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



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.  

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. 

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

CTJM developed the memorial project with a group of phenomenal artists, lawyers, survivors, educators, and activists committed to human rights and social justice. The process of collecting proposals and selecting a memorial design began in 2010 through a series of community-based conversations about how a memorial could properly honor the lives of survivors without erasing the history of violence. CTJM’s dedicated team studies memorials for survivors of state violence all over the world. From 2011 to 2019, a series of community events, workshops, and protests were held across the city from the Jane Addams Hull House Museum to Experimental Station to the Southside Community Art Center to the Daley Plaza to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center to Chicago’s City Council meeting to name a few. They received and exhibited over 70 speculative memorials for Burge torture survivors. In the fall of 2013, CTJM co-founder, Joey Mogul drafted and filed the Reparations Ordinance in Chicago’s City Council and it was finally approved on May 6, 2015. The last remaining item on the legislation to be realized is the public memorial. 

In March 2019, CTJM worked with the University of Chicago’s Art + Public Life to exhibit proposals by commissioned artists, one of which will be chosen to become the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial. The exhibition was curated by Hannah Jasper with the support of survivors, Anthony Holmes and Mark Clements. Six artists who have demonstrated commitment to racial justice work in the city were invited to submit proposals to produce an ambitious, permanent public artwork to honor named and unnamed torture survivors. The artists are Monica Chadha/Nelly Agassi, Juan Chavez, Sonja Henderson, Andres Hernandez, Preston Jackson, and John Lee and myself. The winning design proposal was selected by a team of jurors comprised of torture survivors, artists, community activists, cultural workers, architects, educators, and individuals in the philanthropic community. 

Breath, Form, and Freedom was selected as the winning memorial design for the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial. John Lee and I are the designers and are deeply humbled with the great honor of building the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial to center the stories of survivors, archive the struggle for reparations, and create a community space in the continued fight for justice. As artists, we ask ourselves, “What is our role as cultural producers in the face of continued war, police brutality, mass incarceration, and poverty in our nation’s history?” For us, connecting the history of slavery, international wars, and domestic policies that criminalize poor and working class communities of color to resilient transnational struggles for liberation was a critical point of departure in defining what this memorial can offer as a public archive and educational platform for all generations. We envisioned a monumental anti-monument, where time does not stand still within the memorial to commemorate a history as past, but a past that is still present and its scale as undeniable. We hope to honor the survivors, both those who have come out and those who are unknown with this memorial and affirm that they are, in the words of Anthony Holmes, “still here.”

Nguyen The Funambulist (2)
Project for the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial by Patricia Nguyen and John Lee. / Rendering by John Lee (2020).

Monuments can trap a sense of history in time, suspending it in its material form and mode of engagement with its public. I first heard of the notion of an “anti-monument” from a news article about Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, whose recent installation melted 37 tons of rifles, pistols, and grenade launchers turned in by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) guerillas into tiles. Salcedo discussed wanting to create something useful out of the weapons that have “caused so much pain” and that “monument[s] is a way of forgetting something.” Drawing initial inspiration from Salcedo’s work, I continued to meditate on this concept of an “anti-monument” with architectural designer, John Lee to create our memorial design for CTJM. 

We hear the echoes of Eric Garner and George Floyd’s gasps for breath as they exclaim “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” only to be asphyxiated due to excessive force by police violence. We meditate on breath, calling on Franz Fanon’s conceptualization of combat breathing as we continue to hear the words of survivors proclaim, “I will not stop as long as I have breath in my body to fight for justice.” The will to endure the fight for justice and reparations remains. Our collaborative approach to design centers community voices to reveal histories of state violence and create platforms to imagine alternative realities grounded in social justice. The idea for this memorial project began with a meditation on breath, form, and freedom. There are four main elements of the memorial design: 1) Names of survivors will be engraved on the wall in the entrance of the memorial. In addition, those are yet to be named will also be presented by etches on the wall. 2) Timeline of the reparations movement and facts about the history of torture by Jon Burge and the Chicago Police Department. This timeline will be created in collaboration with survivors and members of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial Project. We believe timelines are a political project, framing what is remembered and how it is remembered. We want to make sure the process centers the voices of survivors, organizers, and activists who have been central to this work. 3) Community Space will be a multi-use space and can transform into a gallery, stage, cookout area, classroom, meditation room, etc. 4) Manifestos will be part of a collective creative writing project with survivors. To transform the violence of forced confessions, the manifestos portion of the project seeks to open up a reparative space for survivors to write visions for the future. These words will then be engraved into the walls that open up in the community space. The manifestos by survivors will be the first and last words visitors see.


