There's a little bit of Jon Burge in all of us

OK, I’m not talking about the part of Jon Burge that would apply electric shock to someone’s genitals, suffocate them, or force them to play Russian roulette. I certainly don’t think most people could bring themselves to commit such despicable acts to another human being.

But the most astonishing part of the story about Burge’s perjury conviction this week is that it comes 37 years after the first alleged abuse occurred … 37 years. And take note of the word “alleged” because Burge has never been convicted of actually committing any of the horrible things for which he’s been accussed–and it appears that he never will. The statute of limitations for those crimes has run out–a failure on our part to respond to what has become the worst kept secret in Chicago.

That’s the thing. We all know that it happened.

The jurors brought back a guilty verdict in Burge’s perjury case because they were assured that some acts of torture did occur. Two special prosecutors spent four years investigating the allegations of torture and concluded that some form of abuse or torture occurred in more than 70 cases. Former Gov. George Ryan knew it happened when he cleared Illinois’ Death Row. High-ranking members of the Chicago Police Department knew Burge and his crew had tortured men on the South Side. It took awhile, but the department fired Burge in the early ’90s.And Cook County prosecutors knew that unspeakable acts occurred to deliver confessions in the ’70s and ’80s as many of those convictions were overturned or the convicted men were pardoned in the years since. As for the rest of us, John Conroy took us step-by-step through the nightmarish scenarios within the pages of the Chicago Reader.

We’ve all known, yet few of us–aside from the”bottom-feeding” lawyers, as Burge described them during his trial–have stepped forward to denounce the crimes and fight for justice. It’s taken 37 years–and a maverick federal prosecutor–to actually bring charges, any charges, against Burge.

The silence was not merely committed by police officers and prosecutors–the folks who should know immediately when an officer has committed such violations of civil and human rights. No, we can’t just point the finger at them. The silence was committed by all of us who, for 37 years, didn’t demand that Burge be brought to justice and that the people wronged by Burge be made whole.

It was probably easy to remain silent. After all, the people victimized by the “Midnight Crew” rarely get our sympathy and support. They were poor black men from Chicago neighborhoods that most of us have written off and avoid like the plague. Many of them were suspected of committing horrendous crimes themselves, including one who was convicted of killing two police officers. But they also included teenagers, one as young as 13, and they were being interrogated for crimes when they were tortured. Remember, people are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. But that’s not how it goes down for poor black men in Chicago–often feared and despised until they’ve shown themselves worthy of our trust and support.

The torture has left scars on many levels. It’s obvious that Burge thought very little of those men, their families and their communities. And apparently neither did the rest of us. We weren’t able to see enough of the humanity in those men and their communities because we didn’t stop Burge, and we still haven’t brought to justice for the crimes he committed … I mean allegedly committed.

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