Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #8: Constellations

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 8: 03.09.17

By Aaron Rose

principle: constellations
concepts: ecosystem, diverse entities

Projects need visionaries, believers, implementers, collaborators, and evaluators… A project taps into a particular kind of power when it refuses to be singular, when it takes up space and assembles believers from disparate corners.

Ethical Redevelopment Salon #8 was that constellation of many—pardon the phrase—points of light. The day started out with an afternoon workshop to discuss the second set of three of the 9 Principles. But I’ll fold that conversation into the next blog in order to focus on the evening Salon Session, which was dedicated to learning about and collaborating with the Chicago Torture Justice Center.

Invocation for the Evening Salon
The evening began with an invocation sung by Yaw Agyeman. Like the practice of lighting candles, or spreading cornmeal and tobacco, the invocation established sacred time and space for our experience, and served to deepen remembrance of why we are being called to do this work. The words of the invocation are missing Yaw’s haunting vocalization, but I ask the reader to imagine as they read the refrain:

You know the story
No need for looking back

And this closing:

Please acknowledge
Please condemn
Please apologize
Please express your regrets
Please remember these events
Please reaffirm your commitment

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

When presenting his opening remarks for the evening, Emcee Steve Edwards referenced a friend who writes about how, in the face of systematic injustice, society often engages in deliberate acts of not knowing, of choosing not to see.

In her introduction, Isis Ferguson, Place Lab’s Associate Director of City + Community Strategy, noted that “whatever industry or setting you work in… collaboration, often lauded, often talked about, is actually really, really difficult to do.” Visionaries, translators among different constituencies, folks with money, and people who have been directly affected by particular kinds of interventions are each capable of a completely different kind of work. Constellations draw upon “complementary skills and practices” to advance work.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

The format of the Salon was being shifted that evening to “raise up the work of folks who exemplify Constellations,” the survivors and their families, artist and activists, scholars, lawyers and investigative journalists who engaged in decades of struggle, and who successfully advocated with the City of Chicago to pass the Historic Reparations to Survivors ordinance in May 2015. The ordinance awarded financial reparations to survivors and their families and established the Chicago Torture Justice Center.

In her introduction, Isis Ferguson, Place Lab’s Associate Director of City + Community Strategy, noted that “whatever industry or setting you work in… collaboration, often lauded, often talked about, is actually really, really difficult to do.” Visionaries, translators among different constituencies, folks with money, and people who have been directly affected by particular kinds of interventi0ns are each capable of a completely different kind of work. Constellations draw upon “complementary skills and practices” to advance work.

Torture under Chicago Police Department Commander John Burge
For nearly two decades, on record, Chicago Police Department (CPD) Commander Jon Burge, and police officers under his command, tortured more than 120 African-American men and boys on the city’s South Side. Commander Burge and his subordinates targeted communities of color, where they rounded up individuals, some as young as 16 years old, and used torture tactics Commander Burge learned as a serviceman during the Vietnam War to force confessions to crimes they did not commit. Tactics included violent, racist language, brutal beatings, suffocation, and electric shock. Despite documented evidence proving torture was being used to convict innocent men, City, County, and Federal government officials refused to take action against Commander Burge.

For nearly three decades, family members, attorneys, community organizers, and other members of the public fought to expose the crimes committed by Commander Burge and his subordinates. They testified at the United Nations Committee Against Torture, and recommended that the US Government bring charges against Burge and the other Chicago Police Department officers who perpetrated the torture.

Twenty torture survivors were found innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Other victims completed their sentences. At least 20 men who were, in part, convicted based on false confessions exacted by torture remain in prison. They continue to be denied hearings to raise evidence that corroborates their allegations of being tortured. Survivors continue to suffer the profound effects of the torture to which they were subjected.

Burge was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2010 and served four years in federal prison, but to this day, neither Commander Burge, nor any officers in his command, have been tried or convicted of torture.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Chicago Torture Justice Center
Darrell Cannon, who is a torture survivor and CTJC’s outreach coordinator, introduced the organization’s founding executive director, Christine Haley, who talked about the history of the Center.

