Victims of police torture fight for reparations
The Homan Square facility, exposed as a CIA-style "black site" where police detainees would be brutalized without access to lawyers or relatives, is nothing new to those familiar with the violent legacy of police commander Jon Burge.
Mark Clements was 16 years old when Chicago police officers took him to an interrogation room and beat him until he falsely confessed to setting a fire that killed four people. Though his past was checkered, Clements hadn’t set the fire and he told as much to the attorney who came to oversee his confession. After the lawyer left the room, the officers returned and beat Clements again. They grabbed his testicles and squeezed until Clements once again agreed to confess. This time around he signed his name to it.
While it might sound like a story from Homan Square, Chicago’s police “black site” recently unearthed by The Guardian, Clement’s arrest took place over 30 years ago. On June 25, 1981, he joined the ranks of more than 100 black men and women who were tortured by police commander Jon Burge or his “midnight crew” of detectives on Chicago’s South Side from 1972-1991. Though the Homan Square reveal shocked the country, many local activists were unsurprised to hear that Chicago’s old police torture tactics had found a new home.
Based mostly on his coerced confession, Clements became the youngest person in the history of Illinois to get a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He spent nearly three decades in prison. Only a month before his arrest, Clements had become the father to a baby girl. The next time he greeted her in public, she was 28 years old. It was the day she picked him up from prison in 2009.
I first saw Clements on a rainy December morning at a protest in front of the Chicago Police Department Headquarters.
Now 50 years old, Clements is a civil rights activist who works to free those wrongfully convicted (he earned both his GED and his Bachelor’s Degree in prison). He’s congenial, with the air of a showman. When I arrived he was strolling up to strangers to introduce himself.
Called the “Holiday Action To Pass Reparations For Chicago Torture Survivors,” the protest began with a five-mile march from the Police HQ to the Mayor’s Office in City Hall, where we would deliver the signatures of 45,000 supporters.
The reparations ordinance is the brainchild of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, an organization that aims to honor and seek justice for police torture survivors. Officially released in 2013, the ordinance has languished in front of Chicago’s Finance Committee for over a year.
While it does seek financial reparations for survivors, the ordinance’s goals are also wide-reaching and community-based. For instance, CTJM demands a psychological counseling center on the South Side; free enrollment at City Colleges for survivors and their families; and public memorials to honor survivors and their struggle. (Memorial proposals can be submitted here.) The ordinance combines activism, history, and art while making very practical demands for justice—like evidentiary hearings for all torture survivors who remain behind bars.
Everything about the ordinance is purposeful—even its $20 million price tag reflects the more than $20 million of taxpayers’ funds the City of Chicago used to defend Burge. (By some counts, that number is closer to $100 million).
When we arrived at City Hall, organizers hoped to deliver their 45,000 petitions directly to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Instead a nervous looking aide greeted us. “The mayor is out to lunch,” he explained. Undeterred, CTJM continued with its programming. We heard from the mother of a torture survivor who remains in prison despite the fact that his confession was coerced. We built a memorial to the victims of police brutality. And we participated in a teach-in about the horrors of Burge’s reign. During all that time the mayor never returned from his lunch break.
(I reached out to the Mayor’s Office for comment on the ordinance and a representative explained the mayor is communicating with aldermen on the issue and willing to discuss proposals in the “near future.”)
That City Hall teach-in was the first time I saw torture survivor Darrell Cannon. Arrested for murder in 1983, Cannon was convicted based solely on his coerced confession and served 24 years in prison, nine of them at the Tamms supermax isolation prison where prisoners were allowed no physical contact at all. (The facility has since been shut down.)
Tall and lanky with large features and a big smile, Cannon is as charming, though not quite as ostentatious as Clements. The 63-year-old often speaks about his anger, but his tone is free of malice or resentment. Occasionally, however, he’ll trail off in the middle of a sentence as emotions overtake him. He’ll only start speaking once he’s sure his voice won’t break.
Cannon’s torture story is the hardest one for me to listen to. In a videotaped interview from 2012, Cannon describes how police drove him through a tunnel to a secluded area near some train tracks. He remembers the fine mist and the cold air. “Nigger look around,” they told him. “Nobody will hear or know anything about what’s happened to you.”
One of the officers pulled out a shotgun and a shell. He turned his back and pretended to load the bullet into the gun. Then he turned to Cannon, put the gun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. The third time this happened Cannon was convinced he could feel his head being blown off.
After their sadistic game of Russian roulette, the officers forced him to lie down in the back of their squad car, pulled his pants around his ankles, and used an electric cattle prod on his genitals. When Cannon screamed too loudly they used the prod on his mouth until he stopped. In the end he agreed to tell them anything they wanted to hear.
While the torture was undeniably horrific, Cannon’s story also epitomizes the complications of the demand for reparations. Most of the torture survivors are black men who were born into poverty on Chicago’s South Side and many were convicted criminals or gang members at the time of their arrest. Cannon was initiated into the El Rukn gang at 14 years old, spent two years in a juvenile detention center for shooting two rival gang members, and served 13 years on a murder rap before he was arrested and tortured by Burge.
In other words, many of these survivors aren’t ideal poster children for a country unwilling to discuss issues of institutionalized racism, poverty, and inner city crime. But a prior criminal record doesn’t nullify ones civil rights. Nor does it justify torture. The goal of the ordinance is not to turn these survivors into saints, it’s to recognize them as human beings—something juries failed to do when they sentenced dozens of black men to life in prison based on nothing more than coerced confessions and past criminal histories.