Breath in relationship to the right to live in the face of state violence and histories of slavery, U.S. imperialism, and police brutality. Our understanding of breath brings together Black radical thinkers (Franz Fanon’s combat breathing and Christina Sharpe’s aspiration) and buddhism (Thich Nhat Hanh) to imagine the memorial as a site for critical engagement with the history of reparations for survivors torture by Jon Burge and the Chicago Police Department. The idea of breath is woven through several elements of the design including the structure, material, and function. The structure of the memorial has wide windows, spacious ceilings, and expansive openings into the community space. The structural material includes contrasting ribbed and smooth concrete with timber accents for the memorial installation, and window details.

Nguyen The Funambulist (3)
Project for the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial by Patricia Nguyen and John Lee. / Rendering by John Lee (2020).

The unfinished textures, which speak to the notion of continued struggle, evokes the conditions torture survivors endured and the continued resiliency in each person to continue fighting for justice. The function of the center of the memorial design is a community space that can function as a stage for performing, meditative, and educational space. Here breath is enlivened through the voices of survivors, families, friends, and fellow community members sharing space together.

Form is encapsulated in the shape of the memorial design as a curved circular structure, which represents a nonlinear sense of time, ethos of communal support, and rebirth. Traditional memorial projects relegate the past into an object of observance. Our design embodies the idea that time can be folded and grounded in the present moment. 

Names of the survivors are immediately present in the entrance, and as guests move through the curving interior corridor, the timeline of the reparations movement is mapped out. Towards the exit leads into the outdoor community space, which offers a platform where history is present with us but also opportunities for imagining futures together. 

The coil design is inspired by the Zapatista caracole, Standing Rock’s Indigenous organizational protest formation, Torkwase Dyson’s hypershapes, and Christina Sharpe’s discussion of the hold/to be held in the aftermath of transatlantic chattel slavery. Moreover, the circular character inverts and transforms the rigid block structure of prisons and schools as a critique of the school to prison pipeline, pointing to criminalization as an overtly racist process. Many of the survivors testify to the lack of educational and economic opportunities in their neighborhood as a link to why they were targeted. Nevertheless, the “coil” opens up to a space that seeks to offer a space to gather, bear witness, and create. The form is like a womb that holds a history of Chicago, while carrying a space for rebirth and regeneration through continued dialogues, educational workshops, and healing spaces. 

Freedom is a continued struggle for more life in the face of systemic anti-Black violence. The memorial design ultimately seeks to be a place of possibility to bring together people from all sides of the city and internationally to engage with a history of Chicago. To create a platform for survivors and community members to learn about Chicago’s reparations movement, offer lectures, workshops, community gatherings, which hopefully connects directly with students and teachers in the Chicago Public Schools as part of the curriculum initiative. Lastly, through a collective creative writing process with survivors we hope to create manifestos for the future of the words of survivors themselves to be carved out onto the pillars that open up to the community space. Transforming the act of forced confessions to reparative modes of writing manifestos as a way for survivors to write for themselves their hopes, messages, and lessons they would like to leave for us. The fight for justice continues and this memorial seeks to cultivate a living structure that exists as a platform to honor the lives of survivors and space of critical reflection and engagement. 

The movement for reparations began decades before a memorial project was conceived of and almost a decade after the first initial meetings for a public memorial CTJM has chosen a design to be built. The timestamps on these movements are important to note, especially because community organizing and activism are fundamental to creating long lasting change but it does take time. The fight for reparations does not end with the passing of a law, it continues to be a durational struggle for those who have yet to be free from imprisonment, for Chicago Public School to implement the reparations curriculum, for sustained funding for the Chicago Torture Justice Center to provide healing and counseling services, and for the public funding and land to build and maintain a memorial. 

Although this historic legislation package was approved, the city of Chicago has yet to secure funding and land for the public memorial. In CTJM’s most recent statement, they are demanding that Mayor Lori Lightfoot “publicly commit to building the memorial for the Burge torture survivors within her first term in office. The Mayor’s Arts & Culture Transition Team recommended she do this as soon as possible.” ■