A couple years ago, as a high-school intern observing a trial at the Brooklyn courthouse, I remember staring at an accused rapist across the courtroom. It was the first time I had seen a trial involving a brutal crime, and I was shocked that nothing about the accused, not his face nor his demeanor nor his aura, could tell me if he was guilty or not. He just looked like a guy —stress lining his forehead and slumping slightly against the hard-backed wooden chair. I was shocked. I blame the Puritans for my surprise; amongst many things they endowed our culture with the belief that devils always have horns. This, of course, led to a problematic trend of people looking to physicality to justify oppression. But the truth is that bad actors aren’t supernatural creatures acting alone on some evil scheme; they are very human. Violence in any form is human and it is sanctioned by other humans and it wears any human face. And if you aren’t fully aware of that—like I wasn’t—it just means you haven’t been victimized.
This is the thought that echoed in my head over and over as I read Andrew S. Baer’s Beyond the Usual Beating, which comprehensively details the torture of Black men in the Chicago Police Department’s Area 2, which went on for two decades under the direction and supervision of former Commander Jon Burge. Eager to close cases, Burge and his detectives coerced confessions through methods like beating people, burning people, electrocuting them through their genitals, and more. Burge, a portly redhead with a bulging chin, had no cloven feet. Rather, he brutalized American citizens by day and then commuted back to his comfortable suburb. He was a “typical guy” and a torturer, uncomfortable proof that those qualities can comfortably coexist. Baer tracks Burge’s career, as well as his victims’ experiences and the police accountability movement, through the 1970s and up to the present moment. Baer is incredibly thorough; his interviews and notes are impeccably researched, and he takes the idea of criminal justice abuse and reform down from the abstract into its real-life applications. Eschewing a national perspective for most of the book, Baer tells a Chicago story, one that unfolds on the floor of state and local government and in the living rooms of its citizens. And if you pull the threads of this historical story, you will find their fraying ends woven into the present day.
Understanding the Individual, and the Individual as part of the Collective
In Beyond the Usual Beating, Baer is trying to understand the role that individuals play in systemic issues like the carceral state. He spends much of this book zeroed in on specific people in an effort to understand them, which means, of course, that significant effort is put into understanding Burge.
That, initially, did not feel right to me. Baer’s approach felt a little too even-handed and willing to excuse; it felt like yet another opportunity for Burge—who died in 2018—to avoid accountability. But as I continued reading, I started to see some value in unpacking his life.
Burge, in many ways, was the perfect candidate for law enforcement on paper but an obviously dangerous choice in reality.
According to Baer, Burge was exceptionally brave and bright as a young man, and he excelled in his ROTC program as a teenager. He did not have an aptitude for academics nor did he have family resources, so joining the Army was a logical move. Following his deployment, he made a seamless transition to the Chicago Police Department. Burge was opportunistic and ambitious, with an eye always towards personal advancement, and he had served in Vietnam, where American soldiers routinely tortured their prisoners. Moreover, Burge was originally from the Southeast Side, the area that he went on to police, where a territorial strain of racism was spreading amongst white inhabitants as more Black families moved in. According to Baer’s depiction, Burge was trained in brutality, filled with hatred towards Black Chicagoans, and incentivized to produce arrests as crime rates climbed—and the state handed him a gun and free rein over Chicago’s Area 2.
Burge’s biography reveals failures on many levels: the failure of Chicago government to protect its Black citizens and to alleviate the racial tensions growing within the city; the failure of the United States in the Vietnam war; and the personal failure of Jon Burge, who chose to abuse his official position to act on his own racist instincts. The point that Baer is making in examining Burge so closely is that it is entirely possible to hold Burge personally accountable for his crimes and to indict the system that created him at the same time. To be fair, this is the same treatment given to Burge’s victims in this book. Many of them were, in fact, guilty of murder, rape, and other crimes, but were still afforded a biography and an explanation of how they came to be in Area 2’s torture chambers. Baer is not simply letting Burge off the hook by humanizing him and explaining how he came to be part of a racist system; rather, he is positing that when considering an issue like institutional racism, one cannot understand the individual elements without the systemic, nor the systemic without the individual.
This has important implications for our consideration of contemporary police brutality. Often, one hears the argument that cops aren’t actually bad people, they’re merely part of a bad system. One also hears the innverse: that the system isn’t bad, it’s just a few bad apples. This false dichotomy is, according to Baer, unproductive; both the systems and the people should be held accountable.
What Happens when Abuse is Exposed and No One Does Anything About it?
Baer marks a turning point in the Burge torture era on Valentine’s Day, 1982. On that day, Andrew Wilson and his brother, who had shot and killed two cops a few days prior, were taken into custody. As a “cop-killer,” Andrew Wilson was treated with particular viciousness by Burge and his crew. Wilson appeared in court bandaged and brutalized, and a courtroom sketch depicting him garnered the attention of major news outlets.
