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Chicago’s Torture Machine

Don Rose 21 February 2019 One Comment

I don’t usually review books here, but every so often comes one so relevant that I must recommend it. It’s an especially timely volume detailing five decades of Chicago police murdering, torturing and wrongfully imprisoning people of color–and how a band of heroic lawyers exposed those abuses and worked through the courts to bring about some semblance of justice.

    “THE TORTURE MACHINE: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago,” by Flint Taylor (Haymarket; 435 pp; $27) is available for preordering on Amazon, just as a federal consent agreement goes into effect aimed at reforming the Chicago Police Department. It ‘s an indispensible contribution to the legal history of unspeakable crimes and human rights violations by police and largely ignored–or covered up–by the political establishment.


    Taylor, with his colleagues at the People’s Law Office, which he cofounded more than a half-century ago to defend political radicals and other victims of police abuse, have worked continuously on Chicago’s most shameful episodes of police violence from the 1969 murder of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark through years pursuing the notorious police commander Jon Burge and his crew who ran a torture mill in their Southside station.

   The “torture machine” refers to a box holding a hand-cranked electric generator whose wires were used to shock suspects into confessions–usually false–at the Area 2 precinct headquarters. Other techniques included pressing  victims against hot radiators, beating the bottoms of their feet to avoid leaving marks, crushing their genitals, suffocating them with bags pulled over their heads and water-boarding by pouring soda pop down their nostrils.

   It also suggests the Chicago political “machine” whose prosecutors and judges were complicitous in cases against Burge’s victims and protective of police perpetrators–while most state’s attorneys and mayors of the period would hear or see no evil.

  Taylor’s narrative focuses at length on dozens of legal proceedings they brought to prosecute the Burge perpetrators and free their scores of innocent victims–many of whom served decades in prison. (An earlier volume, “THE ASSASSINATION OF FRED HAMPTON” by his partner Jeffrey Haas, details the cases they brought against then-state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan, whose police squad killed the Panthers.)

    Burge was finally convicted not of torture but perjury, served a short sentence and continued collecting his pension until his death, thanks to high-ranking Chicago officials. But victim after victim of his work have been exonerated and awarded financial compensation. A reparations fund was actually established thanks to PLO efforts. Total cost to taxpayers for defending the miscreant cops was $131 million at the end of 2017.

     Each victim’s case is a fascinating story in itself while the totality of the lawyers’ efforts fighting a resistant establishment is staggering.

(Chicago book launching discussions: March 2nd at CTU, 1901 N. Carroll; 4th at Northwestern University, 375 E. Chicago; 7th at Seminary Coop Books, 5751 S. Woodlawn. Each at 6 pm.)


Speaking of books, I heartily recommend “THE GOOD FIGHT: Life Lessons from a Chicago Progressive” (Golden Alley Press; 264 pp; $16.95) the intriguing memoir of a major Chicago reformer, former alderman and now professor of political science Dick Simpson. His personal journey from liberal Texas boy to documenter of Chicago corruption–with heartbreaks along the way–makes a fine read.

Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

One Comment »

  • Paul Elitzik said:

    Suggest Don or someone write on Daley’s shameful work in Clinton and then Obama White House. His literature and Tribune boasts about his experience — and that experience does in indeed tell us all we need to know.

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