By Vaidya Gullapalli, The Appeal

Breath Form & Freedom/Chicago Torture Justice Memorials.

Breath Form & Freedom/Chicago Torture Justice Memorials.

In 2015, the Chicago City Council passed a reparations ordinance. That ordinance, the first of its kind in the country, was the city’s official acknowledgment that Jon Burge, a Chicago police commander, and detectives under his command, “systematically engaged in acts of torture, physical abuse and coercion of African American men and women at Area 2 and 3 Police Headquarters from 1972 through 1991.”

The ordinance spelled out the gruesome nature of that torture—electric shock boxes or cattle prods to genitals, lips, and ears; suffocation with plastic bags; mock executions with guns; beatings with telephone books and rubber hoses; and other physical and psychological abuse—and that the trauma and damage caused continued to affect survivors, their families, African American communities, and the city.

Many of those tortured by Burge and his officers gave false confessions and went to prison. Several spent years on death row before they were exonerated.

For years, lawyers, judges, and journalists had a rough idea of what went on at Area 2 but did nothing to confront it. When the news about it began to break, it was only slowly. And acknowledgment and accountability were slow to come.

The choice of the term “reparations”—a topic of debate in narrower circles then than it is today —was deliberate. In an interview with the Washington Post immediately after the passage of the ordinance, Mariame Kaba, one of the advocates who had pushed for the ordinance, said use of the term “reparations” was important to capture the racism at work and that the compensation being offered was for violence by the state.

“The racial component of this is an essential part of the torture itself,” Kaba said. “The whole box that was used to electrocute them was called the‘n*****’ box,” she added. “It was painted black.”

The compensation that the ordinance laid out was meant to address multiple harms. It included a $5.5 million fund from which torture survivors, or their descendants, could receive up to $100,000 each; a guarantee that torture survivors and their family members could enroll at Chicago City Colleges for free; and the creation of a center on Chicago’s South Side for psychological counseling, healthcare, and vocational training that would be available to the survivors, their family members, and anyone else affected by law enforcement torture and abuse.

It also included two measures to make sure that the torture cases were not forgotten. First, it mandated that the curriculum in all the city’s public schools include a history lesson about “about the Chicago Police torture cases and the struggles to hold those accountable and to seek reparations for the survivors and affected family members.”

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Olivia McDowellComment