CW: descriptions of police torture
Anthony Holmes was one of more than 100 Black men tortured by Chicago police detective Jon Burge and his men between 1972 and 1991. He’s been waiting for the city to fully acknowledge the wrong done to him for almost 50 years. Now, Chicago may finally break ground on a memorial to survivors of police torture, assuring Holmes and other victims that the injustice inflicted on them won’t be justified or forgotten.
Holmes was arrested for murder in 1973. Police affixed electrodes to his handcuffs so he could be shocked without leaving marks and placed a bag over his head to suffocate him. He eventually confessed to a murder he didn’t commit just to get the torture to stop. He spent more than 30 years in prison before being released on parole in 2004.
“I thought I was dead three times,” he said. “And finally, I said, whatever you want me to say, I’ll say it.”
Police abuses often go unpunished and unacknowledged. But journalists, activists, and torture survivors worked tirelessly to hold Burge and the Chicago police accountable. Committed lawyers have helped exonerate survivors.
The Chicago City Council approved an unprecedented reparations package in 2015, which provided financial compensation for survivors. The package also mandated that a lesson about Chicago’s history of police torture be taught in public schools and established the Chicago Torture Justice Center on the city’s South Side, which provides clinical support to torture survivors and other victims of police violence. It also promised a permanent public memorial to survivors.
All but one of the provisions have been implemented. Eight years after the reparations package was passed, Chicago still has not broken ground on a memorial to torture survivors.
The delay is partly a matter of logistics; the reparations package had many parts, and it wasn’t possible to put everything in place immediately. The Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM), an artist and activist-led collective central to advocating and implementing reparations, only selected a design in 2019. The final memorial proposal by artists Patricia Nguyen and John Lee is a 1,600-square-foot building with open ceilings. Visitors will walk through a winding hallway and view information about the history of police torture and the names of victims inscribed on the walls.
A major barrier to building the memorial has been bureaucratic foot-dragging on the part of the city administration, according to Joey Mogul, initiator and co-founder of CTJM and a lawyer who has represented police torture survivors for more than 20 years.
“I think that we have not seen the political will to build this memorial in the past administrations, at least from the leadership of those administrations,” Mogul said.
While many people working in city government wanted to see the memorial built, Mogul said that neither Rahm Emanuel (who served as mayor from 2011 to 2019) nor Lori Lightfoot (who served from 2019 to 2023) made it a priority. Lightfoot claimed to support the memorial, but action was slow.
“I’ve never understood her personally to support reparations,” Mogul said.
The torture memorial was brought to light during the 2023 mayoral campaign. Lightfoot’s challenger for mayor, Brandon Johnson, was a signatory to an open letter to Lightfoot in October 2022 that demanded the city move forward with funding. Johnson’s detailed arts platform included a promise to fund the memorial as well.
When Johnson won the mayoral contest in April 2023, activists were hopeful. And so far, those hopes have been fulfilled, according to Jennifer Ash, the executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Foundation. She says CTJM saw movement on the memorial at the end of the Lightfoot administration—perhaps because the mayor felt pressure during the campaign. With Johnson as the current mayor, she said things are moving much more quickly.
“That transition made a difference,” Ash said.
The city announced this month that the Mellon Foundation agreed to fund several new memorials, including the memorial to victims of police torture. Just as importantly, after years of back and forth, the city has finally settled on a potential site on the South Side. There remains a number of hurdles—some parcels of the land still need to be acquired, and there is a ward approval process. As a result there has been no official announcement of the location yet. But Ash is optimistic.
“Our goal is to have it done in 2024,” she said. “It’s happening.”
The memorial has taken so long to build that, according to Mogul, two torture survivors have died waiting for its completion.
“They were reparations recipients, and they’re not alive now to see what was built in their honor,” Mogul said. “For so long, not only were individuals tortured, but they were disbelieved. And I think the foot-dragging by the political leadership reopens old wounds about feeling disbelieved and discarded.”
“People wouldn’t listen to us,” Holmes said. “We’d tell them what was going on, but they didn’t want to hear it. Lawyers were turning the cases down. Judges were tied up in this mess. All of this was coming from the city attorney’s office, which [then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M.] Daley [who later became mayor] was in charge of.”
Burge and his men perpetrated the torture, but the city’s entire justice system was implicated in accepting coerced confessions and sending innocent men like Holmes to prison. Police violence in Chicago also continues. A 2017 Justice Department report following the 2014 police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald found that the Chicago Police Department “engages in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.” It also found that the CPD fails to “conduct meaningful investigations of uses of force”—just as the CPD failed to investigate or hold officers accountable for torturing suspects for decades.
The Torture Justice Memorial won’t fix or transform the CPD. But advocates say it will serve as a reminder of Chicago’s history of racist policing—and also a tribute to activists and survivors who fought and won justice despite a system designed to deny accountability and silence survivors.
“I don’t mind talking about something that happened; that’s the truth,” Holmes said.
The memorial will fix that truth on the ground.