge’s torture ring was made by Standish Willis, a civil rights attorney and founder of Black People Against Torture in the later 2000s. In 2010, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) invited the public to imagine what a public memorial would like in these cases, one of the proposals formed in the wake of Burge’s 2010 conviction. Although unable to be prosecuted for his crimes due to the statute of limitations running out, Burge was found guilty of perjury and obstruction for denying the torture he and others committed.
The call for a public memorial required Chicago communities to learn anew about the racism, violence and pain suffered by torture survivors and family members—and understand there has been a decades-long movement to address their abuse. Joey Mogul, a civil rights attorney and co-founder of CTJM, drafted a reparations ordinance for the Burge torture survivors, based on the input of the survivors and the United Nations’ principles of reparations, which includes restitution, rehabilitation, compensation, public acknowledgment and guarantees of non-refoulement, which guarantees that survivors will not be forced to return to the countries where they were tortured.
The ordinance was filed in Chicago’s City Council in 2013. In 2014-2015, CTJM, Project NIA, We Charge Genocide, and Amnesty International USA waged an interracial, intergenerational campaign during the electoral season and in the midst of the most active phase of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The Chicago City Council passed it unanimously. With the passage of this legislation, the city’s governing body made history. Chicago became the first U.S. municipality to pass legislation providing redress for racially motivated state violence.
This reparations ordinance provides five radically transformative elements:
1. Monetary compensation: The city created a $5.5 million reparations fund providing $100,000 or less to 57 torture survivors. To date, 56 Burge torture survivors received $100,000 from the city. A few survivors received a lower amount due to a previous settlement that had already been reached.
2. Mandatory teaching of CPD torture in all Chicago public schools for eighth grade and high school sophomore social studies’ classes.
3. Free access to all Chicago community colleges for torture survivors and their family members, including their grandchildren.
4. The creation of a therapeutic community center dedicated to addressing the psychological (but not physical) consequences that survivors and family endure.
5. The creation of a public memorial dedicated to the survivors of Chicago police torture and the struggle for justice. To date, it has not been funded by the city of Chicago.
A freer world is possible
For descendants of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, reparations need to be holistic in order to truly reflect how grandiose and encompassing the consequences of slavery still are. Slavery amassed historic wealth that funded the Industrial Revolution and modern-day capitalism. It also influenced the modern educational system, banking as we know it, and the framework for today’s property law. The slave system created a culture that relegated Black humanity to subhuman status in art, music, literature, and poetry. That cultural denigration was necessary to enact racialized Jim Crow laws and was the foundation of the white purity-Black savagery binary that defined who is and who is not an American, who is and is not a citizen.
And those arguments are at the heart of the most contentious issues today from children held in concentration camps at the border, to the juvenile jails and prisons in our inner cities. Slavery was about reshaping a world to support its racialized structural violence, violence which has affected every single aspect of life in the United States. Therefore, reparations must be as complex and nuanced in response—and include and extend beyond compensation for the fact of slavery itself.
The Chicago reparations ordinance for survivors of racialized police torture is what holistic reparations for survivors of the transatlantic slave trade in the United States could look like today and for what municipalities across the country. It could be replicated across the country and serve as an example for cities such as Los Angeles, which in 2014 led the nation in police killings; it surpassed Chicago by just three police-caused deaths.
Chicago’s reparations represents an evolution in how we are collectively understanding the reparatory responsibility of the state to policing and state violence as a whole.
But the vision laid out in the reparation ordinance has not yet been realized. The Chicago Torture Justice Center was not guaranteed funding from the city of Chicago beyond the end of this year, despite its groundbreaking work and status as the only center assisting survivors of domestic police torture. The city also has not yet agreed to fund the public memorial.
We need concrete material redress to account for the massive psychosocial and economic consequences of violence: the loss of years, lives, loves, income, education, health. That redress has to include familial, community, and individual care. But reparations must occur for all descendants of the multicentury system of human bondage and its vestiges, which present themselves in law enforcement, prisons, jails, and increasing methods of detention throughout the country.
When we collectively address the systemic forms of harm—in our economy, education, history, and our psyches—we can expand what’s possible for present-day descendants of enslaved people and those who’ve survived contemporary police and state violence.
When we close our eyes and imagine a society where a Black child can run free, explore their humanity without fear of torture, or beatings, jailings, and death, we do not have to imagine a distant future. That future exists in some part of the world right now and exists in some parts of this country right now for certain people. This is how we know that we can and will win.
Just as it may have once seemed that the slaveocracy would never end, some of us cannot imagine a future where reparations are the norm, where centers for healing from state violence are celebrated and supported as much as athletic sports, a future where the implementation of abolition is less of a dream to most but an expectation. That future can be right now if we make it.