By Yana Kunichoff and Sarah Macaraeg
Somewhere between his 12th and 13th hour inside a Chicago Police interrogation room, Lindsey Smith decided to confess to a murder he didn’t commit. The year was 1972. Multiple officers had pistol-whipped, stomped on and beaten him, again and again. Convinced he would not otherwise live to see sunlight, Smith signed a false confession for the attempted murder of a 12-year-old White boy. At 17, Smith, too, was a boy. But with one major difference: he was Black.
Tried as an adult and convicted, Smith took a plea deal and served nearly five years in prison.
He was among the first of at least 120 young, primarily Black men whom Chicago police officers would torture into false confessions. Yet while many who suffer at the hands of the police never get justice, Smith’s story ended differently. More than 40 years later, following the passage of historic reparations legislation, he became one of the first Black people in America to be granted reparations for racial violence.
The hard-won legislation, envisioned by activists, made Chicago the first and thus far only municipality in the country to pay reparations for racist police violence.
After receiving parole, Smith moved out of the city and attempted to rebuild his life. But his struggles were far from over. Given the conviction on his record, Smith faced difficulty in everything from finding work to accessing his car insurance benefits. And he remained haunted by his experiences as a teen inside the interrogation room, and never felt at ease in Chicago again — until May 7, 2015.
On that date, the City of Chicago signed into law an ordinance granting cash payments, free college education and a range of social services to 57 living survivors of police torture. Explicitly defined as reparations, the ordinance also includes a mandate to teach the broader public about the torture, through a memorial and public schools curriculum, and a formal apology from Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The hard-won legislation, envisioned by activists, made Chicago the first and thus far only municipality in the country to pay reparations for racist police violence.
“I can sleep a whole lot better tonight,” Smith told local media upon the bill’s passage. A 61-year-old factory worker, he has since collected $100,000 in reparations.
“I’d take that night back before I took their money any day. I can never get back that time away from my family and the things I could have done,” Smith said. “But at least I can afford new shoes now.”
As the national conversation around racial disparities in the United States has broadened to include criminalization, job discrimination, school segregation, and neglect of infrastructure, so has the need for a reckoning of the institutional wrongs done to African American communities. Reparations, the concept of offering monetary or social redress for historical injustices, has found a renewed life in American public discourse, and at the heart of some social movements.
With the election of Donald Trump, it seems unlikely that reparations will move forward at the national scale anytime soon. But Chicago’s ordinance provides a model for creating reparations on the local level, even in the face of daunting circumstances.
Increasingly, the question appears not to be whether reparations are needed,
but in what form and how to get them.
The momentum has been building for years. Reparations sparked debate on the presidential campaign trail, and, when more than 50 organizations collaborated to write the Movement for Black Lives policy platform in 2016, they put reparations front and center.
“We wanted to put forth a set of policies that show what we really want and what would lead to a transformation of our conditions,” says Karl Kumodzi, a member of the coalition’s policy table who is active with the organizations BlackBird and BYP100 in Brooklyn, New York. “Reparations had to be at the forefront of that.”
Since then, a Georgetown University committee has recognized that the school profited from the sale of slaves and said it would “reconcile” by naming two buildings after African Americans and by offering preferred admission status to any descendants of slaves who worked at the university. Whether or not Georgetown’s plans offer true recompense is in contention. “You don’t admit you owe someone money and repay them with lottery tickets,” wrote sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom.
Increasingly, the question appears not to be whether reparations are needed, but in what form and how to get them.
Most of the time, it’s still an abstract conversation. But Chicago’s $5.5 million reparations legislation is a concrete exception.
According to a city spokesperson, as of October 2016: payments have been made to the majority of the 57 recognized survivors; nine individuals have begun the process of potentially accessing free community college; and 11 requests for prioritized access to social services have been made. Since, a city-funded community center dedicated to survivors and their families opened in May 2017, and a curriculum on the torture scandal was in the early stages of implementation in Chicago Public Schools as of April 2017.
From The Black Manifesto to the Movement for Black Lives
Mary Frances Berry, a former chairperson of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, documented the country’s first struggle for reparations, which was led by ex-slaves, in her book My Face is Black is True. She thinks Chicago offers a model for how to win reparations across the country.
“We often hear talk about national legislation and national responses in the civil rights community…. But a lot of things can be done locally,” she says. “Chicago shows [what] can be done — and [that] other kinds of remedies for other kinds of harms can be done, like for example the harm done to the people in Flint.”
