It had been easy, perhaps, to joke about Michael Kill: a caricature of an old white villain on the wrong side of history. But there were no jokes to tell about Ronald Kitchen. “Do you know how many of the police went to jail?” asked a black girl toward the front of the class, referring to all the other Midnight Crew members besides Burge. It wasn’t the first time one of Douglas’s students had posed the question, and it wouldn’t be the last. Each time, the answer was the same: zero.
“How do you grow from there?” asked a Latina girl. “How do you grow from such a horrible time in your life?”
After class that day, I stayed behind to look at what everyone had written on their reflection sheets. Douglas collected these almost every day, and she often let me look at them, wanting me to understand that the reactions I saw during class were only part of the story. Many of her students rarely spoke unless forced to. On their reflection sheets, however, freed from their worry about how a roomful of their fellow teenagers would respond, these same students would often write searching, poignant reflections, and pose deep questions (“why haven’t we heard about this?” one of them wrote after the very first day of “Reparations Won”). On the day of the Kitchen video, their comments were particularly painful to read:
that could be me!
This affects how my life will be, because when I decide to create a family I will constantly be in fear if my husband is safe or my children if I have a son I have to fear he may get stopped by the police.
it could be my boyfriend, dad, cousins, etc.
This is stuff that I see in movies and may encourage if I don’t like the bad guy, but it’s unimaginable to think about in real life
this was like being a slave, but in the 90s
My dad just got pulled over recently and he wasn’t tortured but what if this did happen to him?
My father was also framed with something he didn’t do. (He’s been in there since I was 3 and is getting out in 2027.)
The longer I spent in Douglas’s class, the more I wished I’d managed to find a way into more schools. Some teachers met with me, or spoke with me on the phone, to recall their experiences with the curriculum, but there was no substitute for being there: for taking in the atmosphere in the room as a group of young people made contact with the Burge saga. I came to feel that this atmosphere was history itself—not the professional intellectual enterprise regulated by peer review and professional standards, not the subject of polished magazine articles, but the living tangle of connections between past and present that is always available to us, sometimes as inspiration or solace, sometimes a burden, most often both at once. This sense of history, of course, will be central to any serious attempt at reparations in America. At Lincoln Park High, I was watching students dive into the living tangle—watching them pull out this strand, that strand, and ask what they meant, where they belonged.
I was especially curious about what was going on at other schools because of the criticisms of the curriculum that had surfaced in local media. On September 14, 2017—less than a month after the curriculum was unveiled—the now-defunct local news site DNAinfo ran a story about a meeting between parents, faculty and staff at Edison Park Elementary, on the cop-heavy Northwest Side. All of the parents quoted in the article were opposed to “Reparations Won.”
“You’re taking eighth graders and trying to mold their minds with material that is highly confrontational and controversial,” said Angela McMillin, who described herself as “infuriated, appalled and disgusted” by the curriculum. “It’s contradictory to how they live their personal lives with their families, where they eat dinner every night and celebrate Christmas … I think it’s deplorable.” McMillin wanted to opt her daughter, an eighth grader, out of the curriculum.
The school’s principal, Jeffrey Finelli, informed her that this would not be possible. “It would be a little like saying, ‘I don’t like quadratic equations, so I’m going to opt out of algebra,’” Finelli said.
Emily Skowronek, a social-studies teacher who would be teaching the curriculum, was also present at the meeting. She promised, in the paraphrase of Alex Nitkin, the DNAinfo reporter, to “leave the Burge episode squarely in the past.” “There are a lot of bad apples in every profession,” Skowronek said. “And we’ll try to portray that to our kids.”
The week after Nitkin’s article was published, another story appeared about Northwest Side parents unhappy with the curriculum. This one was published by Chicago City Wire, a subsidiary of Local Government Information Services, which is a content farm run by conservative activists. LGIS employs low-paid freelancers from around the world to write newsy-looking pieces that embody conservative viewpoints and seed them in outlets across Chicagoland. Like the DNAinfo piece, this one quoted Angela McMillin. “It’s disgusting that it happened,” she said of the Midnight Crew’s torture. She wouldn’t even let her daughter watch Law and Order: Why would she want her reading about “a man’s testicles being electrocuted or guns being jammed down men’s throats?” Plus, she added, the curriculum will “make a further racially divided community.”
I contacted McMillin and several other attendees of the Edison Park meeting, hoping to learn more about their objections. Most people did not write or call me back; of those who did, all refused to speak to me, even anonymously. One person, explaining their refusal, wrote:
After the article came out from DNA, the reaction was kind of like a lynch mob … people from other parts of the city were really nasty and mean and not at all considerate of the huge amount of parents that work for the police department in our area and parents of students that attend our school. It was actually said how racist we were that we were even questioning the curriculum.
