Jon Burge Torture Survivors Honored in Design for Future Public Memorial
Anthony Holmes still has nightmares — one of the long-term effects of torture.
Holmes is one of the 125 or so Black Chicagoans who suffered under the hand of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. In 1973, according to Holmes’s testimony, police arrested him on suspicion of murder. They wanted him to name an accomplish. When he refused, the officer kept him in handcuffs and called in Burge, who entered the interrogation room with a box — known by the detectives as the “nigga box” — featuring a hand crank on one side and alligator clamps on the other.
Burge grabbed the clamps and wrapped a plastic bag over Holmes’s head. He then turned the crank, sending currents of electrical shock throughout Holmes’ body. When Holmes bit through the bag in an attempt to breathe, Burge added a second bag.
“Burge broke me,” said Holmes, who later confessed to a murder he didn’t commit.
Nearly 47 years later, community members working at Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM), a Chicago organization of grassroots activists and torture survivors, unveiled a public memorial design on May 23 to honor Holmes and all of the Burge torture survivors.
Chicago artists Patricia Nguyen and architect John Lee created the design. A special jury of torture survivors, their families, artists, community activists and cultural workers selected their artwork.
The 1,600 square feet site will feature a circular walkway that bears the timeline of the struggle for reparations. The names of the survivors and their dates of torture will be carved into a gathering space that is shielded by a 16-foot high ceiling with a sky view. The space is meant to serve as mixed-use community hub for ongoing work against police violence in the city, as well as a “reparative space for communities to heal,” according to Lee.
“We want people to be activated while experiencing the memorial,” Nguyen said, “so that it isn’t trapped in time, a past we’ve now moved beyond, but that is implicated in a struggle that continues.”
That struggle includes the fate of the memorial itself — its construction is the final task left on the city’s 2015 promised reparations ordinance. The ordinance also includes $5.5 million in cash payouts of up to $100,000 to each of Burge's victims, free tuition for survivors and their families at the city’s community colleges, free access to a South Side mental health and job training center, and the roll out of a mandatory Chicago Public Schools curriculum about Burge.
No land has been designated for the memorial, and the city has not agreed to provide funding for it. Not easily deterred, organizers said they won’t stop pressing the city to make good on its promises; not until the memorial — which some call the most public and lasting legacy of the Burge survivors — finds a permanent home in Chicago.
‘A love story to the Burge survivors’
The announcement of the memorial’s design comes at a time when the city — and the country — has struggled to come to terms with its history of racialized state-sanctioned violence. At the same time, organizers in Chicago and beyond have pushed to imagine more just and reparative alternatives to the criminal justice system.
In 2010, a federal court convicted Burge on criminal charges — not for torture, but for perjury and obstruction of justice charges for lying about the torture in a civil lawsuit brought by Holmes, other survivors, and their attorneys at the People’s Law Office.
But that didn’t feel like real justice to Holmes nor to his attorneys.
“It was a harrowing experience [for Holmes] to get up there and tell his story, and then be grilled and cross-examined and faced with racist innuendo, and told that he was lesser than [or] not worthy of being believed,” said Joey Mogul, an attorney at the People’s Law Office and co-founder of CJTM. “It was not a healing experience. It did not salve his wounds, and I don’t think Burge’s conviction met his material needs or helped him move on.”
That’s also around the time when Mogul and CTJM paired up with young artists and activists in Chicago’s then nascent — but increasingly potent — prison abolition movement, and sought out to envision a horizon beyond carceral systems. They set their sights on reparations, speculative art-making, education, and a public and permanent memorial.
That ethos of imaginative organizing underpinned the collective’s most recent art exhibit: a month-long public showcase this April. A total of six artists were commissioned to submit design proposals for the memorial.
Held in Washington Park, the “Still Here: Torture, Resiliency and the Art of Memorializing” exhibit took a unique and communal approach to designing a memorial, including engaging with the public for feedback on the proposals and empowering survivors and their families to serve as gallery docents for the exhibit and jurors on the selection committee.
For Holmes, 73, serving on the selection committee provided a cathartic healing space through art and storytelling in ways Burge’s conviction could not.
“Art itself is healing. The artists, they see you, the things you are trying to say [and] that you couldn’t say,” Holmes said.
Nguyen and Lee, like all of the artists who submitted proposals, conducted interviews with survivors prior to presenting their designs. Some motifs, such as the black box and plastic bags that were incorporated into the designs, came from the guidance of Holmes and other survivors who directly experienced those tools of torture.
“No matter how we try to heal ourselves, we can’t. We need others to help us heal through the things they do with us [that] show us they understand,” Holmes said.
The use of art and organizing to heal Burge’s torture survivors of decades-long trauma was an unexpected — and profound — result of their reparations campaign.
“We created these communities of care,” Mogul said. “Where survivors can tell their truths, where they are believed, loved and revered for their perseverance. That creates a healing quality and a healing space that nothing other tangible thing can do.”
Mogul credits Holmes as the “moral force” behind the campaign’s push for a radical new form of justice, and the “backbone” of their abolitionist approach.
“Anthony [Holmes] was that inspiration for me to go beyond the criminal-legal system, which doesn’t bring us freedom,” Mogul said. “It’s an abolitionist struggle because we know we can never get real justice in the courts. We need to invest in new ideas, new resources that can really contend with pain and struggle of survivors and new forms of justice.”
“In the end, the reparations campaign has been a love story to the Burge torture survivors and their families,” Mogul added.
Holmes said the fight for reparations has helped him “choose to live.”
“What Burge did to you, now [is] your chance to do to him because he didn’t expect you to live, [to] be as strong as you are,” Holmes said. “But the bottom line is, we here to stay.”
Funding the memorial
The public memorial continues to hang in the balance as leadership changes in Chicago.
After his re-election in 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel agreed to a reparations package that included finding a site and raising the several hundred thousand dollars needed for the creation of the monument. Since then, the City has failed to appropriate funds from the budget to pay for the memorial, despite repeated pushes from organizers.
Organizers said they plan to push newly inaugurated Mayor Lori Lightfoot to fully fund the memorial.
“As the former head of the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force, one of [Lightfoot’s] top recommendations was to name and call out the racism of police,” Mogul said. “I can’t think of a more important way to do that than creating this public memorial.”
Some survivors, like Vincent Wade, 57, questioned the urgency of funding a memorial. Wade, a survivor and juror on the selection committee, spent 31 years in state prison on a wrongful conviction. In the past four years since his release on August 14, 2015, Wade has struggled to re-enter society.
“We’re villians in this city,” Wade said. “I got an X on my back. I haven’t got no medical, no housing. And the little $100,000, I looked at that as some change.”
Wade added, “How’s our lives gonna be put back together? That’s more important than a memorial.”
For survivors like Wade, the wake of Burge’s crimes is living history. Survivors are still suffering from the trauma of what they endured, and many are still fighting in courts to be released from prison.
Reservations aside, Wade said he plans to “help move [the memorial] forward.”
“It will be a sound place, and we can make it ours,” Wade said.
In prison, Wade taught and worked as an artist in every medium he could, mastering his craft for the day he would walk free. Now Wade divides his time between working 12-hour shifts at a factory, painting, and mentoring young people. He hopes the memorial will incorporate programming for survivors to share their stories and interact with youth.
“By the grace of God, I’m back out here,” he said. “My purpose is to save as many youths as I can from going the path I went. By me changing, the youth looking at me, they started changing, they started gravitating to the art room.”
“That’s my legacy,” Wade added.
According to Mogul, nearly 30% of survivors have already have passed away.
“In the next ten to 20 years, many of them will be gone,” Mogul said. “This needs to live on, and what they fought for needs to be memorialized for generations to come.”
Holmes wants his legacy to live on in the memorial itself.
“This is the way we want to be left,” Holmes said about the memorial. “It’s how we want people to see us.”