Chicago made history today as the first municipality in the United States to pass legislation providing reparations for victims of police torture. The landmark policy will allot financial compensation to the mostly African-American men tortured from 1972 to 1991 under Area 2 Commander John Burge and his infamous “midnight crew.” The legislation gives victims access to psychological counseling, education and job training, and mandates that public schools teach about the torture; a permanent memorial will also be erected in the city.
More than 100 victims are estimated to have been subjected to heinous abuse under Burge and his cohorts, and still suffer from the psychological aftermath. “People were electrically shocked on their genitals, people were suffocated with plastic bags, people were beaten with telephone books and flat jacks, others were subjected to mock execution,” including via stimulated Russian roulette, Joey Mogul, an attorney who has worked with victims of Chicago police torture for 18 years, tells Rolling Stone.
“In some cases [the torture] led to false confessions,” Mogul says. One of those cases was that of Mark Clements, who was arrested at age 16 for allegedly starting a fire that killed four people in 1981. “I had my genitals grabbed and squeezed – that is, of course, after I had been beat by a detective that worked under John Burge,” Clements tells Rolling Stone. Clements confessed in order to stop the torture, and then was sentenced to life without parole. He spent 28 years in prison before a professor working on a juvenile innocence project helped secure his release and clemency.
The fund will provide up to $100,000 for dozens of credible victims who have not sued or cannot do so due to an expired statute of limitations.
Most important to advocates, however, is that the torture and suffering of black communities in Chicago has become entrenched in the city’s history, and now some measure of healing can begin for victims and their families.
“Many torture survivors as well as family members tell us to this day that they are suffering from the torture that occurred. They have flashbacks and nightmares and they really need help,” says Mogul.
The free counseling, education and job training services will also apply to the families of victims, including grandchildren, helping to undo the systemic burdens state violence has inflicted on communities. It’s landmark legislation that may provide a template for organizers advocating for justice for police violence in cities across the country.
“We’re the first municipality in the history of the country to make reparations for racialized police torture and violence, and I hope that other jurisdictions and other municipalities follow suit,” Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA, an organization that helped push through the reparations, tells Rolling Stone. “It’s one thing to sue civilly for money and damages. It’s another thing to insist that people receive care for the trauma they’ve experienced. It’s another thing to insist that people get education and their kids benefit and grandkids benefit. It’s another thing to really focus on the importance of memorializing the harm done, the atrocities visited upon real people.”
Chicago has allotted $5.5 million to be doled out to dozens of police torture victims – a drop in the bucket compared to the $100 million spent on restitution for lawsuits linked to Burge’s abuse, and the $20 million spent defending him and his team. Commander Burge was never charged for crimes directly related to the physical violence he unleashed on criminal suspects, but he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for lying under oath about the torture. This February, Burge was released from home confinement.
"This is another step, but an essential step, in righting a wrong — removing a stain," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said of the reparations legislation. “Chicago will finally confront its past and come to terms with it and recognizing something wrong was done."
Of the elected officials “congratulating each other on behalf of this historic legislation,” Kaba says that they didn’t “decide to do the right thing,” but rather were “pushed to do the right thing” by relentless grassroots organizing. The bill was pushed by groups like Amnesty International, Project NIA, We Charge Genocide and the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial, of which Mogul is a co-founder.
The fight is still on, and one of the next steps, advocates say, is finding justice for victims of police violence who are still behind bars. For Clements, this is especially important. “The torture scandal that has dogged Chicago is not over,” he says, “because these men are still languishing inside of prison.”