Berry was referencing the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, that left thousands of residents in the predominantly African American town without access to clean drinking water.
Not far from Flint, nearly 50 years ago, The Black Manifesto launched in Detroit as one of the first calls for reparations in the modern era, penned by James Forman, a former organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a key Civil Rights group. Released at the 1969 Black Economic Development Conference, the manifesto demanded $500 million in reparations from predominantly white religious institutions, for their historic role in perpetuating slavery. The manifesto asserted that the money would fund nine key projects, aimed at building the collective wealth of black communities: a black university, black presses and broadcast networks, research and training centers, and a southern land bank. A multi-racial contingent of clergy in support of The Black Manifesto succeeded in raising at least $215,000 from the Episcopalian and Methodist churches, through months of rancorous deliberation — that ultimately rendered the coalition apart.
The mantle was next assumed by the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, or N’COBRA. Centering their demands on reparations for chattel slavery, N’COBRA gained a hearing throughout the early 1990s but their demands never garnered a mainstream foothold.
Joe Feagin, distinguished professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, has a hunch about why that is. It has been difficult for demands for reparations for slavery to gain traction in the past, he says, because the direct link between slavery and the high rates of poverty prevalent in contemporary black communities is not widely understood, let alone acknowledged.
“When you focus on slavery, it’s easy for whites to say all the whites are dead and all the blacks are dead,” Feagin said. In other words, it’s easy to dismiss the idea as water under the bridge.
“That is not true for Jim Crow segregation,” Feagin said, citing a study on “segregation stress syndrome” based on interviews with 100 elderly African Americans in the South. The study revealed that 80 percent of the participants’ families had suffered extreme violence in the form of lynching, rape, attempted rape, and home invasions. “They can name the white families who were involved,” Feagin said. “Without knowing the whole story you can’t know that whites are unjustly enriched, blacks unjustly impoverished — and that that has to be repaired,” Feagin said. “What allows us whites to get off the hook is nobody knows this history, so we can make absurd statements like ‘Slavery happened hundreds of years ago,” Feagin said of arguments against reparations.
But with the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ landmark article “The Case for Reparations,” in 2014, the living legacy of white supremacy became difficult to deny. Detailing the systematic “plunder” of black communities, Coates’ work tracks multiple Chicagoans living the outcomes of generations of racism — demonstrating a legacy of impoverishment that runs from slavery, sharecropping and Jim Crow to housing discrimination and economic hardship today.
As for solutions, Coates called for support of H.R. 40, federal legislation that seeks to form a commission on reparations.
Sponsored by Democrat John Conyers of Michigan, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, H.R.40 aims “to examine the institution of slavery and its legacy, like racial disparities in education, housing, and healthcare” and then “recommend appropriate remedies to Congress.” First introduced in 1989, H.R. 40 has been reintroduced by Conyers in every session of Congress since — and subsequently mired in the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, currently chaired by Republican Trent Franks of Arizona.
But although H.R. 40 has languished, other reparations legislation has prevailed at both the state and federal levels. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill providing $20,000 to each of the approximately 65,000 living Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II, prompting Congress to allocate $1.25 billion. A few years later, the state of Florida approved $2.1 million dollars for the living survivors of a 1923 racial pogrom that resulted in multiple deaths and the complete decimation of the black community in the town of Rosewood. More recently, in 2014, the state of North Carolina set aside $10 million for reparations payments to living survivors of the state’s eugenics program, which forcibly sterilized approximately 7,600 people. The practice was widely adopted across 33 states, sterilizing an estimated 60,000 people without their consent. Last year, the state of Virginia followed North Carolina’s lead, and will soon begin awarding $25,000 to each survivor.
Meanwhile, the five-point outline for reparations in the Movement for Black Lives platform broadens the conversation. From a demand for services focused on healing from trauma to access to free education and cash support in the form of a “guaranteed livable income,” the policy platform was built on decades of experience, research, and values long held by the black radical tradition — galvanized further by the victory in Chicago, says Karl Kumodzi.
“I got chills,” he says about the day he heard the Chicago ordinance was signed. “What they won offers clear examples of reparations being more than just a check, but rather a set of initiatives and investments that address the economic, psychological, educational, and health impacts of the harm that’s been done,” Kudmozi says.
How They Did It
So how’d they do it?
