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A Mother Confronts Police Torture in Chicago

By Mary L. Johnson

Mary L Johnson speaks to the press after the City Council passes unprecedented reparations legislation for Burge torture survivors. Photo credit: Sarah Jane Rhee

In Chicago, young Black activists have been organizing unapologetically against police violence and to end the criminalization of youth. With Black Youth Project 100 and Fearless Leading by Youth at the helm, thousands of protesters expressed their outrage on the streets of Chicago in the wake of the release of the video showing the execution of seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald by officer Jason Van Dyke.

Chicago’s history of police violence and cover-up is all too familiar for Mary L. Johnson, a pioneer in the struggle against Chicago police torture. She was one of the first people to file a complaint against now disgraced former Commander Jon Burge for allegations of torture and abuse of her son Michael Johnson who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at Menard Correctional Facility. For over forty years, she has been tireless in her efforts seeking justice for her son and all Chicago police torture survivors, death row prisoners, and those confined in Illinois’ supermax prisons. She was a leading voice in Citizens Alert; she took part in monthly visits to Illinois’ death row with the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; worked with the Campaign to Prosecute Police Torture; and most recently, supported the successful campaign for reparations for Burge torture survivors.

A mother, truth-teller, and freedom fighter, Mary L. Johnson shared a deep and powerful account of her life as an activist earlier this year as part of the Black August – Black Women and State Violence series and in conjunction with the Reparations Now exhibit at Uri-Eichen Gallery. We share Mary L. Johnson’s words here.

“Hi warriors,” because that’s what I consider people who are willing to stand up and fight. Wherever there is a struggle I will get in it. Because I feel like if you want justice you got to be willing to fight for peace and peace includes all of us.

That brings to mind Emmet Till. My grandmother had passed away before he was murdered and brutalized, but as a child growing up my grandmother had always told people that she would not let me go south with the others when they went down there. She said, “No, I’m not gonna let her go,” and I thought she was the meanest person for keeping me from traveling. “She gonna go down there and start running her mouth and when they tell her to shut up, my grandmother said, “she’s not gonna shut up, and those white folks will kill her down there.” And I thought that was so cruel of her to talk about all these lovely white folks that I liked so much. And I realized with Emmett Till that’s what she was trying to protect me from ‘cause I always did feel I had a right to speak up and say what was on my mind even though they said children should be seen and not heard.

But the main thing that confused me was I loved white folks. I was raised up to love them along with everyone else that I loved, ‘cause the main three figures in my life were white: Santa Claus, Jesus, and there was “officer friendly.” So, we had been raised to accept and to love these people and where I lived it was what you say “catch all.” Whatever race you were, if you wasn’t accepted by your people, you could come and live amongst us. That’s the way we were in our neighborhood. We loved everybody.

Mary L. Johnson speaks at a teach-in on Burge at City Hall. Photo credit: Sarah Jane Rhee

We had this boundary though that I had never considered because I never saw the signs that said “colored” and “white.” But that was internalized by the elders and they said, “Don’t you go past Wentworth!” I said, Aw, my goodness. Can’t go over there. They was trying to protect us from what they knew was there, but they didn’t know how to explain it to us. They just said “You stay over here and you betta not go over there.” I was grown before I realized this is how they protect us from what they was ashamed to tell us was out there. It was too painful to admit that they feared what was over there. So you “stay here.”

So we was happy with our shacks. We didn’t know that we were even poor ‘cause if you didn’t have any sugar you could go next door and borrow some. Maybe only one family on the block had a phone and they would call you and say: “Mary, you got a phone call!” We shared, that’s what our neighborhood was about.

And it wasn’t until Dr. King started marching and I saw it on television, that was after Emmett Till, that I broke down in tears to see what was happening to human beings that looked like me. And I thought: Why don’t they move to Chicago? We can ride the bus with White folks. If that’s all they wanna do, my goodness, I wouldn’t stay in the South for nothing. Not me. Mm-mm. I realized what my grandmother was talking about now. No, I wouldn’t go down there ‘cause I wouldn’t take that. In my heart, I thought I wouldn’t take that.

I loved white folks because Santa Claus was good to you, but there was a catch to it, only if you was good. They told us if we were bad and didn’t go to sleep on time we wouldn’t get nothing, so he had a lot of power. ‘Cause if you were bad, they told us we was going straight to hell. So we was praying to be good.

I was confused because there was “officer friendly” – he could come in our neighborhoods anytime, drag you out your house, kick the doors down, beat somebody and everybody would peep out the shades. They wouldn’t even let him see you looking, because he was subject to get you too. This is the kind of internalized institutionalized racism that had been fed to us. I didn’t realize it!

But this one man in my life that gave me the greatest love I could get was from my father. His acceptance of me just made me feel like I was all this and a bag of chips. So I felt good about myself growing up, I never thought anyone was any better than me and I hadn’t seen anybody that looked as good as my father, to me. That’s love. I had that. And when I found out my father was really Santa Claus, whoo, what a relief, I said, I don’t have to be perfect, I just continue to be me because I’m gonna get something for Christmas anyway!