In 2011, a group of artists, activists, and attorneys came together to plan for a memorial project dedicated to torture cases, and the group known as the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial created a coalition of individuals and groups that included Black People Against Police Torture, Amnesty International, Project NIA, We Charge Genocide, BYP 100, Chicago Light Brigade, National Conference of Black Lawyers, and Midwest Coalition of Human Rights.

Family and coalition members designed artwork to support their movement. A fifth, black star added to the horizontal four red stars of the Chicago city flag became the iconic image of the campaign. The group also created 120 vertical black banners, mounted on wood, each representing one of the victims of police torture, some bearing names, some stating “unknown victim.” In 2012, CTJM presented an art exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with more than 70 installations, called Opening the Black Box: the Charge is Torture. Coalition members hosted a pop-up exhibit outside Mayor Emanuel’s office in City Hall in 2015.

Also in early 2015, members of Chicago Light Brigade and Project NIA staged a “Reparations Now” light show in front of Mayor Emanuel’s house, calling on him to support the reparations ordinance. On May 6, 2015 the Chicago City Council passed the historic Reparations to Survivors Ordinance, the first time a municipality has awarded reparations for acts of police violence.

The Reparations Ordinance included a formal apology from the Mayor and City Council members to survivors and their families, and calls for an educational curriculum currently being developed for 8th- and 10th-grade students that will be taught across the city. Community college education, tuition-free, is available to survivors and their family members, including their partners, children, and grandchildren. Reparations also include direct financial compensation of $5.5 million, funds to establish a public memorial in the community and a living memorial within the center, and a counseling center.

The vision for the Center, evolving for the past two years, combines a focus on individual survivor healing with drawing in and educating the surrounding and broader community. The healing space will house the Survivor Healing and Empowerment Program, with therapeutic services, including counseling, support groups, somatic healing services, and case management services for issues related to housing and employment. The Center will also continue advocating for the approximately 40 torture survivors who are still incarcerated, and continue organizing activities to raise awareness of and address police violence.

Through a survey, community members identified four themes they want the Center to address: community education and engagement, including inter-generational exchange; space for spiritual reflection; storytelling and speakers bureau; advocacy on behalf of the community in dealing with police. Salon Member Monica Chadha, Founder of Civic Projects, has been working with CTJC to develop their vision for the center

For the collaborative exercise, we were assigned to one of four groups and charged with offering ideas for creating a permanent, evolving exhibition that tells stories of Burge torture cases, the decades-long Reparations Campaign, and contemporary police violence. Although a space plan has not yet been developed, each group was provided with a provisional floor plan for the space, based on the four priorities identified by the community. Themes for the groups were: Healing + Reflection; Documenting, Archiving + Education; Engagement + Action; Connecting Burge Torture Reparations to Contemporary Police Violence.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Documenting, Archiving + Education
The group process was intense and memorable. So much so, that we forgot to do our assignment: to draw our ideas onto a floor plan to share with the larger group. Salon Member Tayyib Smith, Co-Founder of Little Giant Creative, shared with me afterwards that he experienced this group discussion, among many compelling small group discussions, as the most powerful opportunity during the Salons for connecting and growing.

To start the conversation, Tayyib suggested using data collected about the torture crimes to build awareness among broad local and national audiences of the extent of police violence. We talked about the importance of creating an exhibition that is meaningful to community members in Englewood, the neighborhood where many survivors live or lived, and where the Center will be located, and designing an experience that also engages and educates other communities, including affluent, white communities. Someone offered the idea of training survivors and other individuals to serve as docents who can lead people through exhibition spaces and tell stories that reflect their experiences and help exhibition viewers put the information in context.

One of the survivors in our group talked about the structure of Chicago police torture. “It was pure racism,” he said. “Telling the story of any episode of torture requires telling the truth: the truth is that Chicago police detectives were allowed to pick off children, take them down to the police station, and chain them to a wall. They would inflict beatings, connect electrical shock boxes to genitals. So in the city of Chicago, it’s not like the Mayor don’t know, the mayors before… the beloved Harold Washington, they did know, sadly. The bulk of the people are still sitting in prisons. Even as we sit here, we have forces in the city of Chicago working to destroy us. To make sure that this historical opportunity to bring reflection to a wounded community, where most of the men come from West Englewood, we’re looking at the violence.