According to sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, there are three key components to a reparations program: acknowledgement, restitution, and closure. In addition, for an offered recompense to be reparations, it must be specific to alleviating or directing resources at the harm caused.
In many ways, the movement for reparations in Chicago started out of a lack of recognition. Communities in Chicago had spent years fighting for legal redress for survivors of police torture under Commander Jon Burge and his officers, who for nearly three decades tortured more than 100 black and Latino men into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.
Their first effort was legal — to get Burge into a courtroom despite the fact that the statute of limitations had expired on many of the alleged cases of police torture, and to achieve retrials where possible for the wrongfully convicted people still imprisoned.
There are three key components to a reparations program: acknowledgement, restitution, and closure.
The second was to make sure the torture would never be forgotten. Attorney Joey Mogul had been litigating Burge cases for more than two decades by the time the commander was finally brought into court.
But looking around at the torture survivors she had been working with, especially those asked to dredge up painful memories for the trial, she realized the victory of his conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice was a hollow one.
“It didn’t bring them peace or relief,” said Mogul. She points to the case of Anthony Holmes, who was tortured by officers under Burge in 1973 and went on to serve the full 30-year sentence before being exonerated. “Anthony Holmes … struggles with trauma to this day. There are no psychological services for him whatsoever.”
The first steps toward the ordinance began not explicitly geared towards getting reparations in Chicago, but rather to collect ideas for how to memorialize the cases and make sure that Chicagoans knew of the history of police torture that scarred African-American and Latino communities in the city. Mogul and a handful of torture survivors and other people who had been involved in the movement to bring Burge to justice started the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials as a vehicle to start collecting ideas.
From there, the idea of drafting a city ordinance as a way to recognize the harm done took shape – and bringing in reparations as the answer began to form. “I feel like reparations is a really simple concept,” said Alice Kim, an academic and activist whose longtime work organizing with Burge survivors was pivotal in the CTJM and eventually the reparations ordinance. “It’s repairing harm that was done.”
The first draft of the ordinance was sketched out in 2012, with an explicit aim of calling for reparations — inspired by Mogul’s colleague, lawyer Stan Willis who had been active with N’Cobra and first raised the demand.
The reparations package aimed to fill in the gaps where legal efforts had fallen short. It included key practical requests like financial compensation but also a curriculum that would teach about the Burge tortures in Chicago Public Schools and free enrollment in the city’s public college program.
The ordinance, in the spirit of the longtime organizing efforts, laid the bulk of responsibility at the city’s feet. “The chain of command in City Hall never stopped to investigate and redress the torture,” said Mogul.
It’s fitting, then, that what helped spur activists to introduce the ordinance was the mayor’s attempt to close the book on police torture. In October 2013, city’s finance committee had just settled a $12.3 million suit with police torture victims Ronald Kitchens and Marvin Reeves. A journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel if the police torture deserved an apology. In response Emanuel apologized — before he deflected, saying, “Let us all now move on.”
The comment outraged activists who had been devising a proposal for justice. “We can’t move on, there has been nothing done to meet the material needs of torture survivors,” Mogul recalled thinking.
The group found a City Council member friendly with the mayor — Alderman Joe Moreno — to introduce the ordinance in October of 2013. The ordinance would then be stuck in committee until a burst of growth in the movement pushed it out.
A coalition began taking shape in early 2014 — Amnesty International brought its national platform to the project in April 2014. By the end of 2015, a local coalition called We Charge Genocide would bring the burgeoning power of the Black Lives Matter movement to the fight for reparations. Janae Bonsu, a member of Black Youth Project 100, organized with the fight for reparations. “If anyone is deserving of reparations, it’s them,” said Bonsu of the families receiving a portion of recompense.
The group upped their efforts, holding a bitterly cold Valentine’s day rally in 2015 and beseeching Rahm Emanuel, whose political future looked increasingly uncertain as he was heading into a mayoral run-off, to “have a heart.”
Within a month of that February rally, the coalition met with the city three times to negotiate on the reparations package while continuing to hold public protests. A key demand was a hearing on the ordinance. “We wanted the public to have their say. We got a hearing date for April 14th,” said Mogul, but “On the eve of the hearing we ultimately reached and agreed on a reparations package.”
The package eventually passed, offering cash payments, a formal apology, promise to teach the history of police torture in Chicago Public Schools, and funds for the creation of the community counseling center for survivors opening on the South Side of Chicago in 2017.
“What we gained, what we won, was more expansive than any court could have provided.”
“No one believed it would pass, no one thought [Mayor Rahm] Emanuel would be OK with it and succumb to the pressure he ended up succumbing to. But you move your target and your people from what everybody expects, and you make the improbable possible,” said Mariame Kaba, whose connection to both long-term Burge organizing efforts and the Black Lives Matter movement made her a key figure in the upswell of actions leading to the passage of the ordinance in 2015.
“We fought outside the legal box,” said Mogul. “What we gained, what we won, was more expansive than any court could have provided.”
On January 4, 2016, the checks to individual torture victims went into the mail. A young social worker, Camesha Jones, was hired to lead a needs assessment commenced among survivors and their families to figure out how the forthcoming community center could best meet the needs of those affected by police torture. The city has agreed to provide three additional years of funding and in the meanwhile, planning for the curriculum and public memorial commenced.
However, the ordinance limits financial relief as people tortured during Burge’s exact years on the force—between May 1,1972 to November 30, 1991 — despite evidence that it continued under his former subordinates. And, over 20 known Burge survivors remain incarcerated today, according to lawyers with the reparations committee.
For the CTJM team the gains of reparations serve as a starting point and reminder of all there is to be done.
“The glass is only half full because until we get those other brothers back to court and get fair and impartial hearings into their allegations of having been tortured,” said Darryl Cannon, a survivor of Burge’s police torture. “Then this fight must continue.”
The future of the reparations campaign looks both like a push for continuing education and activism. Mogul and Alice Kim are writing a book about the organizing that led to the ordinance. Mogul says it’s important that they opened the door, but that “others should open it further.”
Aislinn Pulley, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago, considers the city’s effort one of the most powerful examples of reparations. “Chicago … created new possibilities of what transformative justice, holistic justice can look like and in addressing the modern problems of policing, helps us envision new demands and possibilities of justice,” she said.
What’s more, activists like Janae Bonsu, who worked on the reparations campaign, have taken their experience in Chicago and run with it. As a member of the Black Youth Project 100, she has fought in recent months to keep open the historically black Chicago State University in Illinois and to partially “de-fund the police” in municipal budgets nationwide, advocating for the funding of programs benefiting Black communities in need of services instead.
Bonsu sees clear next steps for where the fight for reparations needs to move. “I think the conversation of reparations should be expanded to thinking about the War on Drugs, in thinking about [housing] redline policies — in all the ways systemic racism can be proved,” said Bonsu.
The story of Chicago’s ordinance suggests that local campaigns have the potential to broaden reparations in each of these ways. But in the absence of a national policy, how much harm can be mitigated by local laws? If hundreds of Chicago-style ordinances were replicated in every town or state where demonstrable systemic harm can be proved, how far would they go in addressing centuries of wrong meted out by the state against African Americans and other vulnerable communities?
Karl Kumodzi says that reparations are needed on multiple fronts – reparations for both specific harms, such as those wrought by Chicago’s police torture ring, and oppressive systems as a whole. “What we think is really needed is an analysis of reparations, not just for very specific cases where you have to prove it,” he says, but also for the intergenerational, community-wide and lasting impacts of systems like slavery and policing. “They also have the same consequences, the same needs of their families — the same lasting traumatic effects.”
However, under a Trump presidency, Kumodzi says, priorities in organizing will shift because conditions have shifted. “Fights that we could take on and things that we could try to win a month ago are things that just won’t happen in the next four years at the federal level,” he acknowledges. But Kumodzi also sees organizing at the state and city levels as a powerful means for keeping the larger dream of national reparations alive.
“Our vision for the world that we want to live in, our demands, our understanding of the policies that are going to get us towards that vision, that’s not going to change, that’s gonna stay the same for the long haul — whether it’s four years, two years, ten years,” he said. “There’s been a lot of harms. Reparations have to be done to address those harms.”
This story is excerpted from Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology. A version of the story ran in the Spring 2017 issue of YES! Magazine, and won a 2017 Images and Voices of Hope “Restorative Narrative” Award.
Banner photo: People hold banners with the names of victims of police torture at a 2015 Rally for Reparations in Chicago. Image courtesy Sarah-Ji (loveandstruggle.com).
Yana Kunichoff is an award-winning investigative journalist and documentary producer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on policing, immigration, and education.
Sarah Macaraeg is an award-winning investigative journalist with the Asian American Journalists Association’s Criminal Justice Project. Follow her on Twitter @seramak.