Jun 12, 2019

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Will Chicago get a memorial to honor the survivors of police torture?

  • A troubled Virginia jail looks to add guards, but advocates push for decarceration

  • Trial of No More Deaths volunteer ends in a mistrial

  • Northern Virginia victories for progressive prosecutors

  • San Francisco will end jail phone charges and commissary markups

  • Federal judge rules that St. Louis cannot jail people over inability to pay bail

In the Spotlight

Will Chicago get a memorial to honor the survivors of police torture?

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.”

Second, it included the city’s commitment to support the creation of a public memorial in honor of the Chicago Police torture survivors and their struggle for justice.

The memorial is the last part of the reparations plan to be implemented. The Chicago Torture Justice Memorials formed a decade ago to push for reparations and the memorial. This week the group selected the final design for a memorial and now they are pushing Mayor Lori Lightfoot to allocate money and land for it. According to the design, the memorial would be a stone monument with the names of those tortured by Burge and his officers and the dates they were tortured. The memorial would also include a public space where people would gather.

Joey Mogul of the People’s Law Office, who represented many of the torture survivors and was a co-founder of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, told the Chicago Tribune: “There is no better way in my opinion to name racism … than the city of Chicago building a memorial about these racially motivated police torture cases.” The group is calling for the memorial to be on the South Side, where the torture took place.

An advisory team to Mayor Lightfoot recommended, in a transition report, that she fund the memorial and other reparation initiatives from the ordinance, in her first 100 days in office.

Chicago’s acknowledgment and historic reparations ordinance may, in retrospect, seem the result of an especially heinous set of actions being brought to light, but survivors and advocates fought for acknowledgment and accountability for years. That activism had far-reaching consequences, including the moratorium on the death penalty declared in 2010, but there were few guarantees. As Peter C. Baker wrote last year, in an article about the teaching of the history of the torture in Chicago schools, the reparations ordinance is “a singular document in American history. Torture accountability—even basic torture honesty—has been a perennial nonstarter in U.S. politics.”

The cost of silence in Chicago was high. Years went by without police leadership, prosecutors, or Mayor Richard Daley acknowledging the torture. Burge was fired in 1993, but the statute of limitations on his crimes passed well before prosecutors were willing to take a close look. When federal prosecutors eventually brought charges against him, they were for lying to federal investigators rather than for his involvement in torture. He went to prison in 2010, and then returned to Florida after his release four years later. No one else was prosecuted. By the time Burge died last year, Chicago had spent $100 million on legal fees and settlements on the torture cases.

A public memorial is not a guarantee against forgetting or against future violence. But it is a reminder that the present is traceable to a past when people tortured by law enforcement in this country fought to make their experiences known and part of official history—and won.

Stories From The Appeal

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Alexa Welch Edlund/AP Images

A Troubled Virginia Jail Looks To Add Guards, But Advocates Push For Decarceration. As the Hampton Roads Regional Jail proposes spending $7 million for 113 new guards, advocates renew calls for officials to improve conditions—and an Appeal analysis suggests that the jail could save millions by incarcerating fewer people with mental illness. [Aaron Morrison and Jonathan Ben-Menachem]

Stories From Around the Country

Trial of No More Deaths volunteer ends in a mistrial: The federal trial of Scott Warren, who had cared for two migrants crossing the Arizona desert in the heat of summer in 2017, ended in a mistrial yesterday after the jury was unable to reach a verdict. The jurors were split, eight in favor of acquittal and four in favor of conviction. The judge has scheduled a conference for July 2 to discuss how to proceed in the case. Mr. Warren was charged by federal prosecutors with three felony charges for what they claimed was an attempt to shield the men from law enforcement. But the case was widely viewed as an example of the criminalization of humanitarian assistance for migrants making the dangerous, even deadly, crossing into the United States. (Yesterday’s Daily Appeal looked at the problem with laws and law enforcement officials criminalizing humanitarian aid.) [Miriam Jordan / New York Times]

Northern Virginia victories for progressive prosecutors: In Arlington and Fairfax counties yesterday, incumbent district attorneys lost in the Democratic primaries to challengers who pledged to use their prosecutorial power very differently. Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and a former public defender, defeated Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos. Former federal prosecutor Steve T. Descano defeated Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh. Both candidates pledged to end prosecutions for marijuana possession and to not seek the death penalty, and they advocated for the end of cash bail. (In interviews with The Appeal: Political Report Dehghani-Tafti and Descano described how they would end mass incarceration in their jurisdictions.) They also criticized the incumbents for joining a lawsuit against gubernatorial efforts to restore the right to vote for people with felony convictions. [Justin Jouvenal and Rachel Weiner / Washington Post]

San Francisco will end jail phone charges and commissary markups: San Francisco will make all phone calls from jail free and will also end markups on commissary items in an effort to make it easier for incarcerated people to stay in touch with their loved ones and ease some of the immense financial burden on the support networks of people who are jailed. City officials estimate that the change will save people in jail and their families about $1.7 million a year. KQED reports that an analysis by the city treasurer showed that 90 percent of the costs of phone calls and commissary items are borne by support networks, made up overwhelmingly of low-income women of color. The county made phone calls to lawyers from jail free in 2014, and last year it eliminated administrative fees for people involved in the criminal legal system, writing off $32 million in debt. New York City made phone calls from jail free last year and reported a 37 percent increase in calls almost immediately. [Marisa Lagos / KQED]

Federal judge rules that St. Louis cannot jail people over inability to pay bail: Ruling on motions for class certification and a preliminary injunction by the plaintiffs, a federal district judge ruled that the St. Louis jail cannot hold people merely because they are unable to pay bail. She gave city officials one week to hold new hearings for people in jail right now. The lawsuit, which was granted class action status, was brought by jailed people alleging violations of their constitutional rights in bond hearings that failed to consider their ability to pay. In her ruling, the judge wrote that bail hearings as currently conducted “fall short of constitutional standards” and that the plaintiffs “have a high probability of prevailing on the merits” in the underlying lawsuit, which will continue. “Ample evidence in the record shows that the duty judge presiding over initial appearances rarely considers information about an arrestee’s financial circumstances because the bond commissioner rarely provides it and arrestees are instructed not to speak,” the ruling says. [Robert Patrick / St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.