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Opening the Black Box: Reparations and the Power of Radical Imagination

By Alice Kim

Last week, the city of Chicago made history when the City Council unanimously voted to pass a reparations package for Chicago Police torture survivors, specifically a group of African American men who were tortured by former Commander Jon Burge and detectives under his command. The culmination of decades of struggle against Burge torture and a more recent #RahmRepNow campaign led by Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM), Amnesty International, Project NIA, and We Charge Genocide, this marks the first time in the United States that a municipality will provide reparations to African Americans in response to police violence.

 The package was based on the Reparations Ordinance introduced to the City Council in October 2013 by Aldermen Joe Moreno and Howard Brookins. One year before this, the ordinance had made its first public appearance on the walls of an exhibit called “Opening the Black Box: The Charge is Torture.” Curated by CTJM, a collective of artists, educators, activists and attorneys, this exhibit illustrated the power of art as a call to action.

 “Artists are here to disturb the peace,” James Baldwin said. And that was the intent of our collective. Preceding the exhibit, we put out a call for proposals asking justice seekers to unleash their radical imaginations and create speculative monuments that memorialized the brutal history of Burge torture and the struggle against it. Our call for proposals was not a juried contest, instead we promised to showcase all proposals received in an art exhibit or a dedicated website. Over 70 artists from around the world responded with submissions, and one year after we put out our call for proposals, we produced the “Opening the Black Box” exhibit at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Sullivan Gallery.

The Reparations Ordinance in “Opening the Black Box.” Photo credit: CTJM

Alongside proposed memorials ranging from architecture to photography, sound installation and mural, haiku and community action, the Reparations Ordinance, authored by CTJM co-founder and attorney Joey Mogul with input from the group and community, was initially introduced to the public as a speculative memorial. The idea of reparations as a possible response to Burge torture can be traced back to attorney Standish Willis, founder of Black People Against Torture. We embraced the idea of reparations, and as we discussed the possible tenets of a Reparations Ordinance we dared to dream: financial compensation, a torture trauma center on the South Side of Chicago, a public memorial, free education in the City Colleges, a history lesson in the Chicago Public Schools about Burge torture, and an official apology by the city. Modeled on a restorative justice human rights framework, the ordinance took inspiration from other examples of reparations in Chile and Argentina.

“Opening the Black Box” represented the beginning of what would later become a full-fledged campaign for reparations. Without knowing whether or not the city would ever enact reparations, we displayed the ordinance with every intention to actualize it. “We want to bring greater justice for the people who were tortured and find some way to bring them greater reparations,” said CTJM member and artist Laurie Palmer when the exhibit opened.

Torture survivor Darrell Cannon wearing the CTJM t-shirt. Photo credit: Bronte Price

What has become the emblem of our local reparations movement – the Chicago flag with a fifth black star added to the existing four stars – was also first exhibited in “Opening the Black Box.” Each of the four stars on the official Chicago flag symbolizes an historical event in our city’s history. The first star represents Fort Dearborn, a fort that was built by the Chicago River in 1803; the second star stands for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; the third star symbolizes the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893; and the fourth star represents the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933-34. With our call for speculative monuments, artist and CTJM member Carla Mayer imagined adding a fifth star to the flag to represent the decades long history of Burge torture from 1971-1992. This re-imagining of the Chicago flag with a fifth black star has since been emblazoned on hundreds of t-shirts worn by Chicagoans at countless actions supporting reparations.

Because there is power in naming, the exhibit featured a wall listing the names of all 119 known survivors hand-stenciled in graphite pencil and “Unknown” as a reminder that it was impossible to know the extent of Burge torture. Acknowledging the names of the survivors was one way to recognize their individual and collective pain. Behind every single name is a person whose life was ravaged by torture. Collectively, these names represent the systematic torture that was allowed to take place in Chicago.

The wall of names. Photo credit: CTJM

We intentionally left blank spaces for torture survivors who were living, no longer incarcerated, and willing and able to come to the exhibit to sign their own names on the wall. Four torture survivors – Darrell Cannon, Mark Clements, Anthony Holmes, Marvin Reeves and– joined us on opening night and subsequent exhibit events to sign their names. Each individual act of signing felt liberatory, symbolic of a process of remembering and renewal. As torture survivor Marvin Reeves said, “When I signed my name on that wall, that wall meant freedom.”

Torture survivor Marvin Reeves signs his name to the wall. Photo credit: CTJM

“Opening the Black Box” contained power that I hadn’t fully realized when we embarked on this project. As we invited the public to join us for artist led-tours, a film festival about torture, a Writers Against Torture reading, and to meet some of the survivors in person to hear their stories, the exhibit became a space of struggle, restoration, and healing – a powerful memorial in and of itself. By asking the public to consider radical possibilities with our call for speculative memorials, “Opening the Black Box” presented a challenge for all of us to imagine new forms of what justice could like. As Black lives are being taken by police in city after city, the nation is in desperate need of new responses to the crisis of police violence. Thanks to a bold, intergenerational, multi-racial movement, reparations are one vision that we have been able to bring to fruition.

Much love and gratitude to the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials collective; all of the artists who submitted their speculative proposals; our partners – Amnesty International, Project NIA, We Charge Genocide – who helped lead the #RahmRepNow campaign for #ReparationsNow; and all who supported reparations by showing up, speaking out, donating, art-making, tweeting-teaching-and learning about Burge torture, and caring enough to act.

Read more about reparations for Burge torture survivors:

Lawyer for Chicago Torture Victims: A Model for Responding to Police Brutality by Joey Mogul
Chicago Reparations for Police Torture Victims Offer a Glimpse of the Power of #BlackLivesMatter
by Kirsten West Savali
Police Torture, Reparations and Echoes from the House of Screams
by Mariame Kaba
Chicago Creates Reparations Fund for Victims of Police Torture
by David Schaper
#TeachBurge
is a site created by Project NIA and CTJM with links to resources, articles, and curriculum about the history of Burge torture and the struggle against it.


Alice Kim is the Editor of Praxis Center and a founding member of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials.