Content Warning: This article contains a brief description of police brutality.
Eleven survivors of police torture presented their stories at an event commemorating the launch of the Chicago Police Torture Archive, a “human rights documentation” of former Chicago Police Department (CPD) commander Jon Burge’s violence against more than 100 Black Chicagoans during the 1970s–90s. The archive was published by the Invisible Institute, a journalism production nonprofit that works on issues of police transparency and accountability in the city.
Officer Jon Burge was a Vietnam War veteran who worked at the Area Two police headquarters in Chicago. Burge was infamous for his extreme torture techniques, which ranged from physical to psychological abuse, starting in 1972.
Community and cultural organizer Damon Williams, who was the first speaker at the event, provided a brief overview of the Chicago Torture Justice Center’s work, emphasizing the need to continue building on the momentum of this movement for justice even after this accomplishment of chronicling this prevalent police torture. The Chicago Torture Justice Center, along with UChicago’s Pozen Family Center for Human Rights and the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial, helped collect survivor stories for the archive.
A series of survivors then took the floor, each discussing the violence they had endured while incarcerated.
“I’m a survivor, not a victim,” said Se’an Tylor, one survivor. “I’m glad we’re here for guys just like us on the inside who need someone to hear them.”
Gregory Banks, who was incarcerated from 1983–90, was the first of the speakers to be released from prison after his case of police torture and coersion into a false confession was heard. While incarcerated, he resolved to engage in advocacy as his life’s work upon his release.
“If I ever get out, I would not stop,” he said. “I’m gonna do this for the rest of my life because this is what I was born to do.”
Banks is now an activist and a learning fellow with the Chicago Torture Justice Center.
LaTanya Jenifor-Sublett, the only woman to speak, described how society has marginalized female victims of police torture.
“I stand as the face of all the other women who people said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know they existed.’”
She reiterated how she knows she represents many women whose experiences at the Area Two police station were not shared: “I represent many; I know I do. Area two, Police station, 1990. I did 21 years in prison. I am her,” Jenifor-Sublett said.
For some speakers, the event marked the first time they had been able to share their stories with the world. Reginald Henderson said that it meant a lot for him to speak at this launch event, even through Zoom.
“For so many years I’ve written and wrote trying to get my voice heard. But right now, to hear the echo of the phone—to hear my voice heard—means a lot,” he said.
Joey Mogul from the People’s Law Office Legal Archive then discussed the legal implications of having these accounts of torture so readily available in this archive.
“It’s great that we not only organized this information but made it accessible,… Education is power. Knowledge is power.” She added that this information allows people “to free themselves, to free others, and to seek justice.”
Mogul then detailed specific accounts of torture at the hands of Jon Burge, a decorated police officer at the Area Two police station. Survivor Anthony Holmes described how Burge suffocated him using a plastic bag.
Williams shifted the conversation to a discussion of the legacy of the Death Row 10, a cohort of police torture survivors who work with the People’s Law Office on advocacy, and of the experiences of the mothers of torture victims.
Alice Kim of the Pozen Center commented on the fight to abolish the death penalty and on how Bill Clinton’s crime bill discontinued educational Pell grants to death row inmates. Without the ability to use Pell grants to further their education, the Death Row 10 organized their own law classes. It was in these classes that the Death Row 10 realized their shared experience of torture at the hands of Burge.
Kim talked about the classes as a means of establishing a cohort. “Law classes, religion classes, these are spaces people use to organize,” she said. Ultimately, Kim discussed how this organization cemented the legacy of the Death Row 10 and allowed them to work together: “We didn’t know that Illinois would become ground zero for the fight to abolish the death penalty.”
Finally, the mothers of the torture victims spoke. Mary L. Johnson described her experience seeking justice for the violence that her son, Michael Johnson, endured at the hands of police officers, regardless of his involvement in any crime.
“I went to the police station not as a victim; I went to complain they jumped on my son and I went there to file a complaint. I thought I would get an award. I went to go tell them about some bad cops! I didn’t think I was setting up my son for being arrested each time he sees the cops,” Johnson said. “People make mistakes, but when it comes to Black people we’ve all committed crimes.”