Police Torture in Chicago: Theorizing Violence and Social Justice in a Racialized City

Aretina R Hamilton & Kenneth Foote. Annals of the American Association of Geographers. Volume 108, Issue 2. 2018.

“Thus grew up a double system of justice, which erred on the white side by undue leniency and the practical immunity of red-handed criminals, and erred on the black side by undue severity, injustice, and lack of discrimination.” — Du Bois ([1903] 2003, 127)

David Harvey’s (1973) Social Justice and the City was published just as a major case of social injustice was unfolding on Chicago’s South Side. Starting in the early 1970s and continuing for almost twenty years, police officers under the direction of Jon Burge tortured confessions from as many as 200 black men. Burge was fired from the Police Department in 1993 after an internal review of the torture cases. Convicted later, in 2010, of obstruction of justice and perjury relating to a civil suit stemming from the torture, Burge eventually served just over three and half years in prison. Few of the other officers involved in the torture were punished in any substantial way, whereas the men they tortured lost years and decades of their lives. Some torture victims were eventually released, but others died in prison, and a few remain incarcerated even today.

We use this episode to focus on how far geography has come in theorizing race and violence since Social Justice and the City first appeared. In retrospect, it is notable that the book’s index lists no entries under “violence” and only four under “race relationships.” Furthermore, there is no mention of earlier writers such as Ida Wells and W. E. B. Du Bois, whose works called out racial violence as a key element of U.S. life, as emphasized in our epigraph from Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk.

Our intention is not, however, to fault Harvey for this oversight. Classic works such as Drake and Cayton’s ([1945] 2015) Black Metropolis and other earlier publications of the Chicago School of urban studies paid little attention to racial violence. Harvey’s research was focused instead on different issues. In Social Justice and the City (1973), he was beginning to detail his now widely influential Marxist critique of capitalist urbanization. This broader theoretical frame had the potential to encompass race and violence, even if these topics were not addressed directly in the book. Yet Harvey’s push for an encompassing Marxist theory has been questioned by even some of his closest students and collaborators, such as Smith (2008):

But what is the response to critics who are simultaneously wedded to the centrality of capitalism, and the Marxist critique, and to … insistence that the oppression of women and of people of color is thoroughly integral to what makes capitalism in the first place and to political strategies for its overthrow? The left since the 1980s has voiced a desire for its own “unified theory” that will happily resolve in one big conceptual tent all our dilemmas of race, class, gender, sexuality and other social differences. But that has not happened, and it is not going to happen. (152)

At the same time, advances have been made since the 1970s in understanding the spatialization of race and violence. Subsequent research has explored how social, economic, political, and cultural processes, including violence, interact across a range of scales to reinforce racial boundaries. The Chicago police torture cases highlight a wide gap between what we know about the dynamics of racial violence and what can be done to stop such violence. Contemporary events including the recent killings of black men and women, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and instances of violence directed toward many other groups only emphasize the importance of this work in terms of both theory and practice.

Theorizing Race, Place, and the Production of Black Geographies

The contrast between Social Justice and the City and the Chicago police torture cases is important theoretically. It allows us to emphasize the work that geographers have accomplished since the 1970s in theorizing race and urban landscapes. Harvey’s book might have sidestepped these issues, but such omissions are not surprising given Kobayashi’s (2014) observation that “the concept of race has a benighted biography among those who have created our discipline” (1101). Her point is that geographers have too often accepted the idea of race uncritically but, more important, have in some cases been complicit in its propagation.

Since the release of Social Jusice and the City, geographers have tried to correct this lacuna (Kobayashi and Peake 1994). A great deal has been published on race, place, and geography on a variety of topics. These include nuanced examinations of landscapes (J. B. Jackson 1970; K. T. Jackson 1985), belonging and contestation (Sibley 1995), gender and space (Longhurst 1995), whiteness (Bonnett 1997; Shaw 2007), queer geographies (Bell and Valentine 1995), and state-sanctioned violence (Tyner 2012; Tyner and Inwood 2014). In addition to these works, scholars began to explicitly address the absence of race in geography (Kobayashi and Peake 2000; Peake and Schein 2000).

