Chicago Cops: The Torture Machine, Unending

The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago.
By Flint Taylor.
Chicago: Haymarket, 2019. 541pp. $27.

The first thing to understand about this important book is the author. Flint Taylor is a Chicago-based civil liberties lawyer of long standing, founding partner in the People’s Law Office, and a dogged opponent of  Red Squad-style behavior. The entire volume might be described as a memoir but also it is also an homage to Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, murdered in cold blood on Dec.4, 1969, in a raid orchestrated by States Attorney Edward Hanrahan and the Chicago cops. Taylor was a young legal activist who had met Hampton, a symbol and more than a symbol of everything that J. Edgar Hoover had set out to destroy by hook and by crook.

This would never be the whole Hampton story, because the local media rapidly engaged in a cover-up, and the legal team that Taylor had joined after entering the blood-spattered apartment were themselves viewed as enemies. In other words, liberals as well as conservatives would be part of the cover-up, with the US Justice Department itself very much on the case. A very brave Special Prosecutor, Barnabas Sears, actually moved to indict the State’s Attorney and his high level co-conspirators in 1972. Taylor was at the time studying for the bar exam, but active in gathering evidence.

Chicagoans actually voted the States Attorney out of office, anticipating the election of Harold Washington eleven years later. But the political system of 1972 could not tolerate such an outright challenge. A judge threw out Special Prosecutor’s case. The story does not end here.

Thanks to a break-in at the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971,  the top secret COINTELPRO program was revealed. Hoover had ordered his lieutenants to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” black radical organizations, with the Black Panthers as the most important target. Taylor and his associates, using a lawsuit that they brought on behalf of the Hampton and Clark families, were able to show that the COINTELPRO program had viciously targeted the Black Panther Party and were behind the assassination of Hampton.

This riveting experience guided Flint Taylor’s subsequent career as a lawyer for the dispossessed. The details of various cases are many in the chapters following, so much so as to threaten to become overwhelming. Read closely, they offer precious insight into what legal defense really means. But for decades, the focus returned recurrently to Jon Burge, whose torture of the accused, overwhelmingly non-white, explains the title of the volume.

A Vietnam vet, Burge could be seen sympathetically as a victim of PTSD. Less sympathetically, he provides a somewhat extreme case of the soldiers of empire. Torture, individual murder and mass murder, theft or outright destruction of  resources for survival (land, water, etc.): these were normal, for instance, for the British empire across Africa, Asia and the Indian subcontinent, for several centuries.

In Vietnam, Burge learned, he could, with the use of a charger,  transform a portable field telephone into a torture device. His chosen victims were mainly villagers suspected of loyalty to the revolutionary forces. Every part of the body could be identified for points of torture, naturally including the genitals. Women could be victimized, but men were the usual victims. The scholarly discussion of Vietnam remains divided over whether torture was unusual or just little-discussed. Innovative enough to think of himself as an experimenter, Burge had reinvented Nazi practices.

He actually brought the machine itself back to Chicago and to the police headquarters where the torture would be conducted. Burge was protected by the Chicago police department, but also crucially by Mayor Richard J. Daley and his son “Richie” Daley, well into the 1980s. HIs collaborators, interrogated by civil liberties lawyers, repeatedly described Burge as among the best of the city’s Boys In Blue.

The bottom line was invariably race, the bonding of white cops against minorities. Within the ranks of Chicago’s white cops as well as many other places including New York, the Irish-American role remained surprisingly vital long after assimilation had wiped out coherent ethnic neighborhoods. Among the Irish but also other European ethnic groups, the Catholic Church long reinforced the demand for social order and feelings of resentment against those outside the bounds. Even as the Church began to represent the impoverished Latino population in Chicago as well as elsewhere, the white-ethnic bonding, especially when reinforced by religion, remained and one might say, amazingly remains in Chicago’s distinctly white neighborhoods today.

Author Taylor and his colleagues battered for more than a decade at the legal defenses of Burge and more generally the ill practices of the Chicago police and Cook County prosecutors. Beyond the legal team, progressive journalists even in the normally conservative Chicago Tribune, chopped away at the webs of deception. The local alternative press, namely the Chicago Reader, meanwhile played a huge positive role, offering writers and researchers an opportunity to publish details unwanted by the powerful.

Taylor touches more briefly on the pusillanimous behavior of most liberal politicians, including a young Barack Obama: Richie and his brother responded to his endorsement by supporting Obama’s nomination run, just weeks after Obama had endorsed a scandal-ridden Daley for re-election. Even some of the erstwhile iconoclastic journalists changed their minds when the chips were down, offering excuses for police behavior.

In the end, Jon Burge was convicted, if not of the most serious changes. As the jury had exited the courtroom to convene, Burge called over an old friend and asked in a stage whisper if anyone would “believe that bunch of niggers” testifying against him. It was a victory for Flint and for American justice. Perhaps it is a vindication that historic reparations were obtained from the City in 2015 as a result of the work of an inter-generational and inter-racial movement working with torture survivors, their families and legal supporters.

As the volume closes, Burge’s “torture box,” hurled into Lake Michigan, is beyond recovery. The Fraternal Order of Police continues to support cop criminality, in the face of street murders captured by way of cellphone cameras, and despite public demonstrations and further legal efforts. But Flint Taylor is still at work. We can be grateful for a heroic life and for the effort he took to give us so much of the story.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.