Marcus Wiggins is the youngest known survivor of hundreds of mostly Black Chicagoans tortured by police: he was just thirteen years old when he was tortured with electric shocks by several white officers under the direction of then-Lieutenant Jon Burge. At the conclusion of Wiggins’s 1997 civil rights lawsuit brought against the police and the city, U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo denied the officers’s request to keep the details of the abuse confidential, writing that he believed that the public had a right to know whether the city was adequately addressing allegations of police torture. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”, Castillo wrote, “Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up… injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Reflecting on this case in his new book The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence—which should be required reading for every Chicagoan—Princeton University anthropologist Laurence Ralph writes:
I could not agree more with King’s sentiment, or with Castillo’s application of it. And yet comparing the torture of a thirteen-year-old to a boil does not do justice to the suffering that people like Wiggins experience. A boil can be “cured” relatively easily. The mental and physical scars left by torture—and by the racism that justifies and enables that torture—can last a lifetime. Moreover, because torture is so deeply rooted in the culture of the Chicago police force, and in the legal, judicial, and political system that have allowed it to thrive, we require another, more apt metaphor. Police torture is a tree—a hideous and disfigured tree, a tree that blooms death rather than life, a tree that casts a long and dark shadow.
The Chicago Police Department, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and their political and legal allies want to keep this tree firmly planted, to maintain this culture of white supremacy and impunity for even the most heinous acts. This has been clearly demonstrated through the campaign to oust Kim Foxx in the upcoming State’s Attorney’s race and the unwavering opposition to the state’s Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (TIRC), which was originally established to hear claims of Burge-related torture but has since been expanded to all police torture claims in Cook County. The FOP has denied all evidence of torture and threatened survivors with perjury when they come forward with the truth. Further, even when survivors’s claims are validated by TIRC, they still face an uphill battle in the Cook County judicial system—a fact demonstrated by recent developments in the case of Gerald Reed.
Reed has spent more than twenty-eight years in prison after being convicted based on a confession he’s steadfastly claimed was tortured out of him by officers under Burge’s command. Unlike many of the hundreds of torture survivors in Chicago, he got a chance at a new trial in 2012 after TIRC unanimously found that he provided sufficient evidence to corroborate his allegations. It took five years for Reed to get the evidentiary hearing mandated by TIRC, but after analyzing medical records that showed how Reed was beaten so badly by police that they broke a metal rod in his leg, then-Cook County Judge Thomas Gainer vacated Reed’s 1990 conviction and granted him a new trial in December 2018. However, Gainer retired days after the decision, and Judge Thomas Hennelly was appointed to Reed’s case.
Like many judges in Cook County, Hennelly was a career prosecutor before joining the bench. He worked in the office of State’s Attorney Richard Devine, who personally represented torture ringleader Jon Burge in private practice and prosecuted cases that rested on tortured confessions. Further, Devine consistently fought the appeals of torture survivors and the appointment of special prosecutors to look into torture allegations.
Hennelly also has his own record of denying evidence of police abuse: he prosecuted numerous torture survivors, including Aaron Patterson, who was convicted based on a false confession obtained through torture and sentenced to death before he was pardoned by Governor George Ryan. Hennelly’s record also includes a Batson violation, which is when an attorney is found to have unconstitutionally struck jurors from consideration on the basis of race, typically in order to ensure an all-white jury and an easier conviction. Despite the fact that attorneys frequently commit such violations, they are hard to prove in all but the most obvious cases—making Hennelly’s violation especially notable.
As if Hennelly’s history did not demonstrate enough bias towards law enforcement and skepticism towards torture survivors, the special prosecutor appointed to Reed’s case was Robert Milan, Hennelly’s old boss at the State’s Attorney’s office. Milan also tried cases that rested on tortured confessions when he was a Cook County prosecutor, and he has advocated for police occupation of Black neighborhoods with surveillance drones, sealed-off entrances, and military checkpoints staffed by National Guard troops.
In this context, Reed did not get even close to a fair day in court. Once pretrial hearings finally began, Hennelly repeatedly denied bond at Milan’s request, making the wheelchair-bound Reed sit in jail for fourteen months after his conviction was vacated. According to the Sun-Times, courtroom observers noted that throughout the proceedings Hennelly made it very clear that he did not believe Reed’s torture allegations—he was not even pretending to be a neutral arbiter. Then, on February 14, Hennelly reversed Gainer’s decision, ordering Reed back to prison to serve the rest of his life sentence.
Reed can appeal this decision, which his lawyers have said they will do, but activists are also lobbying Governor J.B. Pritzker and urging him to pardon Reed and others whom TIRC has found have made credible allegations of torture. Frank Chapman, co-chair of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), said in a statement responding to Hennelly’s decision, “This turn of events in the Gerald Reed case just exposes the criminal justice system for what it is—criminal, racist, and unjust. Due process means nothing in this system. The time to end this torture is now, and the Governor has the power to do that.” CAARPR is campaigning for Pritzker to pardon not just Reed but all torture survivors, which all governors and presidents can and should do.
Concluding The Torture Letters, Ralph writes, “In Chicago, the belief that the police hate Black people and mistreat them, brutalize them, torture them, and kill them is so commonplace as to be banal. It’s only surprising to the person who is unfamiliar with those communities of color, the person who lives somewhere else, or who simply does not care about what happens in these communities.” The Reed decision was one of countless instances in which Chicago law and policymakers have proven that they do not care what happens in Chicago’s communities of color, especially when it comes to police violence—from the assassination of Fred Hampton to the killing of Rekia Boyd, continuing into the present. The changes that the city has made have only happened because of the work of communities most impacted by police violence, who fought for and won a historic reparations ordinance in 2015 and continue to push for police accountability. But the FOP and their political allies have vehemently fought any efforts at reform or atonement, especially the requirements in the reparations ordinance that the history of police torture be taught in Chicago Public Schools, and the public memorial included in the ordinance. The memorial still has not been funded by the city.
The latest effort to affirm this culture of white supremacy and police impunity targets incumbent State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, one of the few local officials who has demonstrated attention to police violence. After persistent opposition from the FOP throughout her first term, Foxx is now facing multiple primary challengers with decidedly less progressive platforms. The Cook County State’s Attorney is the elected chief of the prosecutor’s office, which in the past has made them a natural ally of the FOP and “tough-on-crime” politicians. However, thanks to the organizing of the Movement for Black Lives and others directly impacted by mass criminalization, several jurisdictions have recently elected “progressive prosecutors” who have promised to reform the system. Foxx is part of that movement. She acknowledges that she only beat incumbent Anita Alvarez in 2016 because of the work of movement organizations like Assata’s Daughters, Black Youth Project 100, and Black Lives Matter Chicago. Alvarez was hopefully the last of the city’s traditional State’s Attorneys—like Devine, she continued to fight exonerations and cover up police violence (including the murder of Laquan McDonald), trying to lock up as many people as possible for as long as possible. Alvarez was only accountable to the FOP and tough-on-crime politicians and voters, while Foxx is accountable to the people most impacted by police violence and the structural violence of racism, segregation, poverty, and disinvestment.
Foxx often talks about her personal story—growing up in Chicago and building a successful career despite experiencing sexual abuse, trauma, poverty, overpolicing, and under-resourced schools—because she recognizes that incarceration often just worsens the root causes of crime. As a report on Foxx’s policies by The People’s Lobby, Reclaim Chicago, and the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice put it, “The root causes of many crimes, including poverty and lack of mental health services or substance use treatment, go unaddressed or are made worse through prison sentences. Incarceration disrupts what little security and stability people have, hurting entire communities by separating parents from children, workers from employment and caregivers from the people who need them most.” Accordingly, Foxx measures success by fairness and equity, not by the number of convictions her office processes.
That is why Foxx’s administration has been the most transparent in the history of the office, and has approved the highest number of exonerations for survivors of police violence and wrongful convictions. That is why Foxx has talked about the State’s Attorney’s office “doing less with less.” She does not believe that the city should be wasting all its resources on overpolicing and overprosecuting its most disadvantaged residents. Under Foxx’s leadership, Cook County prosecutors are given more discretion to consider the individual life circumstances of each defendant, instead of an unwavering commitment to incarceration. As a result, prosecutors have increased the use of alternatives to incarceration like community service and drug treatment programs. This shift, alongside other policy changes like reduced use of money bail, has led to an almost twenty percent reduction in incarceration rates. At the same time, overall crime rates have decreased, further disproving the tough-on-crime theory that increased incarceration automatically means improved public safety.
Kim Foxx’s commitment to fairness and equity—and her refusal to toe the FOP line—seems to be why former prosecutor candidate Bill Conway is running against her in the Democratic primary, with no substantive campaign message other than the desire to see her voted out of office. While there is no doubt that people resent Foxx as the first Black woman in her position, the FOP and their supporters are even more resentful of her policy changes and the threat that she poses to their power and influence. The FOP believes that police can do no wrong and should never be prosecuted, and that Chicago should spend all of its money locking up as many people as possible with no chance at release, even when they have credible claims of being innocent or being tortured. They assert that those who push back on those ideas, or even simply report on police torture, are just part of the media’s “war on police” or the “wrongful conviction movement.” But Kim Foxx embodies a powerful alternative to their theories. Further, unlike cases of police violence that actually have victims, the FOP and their supporters and candidates are basing their whole campaign to oust Foxx on her decision-making in a victimless alleged celebrity crime that does not need to be addressed through incarceration. The FOP seems to have learned from the successful #ByeAnita campaign in 2016 that led to Alvarez’s defeat, and hopes that they can use the Smollett case to elect their preferred candidate and reestablish their influence over the State’s Attorney’s office. While the hypocrisy and racism of the FOP should always be called out, it is a shame that so much attention is being paid to this case at the expense of Foxx’s effective reform efforts.
However, as Jane M. Saks and Emma Ruby-Sachs wrote for the Reader last year, “Democracy is not about one person … This campaign to bring justice back to Cook County was never about Kim Foxx. It still isn’t. It is about a national agenda to save lives, a national agenda of systemic change and justice. It is a campaign of humanity and equity, of who we aspire to be and not just merely living with how things exist.” While Kim Foxx is currently Cook County’s best option to further that lifesaving agenda, and reelecting her a necessary step, structural change will only happen because of the social movements that put her in office. As law professors Sheila Bedi and Craig Futterman recently put it, “Chicago police will continue to harm black and brown communities until the CPD becomes accountable to those communities.” Chicago’s communities of color will continue to push for the transformation of Chicago’s political and legal systems that allow police violence and impunity to thrive, and they will hold Foxx and anyone else accountable when they come up short.
New York City-based Project NIA, an anti-youth incarceration organization originally founded in Chicago by the abolitionist organizer and writer Mariame Kaba, recently contributed to an organizing toolkit for “progressive prosecutor” campaigns that suggests they focus on “how a prosecuting office’s policies and practices result in decriminalization, decarceration, and shrinking the resources and power of the office of the prosecutor.” To uproot Chicago’s torture tree, we must elect State’s Attorneys who are committed to decarceration, decriminalization, and accountability for police misconduct. But ultimately, we must work to divest from exploitative institutions like police and prosecution in order to facilitate investments in community resources like housing, healthcare, public schools, transit, jobs programs, and other basic needs. These social programs should be funded through progressive taxes instead of the current system of regressive property tax assessments and fines and fees for the poor. Instead of spending millions of public dollars to defend abusive police, we should refuse to indemnify officers and invest in the underfunded and backlogged TIRC.
Illinois’s political and legal systems are filled with people like Hennelly and Milan, and its prisons and jails are filled with people like Gerald Reed. The culture of absolute impunity for police and unwavering condemnation for the criminalized is deeply rooted—and it will only change when the people demand justice and hold public officials accountable when they fail to deliver. It will be a tough battle that will be fought every step of the way by the FOP, CPD, and their political and legal allies, but there are clear steps we can take to improve the situation. Electing progressive politicians is certainly one step, but we must look beyond the ballot box to the communities of directly impacted people who have been organizing against police violence for decades. At the end of the day, Chicagoans will continue to resist oppression wherever it exists.
Bobby Vanecko is a second-year law student at Loyola University Chicago. He is interested in criminal law and interns at First Defense Legal Aid and the Westside Justice Center.