Of these areas of theoretical innovation most related to our topic, the first is the emergence of a literature on black geographies beginning in the post-civil rights era of the late 1960s. Bunge’s (1965) Detroit Geographic Expedition was one of the first steps in this direction in its exploration of the lived experience of blackness in Detroit. Rose’s address to the Association of American Geographers in 1978 as past president, “The Geography of Despair,” was another key step forward. Rose (1978) focused on the high incidence of homicides among black males but also revealed the systemic roots of inequality that existed in black communities. This work served as an entry point for scholarship specifically focused on blackness. Two decades later, Woods’s (1998) Development Arrested generated another shift toward the establishment of black geographies as a subarea. Woods argued that the black working class developed a “blues epistimology” that contested conventional assumptions regarding social relations in the South.

McKittrick’s (2006) Demonic Grounds introduced an intersectional approach to the study of black women’s cartographies, that blackness and gender are not binary categories but, instead, involve fluid blendings of identities. Another innovation in this area was Wilson’s (2000) use of the theme of apartheid to explore racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Recent research on black geographies has expanded to include black queer sexualities (Walcott 2007; Eaves 2017) and how blackness is spatialized outside of an American context (Fanon 1963; Gilroy 1993; Wynter 2003; Nimako and Small 2009) has helped broaden this earlier work. These geographies are not only local, they are transnational and part of a larger diaspora that is “underscored by a long history of racial domination” (McKittrick and Woods 2007, 8).

Among the most important developments since the 1970s are works on carceral geographies and policing. Carceral powers discipline space, a fact that geographers began to examine through the work of Goffman (1961) and Foucault (1979). Philo (2001) was among the first to build on the work of Foucault by exploring spaces of confinement. Gilmore’s (1999) work alerted geographers to the ways in which state building was often complicit in the creation of a prison state. Her Golden Gulag (Gilmore 2007) argued that politics and race are intrinsic to understanding the dynamics and expansion of the prison and the criminal justice system in California. Interest in carceral geographies also created an entry point for scholars concerned with the policing of blackness.

Herbert (1997) wrote about the territorial control used by police in Los Angeles to regulate the personal geographies of black citizens. These earlier works began to look at the systemic causes of violence and police prejudice. Other scholars viewed policing as tools of neoliberal policies and sites of antiblack racism (Herbert and Brown 2006; Beckett and Murakawa 2012). Within these black communities, all citizens are marked as suspects and put under surveillance. This point was underscored in Shabazz’s (2015) Spatializing Blackness. For Shabazz, carceral power and the racialization of space moved from the public spaces of the streets into the home, as well as into practices of masculinity. Writing about kitchenettes, one-bedroom apartments, he noted, “Racialized practices expressed via geography became normalized, rationalized, and even (for some segments of the society) desirable” (Shabazz 2015, 71).

The upshot of these theoretical insights is to recognize that for these citizens, the concept of race made their communities, their homes, and their bodies contested sites where the state could employ many tools of discipline (including the police) to subdue or remove them from the landscape. These points are essential to understanding the geographical spaces that made it possible for the victims of the Chicago police torture to be brutalized. Separated from the rest of the city with clear material boundaries, the people who were tortured were selected because they had little or no societal or spatial autonomy. Race operates across various scales (public and private spaces, home, streets, neighborhoods) and largely defines how African American residents in Districts 2 and 3 move throughout them (Boddie 2010; Hague 2010; Lipsitz 2011).

Within the neighborhoods that Burge and his officers occupied, racialized violence became a practice of everyday life and a means of social control (Blomley 2003). Over a period of two decades, members of the Chicago Police Department used violence and terror to ensure that racial boundaries were enforced. At the same time, the 1970s and 1980s were decades of tremendous economic and social change in Chicago and elsewhere—a period of weakened social control—so Burge’s torture can be seen in a different light. In both cases, these points complicate Harvey’s (1973) argument in Social Justice and the City. His articulation of social justice ignores how institutional structures have resulted in increased violence for both reasons.

