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Death Of Jon Burge: Commander Set Standard For Police Terror In Chicago

What happened with Burge is a microcosm of how society and government can allow authorities to torture their own citizens, especially if thuggish elements can convince officials the ends justify the means

Former Chicago police commander Jon Burge died on September 19. He was responsible for systematic torture. (Photo: People's Law Office in Chicago)

Former Chicago police commander Jon Burge died on September 19. He was responsible for systematic torture. (Photo: People's Law Office in Chicago)

Former Chicago police commander Jon Burge was involved with several officers in the torture of more than 110 black men. He was never held fully accountable for the trauma inflicted on black communities and died on September 19.

At the trial for former Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is accused of murdering Laquan McDonald, former Fraternal Order of Police president Dean Angelo spoke about Burge.

“Jon Burge put a lot of bad guys in prison,” Angelo stated. “You know, people picked a career apart that was considered for a long time to be an honorable career and a very effective career.”

Angelo added, “And I don’t know that Jon Burge got a fair shake based on the years and years and years of service that he gave the city. But we’ll have to wait and see how that eventually plays out in history, I guess.”

The FOP argued the “full story” of the Burge cases has never been told. They clearly plan to keep spreading propaganda about Burge’s actions, even after death, because the reality of his conduct left such a stain on the reputation of the Chicago Police Department.

Burge and his “Midnight Crew” engaged in the torture of dozens of black men from 1972 to 1991. This came directly after the civil rights movement and rise of groups organizing for black power. In fact, Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was assassinated by Chicago police in 1969 (along with fellow Black Panther Mark Clark).

The U.S. was also in the final years of a twenty-year war in Vietnam against an insurgency, where military forces committed torture and other acts of barbarism.

It is strongly suspected Burge learned about the tools of torture while deployed in Vietnam. He enlisted in the Army reserve in 1966. After returning home, he became a police officer in 1970.

As John Conroy summarized, it was not long before Burge, who was 25 years-old, was “promoted to detective and assigned to Area Two Robbery.” He was responsible for the “far south side” from Lake Michigan to Cicero Avenue.

Burge policed the community through terror. The terror he inflicted was intended to control the poor and working class black neighborhoods on the south side. It was legitimized by the code of silence within the police department.

Like Bernard Harcourt outlines in his book, “The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went To War Against Its Own Citizens,” Burge tortured to manufacture the truth—to coerce confessions from numerous black men who were alleged criminal suspects.

Ronald Kitchen is one of the black men who was tortured into confessing to involvement in five murders. He spent more than 21 years in prison. Thirteen of those years were spent on death row. He was exonerated in 2009, when he was 43 years-old.

When the “Midnight Crew” interrogated him, according to Kitchen, “Officers handcuffed him to the wall and beat him repeatedly with a nightstick, a telephone, a telephone book, and their own fists.”

The more terror was employed by Burge and his “Midnight Crew,” the more it became normalized and impossible for officers to question torture as a tool for doing whatever it took to enforce compliance and order in communities.

One Area Two sergeant, John Byrne, struck Darrell Cannon with a “cattle prod on his testicles and penis and in his mouth.” He “repeatedly called Cannon a ‘nigger’ and held a 9 mm handgun to Cannon’s head,” according to a shadow report [PDF] released in 2007 by a team of volunteer attorneys, researchers, and community activists. Detective Peter Dignan “played Russian roulette with a shotgun” and tried to lift Cannon “by his handcuffs.”

By using a cattle prod to extract confessions, Burge became a pioneer of torture. They also used a hand-cranked generator during interrogations.

Five retired black police officers, who were Area Two detectives, provided testimony to lawyers representing torture survivors that were pardoned. Detective William Parker heard the cry of a black man in September 1973 coming from an interrogation room.

“He saw an African American man, handcuffed to [a] radiator with his pants pulled down,” the shadow report states. “Next to the man were Jon Burge and two other white detectives. Surprised to see Parker at the door, one of the detectives took something off the desk and put it on the floor.”

Parker concluded they were concealing “Burge’s electric-shock box.” As Parker remembered, the black man was “panicked, scared, and in pain.” A fellow detective scolded Parker for “barging” in on the interrogation and not long after he was transferred out of Area Two.

Another retired homicide detective, who worked at Area Two during the 1970s, testified that he had seen Burge’s torture device—a dark wooden box. He believed it was capable of shocking individuals and worked like an electric device with a “crank, wires, and prongs.”

