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Chicago Students Watch Play To Learn History Of Police Torture

Actors with Timeline Theater Company performing the play “My Kind of Town” for Chicago Public School Students. Shannon Heffernan/WBEZ

Shannon Heffernan
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A couple hundred Chicago Public High School students crowded into a hall at the Chicago Teachers Union this week to watch the reading of a play on police torture in Chicago. It’s part of the city’s mandated curriculum to teach students about the history of police abuse. Torture survivor Darrell Cannon walked onto the stage to introduce the play they were about to watch.

“When you see this play today, take to heart that it can happen at anytime if we don’t stay on the case and if we, as a people, don’t hold the city of Chicago responsible,” said Cannon.

Cannon was tortured into giving a false confession to murder by officers who were part of the infamous “Midnight Crew,” a group of rogue cops under the watch of former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge. Over 100 people filed complaints of torture against them in the ‘70s and into the ‘90s.

The play, “My Kind of Town” by Chicago journalist John Conroy, is based on reporting Conroy did about the torture scandal for the Chicago Reader. It features a young black man who is facing the death penalty after he was tortured into making a confession. Students squirm as the young man describes how he was electrocuted on his genitals and suffocated with a plastic typewriter bag.

The scene is juxtaposed with another character, Detective Dan Breen, delivering a speech at a rally supporting law enforcement. “Look at our clearance rates, Christ, we were in the high 90s, twice we hit 100% …. we would have been ashamed to post anything less. We would have been letting down the community, the black community.”

The play, performed by Timeline Theater company, is just one piece of the unit students are studying on the torture scandal.

Chicago’s City Council approved an historic deal in 2015 to pay reparations to the survivors of police torture, and the deal included teaching young Chicagoans about the scandal.

The reparations curriculum is now part of the regular CPS curriculum and it encourages teachers to bring in larger social issues — like racism, segregation and housing policy — to explain how and why the torture happened. The curriculum also tells teachers not to be surprised if students make connections to current events and to “validate and welcome these connections.” At intermission, some students immediately begin talking about Laquan McDonald, while they balance paper plates with hot dogs and hamburgers on their laps.

One student, Alex Neal, said he was surprised to learn how many people were involved in the cover up of the torture scandal.

“It sounds like a lot of different people, the judges, the attorneys, the police officers, detectives, everybody in this system had a part to play in this,” said Neal.

After the play was over, students gathered around Cannon. They’d heard of him in class and came over to shake his hand and ask questions. Students told him they were grateful he was willing to talk about something difficult in his life, so they could learn about their city. One student asked if he could take a picture with Cannon, and Cannon agreed.

“These reparations [are] something we can hang our hat on,” he told the students. “We’re not through, but this is a start. Now we have a foundation we can stand on.”

Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice report for WBEZ. Follow her at @shannon_h.