In 2015, the Chicago City Council passed a historic reparations ordinance for survivors of police torture under the hand of Cmdr. Jon Burge. Reparations is more than money and an apology. It’s counseling, a unit for Chicago Public Schools students to learn about the saga and free city college tuition. The final component is a public memorial that has yet to be erected in the city.
“Still Here: Torture, Resiliency and the Art of Memorializing,” a new art exhibition at the Washington Park Arts Incubator on Chicago’s South Side, showcases six design proposals submitted by commissioned artists.
Hannah Jasper co-curated the exhibition with Anthony Holmes, a survivor of police torture. He told his story to all of the artists before they started creating.
“And in doing so, he would always look at people and say, ‘But we’re still here.’ And that became my ethos while I was curating the whole show and that’s where the title from the exhibition comes through,” Jasper said.
The pieces range from conceptual to large-scale installation. Artist Juan Chavez designed terrarium with black-eyed Susans and aloe because they represent healing, a common theme in the pieces.
Sonja Henderson’s concept is to create 110 cast aluminium chairs. Each chair will have the name, abduction date, release or death date. The chairs are in circles and in between plants like lavender, sage and thyme.
“So that when the visitors and survivors come to this space, it is a completely regenerative and healing space,” Henderson said.
Monica Chadha and Nelly Agassi created benches that represent a life taken. Andres Hernandez envisions a Day of Remembrance. Preston Jackson designed a sculpture that looks like an abstract chair. Patricia Nguyen and John Lee propose a circular memorial with survivor names.
For two decades, Burge and others in his midnight crew tortured black and brown men. Many of the victims ended up on Death Row, wrongfully convicted because their confessions were coerced.
In 1973, while in police custody, Holmes found himself in the back of a police investigation room. Burge put a plastic bag over his head and used an electrical shock box, which he dubbed the “nigger box,” to blast him. Holmes falsely confessed to a murder he didn’t commit — and spent decades in prison.
He said the memorial is for survivors and the public.
“For us, it’s a place we can go to, reminisce and transcend with ourselves. But it can show them. Give them a part of us. It won’t put them back in the place with us but it’ll show them what we went through and how we adapted. But the main thing is we’re trying to show them it happened, we can’t change that. By you knowing what’s going on, you get an understanding of what’s going on,” Holmes said.
The long road to reparations began with a speculative art exhibit in 2012 recognizing many victims of police torture. The radical imagination of artists and organizers inspired others to research reparations in other global cities, deliver fiery testimonials before the United Nations, and to demonstrate through marches, petitions, Twitter campaigns, sit-ins and makeshift memorials. The group Chicago Torture Justice Memorials emerged, building upon the work of attorney Standish Willis, who represented victims of Burge’s torture.
Human rights attorney Joey Mogul negotiated the reparations package with the city.
“We will insist that this story of torture, struggle and love be inscribed in the landscape of Chicago. We will insist that this racist state violence be inscribed in the landscape of Chicago,” Mogul said.
“Still Here” is open until April 26. This spring a panel of survivors, artists and organizers will choose one of the proposals as the public memorial. A location hasn’t been determined.