A group of SAIC faculty artists, lawyers, and activists seek to uncover a dark chapter in Chicago and memorialize the victims left behind.
In the early morning hours of November 2, 1983, Darrell Cannon was dragged from his apartment on the South Side of Chicago by a group of Chicago police officers. A member of the notorious El Rukn gang, Cannon was apprehended on suspicion of a gang-related murder. The suspect had been in and out of juvenile detention during his teens, and he spent all of his twenties in prison on a murder rap. He was paroled earlier that year.
Working under the directive of Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, Sergeant John Byrne led the arrest as he threw Cannon into the back of his squad car and drove him to a remote area on the far South Side of Chicago. Police detectives Peter Dignan and Charles Grunhard followed close by. They pulled Cannon out of the car and then they allegedly tortured him. First, they suspended Cannon by his arms, which were handcuffed behind his back while Sergeant Bryne spat invectives into his face: "N*****, you're going to tell us what we want to hear." "N*****, look around—nobody will know anything that will happen to you." Then Detective Dignan grabbed a shotgun, pretended to load it with shells, and shoved it into Cannon's mouth. When Cannon refused to speak, he pulled the trigger. Cannon recalled that they carried out this mock execution three times. On the third time, he felt as if his brains were being blown out—the hair on the back of his head stood up.
Fuming at Cannon's refusal to confess to the crime, the sergeant and detectives then forced their suspect to lie down in the back seat of the car. Dignan pulled down Cannon's pants and underwear while Detective Grunhard held down his hands. Bryne then produced an electric cattle prod and jabbed it into Cannon's genitals over and over again. Cannon caved and said he would tell them anything they wanted to hear. They drove him to the Area 2 police station where he signed a confession.
Ten years earlier Anthony Holmes was arrested on suspicion of murder and taken to Area 2. Jon Burge, the lead detective who had just returned home after serving in Vietnam, took Holmes into the interrogation room and subjected him to racial epithets and threats. The suspect did not concede. Burge then pulled out a black box with a crank and wires snaking from it—a medieval torture device made for the modern age. He attached the wires to Holmes's hands and legs and covered his head with a plastic bag, suffocating him and shocking him until he passed out several times. Holmes later testified that he didn't know if it was daytime or nighttime. At Burge's trial Holmes said, "He just kept shocking me. When he took the bag off my head I said I'd say what he wanted me to say."
Anthony Holmes and Darrell Cannon were not the only ones. From 1972 to 1991 more than 110 African American men were allegedly tortured in Chicago's Area 2 district under Jon Burge's command. Many of the victims signed coerced confessions that led to years and years of prison terms. In 2006 Anthony Holmes was exonerated and freed after serving 33.5 years in prison for a crime he never committed. In 2007 Darrell Cannon was pardoned after serving 24 years in prison, nine of those in an isolated cell in Tamms Supermax prison in southern Illinois.
Jon Burge on the other hand was fired by the Chicago Police Department in 1993 and given a full pension. In 2008 Holmes and four other torture victims filed a civil suit against Burge, and in 2010 Burge was convicted on obstruction of justice and perjury. He was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in federal prison. All other police officers involved in the torture cases have been acquitted or cleared of any wrongdoing, and the City of Chicago has gone out of its way to suppress this history.
The determined group of educators, activists, community organizers, artists, and lawyers behind the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project (CTJM) intends to keep this history alive and present. By inviting artists and justice seekers to submit proposals for speculative ways to memorialize the torture cases, the CTJM team wants to honor the individuals, families, and communities affected by torture, as well as address the obstruction of justice that has occurred in the aftermath. A. Laurie Palmer, a CTJM organizer, artist, and former Professor of Sculpture at SAIC, says, "It's basically unfinished business. We want to bring greater justice for the people who were tortured and find some way to bring them greater reparations."
Spurred by lawyers from the People's Law Office in Chicago who represented a number of the victims, the CTJM group was tasked to tackle a legislative issue in an artistic way. Many of the lawyers felt that it was difficult to get justice as they envisioned it through the legal system. So they wanted artists and organizers to come together to imagine what justice and reparations could look like. "That was really inspiring to me as an artist," says Ellen Rothenberg, a CTJM organizer and Adjunct Professor of Writing and Fiber and Material Studies at SAIC. "I always think of the legal system as a place where you are going to get results. But this is a reversal where the lawyers said, 'We need you to present what possibilities could lie ahead.'"
Over the past four years the CTJM organizers discussed those possibilities through workshops, charrettes, roundtables with the survivors, and various creative activism events—exploring ways in which art could be used to memorialize the torture survivors' experiences and the struggle for justice. According to Rothenberg, these discussions have been the most exciting part of the project. "It's not an easy subject, and it's not something that is containable or definable," she says. "As soon as you try to narrow this subject down, it defeats you and you have to open it up again. There is no singular answer…so we are looking to include as many people as we can in addressing this history."
In 2011 CTJM issued a call for proposals for a proposed monument of any form—"from architecture to haiku, website to mural, community organization to performance, bronze plaque to large-scale memorial." More than 75 proposals were submitted from around the world. Some were more familiar: architectural memorials and public sculptures. Many revolved around educational opportunities: course syllabi and police workshops on sensitivity training. While others, such as sound installations, spoke to the sensory elements and visceral experiences associated with torture.
In the fall of 2012, these proposals were featured in SAIC's Sullivan Galleries in an exhibition titled Opening the Black Box: The Charge is Torture. As a contemporary merging of art and politics, the exhibition/collective memorial brought forward the history of torture and inspired ideas for reparations for the torture survivors. CTJM organizer Alice Kim says, "We want to urge Chicagoans and people all over the world to consider what happened here but in ways they hadn't considered before. Even the name, Opening the Black Box, refers to opening up this history and using the arts to do that."
But the exhibition is by no means an end, says Palmer. "The very idea of an end is a problem. The torture happened and that history is unresolvable. But at the same time we want to make memorials that will continue the memory and keep it alive for the people who were hurt and for those who are hurt knowing that it happened."
Darrell Cannon, Anthony Holmes, and the other torture survivors will never forget what Jon Burge and his Area 2 police officers did to them. They will always remember the mock executions, beatings, suffocation, cigarette and radiator burns, cattle prods, stun guns, and the black box. During a CTJM workshop, Cannon tearfully and stoically described his experience and how it affected his life. Choking up and clenching his jaw, he said, "I felt anger, frustration, embarrassment, and all of those things exist in me today. It hasn't changed." Then he added, "But I'm still here, I'm still kicking, I'm still a thorn in Chicago's side, and I'll continue to be just that."