“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?”
“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?”
Douglas’s students didn’t yet know it, but they were not the only Chicago students wrestling with Jon Burge and the Midnight Crew last spring. In fact, teachers and students at each of the city’s 644 public schools were figuring out how to talk about the cops on the A-Team—and, by extension, the past and present of the fraught relationship between Chicago’s police and Chicago’s policed. Teachers were going down this path whether, in their hearts, they wanted to or not. There was no choice: it was an official requirement, codified in city law.
This classroom initiative is part of a historic, novel and perplexingly under-covered development in the ever-more urgent search for solutions to the cumulative harm inflicted on Americans—especially black Americans— in the name of law and order. On May 6, 2015, in response to decades of local activism, Chicago’s city council passed an ordinance officially recognizing that Burge and his subordinates had engaged in torture, condemning that torture, and offering his victims (or at least some of them) compensation for their suffering. The ordinance is a singular document in American history. Torture accountability—even basic torture honesty—has been a perennial nonstarter in American politics, all the more so in our post-9/11 condition of perpetual war. Reparations, especially those with a racial component, have long been treated as, alternately: an incoherent absurdity; a frightening threat; a nice-sounding but impractical rallying cry; or, more recently, in the wake of the National Magazine Award-nominated Atlantic essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as a worthy (but still essentially utopian) demand. But within Chicago city limits, reparations for police torture isn’t just a thought exercise, a rhetorical expression about what should exist in a better world. It’s Chicago City Council Resolution SR2015-256: the law of the land.
If this is the first you’ve heard of all this, you are hardly alone. In the years since SR2015-256 passed, I have again and again found myself informing people of its existence. This has included prominent national experts on torture and torture accountability, Chicago police officers, and lifelong Chicagoans of all races with a professed interest in racial justice. On the North Side of the city—and certainly in its northern suburbs, where I live—I do not think it is ridiculous to suggest that there are more people of all races who can summarize Coates’s “The Case For Reparations” than those who are familiar with the historic reparations experiment unfolding right now in their own metropolitan area.
If people know anything about that experiment, they likely know that it involved some money: a pool of $5.5 million from which vetted Midnight Crew victims could receive a maximum of $100,000 each, regardless of whether their coerced confessions had been false or not—regardless, that is, of whether, in the eyes of the law, they had ultimately been judged guilty or innocent. By this point, several of Burge’s victims had pried civil settlements from the city, some comprising millions of dollars. This strategy was more available to some than to others, depending on the jury-friendliness of their biographies (and rap sheets). The vast majority of the civil settlements were compensations less for torture than for wrongful conviction. Officially, like all civil settlements, they were not for anything at all; they were just transfers of money, with no admission of wrongdoing or even agreed-upon findings of fact. They therefore did nothing to address what many survivors, in Chicago and elsewhere, identify as one of torture’s most enduring wounds: the unwillingness of their fellow citizens and government to adequately recognize exactly what happened.
In addition to the cash payouts, SR2015-256 contained a handful of other benefits for the Midnight Crew’s victims, including free tuition at the city’s community colleges and free access to a new psychological counseling center to be opened on the South Side. (This counseling center, the ordinance specified, was to operate a model similar to the one used by the Marjorie Kovler Center, a famous torture rehabilitation facility on Chicago’s North Side. The Kovler Center welcomes survivors of political violence from around the world—but not, its website warns, from America or any “place under U.S. control.”) In recognition of the fact that torture’s effects reach beyond the lives of individual victims, these services were made available to all members of survivors’ immediate families, and in some cases to their grandchildren.
The ordinance also pledged the city to take two concrete steps to counteract its decades-long tradition of trying to make the Burge story disappear. These two promises will likely end up being the most controversial parts of the law, because they deal not with bureaucratic payouts but with attempted modifications to Chicago’s public history—to the story the city tells itself about policing. First, Chicago officials would work with activists to design and erect a memorial to the city’s police-torture survivors. Second, the city’s public schools would henceforth be required to add “a lesson about the Burge case and its legacy” to the official history curriculum for eighth and tenth graders. To many of the activists who fought for the reparations package, the curriculum was its most meaningful component, precisely because of what it asked from the city: not money, but time and talk, however awkward or uncomfortable that talk might be.
