Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, stands behind police superintendent Gary McCarthy as they join Chicago area mayors in voicing their support for stricter gun laws during a news conference at City Hall Thursday, December 20, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
In Chicago, Black History Month is a time when some of us reflect on one of our poorest-kept secrets, an ongoing injustice born of brutal, systemic racism, which has spread over a generation and whose stain is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city.
Forty years ago, a rookie Chicago police detective named Jon Burge tortured Anthony Holmes using electric shock and suffocation, causing him to crawl on the floor in pain. Lacing this torture with racial epithets, Burge initiated a pattern of dehumanizing abuse that would terrorize at least 120 African- American men, their families and the black community for the next twenty years. This pattern was marked not only by its uniquely brutal tactics, but also by its overtly racist motivation. Burge referred to his notorious electric shock device as the “nigger box,” used the term “nigger” as part of his torture routine, and also used the term to describe his victims in boastful conversations with friends and even casual acquaintances. One day, when asked by an acquaintance about his work investigating homicides, he remarked that he had been “dealing with dead fucking niggers all day.” His “right-hand men,” Sgt. John Byrne and Detective Peter Dignan, also repeatedly used the term, including during interrogations, introducing the plastic cover used for suffocation by saying they had “something special for niggers,” and threatening to hang another suspect by pointing to a noose dangling from the basement ceiling and saying they “hang niggers around here all the time.” Burge and his confederates often focused their torture and brutality on the genitals of their victims.
This blatant racism is underscored by two pending civil rights damages lawsuits, brought under the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, in which two wrongfully convicted black men allege that their torture was the result of a racially motivated police conspiracy. The accusations are disturbing: in Darrell Cannon’s case, Byrne and Dignan informed him that they had “a scientific way of interrogating niggers,” then took him to a remote area and repeatedly shocked him on the genitals while using the racial slur so frequently, Cannon recalls thinking “that was my name.” In Ronald Kitchen’s case, Burge and Detective Michael Kill beat him and kicked him in the genitals while racially taunting him. When later asked, under oath, how often he used the “n-word,” Kill proudly replied, “More than a million times.”
Local historians, including African-American history professor Adam Green at the University of Chicago, have linked this racially based torture to the brutality of slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow. The parallels in the nature and focus of the brutality are undeniable; so too the selection of African-American police commanders chosen for their subservience, who looked the other way when they heard the anguished screams of the torture victims. African-American detectives were kept in line by strict enforcement of the police code of silence, and when they complained of Burge’s racism to their commander, Burge threatened them with retaliation. Several of these detectives heard rumors that Burge was a Ku Klux Klan member in Indiana. So black detectives under Burge remained silent, coming forward to acknowledge the “open secret” only after retiring decades later.