The Case Study: Historical and Political Contexts

The Chicago police torture cases provide a window on how violence continues to be used to enforce spatial racial, ethnic, social, and economic divides. Other U.S. cities offer somewhat parallel examples, but Chicago is a particularly good case. It has played a role in some of the most important social and economic transformations in U.S. society from the mid-nineteenth century onward. As the birthplace of the Chicago School of sociology, it has also served as a focus of social research for a century (Park, Burgess, and McKenzie 1925; Suttles 1968; Hunter 1974; Reed 2011; Drake and Cayton [1945] 2015). A further reason for focusing on Chicago is that violence has been part of its history from the destruction of the first white settlement, Fort Dearborn, in 1812, right up to the present. Violence has erupted in Chicago repeatedly to mark and enforce social, racial, and ethnic boundaries, and the Burge torture cases can be viewed within this broader context.

Up to World War II, Chicago was a battleground of labor rights, but after the war, violence focused increasingly on issues of race and the desegregation of the city’s housing. As Rothstein (2017) noted, in the first five years after the war there 357 acts of violence against blacks attempting to buy or rent homes in white neighborhoods and such attacks continued to occur for decades. The Burge case also arose during a period when a sense of siege enveloped many major U.S. cities as confrontations erupted not only over race but also related to the Vietnam War and other issues. During this period, some major cities were placed under de facto military occupation by the National Guard. Some police and civil authorities came to see “violence against violence” as a suitable response to the civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s. In Chicago, the rise of powerful street gangs, the growth of the Nation of Islam, and the emergence of the black and Puerto Rican nationalist movements created additional tension and produced a situation primed for violence.

The 1970s were also a period of political transition in Chicago. Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s mayor from 1955 until his death in 1976, built one of the strongest and most influential Democratic political machines in the twentieth century. His death led to a period of leadership changeovers until his son, Richard M. Daley, was elected mayor in 1989, eventually serving until 2011. It was during the period between 1976 and 1989 that the police torture cases peaked. One irony is that Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor (1983-1987), served during this period until his sudden death in 1987. Eugene Sawyer, at that time Chicago’s longest serving black alderman, was elected by the city council to complete the remainder of Washington’s second term (1987-1989). Among the issues that remain difficult to answer about the torture cases are those of “who knew what and when”—because Washington and Sawyer represented constituencies on Chicago’s South Side. Although these questions about the political context of the torture cases go beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note that future mayor Richard M. Daley served as Cook County State’s Attorney from 1981 to 1989. A prison doctor’s report of torture was forwarded to his office in 1982 (as noted later) but received no response, although Daley would eventually be involved in resolving the torture cases as mayor.

Many details about the torture cases and Jon Burge’s career are documented in a variety of sources (Conroy 2000; Van Cleve 2016; Chicago Torture Justice Memorials 2017). Burge, an Army veteran, joined the Chicago Police in 1970 after serving in South Korea and Vietnam. He rose through the ranks and received numerous commendations and promotions along the way. Beginning around 1972, Burge and other officers began to torture suspects into making confessions. They tended to use painful or stressful techniques that left few physical marks on their victims. Some of the most painful devices were cattle prods, stun guns, an old-fashioned hand-cranked telephone, modified hair dryers, and a “violet wand,” an electrically charged sex toy. All of these devices were used to deliver painful electrical shocks to the suspects’ faces, gums, genitals, anuses and were even inserted into their rectums. Mock executions were also performed, including pointing guns at suspects and putting plastic bags over their heads.

A turning point in the case occurred in 1982 when two police officers were killed on 9 February. The hunt for the killers—perhaps spurred by the killing of two other officers earlier in the year—ended in the arrest of brothers Andrew and Jackie Wilson on 14 February. The police had Andrew Wilson’s confession by the end of the day, at which time he was taken to a local hospital with cuts on his head and face, chest bruises, and burns on his thighs (Conroy 2007). Dr. John Raba, who examined Wilson at the hospital, as well as another doctor at Cook County Prison, noted their suspicions of torture to the Police Superintendent as well as to State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, as noted earlier. In 1983, Andrew Wilson was sentenced to death, his brother to life imprisonment. Eventually, Jackie Wilson’s conviction was overturned and Andrew Wilson was granted a second trial. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he died in prison in 2007.

