Four years ago, the City Council passed a historic reparations ordinance for survivors of torture perpetrated by former Chicago police commander Jon Burge and those working under his leadership. The ordinance was passed after years of organizing by survivors and advocates and included a package of measures to address the harm caused to the individuals who were tortured, to their communities, and to the city as a whole. The ordinance called for: $5.5 million in reparations to dozens of Burge’s victims; free City Colleges tuition for victims and their families; the creation of a south-side mental health and vocational training center to address the needs of survivors; the development of a mandatory Chicago Public Schools curriculum about the history of Burge’s deeds; and the creation of a memorial to honor survivors “and the struggle for justice on their behalf.”
While the reparations checks have been cut, the mental health center created (though city funding for it doesn’t currently extend beyond this year), and the CPS curriculum rolled out, the memorial remains to be built. The city didn’t designate a space or appropriate any funds for its construction. Now, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM), the collective of organizers who worked to pass the reparations ordinance, has taken up the mantle. On Friday an exhibition showcasing six designs for the future memorial will debut at the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life gallery.
The exhibition, Still Here: Torture, Resiliency and the Art of Memorializing, will feature artifacts connected to the movement for police torture reparations in Chicago as well as memorial design images and maquettes by Monica Chadha and Nelly Agassi; Juan Chavez; Sonja Henderson; Andres Hernandez; Preston Jackson; and Patricia Nguyen and John Lee. These artists were commissioned to create designs based on their experience making monumental public art works and their history of connecting art with social justice struggles. During the exhibition’s monthlong run, there will also be will also be a variety of events centering on some of the more than 125 African-Americans who were victims of Chicago police torture under Burge.
“The title of the show actually came from one of the survivors, Anthony Holmes,” explains Hannah Jasper, the curator of the exhibition. “He came with me to the studio visits and he would always tell the artists: ‘We’re still here.’ To me that speaks that this work is ongoing. When people come in, they have to realize that this is happening in real time. One of the survivors, Gerald Reed, has a court date scheduled on Friday’s opening. This isn’t forgotten history, and there’s still survivors fighting for reparations.”
At the conclusion of the exhibition a jury of survivors and their families, as well as artists, architects, community organizers, philanthropists, and educators, will deliberate to select the winning design. The next step will be finding a site and raising the several hundred thousand dollars needed for the creation of the monument.
“It’s really important to have the memorial be in a place where folks with privilege who aren’t connected to stories of police violence [see it],” says Isis Ferguson of CTJM. “You could exist in Chicago and not think you’re connected to these kinds of stories.” But, she adds, there would also be benefits to having the memorial in one of the black neighborhoods where survivors have come from so it can become a “pilgrimage site.”
Creation of the monument may still take quite a long time, especially without financial or land acquisition assistance from the city. But, Ferguson says, this is in keeping with the nature of this type of “transparent and collaborative” process. “The work is happening at the speed at which true radical organizing happens,” she says. “A lot of that is around building consensus and authentic relationships.”
Still Here: Torture, Resiliency and the Art of Memorializing opens with a reception on Friday, March 15, from 6 to 8 PM, and runs through April 26 at the Arts+Public Life incubator, 301 E. Garfield; for more see arts.uchicago.edu/event/stillhere. v