What is Owed

Reparations in Chicago

Aislinn Pulley

Slavery was torture. Reparations for police torture in Chicago are a key part of building the larger reparations movement.


Okah Tubbee, a part-Choctaw, part African teenager enslaved in Natchez, remembered his first time under “what they call in the South, the overseer’s whip.” Tubbee stood up for the first few blood-cutting strokes, but then he fell down and passed out. He woke up vomiting. They were still beating him. He slipped into darkness again. 

—Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told

Slavery, in its essence and application, was a form of torture. We don’t conceptualize it in that way. We don’t use that language when we discuss slavery, when we talk about the consequences, the violence that was a necessary component to force a kidnapped people in bondage to work for free. That’s exactly what it was. 

Edward Baptist writes in The Half Has Never Been Told that even the radical abolitionist movement that helped provoke the Civil War did not name lashings “torture.” 

Perhaps one unspoken reason why many have been so reluctant to apply the term “torture” to slavery is that even though they denied slavery’s economic dynamism, they knew that slavery on the cotton frontier made a lot of product. No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture. 

Baptist, Half Has Never Been Told, 139

There is a collective understanding of the Trail of Tears as an example of how horrific the genocidal colonial project of “settling the West” was. However, there is a counterpart that is often left untold. From about 1831 to 1840, the United States government compelled over 60,000 Native Americans to move from ancestral homelands in the Southeast to areas west of the Mississippi River designated as “Indian Territory.” A variety of promises of greater wealth, some spawned by the 1828 Georgia gold rush, led new residents to occupy and “settle” these homelands. Thousands of Native people died during this forced migration. 

Less popularly known is that over the course of eighty years, approximately 1 million Africans held in bondage were also forcibly moved from the east to the west. Baptist writes, “There are 1,760 yards in a mile—more than 2,000 steps. Forty thousand is a long day’s journey. Two hundred thousand is a hard week. For eighty years, from the 1780s until 1865, enslaved migrants walked for miles, days, and weeks.”

The promises of historic profits rested on unpaid labor in cotton production, which in turn funded and made possible the industrial revolution and global capitalism. Yet we do not have a name for this forced migration in which thousands also perished, or marched with steel and iron shackles on legs, arms, and necks, forced to defecate and urinate in groups, whipped, and separated from families and loved ones.

It is past time to recognize the full horrors of slavery because the profits they sowed remain the foundation of US capitalism, and the system still relies on vicious violent repression. Chicago’s landmark 2015 police torture reparations bill provides an example of what reparations for the transatlantic slave trade could look like.

Racism and Policing in Chicago: Torture Today

On May 6th, 2015, Chicago became the first city in this country to win reparations for survivors of police torture. Former Chicago police commander Jon Burge and other detectives tortured—by the accounts that we have—at least 120 people, primarily Black men and boys. We know the full number is much larger than that. We also know that women were among those who were tortured. We know that gender violence is invisibilized and erased, how people who come forward often struggle with a multitude of levels of oppression that contribute to their silence. So the number of women survivors is still being discovered. 

Burge and his torture ring began terrorizing the South Side in the early 1970s. Burge was a soldier in the Vietnam War and the Korean conflict. He learned and implemented torture techniques in Vietnam. One of the techniques he used was a black box that Burge and his cronies called the “nigger box.” The box contained a crank connected to wires that were used often on people’s genitals and other body parts to electroshock them. There is a survivor who helped lead the work to get the reparations ordinance passed whose doctor asked him how many heart attacks he experienced. When he said “none,” the doctor told him that the condition of his heart emulated a person who had experienced five heart attacks. So the consequences of this violence on people’s bodies is immense and we are still learning the full breadth of what that means in survivors’ lives.

Burge led the torture, which is a key thing to remember. It means, of course, that there were other individuals who were complicit. The crew that he famously toured around the South and West Sides with was known as the “Midnight Crew.” They tortured many others. There is a fallacy that is convenient for the powers-that-be that torture somehow ended with Burge. That when Burge was fired, when Burge was convicted of perjury because the statute of limitations on torture had expired, that somehow this shameful period had ended. We know that is not true. We know that Burge is one person and there are others who are engaged in equally violent and abusive methods of human rights violations, and these acts are often racialized to excuse them. All of these other officers who have never been convicted or held accountable are either still on the force or have retired and collect their pensions. The city is still defending Peter Dignan and John Byrne against charges for torturing Stanley Wrice and robbing him of three decades spent in prison. 

We know that Homan Square sits out in the open today on Chicago’s West Side, and we know, per the Guardian’s coverage, that between the years of 2004 and 2014 at least seven thousand people were disappeared or held incommunicado there. One of the two cops who was recently cleared in the killing of Joshua Beal in Mount Greenwood, was coming from Homan Square. The brutality that still exists within CPD stretches far wider than just one person and we still need to fight for the complete abolition of the Chicago Police Department.

Chicago passed the country’s first reparations package for survivors of police torture. This victory took decades of struggle to realize. What made it particularly special was that it included monetary compensation but also included other key elements. These included mandatory teaching about the torture ring in Chicago Public Schools, free access to the City Colleges for torture survivors and their family members, and the creation of a public memorial so that the systematic invisibilization of institutional violence cannot continue. That provision has yet to be fulfilled. 