The memorial design and site selection process is still underway. But last August, city officials held a press conference to announce that, after two years of development, the new curriculum—titled “Reparations Won”—was ready for the children of Chicago.
Chicago is one of America’s most racially diverse metropolises, but also one of its most racially segregated: a patchwork of different social and economic worlds that know relatively little about each other. For this reason, my original hope was to watch the curriculum being taught in schools all across the city. What would lessons about the Midnight Crew look like in resource-starved black schools on the South and West Sides? How would the same curriculum be taught in predominantly Latino classrooms? (There are more Latino students than students of any other racial background in Chicago schools.) Or in the relatively diverse magnet schools found on the North Side, well stocked with Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes? What about schools in the almost-burbs—just inside the city line—that are disproportionately populated by cops, firefighters and other city workers, in classrooms full of their children and nephews and nieces? (In Chicago, city employees are required to live within city limits.) I wanted to see it all—and maybe, by stitching together detailed observations from classrooms across the city, play some part, however minor, in the effort to put Chicago’s separate worlds in conversation with each other.
Juanita Douglas was the only teacher out of dozens I asked who opened the doors of her classroom to me. The curriculum was too important, she said, for its rollout to go completely undocumented. The Chicago public-school system thought otherwise. A few days after the press conference announcing the curriculum, I contacted the district’s notoriously evasive press office. To my surprise, I was quickly put in touch with Michael Passman, then the director of media communications. Passman initially sounded supportive—warmly supportive, even—of my plan to watch the curriculum in action in schools across the city. But this phone call was the last time I ever heard from Passman, despite dozens of messages I left on his voicemail, in his inbox, on his deputy’s voicemail, in his deputy’s inbox, and with their office secretary. Teachers I met kept telling me I was welcome to sit in on their class—so long as their principals approved. Several principals said it was fine with them—so long as CPS approved. CPS told me to be patient. Other journalists told me they were hearing the same thing. Once I happened to get through to Passman’s deputy, who told me not to worry: a plan for journalists who wanted to observe the curriculum was just a day or two from being released. This was the last I ever heard from her.
Because Douglas is not an eighth- or tenth-grade history teacher, she was not required to be teaching the curriculum. But she was one of many teachers across the city who elected to do so anyway this year for the benefit of current juniors and seniors, who otherwise would have graduated without learning about Burge. This past April and May, I spent eighteen mornings in her classroom at Lincoln Park High School, observing two back-to-back sections of her black-history class1 as they worked through “Reparations Won.”
Before my first day, reading over the curriculum and imagining myself in Douglas’s shoes, I felt overwhelmed by the visceral intensity of the material alone. Once I was in her classroom, though, I quickly realized the presence of another challenge, one that will surely be obvious to any teacher. It was the problem of shared knowledge, and how little of it Douglas could presume. This went far beyond knowing who had and who hadn’t heard of Jon Burge. From day to day, she couldn’t even be sure who had done the previous night’s reading, and so she often started class with a series of questions designed to get everyone on the same page about the basics.
“I need to understand what you understand about this situation,” she said on the second day of the curriculum. “What were the methods of torture that you put down? What did you write?”
She pointed at a boy near the back of the class.
“Uh… they were shocked, burned, beaten and tied up.”
She pointed at another boy, toward the front.
“They were held for days without food and water.”
One of his neighbors chimed in: “They were left naked for days.”
Most of her students were black, and some were Latino, Asian-American, biracial, multiracial. Just one was white. Though Lincoln Park is a prosperous North Side neighborhood, most of them lived on the South or West Side, and came north every morning because the high school that used to be in their neighborhood is now closed. Some were, for high schoolers, relatively informed about U.S. history: when, on the second day of the curriculum, they read about Burge’s time in the army—his posting in a POW camp in Vietnam and the possibility that this was where he’d first learned about electroshock torture—they nodded along, and made comments indicating their familiarity with other Vietnam-era atrocities. Other students, it seemed, were completely lost: when asked, many raised their hands to indicate they did not know what a prisoner-of-war camp was.2
Some students had been to Black Lives Matter protests, or read about mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow. Others had never been to any protest of any kind in their lives. Some students came to class wide awake, visibly enthusiastic, caffeinated. Others showed up looking exhausted, or like they were counting down the hours until the end of class, until lunch, until prom, until graduation. Some came to school every day, and were already thinking about college. Some came now and then, and were not sure they would graduate. Some had family members whose lives had been deeply marked by interactions with Chicago’s cops and courts and jails and prisons. Some had family members who were cops, or used to be. It was Douglas’s job to teach them all.
The first few days were heavy on context: on white Chicago’s long history of resistance to its black population, from redlining to street riots; on Burge’s upbringing in the all-white South Side neighborhood of Deering, which, during his lifetime, became an all-black neighborhood; on the city’s intentional overcrowding of black neighborhoods and schools; on the escalation of the police “war on crime” in black neighborhoods; and, finally, on the first allegations against the Midnight Crew, and how they were ignored by then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, who would go on to become mayor.
On the fourth day, the class watched another video, this one detailing the case of Ronald Kitchen, a Midnight Crew victim who, largely on the basis of his tortured confession, was found guilty of murdering two women and three children and sent to death row. Beginning in 1990, he spent 21 years before his conviction was vacated and a judge declared him innocent.
The video featured footage from the 2011 deposition of Detective Michael Kill, one of Kitchen’s torturers. In this footage, Kill is seventy and long retired. Wiry and full of contempt, he leans back in his chair, as if keeping his distance from something that smells bad. Offscreen, Kitchen’s lawyer asks Kill whether he made a practice of using the n-word in his interrogations.
“Sure I did,” says Kill.
“I would say I used it as many times as I had to.”
“Well,” Kill says, his grimace intensifying, “how many inches of tape are in your recorder?” “How about a million, for starters?” he suggests.
Kitchen’s lawyer asks him why he used the n-word so much.
Kill shakes his head, still grimacing. “Trying to explain police work to you,” he says to the lawyer, “is like trying to explain physics to my grandson—who is three years old.” He used the word, he explains, to make suspects feel comfortable. To show them he understood their world, knew their language. “You’re not there,” he says. “You haven’t been there. You don’t understand it, okay? You have to live it.”
No, Kill says, he never beat Kitchen. Never tortured Kitchen. Why would he do something like that, he asks rhetorically, and risk getting fired, losing his pension?
No, he knew nothing about anyone beating or torturing Ronald Kitchen. Jon Burge was his boss, sure. But he hardly knew the guy. Couldn’t really tell you anything about him.
Many of Douglas’s students were visibly upset by Kill: by what he was saying, by how casually he was saying it, by his apparent disdain for the very idea that anyone might think anything he’d done would require an explanation. “Can we turn it off?” asked a boy seated next to me, quietly and plaintively. But the longer the video went on, the more the kids started making fun of Kill: they knew, after all, that the old man’s denials hadn’t carried the day; that the state had set Kitchen free, that the city had settled his civil case for $6.15 million. They started laughing at Kill’s clipped speech, his old Chicago accent, his pissy evasions. At one point in the video, Kill admits that he heard Kitchen whimpering in his cell. But he insists this was not due to any mistreatment but instead to some “blood pressure stuff.” A Latina girl, one of Douglas’s most reliable participants in class discussions, snickered and mimed taking a picture of Kill’s scowling face on her phone, suggesting what a good meme it would make. “When you know you got caught,” she said, laughing.