“I’ve never been an angel, nor have I been a monster,” Cannon explained in a 2009 interview. And that assessment seems about fair. The former gang leader now works as an activist against gang violence.
Though Mayor Emanuel has publicly acknowledged and apologized for this “dark chapter” of Chicago history, plenty of people are still unaware of Burge’s legacy. One of CTJM’s demands is that this history be taught in all Chicago public schools.
Jon Burge was only 22-years old when he joined the Chicago Police Department in 1970. A few years later—after being promoted to detective and assigned to Area 2 on Chicago’s South Side—he began torturing prisoners.
Burge, and at least 26 officers that worked with him, preferred methods that left little physical evidence, particularly “black boxes” that delivered electroshocks through alligator clips attached to their victim’s face or genitals. Anthony Holmes was one of the first targets of this technique. After being brought into the interrogation room on May 30, 1973, Burge covered Holmes’ face with a clear plastic bag, attached an electrical wire to his handcuffs, and sent painful shocks coursing through his body. In a 2006 deposition, Holmes explains: “When [Burge] lifted me off the floor the last time, I said, ‘This is it.’ Whatever you want me to say or do, I did it. ‘Kill the president?” Yeah, I did that too. I didn’t care. I just wanted out of there.” Holmes would serve 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Though this torture lasted only a few hours, it’s had a lifelong psychological impact. In 2011 testimony, Holmes explains:
I still have nightmares, not as bad as they were, but I still have them. I wake up in a cold sweat. I still fear that I am going to go back to jail for this again. I see myself falling in a deep hole and no one helping me to get out… I felt hopeless and helpless when it happened, and when I dream I feel like I am in that room again, screaming for help and no one comes to help me.
That’s precisely why CTMP is pushing for a counseling center and other health services for survivors.
Burge’s reign of torture couldn’t have happened without the complacent system around him. Those above him in the government and CPD likely ignored the “open secret” of what happened in Area 2, while the officers below him were probably emboldened by the idea that their torture was sanctioned by a superior officer. His techniques went unchecked for almost two decades.
It wasn’t until 1989 that the People’s Law Office began to piece together the true extent of Area 2’s misconduct while representing torture survivor Andrew Wilson. Thanks to an anonymous tip they discovered that dozens of other black men—most of them still in prison—had similar stories of electric shocks, sexual assault, brutal beatings, and mock executions. (The Chicago Reader documented the Wilson case in fantastic detail.) Though Burge and his fellow officers were acquitted in that case, the court of public opinion pushed back.
After an official review, Burge was fired in 1993. Evidence of his crimes continued to emerge throughout the 1990s. So many death row inmates were linked to police torture that Governor George Ryan commuted all death sentences in 2003. Both Amnesty International and the United Nations Committee Against Torture pushed the City of Chicago to bring Burge to justice.
Finally, in late 2008 Burge was arrested, not for torture—the statute of limitations had run out on those cases—but for perjury and obstruction of justice. At his trial in 2010 he was sentenced to only four and a half years in prison. Released early to house arrest last October, Burge is now living as a free man in Florida. Since he was not convicted of a felony, he still collects a full pension from the City of Chicago. (The Mayor’s Office says it’s looking for “a legal way to pull back Burge's pension,” which is one of CTJM’s demands.)
Emboldened by a legacy of activism, civil rights groups are once again pushing for justice. I spoke with CTJM organizer and People’s Law Office attorney Shubra Ohri who stressed the fact that although CTJM created the ordinance after years of community outreach, it’s since become a collaborative effort, especially as the Black Lives Matter movement draws new energy and attention to police brutality. That’s been evident in the reparations rallies I’ve attended over the past few months.
On a Monday evening in March—one far colder than that December rally—organizers from the group We Charge Genocide linked the history of Burge’s brutality to the present day atrocities at Homan Square while inviting 8th grade activists from Village Leadership Academy to speak to the potential for a better future.
Darrell Cannon was there as well, speaking to the crowd about the need to make their voices heard.
Amnesty International has launched its own campaign against Chicago torture, while Project NIA just created a #TeachBurge movement that provides educators with free online teaching guides. In its latest U.S. report, the UN Committee Against Torture threw its support behind the reparations ordinance after hearing presentations from We Charge Genocide and CTJM.
That collaborative spirit was also palpable on Valentine’s Day this year when more than 100 people attended the “Have Heart” rally in downtown Chicago. In a bright, warm church (a location far more comfortable than those outdoor rallies) we heard from poets, activists, singers, aldermen, teachers, and torture survivors including Mark Clements, Darrell Cannon, and Anthony Holmes. (The entire event was filmed by CAN TV and can be viewed here.)
We Charge Genocide organizer Page May summed up exactly why the reparations ordinance is so crucial at this particular moment:
People all around the country and all around the world even are asserting that ‘Black Lives Matter’ and that police violence needs to end. [But] so often I’m hearing people say ‘What is it that you actually want? What is it that you are protesting for?’ And I think this is a very specific moment of us moving from protest into politics. Into specific demands. Into something from protest into justice.
After the event, attendees took up black flags bearing the names of torture survivors.
Standing shoulder to shoulder they covered almost an entire city block. The stark visual was a reminder of both the human cost of Burge’s reign and the vast numbers still willing to fight for justice.
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