"Hell, all of their fathers were locked up in prisons. We have to deal with the trauma of all that… Poor people. That’s what we are. We’re poor people and we’re treated, unfortunately, like first-class slaves.” This was the testimony of a man who shared that he was locked in an interrogation room at the age of 16, prevented from communicating with his family, and sentenced to four terms of natural life in prison.

This raised questions about reaching people, mostly white people in affluent communities, who have no reference for police brutality or larger issues of systemic racism and social injustice. We talked about creating context for the Burge torture history, and the larger issue of police violence in communities of color. How do you dismantle narratives that represent the views of the dominant culture? Narratives, for example, that police are friendly, helpful protectors. Assumptions that if someone has been detained or arrested by police they must have done something wrong. We talked about ways to unsettle long-held, culturally framed narratives. One idea was to display videos of contrasting personal testimonies, from individuals of a similar age, background or interests, one black and one white, describing their experiences with and resulting attitudes toward police.

A couple of years ago, my mother, who is in her late 80s, watched the video of Eric Garner. She asked me what he had done. When I told her he’d been selling loose cigarettes, she looked completely baffled. I realized she had no idea that people sold loose cigarettes, and that doing so was a crime. Until a few years ago, I didn’t either. The whole construct of this act being illegal seems totally absurd. It disrupted her worldview to realize that she had watched a man being choked to death by law enforcement officers for such a petty offense.

Toward the end of our time together, the survivor who began the conversation about history, returned to the topic. He said the community he grew up in had been pretty nice when he was young, and asked if any of us had ever seen West Englewood. It was a rhetorical question, because he followed up by saying: you won’t see it because all you’ll see is your tears. You won’t believe anyone lives like that. People in prison live better than that. When I got out of prison, he said, I thought the world would be a better place.

When I entered the room where our group met, I felt the urgency and gravity of collective memories of horror and grief.

I am a Jewish woman who was born less than a decade after the end of the Second World War and the Nazi campaign of genocide against European Jews. I understood from a very early age, taught by my family and in religious school, that horrible, unspeakable things happen in the world—to us and to people who, like us, are different in ways that make us vulnerable. And that people who commit and are capable of committing these horrific acts are ordinary people, people you see everyday.

Like many other Americans, I learned to live with one foot in the universe of the dominant culture, and one foot in an alternative universe that knew about and experienced things other people didn’t understand or acknowledge.

There persists a dominant cultural framework with no concept of these parallel universes, including communities of a people who were formerly enslaved, like the West Englewood community Mark talked about, communities that still suffer the consequences of this crime against humanity. Powerful people make judgments and pronouncements about these communities; pass laws that have profound implications for them; and, as evidenced in the recent foreclosure crisis, game the system to enrich themselves by plundering their assets. It is a moral and ethical and, in a pluralistic society, inexcusable failing of our educational systems that many, if not most people, in our society do not have a clear understanding that people from other cultures, religions, ethnicities, and countries see and experience the world differently, the consequences of which are splattered all over our democracy.

I felt, sitting in that room, and I think now, about the almost unimaginably heavy burden this society has laid and continues to lay on black people, especially our black sisters and brothers living in disinvested communities, starting with the blaming and shaming for conditions this society created—pure and simple. The dominant culture tells the narrative that disadvantaged black communities and the people who live in them choose to be impoverished and drain our country’s resources. That people from these communities want advantages without working for them. The narrative is so obviously false it should defy belief. It’s black Americans whose labor, generation after generation, enriched this country—and who got nothing in return.

The historic achievement represented by the Reparations Ordinance to create the Chicago Torture Justice Center is the first of what I trust will be many new steps: in an internal process, deep physical, emotional, and spiritual healing for individuals, families, and the Englewood community; and of a public process that grows ever more visible, creating pathways to other long-overdue reparations that need to be made.

Express regrets
Remember these events
Reaffirm commitment

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields