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On the Front Lines of Human Rights Activism

On the Front Lines of Human Rights Activism May 15, 2015
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The vote on May 6 in the Chicago City Council was historic and unanimous.

The Council passed an ordinance making a formal apology and setting up a $5.5 million reparations fund for more than 100 African American survivors of torture and abuse by Chicago police.

In Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s words, the vote was aimed at “removing a stain” on the city’s reputation caused by the reign of terror unleashed by Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and officers under his command from 1972 to 1991.

Dorothy Burge testifyingDorothy Burge testifying in the City Council on April 14 for the Chicago reparations ordinance.

Among the many people packed into the City Council chambers that day was ACM Chicago Program faculty member Dorothy Burge — no relation to Jon Burge — who has spent more than two decades on the front lines of the activism against police torture and brutality that finally led to the unprecedented ordinance.

Along the way, her teaching and example have inspired many of the students in her human rights and social justice seminar to become active in that issue and many others, as well.

Three weeks prior to the May 6 vote, the City Council Finance Committee held a hearing on the reparations ordinance and Dorothy Burge was one of just seven people invited to testify at the hearing. For long months before that, she and other activists with the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) Project and the People’s Law Office had painstakingly negotiated with the city over the forms of redress to be spelled out in the reparations ordinance.

Watch video of Dorothy Burge testifying in City Council on April 14 for the Chicago reparations ordinance.

“The torture survivors wanted me in the negotiations, so that’s why I did it,” she said, “and the survivors wanted me to testify at the hearing, so that’s why I did that, too.”

In 1991, Burge joined the faculty of the ACM Urban Studies Program, now part of the Chicago Program. Through the program’s guest speakers and her faculty colleagues, she learned more about the organizing and activism surrounding the Jon Burge case and plunged into the effort. Soon after, she was bringing the case into the curriculum of her seminar, which explores contemporary social and human rights issues with a focus on restorative justice.

Speakers at seminar sessions have included survivors of the Chicago police torture, such as Aaron Patterson when he was released from Death Row, Darrell Cannon, David Bates, Anthony Holmes, and Mark Clemens, as well as advocates involved with the case, attorneys, and police officers.

Mark Clemens and seminarMark Clemens with Dorothy Burge and students in her Human Rights Seminar in fall 2010.

“Over the years, if something happened in the Jon Burge case, we brought it into the seminar,” Burge said. “If there was another scandal, if someone was about to be released, if someone had been found innocent and we were trying to get their release — that’s when we would have the students learn about the case and then let them decide whether they wanted to be actively involved in it.”

Burge’s students have created a variety of awareness campaigns about the police torture, as well as agendas, lesson plans, and handouts for teach-ins about the issue. In each case, she said, the torture survivors were asked about what they wanted to have done and the students’ work was presented to them to get their feedback.

Last semester, the seminar visited the site of the House of Screams, as the police station was known during the time that Jon Burge and his cohort were torturing suspects to coerce confessions. The building now houses a community service center that hosts restorative justice programs for the surrounding community, and the students met with state prosecutor Kathleen Bankhead for a discussion about restorative justice as seen from a prosecutor’s point of view.

“We’re the only city that we know of to pass a reparations ordinance,” Burge noted. “It was important to us [in shaping the ordinance] that we use the restorative justice model, which talks about who committed the harm, what harm was done, what impact it had – not only on the person who was harmed but also on the community – and what needs to happen in order to repair the harm.”

Anthony Holmes, Joey Mogul from the People’s Law Office, Darrell Cannon, and Dorothy Burge.

“So the ordinance is using the principles of restorative justice to try to start the healing process,” she said. “Not to close the book, but to start the healing process.”

In addition to the formal apology and $5.5 million reparations fund, the ordinance calls for a permanent memorial to the torture victims, curriculum to teach about the Jon Burge case and its legacy in 8th and 10th grade history classes in Chicago Public Schools, and support services for the torture survivors and their families, such as psychological counseling, job training, and free tuition at City Colleges of Chicago.

Once again, students in Burge’s seminar have studied the Chicago police torture case and are pitching in by working on a presentation about different kinds of torture memorials that have been created around the world. In their research, the students have cast a wide net and are bringing in examples of buildings and indoor spaces, outdoor spaces such as parks, visual art and sculpture, performances, music, and even online virtual memorials. The project is designed to help inform community discussions about possible torture memorials for Chicago.

Through the years, Burge has seen how students’ awareness and activism, once sparked, continues beyond the semester they spend on the Chicago Program. “I’m always surprised by the young people,” she said. “We teach, and then they hear about the protests, but it’s interesting to see when they show up. They show up as alumni, and I say, ‘Wow, you’re here again!’ I just think that the work they continue to do is really, really important.”


Chicago Program: Arts, Entrpreneurship, & Urban Studies

Dorothy Burge’s bio

Video of Dorothy Burge testifying in City Council on April 14 for the Chicago reparations ordinance

The Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) Project website has a timeline, documents, and testimony about the Jon Burge case

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