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The Battle Over Teaching Chicago’s Schools About Police Torture and Reparations

Illustration by Cha Pornea

Peter C. Baker | Longreads and The Point | February 2019 | 35 minutes (8,900 words)

This story is produced in partnership with The Point and appears in issue no. 18.

“What do you know about Jon Burge?”

Barely seven minutes into her black-history elective on the morning of April 16th, Juanita Douglas was asking her students a question she’d never asked in a classroom before, not in 24 years of teaching in Chicago’s public schools. She’d been preparing to ask the question for over a year, and she knew that for many of her students the conversation that followed would be painful. Disorienting. She didn’t like the idea of causing them pain. She didn’t want to make them feel overwhelmed or lost. But she thought, or at least hoped, that in the end the difficulty would be worth the trouble.

It was only second period. Several of Douglas’s students — a mix of juniors and seniors — were visibly tired. A few slumped forward, heads on their desks. I was sitting in the back row, so I couldn’t tell for sure, but I thought one or two might be fully asleep. Some were stealthily texting or scrolling through Snapchat. Others were openly texting or scrolling through Snapchat.

After a few seconds, Douglas repeated the question: “Do you know Jon Burge?”

A ragged chorus of noes and nopes and nahs.

“Tell me again what year you were born in,” said Douglas, who is 54 and likes to playfully remind her students that they don’t know everything about the world.

2000. 2001. 1999.

“Okay,” she said. “Well… Welcome to Chicago.”

Like so many new curriculum units in so many high schools across America, this one began with the teacher switching off the lights and playing a video. Who was Jon Burge? The video supplied the answer. Burge was a former Chicago Police Department detective and area commander. Between 1972 and 1991 he either directly participated in or implicitly approved the torture of at least — and this is an extremely conservative estimate — 118 Chicagoans. Burge and his subordinates — known variously as the Midnight Crew, Burge’s Ass Kickers, and the A-Team — beat their suspects, suffocated them, subjected them to mock executions at gunpoint, raped them with sex toys, and hooked electroshock machines up to their genitals, their gums, their fingers, their earlobes, overwhelming their bodies with live voltage until they agreed: yes, they’d done it, whatever they’d been accused of, they’d sign the confession. The members of the Midnight Crew were predominately white men. Almost all of their victims were black men from Chicago’s South and West Sides. Some had committed the crimes to which they were forced to confess; many had not. The cops in question called the electroshock machines “nigger boxes.”

The video cut to Darrell Cannon, one of the Midnight Crew’s victims. He spoke about getting hauled by cops into a basement:

I wasn’t a human being to them. I was just simply another subject of theirs. They had did this to many others. But to them it was fun and games. You know, I was just, quote, a nigger to them, that’s it. They kept using that word like that was my name… They had no respect for me being a human being. I never expected, quote, police officers to do anything that barbaric, you know… You don’t continue to call me “nigger” throughout the day unless you are a racist. And the way that they said it, they said it so downright nasty. So there’s no doubt in my mind that, in my case, racism played a huge role in what happened to me. Because they enjoyed this. This wasn’t something that was sickening to them. None of them had looks on their faces like, ugh, you know, maybe we shouldn’t do this much. Nuh-huh. They enjoyed it, they laughed, they smiled. And that is why my anger has been so high. Because I continuously see how they smile.

Text on the screen explained that Burge was fired in 1993, following a lawsuit that forced the Chicago Police Department to produce a report on his involvement in “systematic torture,” written by its own Office of Professional Standards. After his firing Burge moved to Apollo Beach, Florida, where he ran a fishing business. In 2006 another internally commissioned report concluded that he’d been a torture ringleader, but still no charges were brought; the Illinois five-year statute of limitations for police brutality charges had by then expired. In 2008 FBI agents arrested Burge at his home, and creative federal prosecutors charged him — not with torture, but with perjury. In a 2003 civil case, Burge had submitted a sworn statement in which he denied ever taking part in torture. In 2010 a jury found him guilty. After the trial, jurors pointed out that the name of Burge’s boat — Vigilante — hadn’t helped his case.

As soon as the video ended and Douglas flipped the lights back on, her students — most of whom were, like her, black — started talking. Their confusion ricocheted around the room.

“How long did he get?”

“Four-and-a-half years.”

“He only got four-and-a-half years?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“I really feel some type of way about this.”

“Is he still alive?”

“I’ve got it on my phone.”

“He didn’t torture them alone. Why didn’t anyone else get charged?”

“I’ve got it on my phone. He’s still alive.”

“I’m just… angry.”

“He lives in Florida!”

“Didn’t no one hear the screams?” Read more…