The Wilson case was a catalyst for the ultimate conclusion of the Jon Burge scandal in two key ways. First, it added tremendous fuel to the movement against police brutality. The People’s Law Office, which represented many of Burge’s victims, saw a groundswell of people coming forward to accuse Burge after Wilson’s trial. That also may have been due to the fact that there were more victims, as Burge became emboldened after torturing Wilson. This leads to the second consequence: that even after Burge had been exposed to the public and to the highest levels of the Chicago government, he was not punished. In fact, he was praised.
The ongoing torture of Black men in the Area 2 police headquarters had long been an open secret amongst CPD, and Burge’s higher-ups had unofficially sanctioned it for years. An important note: Black detectives were either participants in the torture or sent on wild goose chases by Burge to keep them out of the District while the abuse was committed. But the Wilson case dragged everything out into the light. Mayor Jane Byrne and State’s Attorney (and future mayor) Richard M. Daley denied any knowledge of Burge’s actions, but according to retired Area 2 detectives, they not only knew, but approved of them. This accusation is supported by the fact that following the Wilson trial, Burge received a commendation for closing the case and was promoted to commander of Area 3, where he continued his abuse.
Exposure is an incredibly fickle thing. It can end an abusive practice or it can cement it further into a society if authorities refuse to condemn the illicit action. Burge’s abuse was exposed and then validated—so he returned to torturing with added zeal, because he knew that he could get away with it.
In a recent study, researchers found that of 1,000 cases of manslaughter by a police officer, only 110 officers were charged. And of that group, only forty-two were ever convicted. Of course, there are legal caveats in place that protect police officers given the difficult nature of law enforcement, but that absolutely does not account for this disparity. Our country has long promoted a dangerous message: if you are a cop, you can and will get away with murder.
Do You Need to Be Innocent to Deserve Justice?
Whenever a Black person is killed by police in America—which has happened approximately 1,944 times since 2013—there is an inevitable rush to either justify or condemn the homicide. Supporters of the police search through the victim’s history, looking to vilify them; abolitionists and activists look for details that humanize them. We all begin to ascribe to an ancient concept: that what matters most in deciding if a punitive action is justified is whether or not the person deserves what happened. It is a natural instinct, but it is also completely wrong in the context of our democracy, as Baer illustrates with the victims of Jon Burge.
The People’s Law Office and other advocacy groups who represented Burge’s torture victims had a particularly difficult task in getting public opinion—which Baer stipulates as the opinion of the white middle-class—on their side because most of their defendants were, in fact, criminals. In order to find success in court, advocates turned to what Baer describes as “simple frames of innocence, even when doing so required obscuring facts of the case.” They chose their most sympathetic defendants, like Madison Hobley, an innocent man who was beaten into confessing that he set the fire that killed his wife and child, to be the face of their movement. They did so in order to find success and save people who had been coerced into confessing from death row.
In making this choice, the advocacy groups lost an opportunity to make their actual argument: as Baer wrote regarding Burge’s victims, “none deserved the brutal treatment they received at the hands of the police.” In America, you could be guilty—and some of Burge’s victims were—but that will be demonstrated in a courtroom, not beaten out of you in a dark basement by people meant to uphold the law.
Today, when a Black person is killed by the police, it does not matter what the victim did before the time of their death: one could be in the process of curing cancer or about to start a nuclear war, and if the police apprehend you, assuming you do not pose an imminent threat to their bodily safety, they have a duty to treat you in the same manner. The guilt or innocence of a victim is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that in this country, we tell ourselves, we do not murder or torture our own citizens.
So What Now?
It is easy to spiral after reading Baer’s account of the Jon Burge scandal. For those of us who have not experienced police discrimination and brutality firsthand, it is unnerving first to know that a Jon Burge could exist, and then to discover how many accompices and admirers he had. For those of us who have personally experienced men like Jon Burge, I imagine that this is validating, albeit in a horrible sense.
It is upsetting to become so keenly aware that the issues and violations that plagued Chicago in the 1970s have found no resolution since— but concealed in this dark narrative is a ray of light. The Jon Burge story is also the story of the immense success of an activist group that saved many people who wound up on death row via coerced confessions. Moreover, before his death, Burge was finally forced to face his actions: in 2010 he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and served four and a half years in federal prison. Perhaps more importantly, in 2015 the city of Chicago set up a $5.5 million fund to pay reparations to Burge’s victims and their families.
Burge died of natural causes three years after getting out of prison, disgraced and accountable. Was that enough to account for all the pain he caused? Probably not, but it was progress, and it is further proof that despite the immense wrongs that have rooted in our country for centuries, the continued work of dedicated people can one day make America the equitable place that it always claimed to be.
Andrew S. Baer, Beyond the Usual Beating: The Jon Burge Police Torture Scandal and Social Movements for Police Accountability in Chicago. $45. University of Chicago Press. 312 pages.
Lucy Ritzmann is a senior at the University of Chicago completing a B.A. in Law, Letters & Society who often writes about politics, literature, and tech policy. This is her first article for the Weekly