The most important aspect of Andrew Wilson’s story is that he never gave up in pressing his claim of torture. He began in 1986 by filing, on his own, a civil suit in federal court claiming torture, a suit that was tried three times: the first ending in a mistrial; the second deciding that Wilson’s rights had been violated but that he had not been subjected to excessive force; and the third in 1996 with a verdict in Wilson’s favor. Wilson’s case is important not only because he won but because the information that surfaced between 1986 and 1996 (including anonymous tips coming from within the police department) led to the exposure of Burge and his colleagues. Since the case began, more than 110 torture victims have been identified. Many of their verdicts have been overturned or reversed. Some of the defendants have been pardoned or had their sentences commuted, but others remain incarcerated.

The Spatiality of Torture

It is difficult to imagine that such widespread and long-term violence could continue for so long unless it was isolated spatially in ways that allowed the Chicago police to conduct their activities unchecked. This involved not one but many ways in which racial exclusion operated across many scales, from the local to the national. At each level—whether of policing, housing, or economic opportunity—the overlap of racist attitudes and actions helped amplify the effects of the others, allowing officials to deny that such policies were aimed at blacks or other racial and ethnic groups. Perhaps the most obvious spatial dimension was where the torture took place. Chicago’s police department is organized hierarchically into three areas (north, central, south), twenty-five districts, sixty-nine sectors, and finally 277 beats.

For most of his career, Burge’s commands were in Districts 2 and 3 on Chicago’s South Side, an area that was home to one of the largest black communities in the city. Through time, these districts had been isolated spatially by the construction and expansion of the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90/I-94) running north to south along the western edge of the district, the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) cutting the area off from Chicago’s central business district to the north, and Lakeshore Drive and Lake Michigan bordering the districts to the east. Some of the largest public housing projects in the city were built there—the Robert Taylor Homes, Harold Ickes Homes, Stateway Gardens, Dearborn Homes, and Hilliard Homes—although some of these have since been demolished. At the scale of the city, these districts served to enforce what Massey and Denton (1995) termed “American apartheid,” segregated enclaves defined socially, economically, and spatially. As Shabazz (2015) wrote:

Continued economic and spatial disenfranchisement of Black residents also contributed to the failure of the housing projects and produced, in many instances, intergenerational poverty based on geography. Additionally, the projects failed because of architecture. Postwar public housing in Chicago relied almost exclusively on high-rise models, which packed large number of people in less space, but such design isolated them from the rest of the city … A consequence of using high-rise housing structures to enable racial segregation was that they made it possible keep Blacks in certain parts of the city, effectively cutting them off from the resources that would enable social and economic growth. (56, 63)

When these new residential projects did not work as expected, efforts were made to police them more rigorously:

The abundance of security measures that shaped the project—chain-link fencing that covered the balconies, policing, video surveillance, perimeter patrols, controlled visitation, curfews, apartment sweeps, metal detectors, stop-and-frisk techniques, turnstiles, onsite [police] courts and the resident identification program—radically transformed the built environment of the project. It also changed its function, moving it from a home space to a liminal place between home and prison. (Shabazz 2015, 68)

Given this situation, Districts 2 and 3 were large areas within which the police could move with little fear of consequence. As Chicago journalist John Conroy (2000, 24) wrote about the search for the Wilson brothers:

Every young black male in sight was being stopped and questioned, and … the Reverend Jesse Jackson proclaimed that the black community was living under martial law, in “a war zone … under economic, political, and military occupation,” that the police department was holding “the entire black community hostage for the crimes of two. …”

Police kicked down doors, invaded and threatened people in their homes, and detained or arrested people on the slightest pretext. When Andrew Wilson was finally arrested, he was tortured at the district police headquarters. Its interrogation rooms provided confined, publicly inaccessible places where officers could do almost anything to prisoners while, at the same time, deny everything they did. In some cases, the police took men to distant isolated locations where no one could see, hear, or document their torture.