The next day, the class watched footage of Kitchen himself, filmed after he was released from jail but before he won his settlement. Someone off-camera asks him to describe his post-release life. Kitchen tells them he hardly sleeps. That the mere sight of a Chicago police car sends him into a full-body terror, which is why he’s had to leave Chicago, the only city he ever knew. “It’s hard,” he says. “It’s hard, it’s hard. It’s like a dream to me, sitting up here with you. It’s like, at any moment, this could get taken away from me all over again.”
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.
Douglas had recruited some of her more participation-prone students to give Kitchen’s visit an air of ceremony. They’d printed up programs. The boy who had wondered why it was Kitchen the cops picked up that day played some welcome music on his guitar: an acoustic rendition of a song by Death, the black band from Detroit that played punk before punk was really a thing. A girl read a poem she’d written called “What They Don’t Tell You about Black Boys.” Another girl read an introduction: “Mrs. Douglas has been teaching us about the agonizing tortures of African American men. We welcome one to speak with us today.” She turned away from her classmates and toward Kitchen, who was sitting on a chair behind her. “I just want to say to you personally that your story will never be forgotten.”
Kitchen nodded, taking in the scene in front of him. “I’m really touched,” he said. “Sometimes I’m at a loss for words when I see a lot of young people actually taking heed of what’s happened.”
He took a breath, then spoke for almost twenty minutes without notes. He talked about how bogus the charges against him had been. He talked about co-founding, with other Midnight Crew survivors, the Illinois Death Row 10, the campaign that eventually won a moratorium on all Illinois executions, since expanded into full abolition. He talked about completely losing touch with his son, who was three when he was arrested. About how, whenever it was time for someone to be executed, a guard would bring that person down the hall, letting him stop at each cell along the way to say goodbye. He talked about how, whenever he heard them coming, he would lie on his bed and pretend to be asleep, because he couldn’t bear to face them. He talked about how ashamed this made him feel, looking back. He talked about his mother, who developed dementia while he was in prison and did not recognize him when he was released.
It wasn’t a practiced speech. It wasn’t shaped to build to a certain point or lesson or revelation. Kitchen talked about having been a drug dealer. “It was never a secret,” he said. “Never has been: that was my living.” That was true—Kitchen has always been upfront about his past—but I could not remember Douglas’s class discussing it. I thought I could feel a shift in the nature of the room’s collective attention, the cumulative effect of several dozen teenage minds simultaneously switching gears to process the same new variable. Kitchen didn’t dwell on it. He urged students to get involved with activism—urged them to avoid the delusion that change was impossible. “I want to thank you all for allowing me to come sit here and talk to you all,” he said, again looking almost dumbfounded by where he was—in a Chicago history classroom—and what he was doing there. “I’m trying not to tear up. I’m good at it. I’m good at holding my stuff in. I love that you gave me so much attention. I never had this much attention. I really do appreciate it. Thank you.”
There was a short question-and-answer session. The students sounded more formal than usual, like they were trying to be their most mature, respectful, adult selves—which, as often happens with children trying not to sound like children, had the primary effect of evoking how young they remained.
They asked Kitchen how he gets along today with his oldest son, the one who was three years old when the Midnight Crew snatched up his father.
“It’s rocky,” he said. “It’s very, very rocky.”
“Are you able to sleep any better now?” a student asked. “I know that sleep is, like, a big thing.”
“Actually, I don’t sleep,” said Kitchen, looking like he regretted having to be the bearer of this bad news. “I’m still on penitentiary time, for real. I eat like”—he mimed shoveling food into his mouth as fast as he could—“I choke some food down. I’m still on penitentiary time. I have to catch myself, when I’m at home: I hear the clink of them rattling the bars … I can’t really sleep. I’ll get up and I’ll walk around my house. I’ll check the doors, peek out of the curtains. Or I’ll sit up, listen to the radio, watch TV for hours. I really don’t sleep.”
