Chicago Officials to Use $6.8M Grant to Build 8 New Monuments, Including Memorial to Torture Survivors

Chicago officials will use a $6.8 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to build eight new public monuments, including a monument to the more than 100 Black men who were tortured by Chicago Police officers trained by Jon Burge, a disgraced Chicago police commander, Mayor Brandon Johnson announced Monday.

Chicago agreed in May 2015 to build the memorial as part of a package of reparations that included payments of $5.5 million to 118 people — many of them innocent, most of them African American men — who were beaten, electrocuted or suffocated with plastic bags by Burge and his subordinates. The city also agreed to teach Chicago students in 8th and 10th grades about one of the darkest chapters in Chicago Police Department history.

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In addition to $1.8 million from the Mellon Foundation, the city will set aside $1 million in public funds to ensure the memorial is finally built, more than eight years after it was promised, Johnson said at a celebration timed to coincide with this year’s Juneteenth celebration.

“We are doubling down on our efforts to ensure that justice is realized in the city of Chicago and around the country,” Johnson said, adding that the new monuments are designed to tell the “collective story of our people.”

The city has already earmarked $250,000 for the memorial and will donate the South Side land it will sit on, Johnson said. The memorial designed by Patricia Nguyen and John Lee, “Breath, Form & Freedom,” will include the names of the torture survivors, a timeline of events in the Burge case and a landscaped courtyard. That design was selected in June 2019.

“We refuse to take no for an answer,” said Joey Mogul, a founding member of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials that formed in 2010 to fight for justice on behalf of Burge torture survivors. “We are building this monument.”

Burge led a group of rogue cops known as the “midnight crew” in torturing suspects to get them to confess to crimes from 1972 to 1991.

Fired by the Chicago Police Department in 1993, Burge was convicted of perjury in 2010. Released from prison in 2014, Burge died four years later at the age of 70. He never faced criminal charges related to his time as an officer, and collected a pension from the city of Chicago until the day he died. Chicago taxpayers have already paid approximately $115 million in lawsuit settlements and judgments related to Burge and those under his command.

The Chicago Torture Justice Memorial will serve as a reminder of the “tremendous harm” done not just to “a generation but generations of people” by the “brutality of police,” Johnson said. The memorial will help Chicago heal those wounds, he added.

“It is important that we capture that history in a physical way,” Johnson said, noting that the first people to accuse Burge of torturing them were not believed. “The impact that it is going to have — it is not only educating a generation of how these systems fail and harm people, but we also have the ability to tell our stories with our art. See, when oppressors look to dominate people, they go after their history, their art and their culture. We’re not going to do that in Chicago.”

The seven other memorials to be funded by the grant from the Mellon Foundation will recognize “events, people and groups that historically have been excluded or underrepresented,” according to a statement from the mayor’s office.

The planned new monuments are:

  • The George Washington Monument Intervention, by Chicago artist Amanda Williams 
  • A Long Walk Home, a monument to missing and murdered Black girls and young women, including Rekia Boyd
  • A monument honoring Mother Jones’ contribution to the organized labor movement
  • A monument honoring Mahalia Jackson by artist Gerald Griffin from the Greater Chatham Initiative
  • A monument to Latinas in Pilsen by artist Diana Solis from the University of Illinois
  • A monument recognizing the Chicago Race Riots of 1919 Commemoration Project, from the Firebird Community Arts’ Project FIRE
  • A series of monuments that explore the settling of Chicago by Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable and the Native Americans who aided him, including his wife, Kitihawa.

Those monuments grew out of the work of the Chicago Monuments Commission, formed by then Mayor Lori Lightfoot in the wake of the social justice protests and unrest that erupted after the police murder of George Floyd in June 2020. 

The commission was designed to “provide a vehicle to address the hard truths of Chicago’s racial history” and detail how the city could “memorialize Chicago’s true and complete history.”

Chicago has few public monuments dedicated to women or people of color, and Lightfoot has said that imbalance should be corrected.

After working for more than two years, the commission recommended that 13 monuments be removed, including the city’s three statues of Christopher Columbus. Those three statues were removed in July 2020 after a protest turned violent, angering members of Chicago’s Italian American community. The city is facing two lawsuits over the issue.

The commission in February 2021 flagged 41 public monuments as problematic, including two statues of former President George Washington. Williams will create a work of art called “Other Washingtons” to transform one of those statues, which has often been vandalized, said Erin Harkey, the commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

“Washington is the blackest name in the country,” Harkey said, referring to Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington.

Chicago’s Black community has reclaimed that name for its own, despite the fact that Washington enslaved Black Americans, Harkey said.

Williams, an artist, planted 100,000 red tulip bulbs around the intersection of 53rd Street and Prairie Avenue as part of an art installation about Chicago’s history of redlining.

Lightfoot vowed to return the statues to their pedestals in Grant Park, Arrigo Park and on the Southeast Side, but left office in May before taking any action. Lightfoot also declined to endorse the removal of any other statues or plaques, including the Italo Balbo monument as well as several monuments because of the way they depict Native Americans.

Johnson stopped well short of calling for the monuments deemed racist by the commission to be removed, saying it would be up to the people of Chicago to “provide that direction.”

“I’m not a dictator, I’m an organizer,” Johnson said. “Today is a reflection of effective organizing around our values.”

Note: This article was published June 19 and updated with video June 20.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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