The long read: For decades, a gang of Chicago police tortured and forced confessions from people in custody. Now, in a historic move, the city is teaching this shameful history in schools but not everyone thinks it should
What do you know about Jon Burge? On the morning of 16 April 2018, Juanita Douglas was asking her students a question shed never asked in a classroom before, not in 24 years of teaching in Chicagos public schools. Shed been preparing to ask the question for over a year, and she knew that for many of her students the conversation that followed would be painful. Disorienting. She didnt like the idea of causing them pain. She didnt want to make them feel overwhelmed or lost. But she thought, or at least hoped, that in the end the difficulty would be worth the trouble.
It was only second period. Several of Douglass students were visibly tired. A few slumped forward, heads on their desks. Some were stealthily texting or scrolling through Snapchat. Others were openly texting or scrolling through Snapchat.
After a few seconds, Douglas repeated the question: Do you know Jon Burge?
A ragged chorus of noes and nopes and nahs.
Tell me again what year you were born in, said Douglas, who is 54 and likes to playfully remind her students that they dont know everything about the world.
2000. 2001. 1999.
OK, she said. Well welcome to Chicago.
Douglas switched off the lights and played a video. Who was Jon Burge? The video supplied the answer. Burge was a former Chicago police department detective and area commander. Between 1972 and 1991 he either directly participated in or implicitly approved the torture of at least and this is an extremely conservative estimate 118 Chicagoans. Burge and his subordinates known variously as the Midnight Crew, Burges Ass Kickers, and the A-Team beat their suspects, suffocated them, subjected them to mock executions at gunpoint, raped them with sex toys, and hooked electroshock machines up to their genitals, their gums, their fingers, their earlobes, overwhelming their bodies with live voltage until they agreed: yes, theyd done it, whatever theyd been accused of, theyd sign the confession.
The members of the Midnight Crew were predominately white men. Almost all of their victims were black men from Chicagos South and West Sides. Some had committed the crimes to which they were forced to confess; many had not. The cops in question called the electroshock machines nigger boxes.
The video cut to Darrell Cannon, one of the Midnight Crews victims. He spoke about getting hauled by cops into a basement: I wasnt a human being to them. I was just simply another subject of theirs. They had did this to many others. But to them it was fun and games. You know, I was just, quote, a nigger to them, thats it. They kept using that word like that was my name.
Text on the screen explained that Burge was fired in 1993, following a lawsuit that forced the Chicago police to produce a report on his involvement in systematic torture, written by its own office of professional standards. After his firing, Burge moved to Apollo Beach, Florida, where he ran a fishing business. In 2006, another internally commissioned report concluded that hed been a torture ringleader, but still no charges were brought; Illinois five-year statute of limitations for police brutality charges had by then expired. In 2008, FBI agents arrested Burge at his home, and creative federal prosecutors charged him not with torture, but with perjury. In a 2003 civil case, Burge had submitted a sworn statement in which he denied ever taking part in torture. In 2010 a jury found him guilty.
As soon as the video ended and Douglas flipped the lights back on, her students most of whom were, like her, black started talking. Their confusion ricocheted around the room.
How long did he get?
He only got four-and-a-half years?
Thats what Im saying.
I really feel some type of way about this.
Is he still alive?
Ive got it on my phone.
He didnt torture them alone. Why didnt anyone else get charged?
Ive got it on my phone. Hes still alive.
Im just angry.
He lives in Florida!
Didnt no one hear the screams?
Douglass students didnt yet know it, but they were not the only Chicago students wrestling with Jon Burge and the Midnight Crew last spring. In fact, teachers and students at each of the citys 644 public schools were figuring out how to talk about the cops of the Midnight Crew. Teachers were going down this path whether they wanted to or not. There was no choice: it was an official requirement, codified in city law.
This classroom initiative is part of a historic, novel and perplexingly under-covered development in the ever-more urgent search for solutions to the cumulative harm inflicted on Americans especially black Americans in the name of law and order. On 6 May 2015, in response to decades of local activism, Chicagos city council passed a resolution officially recognising that Burge and his subordinates had engaged in torture, condemning that torture, and offering his victims (or at least some of them) compensation for their suffering.
The resolution is a singular document in American history. Torture accountability even basic torture honesty has been a perennial nonstarter in US politics. Reparations, especially those with a racial component, have long been treated as, alternately: an incoherent absurdity; a frightening threat; a nice-sounding but impractical rallying cry; or, more recently, in the wake of the National Magazine Award-nominated essay in the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as a worthy but still essentially utopian demand. But within Chicago city limits, reparations for police torture isnt just a thought exercise, a rhetorical expression about what should exist in a better world. Its Chicago city council resolution SR2015-256: an official political promise.
If you enjoyed our content, we'd really appreciate some "love" with a share or two.
And ... Don't forget to have fun!