Tracing the Roots of Torture

A collection of open letters details how Chicago’s history of police torture stems from residents failing to hold our city and justice system accountable, while others fight for change

In The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence, Laurence Ralph pens twenty-one open letters to a variety of recipientsdead, alive, and anonymous. These letters, including some addressed to Chicago’s youth of color, former Chicago Police Department (CPD) officer Doris Byrd, and the late civil rights activist William Patterson, serve as the culmination of fourteen years of Ralph’s research as an anthropologist and the time he spent grappling with the prevalence of police torture in Chicago. Published earlier this year by the University of Chicago Press, this book is about how torture stems from our failure as residents to hold our city and our justice system accountable, and how some people are fighting to change that.

Ralph, the director and cofounder of Princeton University’s Center on Transnational Policing, begins his book by explaining that approximately 125 African-American suspects were tortured by Chicago police officers at the Area 2 police district station in Pullman between 1972 and 1991. Members of the CPD beat, raped, electrocuted, suffocated, and burned Chicago residents by leaving them tied up to a radiator for hours. As a police commander in Area 2, Jon Burge oversaw the torture of at least 125 people, including a boy as young as thirteen. Burge was never tried for his involvement in torture, and was never found guilty of anything more than perjury and obstruction. Until his death in 2018, he continued to receive his pension despite being fired from the CPD. Yet according to Ralph, “the problem of police torture does not begin and end with a dangerous man named Jon Burge.” Instead, throughout his book, Ralph uses the metaphor of a torture tree to explain how foundational torture and police violence are to Chicago’s identity. 

According to Ralph, the torture tree’s roots represent our “financial, political, and psychological investment in fear,” embodied by increased funding of policing and prisons in an attempt to create a sense of safety. It looks like Chicago allocating forty percent, or $1.46 billion, of its budget to policing, making it the second-highest share of an American city budget that goes to policing. It looks like Chicago paying out $662 million in police misconduct settlements from 2004 to 2016. It looks like Chicago spending $4 million a day on the police despite an $838 million budget deficit. It looks like former Mayor Rahm Emanuel announcing plans to spend $95 million to build a police academy in the same neighborhood where he closed six public schools in 2013. It looks like Mayor Lori Lightfoot continuing those plans despite a youth-led #NoCopAcademy campaign demanding those funds be redirected to mental health centers, schools, and job training programs.

Ralph describes the torture tree’s trunk as the use-of-force continuum, the branches as police officers, and the leaves as all incidents of police violence. The use-of-force continuum refers to the city’s guidelines for how much force officers are allowed to use against criminal suspects. Theoretically, police officers should start at the bottom of the continuum and only escalate force as needed. However, Ralph argues that the “militarization of the police”—the increased use of military equipment such as submachine guns and assault rifles in police departments throughout America—has also resulted in a military mindset wherein police occupy the role of soldiers and approach residents as if they are enemy combatants. The trunk then becomes the pretext police officers use to justify mistreatment of Chicago residents under the guise of appropriate use of force.

Not all police officers are branches on this torture tree, but they all do become vulnerable “to losing their humanity—and to becoming hollowed out, wooden, and one with this tree,” Ralph says. He shares the story of a retired cop who talks about the ways his career changed him, leading him to treat strangers, especially Black people, as threats with ulterior motives. As hollow branches, these officers are unable to separate themselves from a larger system that punishes marginalized communities, especially Black and Brown Chicagoans.

The story of Dominique “Damo” Franklin is just one of an infinite amount of leaves on Ralph’s torture tree. In 2014, police officers used a Taser on Franklin three times after they had handcuffed him for stealing a bottle of liquor. After the third time, he hit his head on a pole and fell into a coma from which he never awoke. Franklin was only twenty-three years old. 

