During a time when President Barack Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake referred to disenfranchised Baltimore youths as “thugs” for failing to politely revolt against police brutality, Chicago has publicly condemned the real thugs in a police department that has abused its power with impunity for decades.
In an unprecedented move, Chicago’s City Council unanimously passed a reparations package (pdf) on Wednesday that includes a $5.5 million fund for African Americans who were tortured in police custody under the misleadership of former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge. Between the years 1972 and 1991, an estimated 120 black men were brutalized. According to Amnesty International, they endured “electric shocks to the genitals and other body parts, suffocation, mock executions and beatings—all of which often accompanied by racial slurs, hurled by all white detectives.”
“Chicago has taken a historic step to show the country, and the world, that there should be no expiration date on reparations for crimes as heinous as torture,” said Steven W. Hawkins, Amnesty International USA’s executive director. “Passing this ordinance will not only give long-overdue reparations to survivors; it will help set a precedent of U.S. authorities taking concrete measures to hold torturers accountable.”
The ordinance’s successful passage is a direct result of years of hard work by community leaders and activists, and their mission’s reach has recently been amplified by such grassroots organizations as Black Lives Matter: Chicago. This development may not be due solely to the marches and protests happening around the country in response to unchecked police violence, but one can easily argue that it would not have happened at this pivotal moment in our nation’s history without them.
“The passage of Burge torture-reparations legislation in Chicago this Wednesday is owed to decades of previous organizing and a recent concerted, strategic six-month intergenerational and interracial campaign led by four main groups: Amnesty International, CTJM, Project NIA and We Charge Genocide,” said Mariame Kaba, director of Project NIA and a member of We Charge Genocide. “A number of factors led to the successful outcome, including a hotly contested mayoral election, a strategic focus on both inside and outside organizing, and a climate of protest sparked this August by the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson[, Mo.].
“The national #BlackLivesMatter protests lent urgency to a struggle that has been decades in the making,” she continued. “Most specifically, those protests galvanized a new generation of activists to join the #RahmRepNow #ReparationsNow campaign and to engage in the struggle alongside veteran organizers.”
In addition to a formal apology, each person eligible for reparations could receive up to $100,000 in compensation, as well as counseling services to deal with the post-traumatic stress that their abuse left behind. Some of the men were in attendance at the council meeting, and as their names were called, they and their families stood to a standing ovation. While a round of applause for surviving state-sanctioned torture is not progress by any definition of the word, accolades and money aren’t the extent of the reparations ordinance.
Chicago public schools will also be required to incorporate the police-brutality cases into history classes, survivors will be offered free enrollment at Chicago city colleges, and a public monument will be created for the survivors. The whitewashing of U.S. history and disparities in educational opportunities have played huge roles in sustaining white supremacy and pathologizing African-American communities. This reparations ordinance is a solid step toward rectifying that.
“There is no amount of money that we’re gonna pay that will totally heal or close the book,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose relationship with African-American Chicagoans has been fraught with tension. “But it is about a culture of accountability and to be accountable for a wrong. I’m hoping that this stain is removed. I’m hoping other cities see that when there’s a mistake, you can do it.”
The announcement from Chicago comes on the heels of Newark, N.J., Mayor Ras Baraka’s announcement of the creation of the city’s first-ever citizen complaint review board, an 11-member panel that will oversee a police department known for brutalizing citizens and violating their constitutional rights.
“We’re here because people get shot in the back eight times while they’re running away from the police,” Baraka said. “We’re here because people can be choked to death on the street while saying that they can’t breathe. We’re here because people can get their spines severed and their throats crushed in custody and we still have a question about what actually took place. That’s why we’re here.”
Yes, it certainly is.
Chicago’s reparations ordinance is something that social-justice activists and community leaders have been working tirelessly toward since 2013, and its passage is a testament to their perseverance and unwavering resolve.
Baraka initially announced the creation of the civilian review board back in January in response to the culmination of a three-year investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into “systemic misconduct” within the Newark Police Department.
What cannot be denied, however, is the power of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and how it has influenced this moment. It has ignited a fire that has set the country ablaze with its relentless quest for justice, having an impact on cities from Chicago to Newark.
That, in the words of Baraka, is “why we’re here.”
Despite the condescending censure of some in power, the strategic uprising led by grassroots organizations such as Baltimore United for Change, Dream Defenders, Hands Up United and the Black Youth Project has galvanized a nation. We have seen around the country—from North Charleston, S.C., and the extrajudicial killing of Walter Scott to Madison, Wis., and the police killing of 19-year-old Tony Robinson—that cities and police departments are desperate not to be seen as “another Ferguson” and are proactively working to avoid that characterization.
The voices of the marginalized have been heard despite blatant efforts to silence them and soften messages written in despair and rage that span generations. They have set a powerful precedent and have shown the world what happens when black people in solidarity demand—not ask nicely or beg tearfully, but demand—justice for our people.
Policy is being written, curricula are being expanded and local governments are being forced to react right now because of young people who refuse to sit down and be quiet, instead choosing to pick up the baton of movement leaders before them and run with it. And with the dawning of #BlackSpring, a justice movement patterned after the revolutionary #ArabSpring, this is just the beginning. We see that in the uprising of Ethiopian Jews in Israel who are fighting against oppressive police brutality under the battle cry of “Black lives matter.”
This week in Chicago, #ReparationsWon. In Newark last week, a system that demands police accountability was set in motion. Both of these wins, on different levels, provide a glimpse into what this movement has the power to do around the country and the world.
A change is not just gon’ come; it’s already here.