Death of a Torturer: Jon Burge Is Gone But His Racist Policing Is Not Forgotten

Jon Burge, the Chicago police commander who tortured over one hundred black men, died yesterday. He acted with complete impunity over almost two decades before reporters, activists, and human rights attorneys stopped him.

Ramsin Canon September 20, 2018

Jon Burge will not be remembered kindly. (Gretchen Hasse / YouTube)

You can’t slan­der a dead man, but in any case, Jon Burge is a man beyond slan­der. The for­mer Chica­go Police Depart­ment com­man­der and tor­tur­er died this week in Florida.

Jon Burge’s legacy defies slander, because the truth is enough.

In 2010, Burge was con­vict­ed and sen­tenced to four and a half years in prison. Incom­pre­hen­si­bly — or per­haps not — Burge was not con­vict­ed for the abuse and tor­ture of over one hun­dred black sus­pects through­out his reign over Area 2 on Chicago’s South Side between 1972 and 1988. He was con­vict­ed for lying under oath dur­ing the course of a fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tion spurred by civ­il law­suits brought by his vic­tims — one of whom, Dar­rell Can­non, wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed (and lat­er exon­er­at­ed) of mur­der on the strength of a coerced con­fes­sion, described Burge’s team of inter­roga­tors as a New Wave Klan.”

It is tempt­ing to treat Burge’s death as a moment to employ metaphor, but just as he’s beyond slan­der, he defies metaphor. From his Area 2 dun­geon, Burge employed tor­ture tac­tics like­ly learned in Viet­nam to bru­tal­ly and, accord­ing to some of his vic­tims, glee­ful­ly coerce con­fes­sions from black men to get them con­vict­ed of crimes they often hadn’t com­mit­ted and keep them in cages for the rest of their lives.

Jon Burge and his Mid­night Crew” of offi­cers would nab peo­ple off the street, sav­age­ly beat them, in some cas­es elec­troshock them, apply cat­tle prods to their rec­tums and gen­i­tals, and some­times even force them to play faux games of Russ­ian roulette. This went on for almost twen­ty years, unim­ped­ed. Peo­ple served time on death row for crimes they didn’t com­mit. The sys­tem that housed Burge did not have a process in place, or even any incen­tive, to pre­vent this from happening.

As a young man, Burge fought in Viet­nam and that’s like­ly where he learned the tech­niques — and just as impor­tant­ly, the indif­fer­ence to human­i­ty — nec­es­sary to tor­ture and bru­tal­ize human beings. Burge car­ried those lessons back to the streets of the South Side and for a gen­er­a­tion sent inno­cent men to prison.

The Chica­go Fra­ter­nal Order of Police spokesper­son used the occa­sion of Burge’s death yes­ter­day to say Burge had put a lot of bad guys in prison.” But there is no ques­tion that a sworn offi­cer will­ing to snatch human beings off the street and tor­ture them into prison cells didn’t make Chica­go a safer place.

It wasn’t any for­mal city insti­tu­tion but the tire­less work of activists against police abuse, a dogged local reporter, a team of attor­neys, and most impor­tant­ly the vic­tims them­selves, over the course of decades, that brought the crimes of Burge and his Mid­night Crew to light. There was no insti­tu­tion to bring Burge to jus­tice or keep him at heel as an ini­tial mat­ter. And why would there have been? Burge and his com­mand were good at their jobs: solv­ing” crimes by sup­ply­ing a steady stream of con­vic­tions to prosecutors.

One of those pros­e­cu­tors was State’s Attor­ney and future May­or Richard M. Daley, who was informed in 1982 of the tor­ture of Andrew Wil­son. Daley declined to inves­ti­gate. One of his suc­ces­sors, Richard Devine, also declined to under­take a com­pre­hen­sive investigation.

In the 1970s, just as Burge was get­ting his start at CPD, law and order” was the refrain of the day in US cities. The Civ­il Rights Move­ment and increas­ing black and Lat­inx polit­i­cal pow­er in big cities were treat­ed as law­less­ness and social decay. With the Civ­il Rights and Fair Hous­ing Acts under­cut­ting the prac­tices that had main­tained seg­re­ga­tion for gen­er­a­tions, police and pros­e­cu­tors had de fac­to respon­si­bil­i­ty for main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo. Cops unafraid to bend the law to get the bad guys” became heroes: this was the era of Clint East­wood as Dirty Har­ry ask­ing a prone sus­pect if he felt lucky.

But Dirty Har­ry was a rene­gade” cop at odds with his pen­cil-push­ing supe­ri­ors. Burge and his Mid­night Crew may have been break­ing the law and vio­lat­ing the con­sti­tu­tion, but it was only the per­mis­sive­ness of the depart­ment that could allow it to hap­pen. As John Con­roy, the Chica­go Read­er reporter who brought Burge’s crimes to pop­u­lar pub­lic aware­ness, put it, Burge was only pos­si­ble because no supe­ri­or ever intervened.

Burge was no vig­i­lante; there was no by-the-book Chief breath­ing down his neck and hol­ler­ing at him to straight­en up and fly right. For the Mid­night Crew to oper­ate so vicious­ly for so long, the halls of the Area 2 head­quar­ters at 91st and Cot­tage Grove had to stay silent, save for the howls of his vic­tims. A sys­tem designed to ter­ror­ize a pop­u­la­tion into obe­di­ence as much as solve crimes was work­ing properly.

It took Black Peo­ple Against Police Tor­ture (BPAPT), in coali­tion with scores of activists, sur­vivors, and exonerees, who con­vened a coali­tion of activists and attor­neys to bring inter­na­tion­al atten­tion to the cas­es and spur restora­tive action. In 2013, the City Coun­cil approved a $12.3 mil­lion set­tle­ment for two of Burge’s vic­tims. All told, the city spent approx­i­mate­ly $100 mil­lion in legal defense and set­tle­ments con­nect­ed to Burge’s tor­ture régime.

Set­tle­ment pay­outs could nev­er be enough. A coali­tion of orga­ni­za­tions includ­ing BPAPT, Project NIA, BYP100, and oth­ers worked for near­ly three years to get a repa­ra­tions ordi­nance passed through the City Coun­cil. The ordi­nance was passed a month after Rahm Emanuel nar­row­ly won his reelec­tion bid — at a time, we know now, when the city was active­ly sup­press­ing release of a video show­ing the killing of six­teen-year-old Laquan McDon­ald by a Chica­go police offi­cer. That tri­al was made pos­si­ble by many of the same activists and began just a day before Burge’s death.

The repa­ra­tions ordi­nance admit­ted fault on the part of the city, cre­at­ed a fund and pro­vid­ed coun­sel­ing for tor­ture sur­vivors, fund­ed con­struc­tion of a per­ma­nent memo­r­i­al, and per­haps most impor­tant­ly, required that the his­to­ry of the Burge tor­ture régime be taught to Chicago’s eighth and tenth grade students.

Jon Burge’s lega­cy defies slan­der, because the truth is enough. A lit­tle jus­tice is that young Chicagoans will hear the truth and escape the con­spir­a­cy of silence that reigned around Burge’s tor­ture for too long.

This sto­ry first appeared at Jacobin.

Ram­sin Canon lives and works in Chicago.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH