Revolution #209, July 26, 2010
After 37 Years—Head of Chicago Police Torture Ring Convicted—of Lying
On June 28, a federal jury in Chicago returned a verdict of guilty on all counts against Jon Burge, a retired Chicago Police Commander who had tortured, and organized the torture, of Black men in Chicago for 20 years or more. Burge was found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice—NOT torture. He was found guilty only of lying to cover up the torture in which he and men under his command engaged from at least 1972 to 1993—when he was forced into retirement with a generous pension. Burge will be sentenced on November 15, 2010 and faces a maximum sentence of 45 years in prison.
In discussing his feelings the day of the verdict, Ronald Kitchens, one of Burge's victims, said: "I will celebrate but I won't dance." In regard to whether justice was done, he said, "It's a beginning but there is still a long way to go. There are cops out there even on the force. There are still people sitting in jail."
Mark Clements, another victim of Burge, speaking after the verdict, said: "These people stole my life. I hate to tell you the truth. I sat in a prison cell and I prayed for this day. I was 16 years old. This is America. 16 years old. What are we going to do about other people who are sitting in those prison cells? … My daughter is 29 years old. I missed all those years with my daughter sitting in a prison cell."
Confessions from Torture
What was done to force Mark Clements and more than 100 like him to sign off on false confessions? An article in the Revolutionary Worker (now Revolution), "The Chicago Inquisition," detailed some of the testimony taken in 2000 during court hearings on the torture that took place under Jon Burge. That article details five of the terrifying testimonies given at that time. Here is one example:
"It was 8 in the morning, on October 28, 1983, when a teenage David Bates was arrested, brought to a room in the police station and cuffed to a wall. Two officers, Grunhard and Byrne, were among those who interrogated Bates. The first round of 'questioning' entailed slaps to the face and a kick to the testicles. The second brought more slaps and punches. On the third visit, the cops used the plastic bag. When David was punched in the stomach, this forced him to gasp for air, sucking the bag into his mouth and nose. He came close to passing out. The bag came back off, the punches continued as the cops shouted questions at him. Then the bag went over his head a second time—stifling David's screams. 'I couldn't breathe at all,' remembered David, 'I was 17, 18 years of age, my first interaction of such like that. I was in stark terror, at the police station, at the police officers. I didn't think they could do that. It was straight trauma.'"
On their last visit, the police left David Bates with a threat. "We know how to deal with n*ggers like you," remarked one of the detectives, promising to return on the graveyard shift and "deal" with him then. David caved in. "I felt like I wasn't gonna make it overnight if they came back. They had the power to do what they like, they made that message clear."
Beating with fists, clubs, other objects. Electric shock with cattle prods and hand cranked generators applied to the body including the genitals. Suffocation with plastic bags. Mock executions. Russian roulette. Burning with a hot radiator. Deprivation of sleep, food and facilities. This is the short list of methods of torture used by the Burge crew.
Thirteen of Burge and company's victims ended up on death row as a result of "confessions"—false confessions signed off on to stop the torture. Ronald Kitchens, finally released from prison in 2009, said, "What they did to me was premeditated murder. They knew I was innocent and they put me on death row. That is premeditated murder."
The scandal around the Burge torture ring played a role in Illinois Governor George Ryan's 2003 decision to clear Illinois's death row. Ryan outright pardoned four death row inmates who had confessed under torture and commuted the sentences of the remaining 167 inmates on death row. Ryan cited the fact that 13 Illinois death row inmates had been exonerated as evidence that the death penalty in Illinois was inherently flawed.
Burge: A Creature of the System
Jon Burge is a true creature of U.S. imperialism. A February 3, 2005 article from the Chicago Reader, "Tools of Torture" by John Conroy, lays this out in chilling detail. (Over the years, Conroy's work has played an important role in exposing the Burge torture ring.) First, Burge was weaned on racism. He grew up in an all-white southside Chicago neighborhood—the kind that initially fought against integration with bricks and burning crosses. But by the late 1960s, when the influx of Blacks could not be stopped, the Burge family—along with most other whites—quickly fled. Second, Burge always wanted to be an armed enforcer for the system. In high school, his life revolved around ROTC—in which he was a top student. After dropping out of college he immediately joined the military and trained to be an MP. This took him to Vietnam where he guarded enemy prisoners and learned torture techniques from the U.S. military intelligence interrogators. And once he got home, he joined the Chicago Police Department where his gung-ho mentality quickly pushed him up the ranks to become a detective.
