A ground-level rendering of the planned Chicago Torture Justice Memorial, which features the names of those tortured by Jon Burge and his Midnight Crew. Credit: Chicago Torture Justice Memorials

ENGLEWOOD — As Chicago’s survivors of police torture continue their struggle to free other survivors still incarcerated, they are waiting on the city to formally recognize their abuse, wrongful imprisonment and activism with the public memorial officials promised them nearly six years ago.

In May 2015, the city approved reparations for survivors of torture carried out by former Police Commander Jon Burge and his “Midnight Crew.” Burge’s team used mock executions, suffocation, bolt cutters and electricity on people to obtain “confessions” from the ’70s to the ’90s.

The city’s reparations package was the first of its kind in United States history. It included $5.5 million in payments and a non-binding resolution calling for other assistance to be granted to torture survivors.

The resolution stipulated survivors receive a formal apology from the city; tuition-free classes, job training programs and certification courses at city colleges; and priority access to social services. It also requested the city include lessons on the legacy of police torture in its public school history curriculum and create a permanent, public memorial to survivors.

Every aspect of that resolution has been fulfilled — except for the memorial.

The resolution does not set a timeframe for the memorial to be built, nor does it mandate a set amount of money for the city to contribute. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration failed to allocate funding to the memorial for four years before he left office in 2019.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not follow her transition committee’s recommendation to fund the memorial during her first 100 days in office. But organizers say her administration has appeared willing to follow through with the city’s commitment — especially after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, which sparked protests against police violence throughout the country.

Organizers are hopeful they’ll break ground on the memorial by the end of the year, and “we don’t see any reason why that isn’t realistic,” said Carla Mayer, a longtime member of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials.

But some worry the city’s efforts to reach a deal are tapering off as mainstream attention to police violence and racial injustice fades from its summer peak.

“We understand how important this memorial is to justice and truth and racial healing, and we honestly believe that the folks that we’re working with in the city are on our side in that respect,” Mayer said.

“But there’s a history of disappointments, and, frankly, a lack of leadership, from people in the highest office.”

A birds-eye rendering of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial, planned for a site to be determined in Englewood. Credit: Chicago Torture Justice Memorials

‘It’s A Process’

Chicago Torture Justice Memorials is a collective of activists and artists founded in 2010 to “fight for justice on behalf of the Burge torture survivors.”

John Lee and Patricia Nguyen, designers of the future Chicago Torture Justice Memorial. Credit: Chicago Torture Justice Memorials

After securing the reparations package in 2015, the group worked with the city to implement its terms while designing and preparing a site for the memorial.

Following an exhibition of six finalists’ submissions in Washington Park, a panel of torture survivors, artists and organizers chose Patricia Nguyen and John Lee’s design “Breath, Form and Freedom” for the memorial in 2019.

The memorial’s location will not be announced until the mayor approves site plans, but organizers want to move forward with a site in Englewood, said Mayer, who sits on the group’s site selection committee.

Organizers worked with neighborhood residents to develop a shortlist of potential sites to present to city officials. They’ll seek more input from neighbors near the chosen site once a location is agreed upon.

“The primary message about this memorial is that it’s based on the activism and organizing of survivors and families who worked so hard to get the reparations ordinance won,” Mayer said. Survivors have spent “the last couple of decades in this movement to bring the truth about police torture to the public.”

Since Lightfoot took office, city officials have met “regularly” with memorial organizers to plan a site “that honors the history of the victims, furthers aspirations for future engagement and supports the needs of the surrounding community where any memorial would be established,” spokesperson Isaac Reichman said.

“Mayor Lightfoot’s administration has remained committed to honoring this resolution and building a strong partnership with the leadership of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials,” Reichman said.

Nearly 40 community leaders, including eight aldermen, wrote an open letter to City Council calling for the approval of memorial funding in the wake of Lightfoot’s election.

Though Chicago Torture Justice Memorials members are “disappointed” they’ve seen nearly six years and a mayoral change pass without an agreement on city funding, “we want to acknowledge it does take time,” co-founder Joey Mogul said.

A “truly meaningful memorial” will require the city’s financial commitment and private funding, Mogul said. The group remains hopeful the city “can work collaboratively” in fundraising for a memorial to honor “the strength, perseverance and resilience of the survivors, as well as the truly unique and monumental struggle for justice in these cases.”

“I think this was something that Mayor Emanuel should have done, and now it’s something that Mayor Lightfoot and her administration are responsible for following up on,” Mogul said. “I do think it’s a process to try and create a meaningful memorial, and it’s not something that should be done quickly or lightly.”

Chicago Torture Justice Memorials has met with Lightfoot’s administration about once a month, though the group has yet to meet with the mayor personally, Mayer said.

Organizers have had “a really cordial relationship” with the city’s cultural affairs and planning departments and the Office of Equity and Racial Justice, “which was a relief and a strong contrast to exchanges that we had … during the Emanuel administration,” she said.

“I’m pleasantly surprised at how excited our contacts have been — at what seemingly good advocates they are and will be,” she said. “They’ve done some legwork, and we’ve really appreciated their time and cultural labor so far. Things have been looking pretty good.”

Amid last summer’s protests against police brutality — with site plans and community feedback in hand — organizers pressed their case that they were ready to begin construction on the memorial, Mayer said. City officials “responded almost immediately, which had not been the case for months and years before that,” she said.

But in recent months, there’s been a “slowdown” in the progress of negotiations, Mayer said. City officials require a completed proposal to send to Lightfoot, but organizers say they need the city to provide engineering and environmental studies at a desired site — the results of which may impact the memorial’s total costs — to finalize details of their plan.

“We are reliant on the city to tell us what we need in order to have a successful proposal,” Mayer said. “That’s where we’ve had what somewhat feels like delay tactics, even though they have assured us that it’s not intentional.”

The memorial provides a chance for Lightfoot to act on her statements about racial justice, community healing and addressing systemic racism in city government, Mayer said — all at “a tiny fraction of what the city has paid out and will continue to pay in lawsuits against the police.”

“It feels like a slam dunk, an easy thing for her to demonstrate that her commitments are real,” she said. “This would be a very public, very easy, relatively cheap thing for her to embrace wholeheartedly.”

A protester holds up a sign memorializing George Floyd outside the Chicago Police Academy in June. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Survivors Celebrate, Call For Continued Action

Organizers met earlier this month to honor the efforts that culminated in the Invisible Institute’s torture justice archive. There they reminded attendees about the work still remaining to secure memorial funding and free torture survivors who are behind bars.

“Particularly because the reparations ordinance did come at such a critical political moment … we need to note that six years later the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial has still not been funded,” activist and emcee Damon Williams said at the archive’s public launch event. “The work of this memorial so that we continue to heal, continue to build, learn and organize is something that we need to take very seriously.”

The Feb. 15 launch event was attended by numerous survivors and their family members, as well as members with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials and others. They called on residents to join the movement to release Stanley Howard, Gerald Reed and other incarcerated survivors.

“What keeps me going is to know one thing — [my son’s] coming out,” said Reed’s mother, Armanda Shackleford. “It’s not just going to be Gerald Reed. It’s going to be all the men and women that are wrongfully convicted, because that’s who I’m fighting for.”

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