Franklin’s life and untimely death inspired activists to create a group called We Charge Genocide to protest police violence. Their name referenced the petition “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People,” which the Civil Rights Congress presented to the United Nations in 1951. This petition “accused the United States government of subjecting African Americans to premature death in a calculated manner” akin to genocide, citing the over 150 racial killings of Black people, largely at the hands of law enforcement. We Charge Genocide’s work would ultimately result in eight young Chicago activists traveling to Geneva, Switzerland in 2014 to present a report to the United Nations highlighting how Franklin’s death exists as part of a larger systemic murder of Black people in America, where African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people

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Ralph juxtaposes Franklin with Andrew Wilson. Wilson was the first of Burge’s victims to accuse him of torture, and the catalyst in exposing police torture in Chicago. Ralph notes that the city’s public apology to Wilson and the other torture survivors sends a clear message: “what Burge did to Andrew Wilson is now considered unacceptable—unlike what the Chicago police did to [Franklin].”

Ralph’s observation brings us to one of his main points: no human being should be subject to torture, regardless of their guilt. In Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, another book grappling with the brokenness of our criminal justice system, he makes a similar case for compassion: “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” 

Yet, throughout Ralph’s research, he encounters many Chicagoans who defend torture, including a forty-four-year-old Black man named Todd who Ralph interviewed for his research. Despite past mistreatment by the police, Todd believed bad guys deserved to be tortured. Mohamedou Ould Slahi, one of Ralph’s letter recipients, whom he interviews for his research, captures this mentality: “in the US, guilty means you are a bad person.” This attitude serves as the bedrock for our broken criminal justice system—only by dehumanizing those who are guilty of crimes, even those not yet proven, can we justify mass incarceration and the deplorable conditions of jails and prisons. The toll of the current COVID-19 pandemic on jails and prisons, where it is impossible for detainees to practice social distancing and protect themselves from the virus, serves as proof of that. Look no further than our own Cook County Jail, where 535 detainees have tested positive for the virus since the outbreak began and seven have died of COVID-19, as of press time.

Slahi was detained at Guantánamo Bay for fourteen years, experiencing torture that included physical and sexual abuse. After being tortured by Richard Zuley, a former CPD detective, Slahi confessed to crimes of which he had no knowledge. Because the confession had clearly resulted from torture, even the prosecutor at Guantánamo opted not to file charges against Slahi. Although Slahi was eventually released to his home country of Mauritania after years of fighting, Mauritania continues to deny him his papers and ID card under orders from the American government.

The gross miscarriages of justice taking place from Chicago to Cuba beg the question: what can we do to uproot the torture tree? For Ralph, “the purpose of writing open letters…is so that none of us can claim ignorance.” Throughout the book, he emphasizes how torture in Chicago was an “open secret.” Everyone knew about it: police officers, judges, prosecutors, and politicians. While suspects screamed in interrogation rooms, officers sat outside at their desks and continued their work.

Whistleblowers’ unsuccessful attempts to call out torture incidents demonstrate to what extent torture was an open secret within CPD. When William Parker, who joined CPD in 1957 as a Black man on a police force that was less than one percent Black, interrupted the brutalization of a suspect, he was reprimanded by a unit commander and told not to get “involved with other officers and their prisoners.” Parker’s attempts at whistleblowing eventually resulted in a demotion from detective to patrolman. 

The open secret extended deeper into government, beyond CPD, to include the state’s attorney and mayor’s offices. In 1982, the state’s attorney and then-Mayor Jane Byrne’s offices saw Wilson with torture injuries so severe that a doctor who saw him Wilson wrote a letter to then-CPD Superintendent Richard J. Brzeczek. Although the doctor called for an investigation into the brutality, then-State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley declined to investigate the evidence of torture. Daley would later go on to serve as mayor of Chicago from 1989 to 2011. 

In addressing future mayors of Chicago, Ralph calls attention to the fact that police violence and torture in Chicago did not simply result from a group of “bad apples”—select rogue cops who hated Black people and considered themselves above the law. For Ralph, focusing on “bad apples” like Burge and Zuley is a way for the mayor to “focus our attention on individuals rather than conditions that allow torturers to excel in the profession of law enforcement.” He argues that doing so absolves our elected officials of responsibility for their complicity in creating a culture where Burge felt so invincible that he regularly bragged about his violent interrogation methods in local taverns.