Before they returned to their normal school days, some of the students stayed to talk with Kitchen one-on-one, or in small groups. He is a tall man, well over six feet, and he bent down to get his face closer to theirs. I kept my distance, sensing an unusual intimacy in the unfolding conversations. Later, though, I asked Kitchen what they had been asking him about. “How did I survive?” he said. “What kept me strong? What do I do now? How do I live?”
Kitchen is far from the only Midnight Crew survivor who admits to breaking the law and inflicting harm—far from the only one with a rap sheet that isn’t, or isn’t only, a police fabrication. Some of these rap sheets are quite long. All of them are easily available online. They are irrelevant to the question of whether anyone should have been tortured, or whether their torturers should have been punished.
Torture is forbidden by the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment and by multiple international treaties to which the U.S. is a legal signatory, and which have been ratified by the Senate. Torture, all experts on the subject agree, doesn’t produce reliable information, and as a result often undermines the very investigations it is notionally intended to serve. Torture is wrong. It is wrong because it is wrong to take such complete, intimate control of another person—wrong to turn their body and mind into weapons trained against themselves. And if this is wrong then it is always wrong, and not more or less wrong depending on anything the victim has done.
There’s something wearying about trotting out the arguments against torture. But as long as torture continues—and continues to be justified with arguments—it will remain necessary to do so.
In May I heard a rumor that the eighth-grade history teacher at Wildwood Elementary had received so many critical comments from parents in advance of the curriculum rollout that he asked Cunat if he could be excused from teaching it. Cunat, according to this rumor, accommodated the request—and took on teaching the curriculum herself.
The next time I heard Cunat’s name it was because she’d been forced to step down—the result, according to the headlines, of a decision to invite an “anti-police” speaker to a Wildwood career day. I assumed, when I saw the headline, that the speaker in question had to be a Midnight Crew survivor. But I was wrong: it was a young Chicago activist and musician named Ethan Viets-VanLear, whom Cunat had asked to participate in the event at Wildwood. Viets-VanLear was part of the delegation that traveled to Geneva to talk about Chicago police brutality in front of the United Nations. Asked by Wildwood students to explain his motivation, he talked about the 2014 death of his friend Dominique “Damo” Franklin, Jr. at the hands of a Chicago police officer. Word of Viets-VanLear’s visit spread to Wildwood parents, some of whom quickly scoured his social-media pages for anti-police sentiments and called for Cunat—who was just one year into a four-year contract—to be replaced. Both Viets-VanLear and Cunat reported receiving numerous death threats.
Cunat wrote an apology to the entire school, saying she regretted inviting Viets-VanLear. A few days later, an impromptu school-wide meeting was held for students to receive a presentation on policing from Martin Preib, vice president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, and Adrian Garcia, a CPD detective with a child at Wildwood. That afternoon, Cunat resigned. Fox News ran a story commemorating her downfall. She is now a principal in Rockford, Illinois, a city ninety miles west of Chicago.
In September, Jon Burge died. After being released from federal prison in 2014, he had moved back to Apollo Beach, where he lived off his CPD pension. In 2015, when SR2015-256 was signed, he was interviewed by Martin Preib for a now-defunct blog called The Conviction Project. “I find it hard to believe,” he said, “that the city’s political leadership could even contemplate giving ‘reparations’ to human vermin.”
After Burge’s death, Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement saying that the organization did “not believe the full story about the Burge cases has ever been told. … Hopefully that story will be told in the coming years.”
A few months earlier, during the summer, I stopped by the Humboldt Park office of Joe Moreno, the Chicago alderman who first put the reparations ordinance before the city council in 2013. It hadn’t been his idea, but he’d been involved in the fight against the Illinois death penalty, and after the ordinance was presented to him by a coalition of activists and lawyers who had been fighting, in the courts and the streets, for the A-Team’s victims for years, he agreed to work with them.