Lastly, it facilitated the creation of a therapeutic center on the South Side so that survivors could go to the center to restore their health after the psychological and social consequences of the torture. That is what birthed the Chicago Torture Justice Center, of which I am the co-director. Those provisions in and of themselves are extraordinary, and there is nothing to prevent the use of that template from being replicated across the country by survivors of other forms of police violence, police terror, and police torture. This includes survivors of police violence and police terror here in Chicago who are not yet covered under this specific ordinance. We are in talks about ongoing repartions because we know many other people have experienced and survived torture at the hands of CPD and will continue to do so. 

This is a model that shows that once we expand our thinking beyond the confines of what currently exists, beyond the current power structure. We can begin to imagine, and transform imagination into real concrete wins for our people. 

Part of how the reparations ordinance came to be was because of the extreme dissatisfaction that survivors, attorneys, and family members felt once Burge was finally convicted by our court system and was given a paltry four and a half years for lying under oath. People felt like that was worse than a slap in the face. Burge was portrayed as the sole perpetrator and his conviction was considered a symbolic justice which was received as woefully inadequate for the hundreds who survived and the many who did not. 

We can begin to imagine, and transform imagination into real concrete wins for our people.

Out of that came a 2012 speculative memorial exhibit by the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials at the School of the Art Insititute’s Sullivan Gallery, which imagined what reparations would look like. In that exhibit Joey Mogul, who works with Flint Taylor at the People’s Law Office, inspired by Standish Willis, another attorney who is also a member of Black People Against Torture, imagined up the reparations ordinance. She initially thought: This is just a dream, this will never pass, it is just a fantastical thing that I will submit as part of this exhibition in exploring and imagining and removing the boundaries on what we think is possible. She suggested it and everyone loved it and rallied around it and said let’s actually do this. So people began organizing and the Chicago Torture Justice memorial began organizing to get the ordinance passed through City Hall.

Then, uprisings, a new iteration of the Black freedom movement, began to gain new ground around the country. We had Ferguson and Baltimore. We had the Movement for Black Lives increasing its demands and increasing its presence in the streets of Chicago. We had We Charge Genocide, which I was a part of. We had a historic resurgence of momentum that we had not seen in decades. Within that context the then mayor Rahm Emanuel was also facing a tough reelection. Police video of Laquan McDonald’s murder was finally released after a lawsuit forced the city to do so, creating a political crisis for Rahm Emanuel, who was forced into the city’s first runoff in a mayoral race in 48 years. 

Through the brilliance of many like Mariame Kaba, who recognized the unique weakness of Emanuel, we organized to get the reparations ordinance passed, which had up to that point been stalled in committee for over a year. The movement carried out a targeted campaign with daily actions, train takeovers, zines, teach-ins, multiple pushes, propaganda campaigns to educate the public. And we won.

Reparations and Revolution

Chicago’s reparations ordinance provides a valuable example for contemplating what holistic reparations for the torture of slavery could look like for millions of us who are descendants, as well as for the millions for who inherited slavery’s legacy of wealth and systemic benefits. The magnitude of the slavocracy necessitates an equally far-reaching, systemic repair that takes account of impact ranging over generations. Like the Chicago reparations ordinance, reparations for slavery must be expansive, including the many elements of life affected, and engineered out of both its immense profits as well as its immense, horrendous brutality. 

I want to underscore the element of education. The US college system was funded by slavery. As Craig Stephen Wilder, author Ebony and Ivy: Race Slavery and the Troubled History of American Universities was quoted:

The story of the American college is largely the story of the rise of the slave economy in the Atlantic world. . .Yale inherited a slave plantation in Rhode Island that it used to fund its first graduate programs and its first scholarships. It is indisputable that the American college system, both public and private have direct links to the economic spoils of the slave system as well as the use of free labor forced out of the human bondage of millions of people of African descent.

So at minimum, one of the things that is without a doubt a right for every descendant of the transatlantic slave trade is free access to every educational institution in this country. But it’s hard to separate out any institution that has not been impacted by the massive profits of slavery.

In order to seriously talk about reparations, we have to talk about the destruction of US capitalism.

In order to seriously talk about reparations, we have to talk about the destruction of US capitalism—at its core a system that was funded on the proceeds of blood, sweat, human lives, and the futures of descendants of the transatlantic slave trade. So when I think about reparations I think about reparations after revolution. 

The violent nature of capitalism, from its origins forward, has led humanity to face becoming the first species we know of who may render itself extinct. As we move closer and closer to a world less inhabitable, it becomes more and more necessary to end the system that necessitates such destruction, while working toward new ones that honor, value, and nurture all life. This means that we must be willing to interrogate reparatory responsibility, while also imagining what reparations will look like on the other side of revolution. 

The Chicago reparations ordinance can serve as a lesson that the consequences of torture are life-long and generational, affect us individually and communally, and therefore our reparatory responsibility must be as vast, as long-lasting, and as intentional as the harm from which the torture sprung. 


The only part of the reparations ordinance that has yet to be enacted by the City of Chicago is the creation of a public memorial honoring the survivors of police torture. Sign this petition to help pressure the city to build the Burge Torture Justice Memorial. Black history is American history.

Aislinn Pulley is an executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, founded out of the historic 2015 reparations ordinance for survivors of Chicago police torture. Aislinn is also a lead organizer with Black Lives Matter Chicago. She was an organizer with We Charge Genocide, a founding member of Insight Arts and a member of the performance ensemble, End of the Ladder. She is a founder of the young women’s performance ensemble dedicated to ending sexual assault, Visibility Now, as well as the founder and creator of the urban youth magazine, Underground Philosophy.