When Anthony Holmes goes to the doctor today, he’s asked: How many heart attacks have you had?
That’s because, Holmes says, the torture he faced in 1973 at the hands of then-Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge included shocking him with an electric shock box and suffocating him with plastic bags. Burge and the mostly white group of detectives that reported to him, known as the “Midnight Crew,” tortured hundreds of people in Chicago, mostly Black and Brown men, to force them into confessing crimes they did not commit between 1972 and 1991.
“To this day, we still suffer from this,” Holmes says. “We won’t ever be able to get rid of it because it’s going to be with us every day that we walk. But the thing is, we can hold our heads up high.”
Holmes, one of the first known torture survivors, spent three decades behind bars after his forced confession and was released on parole in 2004. In 2010, he testified at Burge’s trial, where the disgraced commander was found guilty. At least 55 people who were tortured by Burge, now deceased, have been exonerated so far, while many other survivors are still incarcerated and waiting for their cases to be reviewed. But for Holmes, telling his story with the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials has been a way to let the world know this torture was real.
“We all got sent to the penitentiary with cases that weren’t ours, but they gave them to us,” Holmes says. “A lot of people died [while incarcerated] and some people made it home—I’m one of them—but the issue is that this is the only way we could prove our truth that we were tortured.”
The stories of Holmes and others are part of “Envisioning Justice RE:ACTION,” a digital exhibition by nonprofit Illinois Humanities that asks both artists and participants to imagine a future without mass incarceration—an expansion from its 2019 exhibition. This installation focuses on the sites of police torture resistance around Chicago with a map itinerary for participants to visit and video testimonies about each site.
Artist Sarah Ross works with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials and is co-founder of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, which works in and outside Stateville prison. She says these sites are an important feature of the work because they are related to many of the survivors’ stories.
“The cop would take them to one police station but tell their family they were at another,” Ross says. “And then when the family went to the other police station, they would move them again.”
Today, many of the police stations have been changed into other places, but Ross says that’s why it’s even more essential that people know what happened there.
“We live around these places where this immense harm happened as if things can go on, and so we really wanted to make this itinerary, so that people would see the city through this lens of both [the] horrible things that happened and the struggle of people who fought against it,” Ross says.
“Envisioning Justice RE:ACTION”
Exhibition and activation kit available to view at envisioningjustice.org
In addition to viewing the installations, which were created by 14 different humanities- and arts-based projects, viewers of the exhibition become active participants when they themselves work on its activation kit—a collection of more than a dozen prompts that asks them to show us how they envision justice. After completing a prompt, participants can add their responses using a submission form. Jane Beachy, artistic director at Illinois Humanities, says this new process is an experiment and a way to encourage people to not just engage with the work, but also add to it.
“It’s our hope that people will not only do those things but then share them back to the site,” Beachy says. “So that alongside the work that we commissioned, we’ll have all these other kind of visions and models and perspectives and reflections that will help us tell the story of how the arts and humanities make change.”
Another installation is Unbarred Poetics, which is a collaboration between poet Tara Betts and filmmaker David Weathersby that features videos of Betts’s poetry and that of three other Chicago-based poets: Khari Bowden, Ciara Miller, and Devon Terrell. Viewers can watch and read the poems, and then submit their own work in response to the four prompts that accompany them.
“I realized that the impact of mass incarceration is much deeper than you expect,” Weathersby says. “And to really understand it, you have to listen to every angle of it, of every person: from the personal to the political to the economic.”
And to do this, Betts and Weathersby say they created stories that go past soundbites and statistics to relate the experiences of real people. Part of that has been to create counternarratives in the work that actively humanizes people who are incarcerated.
Betts’s poem, “Small Illuminations,” tells the story of Albert, a writing student she met while teaching at Stateville prison. He had been incarcerated for decades after being, like many, “in the wrong car, with the wrong people, at the wrong time.”
“When I chose the poem that I shot with David, I really was thinking about how that story, in particular, is really important to me—not just because I lived it, but because I think a lot of people assume that if you interact with people in the prison system, you’re in danger, or that you’re going to meet people who are just vicious and cruel,” Betts says. “And I think what you discover is that you can meet people who are vital and beautiful and intelligent and funny and engaging.”
Illinois Humanities also hopes to work with artists and humanists outside of Chicago and has been building relationships in other communities impacted by the carceral state such as Carbondale, Decatur, East Saint Louis, Bloomington-Normal, Galesburg, and Urbana-Champaign.
“We recognize that everybody has a unique experience and a unique set of experiences and a unique perspective and a unique set of skills to contribute to what we hope is a collective questioning and collective imagination about what could exist instead,” Beachy says. “Because we imagined the system that we have now—it wasn’t like a default that mankind was born into—we imagined our way into this, we can imagine our way into something else, and everybody has a role to play in that.”
And for Anthony Holmes, the survivor, reimagining the future also means something else: an acknowledgment of the past.
“The most important thing about it all is that we’re still here,” Holmes says. “We’re going to keep on being here and we’re going to keep on talking about it. Let them know that we won’t ever forget about it.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The online exhibition component of “Envisioning Justice: RE/ACTION” includes Reader contributor Maya Dukmasova’s August 2021 article “Reasonable doubt,” which covers the story of James Allen.
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