This article appears in the May 2015 of our magazine.
You don’t put a shotgun in a man’s mouth and split his upper lip and chip his two teeth unless you’ve been doing it for a while,” Darrell Cannon says to a small group gathered for a teach-in at the Poetry Foundation in downtown Chicago. “You don’t use the electric cattle prod on a man unless you’ve been doing it for a while. These things that I just described are things that were done to me.”
Next to him, young poets Kristiana Colón, Britteney Black Rose Kapri, and Malcolm London (all three recently published in the groundbreaking anthology The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop) sit with downcast eyes. We’ve just watched a documentary about police violence in Chicago. The grainy footage is more than twenty years old, but the film could have been made yesterday.
The End of the Nightstick memorializes the victims of former Chicago Police commander Jon Burge and chronicles the quest to bring him to justice. Between 1972 and 1991, Burge and detectives under his leadership tortured more than 100 black men and women, including Cannon. Burge used a hand-cranked generator and other devices to electrocute victims on the ears, fingers, legs, and genitals. To extract confessions, Burge and his men also suffocated suspects with plastic bags, beat them, and staged mock executions.
Prosecutors used the extracted confessions to convict the victims, and, in some cases, send them to death row for murders they did not commit. Cannon spent twenty-four-and-a-half years in prison as a result of the false confession tortured out of him by three detectives in November 1983.
Burge was acquitted of torture charges in 1989, but was eventually fired from his job and found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice. He served less than four years in prison. He now lives in Florida and continues to receive his police pension. In Chicago, activism in response to his crimes persists. Poets gathered for this teach-in on the eve of the City Council’s historic hearing on a reparations ordinance for Burge’s victims.
Police brutality did not start or end with Burge, and in communities of color there is a long history of organized protests and creative responses to this phenomenon.
Kapri, Colón, and London join the ranks of Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, and many other writers of color who have channeled their painful personal experiences and observations of state-sanctioned violence into poetry and protest.
“Organizing for me is an antidepressant,” says London, who co-chairs the Chicago chapter of Black Youth Project 100 and performs his poetry nationwide. “Today, what is hopeful is that more and more people are starting to see that the prosecution of one officer or the indictment of one officer or winning a civil case by a couple folks is not the kind of justice that we want to see.”
Colón, who is much newer to activism than London, tells the audience that seeing the film “was pretty traumatic.” A poet and playwright, she was moved to organize after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer. “It’s overwhelming to see that before I was even born, the same protest chants that I’m leading downtown have been shouted at the same line of police,” she says.
Colón and Kapri are founders of the #LetUsBreathe Collective.
“It started with a night of me being really depressed as I watched the social media response and coverage of not just Mike Brown’s shooting but the brutality that followed in response to the protests,” explains Colón. “On that night, all I wanted to do is just to drive to Ferguson and stand in front of the police department and shout at it.”
Instead, she and Kapri launched a fundraiser to bring gas masks and medical supplies to the protesters in Ferguson. “That decision has drastically reshaped my life,” says Colón. The group quickly exceeded its goal with more than $10,000 in donations, and spent weeks organizing caravans of supplies to protesters in the town.
“Organizing and protesting and activism is a better way to respond to the horrors that I see,” says Kapri, who also works at Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School located inside Cook County’s Juvenile Detention Center. She says that while many of her colleagues become depressed, she turns to writing to cope. “Writing is a way to organize myself,” she says.
Kapri is from the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago and describes growing up in a dual world.
“My mom’s a teacher, my stepdad’s a lawyer, and my grandma is a former alderman,” she says. “On the other side of my family is a bunch of ex-gangbangers and current gangbangers.”
Her brother attended several schools since closed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, she says.
“My uncles, their houses have been bulldozed,” she adds. “They live in communities where there are no mental health facilities and the only thing you have is a liquor store and a church. And if Jesus isn’t going to do it for you, then the bottle will.”
Last May, London’s twenty-three-year-old friend Dominique Franklin stole a bottle of vodka from a Walgreens store. After arresting and handcuffing Franklin, police tasered him with such intensity that he slammed his head into a light pole and died soon thereafter. In response, London and a grassroots campaign called We Charge Genocide traveled all the way to Geneva to present Franklin’s story to the U.N. Committee Against Torture.
When news first breaks about a person of color killed or injured by police, it is often in the form of a justification, London says. Stories emerge about the victim’s criminal background, along with unflattering photographs: “If I got killed today, you probably would hear that when I was twelve, I stole a candy bar from a store.”
In a stirring poem called “No Matter What, LIFE,” dedicated to Franklin, London recites: “You weren’t an honors student, an upstanding citizen. You were stealing alcohol when you got tazed. You can’t win any medals with the track record you have. You’ve hurt people. But you didn’t dig your own grave.”
The work of We Charge Genocide has attracted considerable media attention. The group continues to speak to audiences about Franklin’s death and police brutality.
Meanwhile, Colón’s work is now empowering young activists from Ferguson who call themselves Lost Voices to speak out about their experiences with police violence. She has brought theater advisers to Ferguson to help Lost Voices create a live performance piece, “so that they could really be in control of their own narrative.”
Lost Voices has traveled to two college campuses, and Colón continues to help the group fine-tune its program and outreach.
“We have invented a new genre of performance that hybridizes protest, theater, storytelling and video,” she says. The goal is to help young people extend their message from the street into the educational sphere.
She hopes this performance piece will “shatter the idea of respectability politics, because [the activists] don’t look like Cornel West, they don’t look like Tavis Smiley, they don’t look like folks from the NAACP, and I think that those are the people and the voices that need to be uplifted.”
On April 14, the morning after the teach-in, Cannon, members of We Charge Genocide, #LetUsBreathe Collective, and hundreds of others gathered at City Hall for the hearing on the reparations ordinance. Cannon and fellow survivor Anthony Holmes, at times fighting back tears, gave chilling testimonies of the mistreatment they endured.
The City Council was expected to approve the ordinance in May. It would be the first reparations measure created by any American municipality for victims of police violence. In addition to a formal apology from city leadership, the historic ordinance provides $5.5 million to the victims, will build a South Side counseling center geared to their needs, creates a mandatory curriculum on police torture in Chicago public schools, and provides free tuition at city colleges to survivors and their families. The city will also build a memorial to Burge’s victims.
In Darrell Cannon’s words, “From there, God willing, justice will prevail.”
Maya Dukmasova is a writer and photographer based in Chicago who writes about issues affecting low-income communities and people of color. Her work has appeared in Jacobin, the Chicago Reader, Harper’s, and In These Times. She can be contacted via Twitter @mdoukmas.