This, too, was history.
The longer I spent in Douglas’s class, the more I saw her oscillating—sometimes from day to day, sometimes within the same lesson—between two different takeaways from the material at hand.
Takeaway One stressed the horror of it all, and the deeply systemic nature of that horror: all the cops and prosecutors and judges and city officials (mayors!) who had turned a deaf ear to the complaints of torture for so long, afraid of what they would mean, if true, about their professions, their jobs, the convictions they’d won, the sentences they’d passed down, the city they’d made. The reparations bill had passed, but many likely victims of police torture remained in jail. The state had established a Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission and given it the authority to re-examine cases and fast-track them back into the courts. But the commission had been swamped by petitions and struggled with funding. In 2017, the director estimated that, at its current pace, it would need 23 years just to evaluate the petitions it had already received.
From this perspective, the justice system was something between a broken ideal and a rotten lie, a noble-sounding rhetorical scrim that overlays and obscures a system of inequality and exploitation.
“I’m still confused,” a girl said one day. What she was confused about was all the other cops besides Burge who had tortured. “How did they not go to jail?”
Douglas gave a tight smile, the smile of a person trying not to give in to the unpleasantness of the news they had to deliver. “You expect things to work the way they’re supposed to work, not the way they actually work,” she said.
Douglas pushed Takeaway One because she wanted her students to understand the truth of the world they lived in—but also, it was clear, because she wanted them to be safe. More than once, she drew her students’ attention to the case of Marcus Wiggins, a black thirteen-year-old tortured by the Midnight Crew. “Why would they torture a thirteen-year-old? Why are they torturing a thirteen-year-old? I need an answer.”
A Latino boy in the front row began to venture a response. “For suspected—”
Douglas cut him off. “But why? I want you to look at everybody in this room. ”
He hesitated. “Maybe… because they can. They’re using their authority.”
Douglas nodded, then pushed the point a step further. You might think of yourself as kids, she told them, but that didn’t mean “they” would see you that way too. “You might be playing. You might think: I’m a kid. But no.” This was why it was important for them to be careful. Important not to joke around—not to act like kids—in the presence of cops. Important not to assume that things work the way they’re supposed to work. During a discussion about the Ronald Kitchen case, a rail-thin boy in what looked to me like an updated version of nineties skater wear posed a question: “Like, what was special about Kitchen so the police went after him versus any other kid on the block?”
“I don’t want to say this,” said Douglas. “But it could happen to you.”
“It doesn’t seem that way,” he said.
“But it is that way,” said Douglas.
Of course, if Takeaway One was all there was, the curriculum would be an extended meditation on the intolerable harshness of the world; and no one involved in its creation or implementation wanted that to be its only message to Chicago’s teenagers. And so, Takeaway Two stressed the importance of individual choices, even in the face of systemic injustice. This was why the curriculum was called “Reparations Won”: it was meant to be more than a catalogue of woe. It was also a testament to the possibility of pushing back and changing the world. There were all the activist groups who kept showing up, year after year, decade after decade, asking for torture accountability. One of these groups, We Charge Genocide, even sent a delegation of young Chicagoans to Switzerland in 2014 to talk about Chicago police in front of the United Nations Committee Against Torture. (One member of that delegation, Douglas told them, was a Lincoln Park alumnus—one of her former students.) There were the lawyers who took the cases of Midnight Crew victims long before anyone had even heard of the Midnight Crew. There was Joey Mogul, the lawyer who wrote out the reparations ordinance as an entry for a conceptual art show with a torture-accountability theme. There was the county medical examiner who insisted, despite police pressure, on making a formal record of the injuries sustained by Andrew Wilson, Burge’s first accuser to get any traction in court. There was the cop, or the multiple cops, who when they heard about the lawyers bringing torture cases against the CPD, started anonymously mailing them notes, feeding them names to dig into.
So many people deciding to do nothing—to keep their heads down and not cause trouble, to not risk the danger of upsetting the system.
So many people deciding to do something—to insist on things being different.
“This is why we have to study things,” said Douglas. “So it won’t take so long.”
Near the end of my time in Douglas’s class I was sent a recording of a recent meeting about “Reparations Won” at Wildwood Elementary, a predominantly white school on the Northwest Side. The person who sent me the recording told me I could use it however I wanted, as long as I didn’t identify them. Wildwood is the neighborhood immediately to the east of Edison Park. I’d heard of it for the first time from Juanita Douglas, who, in a classroom discussion of Chicago segregation, had recalled her first and only trip to Wildwood. One day in the Nineties she drove her son there for a high school football training clinic. She told her students how surprised she was by the leafy, suburban feel of the neighborhood. This was Chicago? But most shocking of all was the sight of local teenagers showing up to the clinic on bikes—and leaving them on the ground. Unlocked!
The recording I received starts with Mary Beth Cunat, the Wildwood principal, laying out the evening’s format to the audience, which is obviously made up of parents of her students. “I’m just nervous,” she says, and she sounds it. There are multiple speakers, she explains; each will have their turn, and then parents will have a chance to write their remaining questions and concerns on Post-it notes. “We didn’t leave time for open-ended questions and answers,” she says, but promises that the Post-it notes will be read. “We will read those,” she says. “We will take them seriously.”
A Wildwood history teacher reads a prepared statement about the value of teaching difficult histories. Then he leaves, explaining that he has another obligation to get to.
“There’s no police-bashing going on here,” says Cunat. “It’s focusing on a very discrete episode in history.”
A representative of the Chicago Committee on Human Relations gives a bizarre speech in which he explains the committee’s mandate to investigate discrimination of all kinds in the city. He makes no mention of Jon Burge, the Midnight Crew or “Reparations Won.” He talks mostly about Muslims in the city, and how police stations have been holding fast-breaking dinners during Ramadan to improve community relations. Torture is mentioned, but only briefly, and only the locally infamous “Facebook torture” incident of 2017, in which three black eighteen-year-olds and one black 24-year-old kidnapped a mentally disabled white eighteen-year-old, eventually taking him to a West Side apartment where they tied him up, beat him and removed part of his scalp—all of which was broadcast on Facebook Live, where viewers could hear the kidnappers yelling “Fuck Trump!” and “Fuck white people!” (To this day, if you google “Chicago torture,” the first result is the Wikipedia page about this story.)
Then a local police commander expresses his fundamental concern about the curriculum:
You know, I think anyone who has been around children probably realizes that they don’t hear everything that we say. So that’s probably our biggest concern. Even though they’re going to teach a curriculum—[the kids] are going to hear what they want to hear. And I’m just afraid that some of them might feel themselves empowered that maybe they don’t have to listen to the police. You know, in a stressful situation. And maybe they should run from the police. And they’d be endangering themselves…
His advice to Wildwood parents, however, is to accept that the curriculum is happening, and do their best to make sure it is being implemented responsibly. When he was in school, he said, he didn’t know why they were required to learn the parts of speech. “But I didn’t object,” he says. “I didn’t walk out of the classroom. I didn’t confront the teacher about it. You know? I think we just have to learn what’s in the curriculum. We don’t have a choice about it.”
The fourth speaker—a Wildwood counselor—is explaining the meaning of “restorative justice,” when a man in the audience interrupts.
Won’t the curriculum, he wonders, “be teaching a false narrative? [Burge] hasn’t been convicted of anything in our courts. So how can you teach that?”
Principal Cunat reassures the man that the curriculum does not say Burge was convicted of torturing anyone—just perjury and obstruction of justice.
“And then all the ones that supposedly were victims—are they going to have their rap sheets?” the same man wonders. “Are they going to show these kids that? Are they going to have both sides of the conversation?”
Cunat tells the man that, if he has a question, he should write it down.
“I’d rather sit here and we can all ask our questions and we can all know the answers,” the man says. “Does anyone else agree with that?”
“If you want that kind of meeting,” says Cunat, “you are free to let me know.”
“Okay,” says the man. “We want that kind of meeting. We would rather have an open discussion.”
“One of the reasons we don’t have an open conversation,” says Cunat, “is because it ends up getting derailed… I really respect you. I care about you a lot. I really feel like it could just become… this ad hoc stuff is not very safe, in terms of my staff and in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
“But what are we trying to accomplish?” asks the man.
On April 30th, Douglas reminded her students that on the following day they were not to come to the classroom, as usual, but instead to go to the library, where they would have the chance to hear from Ronald Kitchen, who had flown in from Philadelphia. (Throughout the spring, a total of eight survivors visited fifty classrooms across the city.) This wasn’t the first that her students had heard about Kitchen’s visit, but it was obvious that some of them had forgotten, or been absent every time it was mentioned. Even those who remembered seemed sobered by the prospect that the visit was finally happening: that in 24 hours they would be in the same room—close enough to touch—as the man from the video. The man they’d heard Michael Kill lie about. Someone for whom thinking about torture required no imagination at all, because he’d lived it.