Building a Monumental Anti-monument: the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial

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For almost two decades, the Chicago Police Department has tortured over 125 predominantly Black and Latinx people. The Chicago Torture Justice Memorial designed by Patricia Nguyen and John Lee is one of the reparative components that activists have victoriously forced the municipality to build.  

Article published in The Funambulist 30 (July-August 2020) Reparations. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Nguyen The Funambulist (1)
Project for the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial by Patricia Nguyen and John Lee. / Rendering by John Lee (2020).

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Department on May 25, 2020, and the murders of Breonna Taylor (March 13, 2020), Tony McDade (May 27, 2020), Ahmaud Arbery (February 23, 2020), and countless Black people by police officers and white supremacist vigilantes, cities across the United States and around the world erupted in a rebellion for Black lives and a call to defund the police. These uprisings upend not only capitalism’s racist infrastructure to reveal its valuing of property over people, but also the nation’s valorization of white supremacist confederate generals and slave owners as protestors fight to pummel statues and monuments once created by the state. As these monuments are torn down by the masses of protestors in Philadelphia, Alexandria, and Richmond in the United States and Bristol in the United Kingdom, the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial (CTJM) project issues a public statement “Condemning Anti-Black Police Violence and Calling for Full Implementation of Reparations,” five years after the historic Reparations Ordinance was passed in the City of Chicago. “The one component of this legislation that has yet to be fulfilled is the permanent public memorial.” 

CTJM is the leading organization in the continued fight to secure reparation for survivors of torture by Chicago Police Department (CPD) commander, Jon Burge. Before Burge rose to a prominent position as a detective in the CPD, he was a military officer during the Vietnam War where he learned torture techniques in a CIA led operation called the Phoenix Program. Burge was among several military officers who partook in war crimes abroad and returned to the U.S. to become police officers. From 1972 to 1993, Burge led the charge torturing over 125 (and counting) predominantly Black and Latinx men, women, and boys into forced confessions of violent crimes, which resulted in decades of incarceration and over 10 of them sentenced to death row. More recently, La Tanya Jenifor Sublett, the first Black woman and only one of two known has come forward as a survivor to discuss how her experiences of torture were normalized and dismissed especially sexual violence, revealing gendered differences in experiences and how difficult it is for women to come forward. 

Decades of intergenerational and interracial organizing efforts led by CTJM, Project NIA, We Charge Genocide, and Amnesty International, USA including the #BlackLivesMatter movement during the 2014-2015 election season led to the passing of the Reparations Ordinance in Chicago’s City Council. The Reparations Ordinance passed in Chicago is the first law in the history of the U.S. to provide reparations for racially motivated law enforcement violence. According to CTJM, “the City of Chicago is agreeing to acknowledge the City’s responsibility for gross human rights violations and to commit significant resources to help repair the harms inflicted on the torture survivors, their families and the communities they come from.” The Reparations Ordinance includes a formal apology; financial reparations; a center on the southside of Chicago to provide counseling, healthcare services, and vocational training; torture survivors and family members are allowed to enroll in City Colleges and receive their education and degree for free; Chicago Public School (CPS) curriculum on the history of Chicago Police torture in 8th and 10th grade; evidentiary hearings for torture survivors who are still behind bars; and support for the creation of public memorial. The ordinance calls for a minimum of $20 million to finance the Chicago Police Torture Reparations Commission, the Chicago Torture Justice Center, CPS curriculum, and the public memorial.