Many first-person accounts of these episodes of torture have been documented in legal affidavits and documents. One important example comes from the 1985 testimony of Darrell Cannon. He described in detail how he was tortured at an isolated industrial area on Chicago’s South Side (Cannon 1985). The officers resorted to physical and psychological torture—a cattle prod pressed to Cannon’s testicles, a shotgun pushed into his mouth, a flashlight used as a club—until he confessed. In this case, the torture moved from the scale of the city and neighborhood to the personal, intimate spaces of the body.

Given the racial, socioeconomic, and professional disparities in status between the police and their suspects, claims by the torture victims were easy to ignore or deny. Cannon’s wife filed a complaint with the Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards (OPS) but the complaint was dismissed.

Discussion: Deny, Defend, and Deflect

That Burge and his colleagues were able to continue torturing prisoners for so long speaks to the layers of protection that buffered them from repercussions. Space was one dimension of this protection insofar as Districts 2 and 3 were more occupied than protected by the police. By labeling and isolating these districts as crime-ridden and lawless, the police created a layer of deniability around their own lawless activities. The hierarchical organization of police jurisdictions and the autonomy offered officers working their beats allowed them to keep activities hidden from public view. Space alone might be an insufficient explanation for what happened in Chicago, but it helped to confine and hide the violence for many years because racialized policing, housing, and employment seemed to amplify their effects in space.

Equally important were the tremendous social, economic, and professional disparities between the police officers and the men they tortured. Who would believe claims of police violence made by criminals and gangsters from the South Side? To Burge, his officers, and much of the world outside of Districts 2 and 3, the suspects were “human vermin” and “guilty vicious criminals” (Spielman 2015). Their status made a difference whenever a complaint was filed about police brutality. Studies of complaints made against the Chicago police indicate that overall only about 2.6 percent were sustained in recent years, but only about 1.6 percent of those filed by black residents were (Shifflett et al. 2015; Invisible Institute 2016). As the Shifflett et al. (2015) study bluntly noted, “Most unsustained allegations had black complainants. Most sustained allegations had white complainants.” A Chicago Tribune study yielded slightly different percentages—but comparably low figures, also noting that most sustained complaints resulted in, at best, minor sanctions (Gorner and Hing 2015). These findings and other complaints have spurred a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, but this is only in its earliest stages (U.S. Department of Justice 2015).

Indeed, making a complaint about the Chicago police can be a complicated process that is stacked against the complainant. Investigations and punishments involve three separate agencies—the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA); the police department itself, including its Bureau of Internal Affairs; and the Chicago Police Board (City of Chicago, Chicago Police Board 2016). Officers against whom complaints are filed are provided with legal support and advice during the review process by their union, the Fraternal Order of Police, Chicago Lodge 7, whereas the complainants must cover their legal fees themselves. Moreover, by state law, complaints will only be investigated in Illinois if they are accompanied by “a sworn affidavit that certifies that the allegation is true and correct. If the person making the complaint did not witness the alleged conduct, they must certify that they believe that the facts in the allegation are true” (City of Chicago, IPRA 2016). People arrested or harassed are very hesitant to file such paperwork because details of their complaints can be used against them in court.

Together these bureaucratic barriers helped to reinforce what has been termed the “blue wall of silence,” “blue code,” or “blue shield,” the unwritten conventions among police officers in Chicago and other departments not to report mistakes, misconduct, crimes, or violence. This means that, if questioned about such incidents, police officers deny or claim that they were unaware of any wrongdoing. Breaking this wall of silence has proven very difficult, even today when the use of personal digital media and body cameras makes it increasingly hard for police officers to engage in unlawful behavior without fear of repercussions.

