When Chicago Tortured

The Second City is still grappling with a long history of police brutality.

In response to the CIA torture report, President Obama stated that torture was "contrary to who we are." (Peter Beinart explained why this statement is not logically coherent last week.) But Obama didn't comment on how odd it is for a Chicago politician like him to claim that torture is somehow separate from the American experience. Chicago, as the president must know, has a dark legacy of torture and cover-ups for which the city is still trying to confront and atone. But whether Chicago ever will be willing to truly say that torture is "contrary to who we are" remains unresolved.

Chicago's history of torture is centered on police commander Jon Burge, who was assigned to Chicago's south side in 1972. Between then and 1981, Burge and his men used torture to elicit confessions from more than 110 African-American men. In addition to beatings, the police under Burge allegedly suffocated suspects with plastic bags and used electrical shocks to victims' genitals, a technique Burge may have learned as a military police investigator in Vietnam.  Burge also suffocated his victims with plastic bags. Anthony Holmes, one of the victims, provided this description of the torture in a statement to special prosecutors:

"[Burge] put some handcuffs on my ankles, then he took one wire and put it on my ankles, he took the other wire and put it behind my back, on the handcuffs behind my back. Then after that, when he—then he went and got a plastic bag, put it over my head ... so I bit through it. So he went and got another bag and put it on my head and he twisted it. When he twisted it, it cut my air off and I started shaking. ... So then he hit me with the voltage. When he hit me with the voltage, that's when I started gritting, crying, hollering … It feel [sic] like a thousand needles going through my body. And then after that, it just feel [sic] like, you know—it feel [sic] like something just burning me from the inside, and, um, I shook, I gritted, I hollered, then I passed out."

As with the CIA case, torture involved not only those who administered electric shocks and beatings, but those in power who directly or indirectly benefited from it. Despite widespread accusations of torture, Richard M. Daley, then the Cook County State's Attorney and later Mayor of Chicago, did not investigate Burge and continued to use confessions elicited by torture to make convictions.

Given Daley's power and a justice system where the testimony of arrested black men is rarely given the same weight as that of white police officers, it seemed impossible that justice would ever be done—as it seems impossible that justice will ever be done in the CIA torture case. But activists and torture survivors themselves continued to push the issue in the media, in the courts, and in the international community, winning one slow, improbable victory after another. In 2001, campaigners managed to convince then-Governor of Illinois George Ryan to pardon four men tortured by Burge, and commute all death sentences in the state because of concerns about the fairness of the state's justice system.

The statute of limitations for most of Burge’s alleged criminal acts ran out long ago, but prosecutors were still able to charge him with perjury because he had lied under oath about his acts of torture during a civil case. Though Burge was convicted in 2006, he was released in October after serving less than four years in prison, and a police board determined that he could retain his pension. Meanwhile, most of those Burge tortured have received no compensation. At least nineteen people who were convicted on the basis of confessions elicited with torture remain in prison.

In October 2013, Aldermen Proco Joe Moreno and Howard Brookins filed an ordinance in Chicago's City Council titled "Reparations for the Chicago Police Torture Victims." If passed, the ordinance would officially acknowledge and apologize for the torture committed, provide at least $20 million in reparations to the victims, provide resources for the legal defense of those victims still incarcerated, fund a memorial, and mandate a school curriculum focused on teaching about Burge's abuses. According to Moreno, who has been working on the issue of police torture since before he became alderman in 2010, the ordinance is necessary because "we're trying to wipe this scar off of Chicago."

"We need to be educated about and have education on this,” Moreno told me in an interview. “Look at what we're going through right now in Ferguson and New York with police brutality against African-Americans. This was the torture capital of the United States under John Burge. And it took so long to get it out into the open, and we need to make sure that people know about this so that it's not repeated, and so we know the injustices that happened here in Chicago."

Despite Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s acknowledgment that the city needs to address the damage done by Burge, action is more difficult. The ordinance has been stalled in the City Council by the administration for more than a year. Moreno says that supporters of the ordinance have been in meetings with the city and that he's hopeful that there will be a hearing no later than January, but the process remains grindingly slow. Even if the hearing is finally held, it's not certain that the ordinance has enough votes to pass despite substantial support. In the meantime, activists continue to lobby the city and Emanuel; a march was held on December 16.

The struggle to recognize and confront torture in Chicago mirrors the struggle to recognize and confront torture nationally. Joey Mogul, a partner at the People's Law Office and co-founder of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial who has been working on the Burge torture case for years, told me that "people like to make statements that we, as a country, are against torture. And I think those statements are important. But beyond those statements what we see is a series of equivocations, and these very distressing qualifications about what is torture and whether it happened."

In Chicago, she says, "I can say from the experience of the Burge torture cases, for years, political leaders, the media, they refused to even describe these acts—electrically shocking people on their genitals, suffocating people with plastic bags—as acts of torture. […] It's been a battle for us," she concluded, "and I think it's a battle to this day. What I see is that when we have domestic acts of torture by police and prison guards, mostly against African-American and Latino people within the United States, people do not want to describe those acts as torture."

A similar evasiveness can be felt in the debate surrounding the Senate torture report. Officials and even the media continue to refuse to use the word "torture" after the Senate report because of its moral, financial, and legal weight. That weight suggests the possibility—and even necessity—of accountability. Part of the power of the powerful, both historically and today, is the ability to victimize others without repercussions. That power can seem overwhelming; Mogul said that people told her, for years, that there was no way that Jon Burge would ever face jail time. But will Daley ever face any consequences for his role as a prosecutor in using confessions elicited by torture to rack up convictions, and ultimately to advance his career? Will George W. Bush or Dick Cheney ever be held accountable? The campaign against torture in Chicago should have taught Obama that torture is not contrary to who Americans are—unless, through decades of effort, injustice, and disappointment, the American people are willing to work to make it so.