So you see these things can be given to you in a way where you don’t even realize that you’re being brainwashed. Everything good, even a lie, if it’s white is better than a black lie. All these little subliminal messages I was given as a child, but it didn’t occur to me the damage that it had really did to me. When Emmett Till was killed I had three babies that time already. My husband was sending me allotment and I felt good. I could go to the store and feed my children. They were never hungry because when I ran out of fresh foods, I just worked on the canned goods. They had plenty and if I saw food get low, I cut down, not them.

But the thing that got me, my son was beat up in the park. He came and told me about the police jumping on him and I saw his face scarred up. And I went and filed a complaint. I learned then that the police don’t only get you when you’re bad, the police can get you when you’re good, and you better not say anything about it.

So by me reporting to the police what they did to my son, they targeted him after that. See that’s the lowdown way they can destroy him, and all of us.

So I was feeling very bad. I started disliking all them white folks that I liked so much. ‘Cause everywhere I went I had to give my story to a white person. I saw all of them as being in charge. And I resented them so til’ I rode the bus and I’d see a white person looking at me and I’d roll my eyes til’ they’d turn their head. I said to myself, Don’t you even look at me, all the stuff you is. But then I came to realize that if I was a person of color and I didn’t realize what was going on why do I think they knew? They had been brainwashed also. They separated us so we wouldn’t know what was happening to one another. I got a lot of white friends, they like me, but they don’t live near me. They march with me and talk to me, but when we go home we part our ways. So that keeps us divided.

So I learned to speak up and talk about what was going on because I was really mad with white folks. Police, Santa Claus, and Jesus. All of them. Because they had hurt my son and it was constantly going on. They told him they was gonna jam him, that’s what they say and they put a case on him; put him in the penitentiary 17 years old. See, everybody in control is people that don’t look like me.

So, I started feeling sorry for myself, but I was driven by my love for my son. I say, I’m gonna expose these son of a guns. If there’s anybody out there with any kind of backbone they gon have to learn, until you overcome your fear you’re not even living.

It’s not a good feeling when you can’t help your young ones. You see the cats how they go after their kittens? Well that’s the way I was. I wasn’t satisfied until all of them was at home. And I got that one that’s still in the penitentiary framed up for something that he didn’t do.

As long as my son’s doing life, I’m a lifer. The whole penitentiary knows he didn’t do that. The guards know he didn’t do it! But guess what? They target him, they thought they was gonna shut my mouth. They say, “We’ll give her something. We’ll send him to Tamms!” He didn’t even have a ticket! He didn’t go because of the fact he was such a bad inmate. They put him there because they knew how powerful he was and the kind of mind that he had. And then another reason they put him there, they knew his mother was still out here running her mouth about justice. Everywhere they ask me to come and speak I do it.

I got an invitation to go to death row and I got in in spite of the rules. I was walking up and down death row. And when they saw me, they said I reminded them of the mother they hadn’t seen in years, I remind them of the sister they left behind. It was such a feeling for me ‘til I couldn’t miss going. I was going every month. I got addicted to it because I saw the good that I was doing for those guys.

I couldn’t help my son, but I could help somebody else’s. I went because I cared. I’m an only child. I don’t have any brothers or sisters and my mother died when I was four. And when I saw those guys they needed me. And people say: “Well, where’s the mother? Where are they parents?” You be they parents!

I realize all the time I was growing up, I was in basic training for what I do now. I’m a foot soldier. I’m the one that make the way for the others to come through. See we’re in battle. We’re in a battle to be fair. I don’t want you feeling sorry for me because I am Black and strong. I want you to have empathy for me. Put yourself in my position. How would you feel if this was your son? How would you feel if they took your child? You know, just like they did during slavery. Take them right out of arms.

They take our sons, they beat them, and what can we do about it? Tell them to stay in the house and don’t go out. That’s not fair. That’s not right. Sympathy, no I don’t need sympathy, but now empathy. Put yourself in my position, how would you feel? When we work together we can do beautiful things.

See it’s sad when our children are out there trying to make a living and the first thing they talking about is them wearing their pants down low. The first time I saw they pants pulled down like that, guess what they was doing. Standing being searched by the police. That’s when I saw they pants down like that! And I lived on the North Side for about 14 years, I have never saw a police searching white kids like that. I have never saw them being humiliated. So how can you know it’s happening to mine if I don’t say something?

I’m still working on my son’s case, but I’m not too busy to try to help other people. I got some news for y’all, y’all gon’ make history with this case and I’m looking for son to come out and he gonna get a chance to dance with his mother again.


Mary L. Johnson shared these words at the “Reparations Now” exhibit at Uri-Eichen Gallery on August 28, 2015. Her talk has been edited for length.