Listen well, children, and learn from the horror story of Police Cmdr. Jon Burge.
One of the most shameful chapters in the history of Chicago, still unfolding, is how Burge and his “midnight crew” of fellow thug cops tortured suspects — at least 110 — in a police station basement. Now that sorry story will be taught — as a launching pad for thousands of essential classroom conversations about systemic racism, failed justice and unchecked authority — in Chicago’s public schools.
It is never too soon to confront the past, even if that past is very recent, and even if the story has no ending as of yet. A former Cook County state’s attorney and mayor, Richard M. Daley, has never been held accountable for his failure to confront the Burge scandal, and dozens of black men who alleged they were tortured by Burge and his crew still have legal cases pending.
But after watching the hate-fueled denial of history playing out in the South in recent weeks, with so many folks insisting the Civil War was not about slavery, we especially welcome Chicago’s decision to confront one of its own worst sins head-on. By addressing past wrongs, Chicago can become a better city.
The Chicago Public Schools’ 116-page “Burge Reparations Curriculum” for high school sophomores begins by posing three broad “essential questions” for students to consider:
What factors allowed the police torture to occur? How did people and organizations use the legal system and community action to seek justice for torture survivors, their families and the community? And what can we learn about racism, both systemic and individual, by studying such difficult episodes in history?
Or, to put it more succinctly, how could this happen, how did good people fight back, and what does this teach us about racism in America?
Excellent questions all, especially that last one. Sounds like a good class. We would hope — and isn’t this entirely the point? — that the lessons learned would be used to consider other injustices in America, such as inequities in school funding between the rich and poor and laws that send mentally ill people to prison instead of treatment facilities.
All social injustices are part of a whole. Students, do you agree? And Burge was no outlier, but the unsurprising product of a society that devalues the human worth of black men, the poor, the mentally ill and so many others. What do you say, class?
The more honestly we face the worst of our history now, the less we’ll have to apologize later. Our children will be better than we are.
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