The systemic and systematic racism that informed Burge's activity for so many years is something that Jon Burge and his attorney counted on in their defense strategy. On his blog, Rob Wildeboer, a reporter for Chicago Public Radio, described the defense's closing argument as "a hail mary" with "a wink, wink" and went on to comment:
"Richard Beuke [Burge's attorney] made arguments about the evidence, enough to give jurors cover to acquit, but those arguments took a back seat to the repeated insults he threw at the alleged torture victims. Those victims are not the most sympathetic witnesses. They have multiple convictions and they're accused of heinous crimes. Beuke used a variety of words to describe the alleged victims: rat, piece of garbage, serial criminal, pathological liar, cough syrup junkie. Beuke shouted his message over and over that these people are the scum of the earth….
In contrast Burge is a decorated cop, the only thing standing between order and chaos in the city." This time these arguments didn't free Burge. The jury found him guilty on five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.
It took 37 years for Burge to get convicted of anything. Thirty-seven years with more than 100 innocent people sitting in jail cells. Thirty-seven years with at least 13 innocent people sweating it out on death row. Thirty-seven years with thousands protesting and working to dig up the dirt, filing lawsuits, testifying at international tribunals. Thirty-seven years while Burge's crimes were widely known, but swept under the rug.
Burge: NOT a "Rogue" Cop but the Tip of the Iceberg
While Jon Burge and company may have set high standards for cruelty in forcing confessions, torture in police custody is not uncommon in the USA. In 1971 eight members of the Black Panther Party—the San Francisco 8—were tortured into confessing to a crime they didn't commit. In 1972—the year complaints detailing Burge's use of torture began to surface—the first "supermax" prison was opened in Marion, Illinois, where forms of incarceration that are internationally recognized as forms of torture, specifically solitary confinement, are the norm. We could do a "torture trek" through years of police history in the USA, but let's just jump ahead. On February 22, 2010, three New York City cops were let off scot free after being charged with sodomizing a man they stopped for smoking marijuana.
Jon Burge may have been caught using electrical shock to torture people in custody. But NOW, with the wide-spread dissemination of Tasers to police departments, people can go on YouTube and see prisoners in police custody in the USA being tortured by Tasers and electroshock "stun belts"—even in open court. Meanwhile, the plain, old-fashioned beating of Black, Latino, and other people by police and/or in custody is as common as ever. And NOW there are 35 prisons that are supermax or have supermax facilities.
Even in his day, Jon Burge and the cops organized and trained by him were not the only ones railroading people into prison. In fact, 16 innocent people railroaded onto Illinois death row during the years when Burge was torturing people have been freed who were NOT victims of Burge and his cohort (and that's just in Illinois, and just on death row)!
Down through the years, Burge's activity was not just accepted—it was rewarded. Time magazine noted that "Burge received commendations like snacks." And Burge was not alone in railroading people, he was training, and overseeing, whole squads of torturers—first in the Area 2 police headquarters, then in the Area 3 police headquarters.
For 20 years Jon Burge and the detectives under him were regularly using torture to force false confessions from their victims—and this open secret was confirmed by medical examination of the defendants. For at least 20 years, Illinois state prosecutors ignored this evidence year after year. In fact, they continued to prosecute using the false confessions forced under the use of torture. Among the States Attornies prosecuting during this period—while actively brushing past allegations of torture—was Richard M. Daley, Illinois States Attorney from 1980 to 1989 and mayor of Chicago from 1989 to the present.
In 1993 the Chicago Police Department's Office of Professional Standards issued a 98-page report, known as the Goldston and Sanders report, which confirmed that Burge had been organizing the torture of suspects. The investigation supported accusations that there was systematic abuse in Area 2 police headquarters for more than 10 years. Yet to this day the City of Chicago continues to pay for Jon Burge's defense at a cost that now exceeds $8 million.
