A new $6.8 million grant from private donors will fund new city monuments — including the “Chicago Torture Justice Memorial” on the South Side.
Mayor Brandon Johnson and other city officials spent part of Monday’s Juneteenth holiday at an event to announce the donation from the Mellon Foundation.
The memorial to survivors of torture at the hands of the Chicago Police Department will be dedicated to victims of former Commander Jon Burge and his notorious “Midnight Crew” — who are believed to have coerced false confessions from more than 100 people, most of them Black men, between the 1970s and the 1990s.
Johnson said the city would contribute an additional $1 million and land for the torture memorial, which has been promised since 2015.
“I’m humbled to have the opportunity to finally complete this project,” the mayor said. “The brutality of police has caused tremendous harm, to not just a generation, but to generations of people.”
At the news conference to announce the grant, Johnson embraced Anthony Holmes, who alleged that he was tortured by Burge and another officer into confessing to a murder he did not commit. Holmes was imprisoned for decades but testified against Burge in his federal perjury trial, and he received a public apology from the police superintendent in 2017.
On Monday, Holmes said the memorial was an important way to keep history from repeating itself at the Chicago Police Department.
“For so long, we thought we weren’t going to get it,” Holmes said of the memorial. “The main thing is, we’re here, we’re going to continue to be here, we’re going to continue to support our city.”
After the announcement, Johnson – who won the mayoral election in April against an opponent endorsed by the police union – faced questions about violent crime in the city over the holiday weekend.
“The strategy has to be smart and constitutional,” the mayor replied. “We’re all in this together, and we are going to come out of this together.”
The police torture memorial was designed by artist Patricia Nguyen and architectural designer John Lee.
The Mellon Foundation launched its “Monuments Project” in 2020 and vowed to spend $250 million over five years “to reimagine and rebuild commemorative spaces and transform the way history is told in the United States.”
The newly announced grant to Chicago is the initiative’s largest grant at this point, according to city officials.
The funding from the Mellon Foundation also will help seven other projects, including efforts to commemorate the 1919 Chicago race riots, labor activist Mother Jones and Native Americans.
Chicago, like other U.S. cities, has experienced a public reckoning over works of public art that memorialize slaveholders, segregationists and colonizers. Johnson’s predecessor, Lori Lightfoot, launched a Chicago Monuments Project to grapple with the history of these monuments while also figuring out how to make public space for new artworks.
The group ultimately made public a slate of recommendations that included removing a monument downtown of fascist leader Italo Balbo and adding information to a statue of the first U.S. president and enslaver George Washington. The group also called for a wave of new public art that better represents the city.
Lightfoot declined to endorse the recommendations and said she needed more time to review them. Some members of the monuments committee said they hoped Johnson — who as a candidate called for full funding and construction of a memorial to Burge’s victims — would do more to usher in a new era of public art.
But Monday, Johnson did not take a position when asked about the recommendations regarding other, existing monuments.
“There was a community process, and I’m going to continue to provide as much space and room as necessary in order to make sure that the community, the people of Chicago, get to help provide that direction,” he said. “I’m not a dictator. I’m an organizer.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter for WBEZ.