Finally, even when the wall of silence is breached, a final defense is the “official inquiry.” The Chicago Police Department has repeatedly faced cases of internal misconduct, crime, and corruption that have been publicly exposed (Table 2; Lindberg 1998). Each time, a commission is formed, an investigation is convened, and a report is issued—with little long-term follow-up. Certainly, it is possible to point to some long-standing changes based on investigations of police corruption. Indeed, the Chicago Crime Commission, created as an independent, nonpartisan oversight organization in 1919, was based on efforts to fight organized crime and the police corruption it spawned. In so many other cases, however, committees, commissions, and investigations seem to be mainly public relations efforts that deflect attention away from police (Platt 1971). The general pattern of these public relations responses is to deny any allegation, defend any officer, and deflect attention away from the department. In the end, then, space is not the only barrier to police accountability but is interwoven with these other means of oppression. Police officers know that, even if charged with violence toward suspects, they are likely to avoid punishment or at least delay sanctions for many years.

It is highly ironic that when redress did occur in this case, it was because local organizations “jumped scale” and brought the claims of police torture to the attention of the United Nations. In December 2007, Chicago’s People’s Law Office presented a report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and in November 2014, the group We Charge Genocide submitted a report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. Both reports generated a larger conversation within the international realm, resulting in calls for investigation. The international spotlight was what led eventually to the prosecution of Burge and his officers and to the award of reparations to the victims of his torture. In turn, the city developed subcommittees on police brutality, and investigations were begun by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. At the same time, these actions might spur only temporary correctives. According to the project Mapping Police Violence (2016), the most recent data indicate that a “majority (51 percent) of unarmed people who were killed were black,” making these rates four times the rate of white victims. Despite the seemingly bittersweet ending of the Chicago police torture cases, the prevalence of police brutality continues.

Conclusion: The More Theory Advances, the More Reality Remains Unchanged

Between 1972 and 1991, Chicago Police Districts 2 and 3 were transformed into “laboratories for organized violence, where new forms of suppression, punishment, and political control were practiced and refined” (Thomas 2011, xxii). Within this space, Burge and his officers could suspend the law and hide their violence. The aftermath of their work is sobering. A reparation fund of $5.5 million was approved for victims, but this sum pales in comparison with the funds the City of Chicago has spent defending itself and its police force in legal actions stemming from the torture cases. Nevertheless, the broader question is whether the litigation of the torture cases has reduced the use of racially directed violence in Chicago or elsewhere around the country. Clearly, this has not happened. Reparations, no matter how large, do not remove the traumas associated with the torture cases. As one of the victims, Anthony Holmes (2012) noted:

There is always this inner fear that I will get tied into something I didn’t do, and they will tie me up with something. You can never describe that first feeling when they call you or see you. There is nothing I can do. That is why I no longer live in the City. I always have the fear with police—oh boy here they come. I am just a little or a lot paranoid.

Carceral power was ingrained in the geographies of black Chicago, making police violence a common feature of African American communities and black occupied space. Hence, decades of police violence and surveillance unchecked removed any sense of safety that might have existed for Holmes.

Even as we write this article, continuing urban violence has claimed the lives of African Americans such as Tamar Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Keith Scott, and Anthony Lamar Smith. The police officers in these cases were white and exonerated of all charges. In many respects, the situation is hardly different now from that in 1903, when W. E. B. Du Bois wrote ([1903] 2003):

It was not then a question of crime, but rather one of color, that settled a man’s conviction on almost any charge. Thus Negroes came to look upon courts as instruments of injustice and oppression, and upon those convicted in them as martyrs and victims. (127)

In 1973, Harvey’s solution to the spatialization of race was to suggest moving away from the von Thünen bid-rent model and toward “a socially controlled urban land market and socialized control of the housing sector” (Harvey 1973, 137). But isn’t this social (and racialized) control of space, land, and housing a factor that led to police violence in Chicago?

Our point is that this theorization of race, place, social justice, and the city has advanced considerably since the 1970s, but our despair is that the more theory advances, the more the reality of racialized violence remains unchanged. We have no ready answer to this paradox but can suggest three issues for further research. These are investigations into the long-term use of violence as a means of maintaining or policing social, racial, and ethnic boundaries; the increasing reliance on covert, hidden, or deniable violence such as those employed by Burge and his officers to enforce racial and social order; and the use of official investigations to deflect attention away from change and reform. These are long-term efforts, but such long-term efforts are perhaps critical to changing the patterns of spatialized and racialized violence that are so much a part of American life.