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Closing a 'dark chapter'

Updated: May 6, 2015

For Chicagoans, it’s now a familiar story.

More than 100 African American men were tortured between 1972 and 1991 by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and officers under his command. Last month, for the first time, survivors had the opportunity to share their experiences with some members of Chicago’s City Council. 

“Up until November 2, 1983, I had a partial idea of how black people felt in the South when they were terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan,” Darrell Cannon, a Burge victim, testified.

“In my case, I was tortured by the new wave klan. The new wave klan wore badges instead of sheets,” Cannon explained. 

According to his testimony, three detectives drove Cannon out to an empty lot on the city’s far South Side. There, they held a shotgun to his head and played Russian roulette. They told Cannon the game would go on until he told them what they wanted to hear.

Cannon spent two dozen years in prison for murder he says he didn’t commit. In 1988, the city offered Cannon, and he accepted, $3,000 to settle his torture complaint. Only a handful of Burge’s survivors have received compensation from the city.

That’s because the city doesn’t have to pay the victims--the statute of limitations has expired in most cases. But there have been strong arguments that for these men and the whole city to heal and move forward, Chicago must confront what Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called a “dark chapter” in the city’s history.

More than money

The reparations package, passed by the outgoing City Council Wednesday morning, calls for $5.5 million to be shared by living survivors with credible claims. The People’s Law Office, which has been working with victims for more than 20 years, estimates some 120 men would be eligible for reparations; each individual award would be capped at $100,000. The package also calls for a public apology, a permanent public memorial and a counseling center for victims and families on the city’s South Side. The ordinance does not specify how it will pay for the counseling center or where, specifically, it will be located.

And the “dark chapter” is to be taught in Chicago public schools. According to the city’s corporation counsel, Steve Patton, students in 8th and 10th grades would learn about the Burge torture cases in history class, beginning in the 2015-2016 school year. They’ll analyze primary source documents, review current cases of police brutality, and they’ll discuss ways to improve accountability and protections of civil rights.

Such public acknowledgment could help repair the public’s perception of police, according to former Chicago police officer and current 20th ward Ald. Willie Cochran.

“Just like all of the shootings and killings we see going across the country now, it makes it much more difficult for officers to get the respect from the communities that we deserve,” Cochran told a packed gallery at last month’s hearing.

Unanimous support

Before the City Council vote Wednesday, the names of more than a dozen torture victims and survivors were read and they stood while the council gave them a standing ovation.

"This stain cannot be removed from our city's history, but it can be used as a lesson of what not to do," Mayor Emanuel said.

The council voted 42-0 in favor of the reparations package, making Chicago the first city in the nation to do so.

Martha Biondi is a scholar of reparations and chair of the department of African American studies at Northwestern University. She said that by passing the reparations ordinance, Chicago could shift the national narrative around the relationship between people and the police.

“This reparations ordinance models a new paradigm, it models a new pathway to justice,” Biondi said.

Biondi believes America is at a crossroads.

“We’re in this crisis...it’s really becoming a crisis of governance, of democracy and of public safety,” she said.

But, she added, it’s up to the public to rethink and help change the rules around policing.

“Why have we accepted this kind of policing, in city after city after city, in the United States? In which there will be large financial settlements paid out to survivors or family members of police brutality but nothing happens to those officers,” Biondi said.

For his part, Darrell Cannon told the finance committee last month that no amount of money will make up for what he went through, or bring back the family that he lost while he was in prison. But still, he said, to make it this far was a victory in itself.

But, he added, if he gets some money from the city--he’s going to buy a motorcycle.

“I’m going to ride around City Hall--I’m gonna do a lap, to say, ‘Hey, thank you, for finally stepping up and doing the right thing,’” Cannon said with a smile. He even got a chuckle out of Finance Committee Chair Ald. Ed Burke.

He told the aldermen he was thankful that he was alive to witness the historic action--and asked them never to allow injustice of this nature to go this long unchecked.

“We are making history...we’re doing something that has not been did in any other state in the union. That’s saying something about Chicago, that’s saying something about Chicago politics,” Cannon concluded.

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