Anthony Holmes experienced some of the worst torture that Burge and his crew inflicted.

“[Burge] put some handcuffs on my ankles, then he took one wire and put it on my ankles. He took the other wire and put it behind my back, on the handcuffs behind my back,” Holmes recalled. “Then he went and got a plastic bag, put it over my head, and he told me, don’t bite through it.”

After Holmes did, Burge twisted a second bag around his head and cut his air off. He could not bite through the bag because the other bag was still on his head. He was shaking. Then Burge shocked him.

“When he hit me with the voltage, that when I started gritting, crying, hollering,” Holmes stated. “It [felt] like a thousand needles going through my body. And then after that, it just [felt] like, you know, it [felt] like a thousand needles going through my body.”

If there is any question about this brutality’s connection to the war in Vietnam, Walter Young testified in 1980 that while he was assigned to Area Two he heard references to “the Vietnamese and Vietnam, that suspects could be made to talk if the same techniques were basically used that were used in Vietnam, that the term ‘Vietnam special’ or ‘Vietnam treatment’ was used. “Vietnam treatment” referred to shocking arrestees with electricity.

***

The People’s Law Office on behalf of Andrew Wilson brought a civil lawsuit against Burge, three other detectives, a former police chief, and the city of Chicago in 1989.

Wilson was accused of killing police officers William Fahey and Richard O’Brien. Mayor Jane Byrne gave Burge a mandate to engage in whatever torture was necessary to find out who murdered the cops.

During Wilson’s seventeen-hour interrogation, his head and genitals were shocked as police cranked a “black box.” He was stretched across a hot radiator and suffered burns.

Wilson’s civil lawsuit exposed a pattern and policy of torture by Chicago police, but Burge was acquitted. Yet, in 1993, the evidence of systematic torture was too much for the police department. The Chicago Police Board fired him after several hearings where torture survivors testified.

In one letter to Wilson’s lawyers, an anonymous source from Area Two described Burge’s white supremacist attitude.

“Burge hates black people and is an ego maniac,” the source suggested. “The machines and plastic bags were his and he is the person who encouraged their use. You will find that the people with him were either weak and easily led or sadists. He probably did this because it was easier than spending the time and the effort talking people into confessing.”

The source added, “You could check in the taverns at 103rd and at 92nd and Western and you will find that Burge used to brag about everyone he beat.”

Along with Byrne, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, particularly when he was Cook County State’s Attorney, played a key role in not bringing cases against officers guilty of torture. They and numerous other officials effectively created conditions in the city so detectives and supervisors could torture black people into making false confessions to be used against them to obtain easy convictions. The fabrication of evidence was done out of racial animus.

There was plenty of evidence for special prosecutors in the mid-2000s to investigate and recommend charges against Burge and other officers. Special prosecutors Edward J. Egan and Robert D. Boyle refused. They overlooked coverups by high-ranking officials, including then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. They declined to present what had happened as systematic and racist torture, preferring to label it “abuse” or “mistreatment.”

On top of that, Burge never lost his pension.

***

What happened with Burge is a microcosm of how society and government can allow authorities to torture their own citizens, especially if thuggish elements can convince officials the ends justify the means.

Decades after, this kind of counterinsurgency warfare was employed by the CIA systematically against terrorism suspects. The agency developed torture techniques, and the U.S. military committed torture in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

With Chicago police and with CIA and U.S. military officials, there was next to no justice for torture. Daley ensured there was impunity for police. President Barack Obama ensured the country moved forward without looking backward. Torture was decriminalized.

Politicians and pundits are still reluctant to use the word “torture” to describe CIA interrogations just like Chicago officials were unwilling to say police committed torture.

Burge’s death is important because Burge represented the most brutal and racist aspects of America. He personified the sickness within a country that can be turned against the powerless at any moment and in the aftermath be justified as elites actively help police, security, or military officials escape accountability.

Not until 2015 did the city of Chicago do anything meaningful to help remedy the trauma that was inflicted. The City Council responded to years of activism and passed an ordinance that included a $5.5 million fund for reparations. The ordinance pledged to offer psychological counseling through a trauma center established on the south side, and it mandated that public schools teach students in 8th and 10th grade history classes about torture under Burge.

The statute of limitations elapsed for Burge. This was the best the city could do after decades of shielding blue lives at the expense of black lives. The fund was relatively paltry, but it was better than nothing.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, Unauthorized Disclosure. Follow him on Twitter: @kgosztola

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