Even as Ralph beseeches future mayors to improve CPD oversight, he also falls short in holding parties accountable for their systemic role in creating the conditions that allow torture to thrive. In the prologue, Ralph asserts his intention to use the metaphor of the torture tree to demonstrate the book’s central theme: “torture persists in Chicago because of the complicity of people in power, and it persists in the United States because of our history of violence against populations we perceive as threatening to us.” 

Yet Ralph’s torture tree fails to address the complicit powerful. While the roots hold society accountable for misdirecting fear into funding policing over schools, every other part of his tree traces back to individual police officers. The torture tree does not account for the prosecutors who benefited by using torture-induced confessions to close cases or the politicians who benefit by stoking fears about safety to gain votes.

In fact, Ralph only references the Fraternal Order of the Police (FOP) once in passing, despite the enormous influence the police union wields in any conversation on police accountability. Most recently, the FOP has argued that the City of Chicago must destroy police misconduct records older than five to seven years, potentially resulting in the destruction of evidence for civil rights and wrongful conviction cases.

While Chicago has made several efforts at addressing allegations of torture, Ralph notes that the torture tree has not been uprooted. In 2009, Illinois created the first Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission in the United States, but the commission only has the resources to investigate sixteen cases per year despite receiving three to five new torture claims a week. The Chicago City Council passed the 2015 Reparations Ordinance awarding $5.5 million in reparations to fifty-seven survivors of police torture, but five years later, the city has still not allocated funding for the public torture memorial they promised.

No police officer has ever been indicted for torture. Chicago “has created a world in which the tortured exists but torturers do not,” Ralph writes. The complicit powerful like Daley and Brzeczek face no consequences for their role in covering up torture. Former prosecutors William Kunkle and Richard Devine, who consulted with Daley when he declined to investigate Wilson’s torture allegations, went on to become a Cook County judge and state’s attorney, respectively.

While Ralph’s knowledge of police torture is unassailable, his decision to share his research through a series of letters is an interesting one. In explaining his epistolary approach, Ralph states that letters “are windows into the worldview of the subjects of the study.” He explains that cultural anthropologists like himself “center the point of view of the people they study, as opposed to merely bringing their own theories and philosophies to bear on the social problem at hand.” Yet, while Ralph succeeds in telling the story of torture in Chicago, his approach fails to fully center his research subjects. By positioning himself as the author of these letters, he is inserting himself into the narrative and presenting us more of his worldview—his theories and philosophies—than that of his subjects. Ralph even writes, “Every letter contains a felt sense of who the author is and what the author wants.” While Ralph did speak to over a hundred Chicago residents about their understandings of police torture, he ultimately controlled what was included in this book.

Ralph’s work is strongest when he leverages the voices of those he calls his interlocutors, like Page May, an activist with We Charge Genocide. Many of the book’s best sentences come from May, including the following excerpt from a letter she wrote to Franklin: “often it’s implied that our deaths as Black people mean a lot more than our lives and our living them. But we do this for your life, Damo, and your right to live it. We do this for the living.”

May reminds us who is at the heart of this book: torture survivors and activists fighting for police accountability and investing resources in counseling and education instead of a police academy. May reminds us that this work is rooted in love—for those that have died and suffered from police violence and for those who will come after and inherit this city.

To uproot the torture tree means to confront our fears, such as the fear that without police we will not be safe, Ralph argues. It also requires us to reckon with what Ralph calls fear of “the Other,” which is predicated on our own racist assumptions that associate Black and Brown bodies with criminality. Chicago’s struggles with police violence and torture reflect the city’s legacy of neglect and discrimination against Black and Brown communities. Once we understand our own culpability in allowing the torture tree to thrive and reframe our understandings of what it will take to keep us safe, we can join activists like May in holding our city accountable for its legacies of police violence and torture. 

To quote May, “there is nothing natural or easy or instinctive about believing in a better world. About fighting for peace. About reimagining justice, rebuilding community, or transforming relationships. That is the struggle.” 

Laurence Ralph, The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. $19. The University of Chicago Press. 248 pages

Watch an author talk between author Laurence Ralph and Danielle Allen, director of Harvard University’s Safra Center for Ethics

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Michelle Gan is a contributor to the Weekly. She last wrote about the future of food policy in Chicago and has also published a photo essay about Jackson Park’s Wooded Island.

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