As they applaud the achievement after decades of fighting racial brutality, supporters are focused on the future: ‘This is just the beginning’
For the black men who lived through torture orchestrated by Chicago police commander Jon Burge, and for the lawyer and journalist who pursued him, the city’s establishment of a reparations fund has transformed an impossible dream into a model for a country currently reckoning with racialized police brutality.
“This is something that sets a precedent that has never been done in the history of America,” said Darrell Cannon. “Reparations given to black men tortured by some white detectives. It’s historic.”
Cannon survived an act of badge-protected savagery. In 1983, officers who suspected him of murder and who answered to Burge took an electric cattle prod to Cannon’s testicles. They opened his mouth and pushed in the barrel of a shotgun, pulling the trigger three times on a weapon Cannon did not know was empty.
Like torture inflicted by security forces throughout history, what happened to Cannon was not a random act of sadism. It had a specific result: getting Cannon to confess to a murder he did not commit. Only after 24 years of incarceration, including a stint on death row, did Illinois release him.
“If you stay the course,” Cannon, now 64 years old, told the Guardian hours after the Chicago city council voted on Wednesday to establish a $5.5m reparations fund for Burge’s victims, “you can affect the change.”
The funds will be used to pay up to $100,000 per individual for living survivors with valid claims to have been tortured in police custody during Burge’s command
Gregory Banks was 20 years old when Burge associates John Byrne and Peter Dignan came for him. Handcuffed to a bolt in the wall of Burge’s Area 2 headquarters in 1983, Banks had Byrne’s gun stuffed in his mouth after he denied, truthfully, committing a different murder. He was hit with a flashlight, kicked and had a bag stuffed over his head to suffocate him.
Before the bag came on, Banks would later testify, Dignan told him: “We have something special for niggers.”
Banks served seven years in prison before his own exoneration. On Wednesday, he told the Guardian: “This is just the beginning. There’s a lot more work we have to do, a lot more individuals locked up that must be free” – victims of police abuse, coerced confessions, illicit surveillance, prosecutorial misconduct and other excesses institutionalized in what activists call America’s “carceral state”.
“Nobody believes them, but we believe them,” Banks said, “because we know it happens, because it happened to us.”
Flint Taylor believed them. With his colleagues, Taylor, a longtime civil rights attorney in Chicago, spent three decades pursuing Burge and seeking justice for the police commander’s crimes.
Like Cannon and Banks, Taylor was less interested in reflecting on a milestone achievement than he was in looking forward to the implications the reparations fund has for addressing the racialized police crisis that a new generation of activists nationwide has brought out of the shadows.
“Hopefully it’ll be a beacon for other cities here and across the world for dealing with racist police brutality so prevalent in the past in this country and, we’re unfortunately seeing, continues to this day,” Taylor said.
John Conroy also believed men like Cannon and Banks. As a reporter for the alternative Chicago Reader, Conroy dug into the shocking stories of people like Andrew Wilson, a cop killer whom Burge’s police tortured. While he and his editors thought they would soon get scooped by the larger local media, other journalists showed little interest.
Conroy said he thought “the dailies were going to pick this up and we couldn’t compete. They didn’t. A couple years later there were police board hearings about other torture and it was covered like a fire: [for just] one day. There was sort of daily coverage, but no one said: ‘If he tortured Andrew Wilson and maybe it looks like other people, [then] what about those other people?’”
Now out of journalism and working as director of investigations for DePaul University’s legal clinic, Conroy considers Burge “not a monster, as people make him out to be”, but instead the product of a comprehensive institutional failure.
“This would not have happened if he had been properly supervised; it would not have happened if the courts stepped in; if prosecutors had not turned a blind eye; if courts had not ignored patterns they’d seen. The media shares some blame, as does the clergy, the bar associations – look wherever you want,” Conroy said.
“The ordinance is part of a very long history here in Chicago,” Jason Tompkins, a lead coordinator of Black Lives Matter Chicago, told the Guardian.
Tompkins says it is important that people be reminded that the survivors of Burge’s torture were mostly young black men like Banks at the time. And with almost all living survivors now well into their 60s, he sees this passage as a testament to their own persistence.
Over the past few months, Tompkins’ group has been helping organize rallies for both this fund and more recent allegations of police misconduct at the Chicago police facility known as Homan Square.
“With this ordinance, we are talking about very specific survivors under Burge, but we know full well that a lot of things that would fit the international definitions of torture have happened in this city after Burge.”
The establishment of the fund comes at a time where the nation is seeing national organizing around police violence led by groups such as Black Lives Matters. Those in Chicago who have helped organize for this package see the national context as a vital part to its success.
“I think the national context has perhaps given Chicago elected officials the courage to be different,” Martha Biondi, chair of the African American Studies department at Northwestern University and a member of the negotiating committee for the ordinance said on Wednesday.
A scholar of social movements, she said she hopes the fund will be seen as a model for justice by others across the country and a way to “imagine a different future” in regards to justice for victims of police violence.
Mariame Kaba is the executive director of Project NIA and has been actively raising awareness of the ordinance. She found Wednesday to be a testament to “years of organizing and protests and investigative journalism” that helped bring to light survivors’ stories that led to justice.
While she said she could talk about the struggle and all the work that still needs to be done in the city, she instead took the day to “savor that sometimes we do win …We sometimes do.”
Cannon said he considers the fund “a beautiful start”, and hopes the long, persistent, patient struggle of torture survivors and activists will resonate around the country – particularly after the riots in Baltimore from people fed up after the death of Freddie Gray.
“Here in Chicago we didn’t burn anything down, we didn’t destroy any of our buildings and property. I’m not downgrading anybody else who chose whatever route they chose; it’s what they felt they needed to do, in Baltimore, et cetera. But here in Chicago we tried to do it the right way by being within the law. It’s a prime example of what we can do,” Cannon said.
Cannon continued: “Nothing is easy, especially of this nature, getting people to change their way of thinking how they view people. I’m hoping this will be a catalyst this coming summer, so they’ll say: ‘Chicago did not burn, they pushed for reparations, they went on a campaign to do it the proper way, without violence.’ I hope it’ll be a springboard for other cities this coming summer.”