Burge: A Man for the Times
When Burge began his reign of terror, the upheaval of the '60s had presented a powerful challenge to the ruling class—demanding the elimination of white supremacy and the full integration of Black people into society on an equal footing. In the face of this, in 1969, U.S. President Nixon's top aide, H.R. Haldeman, noted in his diary: "President emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this, while not appearing to."
Along these lines, a counter-revolutionary assault was launched which included a "Law and Order" agenda, the "War on Drugs," and attacks on the radical political movements of the day. Meanwhile, jobs in the inner cities became scarcer with the further de-industrialization of the cities and deepening unemployment, especially among Black youth. In the 1980s, as part of unofficial government policy, cocaine was imported into inner city neighborhoods in a scheme to fund counter-revolutionary armies (Contras) in Central America. This massively expanded the underground economy in drugs. And, starting in the '80s and accelerating through the '90s and into the new millennium, a policy of official neglect, removing resources and programs from Black and Latino city neighborhoods, has been instituted by the federal government.
This, in large part, is what is behind the whole prison boom in the U.S. over the last several decades. Between 1925 (when official imprisonment statistics were first organized) and 1971, the imprisonment rate remained on the order of about one per 1,000. Then, in 1972, the imprisonment rate began to soar and is still soaring past the rate of seven in 1,000 people in 2008. And while Black people are 13% of the U.S. population, they are more than 50% of the population in prisons [For a full analysis of these developments see "The Oppression of Black People, the Crimes of this System, and the Revolution We Need." Revolution #144, October 5, 2008]. This is the backdrop for the torture, forced convictions, and long prison terms that Burge was responsible for.
Getting Out from Under the Burge "Cloud"
But today there are two problems with having a high-profile, ongoing public discussion of the fact that squads of torturers in Chicago have railroaded dozens of Black men into prison.
For one thing, it doesn't fit the ruling class narrative—amplified and popularized by the likes of Bill Cosby—that the reason so many Black people are in prison is because of "poor choices" they have made. This explanation is so pervasive that one of Jon Burge's victims, speaking to youth at a community center in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, told the young people gathered around him that the reason he was tortured into confessing to a crime he didn't commit was because of bad choices he had made in his life.
For another thing, the official position of the U.S. is that it opposes human rights abuses, including torture. So open torture in its third-largest city makes all of the honeyed words about the U.S. as "the land of freedom and democracy" look pretty empty. The scandal of the torture ring in the Chicago Police Department first went international when, in 1990, Amnesty International issued a report specifically on torture in Chicago.
The fact that the Chicago Police routinely forced false confessions under torture has become increasingly known internationally—at a time when U.S. torture practices in Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba have become an international scandal. In September 2005, community groups from Chicago went to the "Inter-American Commission on Human Rights" of the Organization of American States for a hearing on police torture.
In 2007 Chicago took a big step into the international arena with its bid for the 2016 Olympics. This was the U.S. Olympic bid and signaled an increasing international role for Chicago. Chicago activists went to Geneva to bring the question of police brutality in general, and police torture in particular, before the United Nations International Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination. The ruling class needed to settle the Burge case in some way seemed increasingly apparent.
It took 37 years to convict a brutal torturer—of lying. And the system that produced this monster is still in full effect.
Amnesty International Report, December 1990, (chicagojustice.org/foi/amnesty-international-report-on-torture-by-chicago-police/Amnesty_International_Report_re_Allegations_of_Tor.pdf)
Committee to End the Marion Lockdown, The continuing crime of Black imprisonment," March 27, 1995 (unix.oit.umass.edu/~kastor/ceml_articles/continuing.html)
Conroy, J., "House of Screams," The Chicago Reader, January 26, 1990 (john-conroy.com/house-of-screams)
Wildeboer, Rob, "Burge defense: A hail mary with a wink wink," WBEZ Blog, June 25, 2010 (blogs.vocalo.org/rwildeboer/2010/06/burge-defense-a-hail-mary-with-a-wink-wink/27700)
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