I asked Moreno why he thought the ordinance had passed in the end—and not just passed but passed without a single “nay” vote from any of the historic white ethnic enclaves (or “the more autonomous Caucasian wards,” as Moreno referred to them). How had the official legislative body of a city that had never been able to admit to torture now swung all the way to reparations?
Moreno wanted to recognize that some council members had likely undergone a genuine change of heart. A-Team survivors had met with many of them one-on-one, explaining what they wanted and why. Their lawyers had compiled the facts, and the facts were simply too overwhelming.
But Moreno also suggested a more cynical theory. There was still plenty of opposition—still plenty of people at city hall who thought, in his paraphrase, “I don’t want to be for this, this is ridiculous, these guys are all guilty and just want money.” But, he said, it had over time become “much harder for them to be vocal on it that way.” It wasn’t that every alderperson stopped doubting Burge’s victims, he said—but that some of them had made the decision to just move on: to pass the ordinance “rather than fight.”
This dynamic had shaped how the ordinance was covered, Moreno argued. “Every journalist, they savor so much the fight,” he said. Had there been a protracted legislative battle between different Chicago constituencies, it might have been covered more prominently. Instead, the ordinance—which, in the scheme of city budgeting, cost relatively little—passed, which meant the story lost much of its oxygen for the city’s journalists.
To the extent this was anyone’s goal—and of course they would never say so if it was—it may look as if their wish has been granted. All spring, I made sure to check my “Chicago torture” and “Chicago torture curriculum” Google Alerts daily, eager to see the stories that appeared. I assumed that at least a few local journalists would find a way around the CPS shutout and that, through what they published, the conversation about Burge, torture, the police and reparations would enter its next phase of civic life. Now and then, Burge was mentioned in yet another story about bad Chicago cops using torture or blackmail to frame suspects, or about more potential Midnight Crew victims getting their claims heard in court. But the school year ended, the summer dragged on, and no stories about the curriculum appeared. (At least until Burge’s death, when the New Yorker ran a story about the curriculum on its website, and many of Burge’s obituaries also mentioned its existence.) I kept telling people I met about reparations in Chicago, and they kept being shocked that they didn’t already know about it.3
In the short term, SR2015-256 has not made Chicago as a whole appreciably more conscious of its own history. But not every major development in civic culture—in a city’s (or a nation’s) consciousness of itself—gets noticed as such upon its arrival. Thousands of children all over Chicago have now talked about the city in a new way, and thousands more will again next year, and again the year after that. The impact of this is impossible to predict with any specificity: there is no such thing as a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis of starting to tell the truth, together, about what happened.
The official “Reparations Won” curriculum calls for eighth graders to mark the end of the curriculum with an op-ed about police-community relations, and for tenth graders to design a memorial to victims of police brutality. Douglas modified this requirement, requiring her students to work in groups to make mock talk shows about the Burge scandal and the reparations fight, in which they role-played as the principals, including Burge himself. These talk shows, which students presented live on their last day with the curriculum, were bits of utopian theater: collections of guests who would, in reality, never appear on the same talk show, and speaking with a bluntness they would never employ if they did. Anyone could be anyone: in one of the groups, Jon Burge himself was played by a Latina girl, who sauntered on stage grabbing her crotch in an exaggerated show of machismo. “I’m great,” she said.
“Why do you think you and your officers were able to get away with torture?” asked the host.
The class had watched numerous videos of Burge being deposed, during which all he did was assert, over and over again, his Fifth Amendment right not to testify. But this fictitious Burge took another tack: “I wouldn’t call it getting away,” the girl playing Burge said. “I’d call it doing our jobs. But if for some reason there’s this big thing where people think we were doing something wrong… We were able to get away with it because people covered for us. No one’s going to tell on me.”
Photo credits: Amanda Rivkin, from the series Chicago Police-Torture Survivors
This story was written with the support of Longreads.
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If you liked this piece, you might be interested in these other articles from The Point: “Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?” by Jesse McCarthy, “White Folks” by Daniel Oppenheimer and “After Ferguson” by Brandon M. Terry.