Last week, Chicago’s City Council announced a plan to pay reparations to hundreds of survivors of the heinous police brutality inflicted by the Chicago police under former commander Jon Burge. The $5.5 million compensation fund would provide reimbursement, counseling and free city college tuition for the survivors and families of those targeted in the unwarranted police violence towards over one hundred Chicagoans — primarily African-Americans — from the 70s through the 90s. Along with the money would come a formal apology from the City, as well as the launch of a program to incorporate education on past cases of police violence into Chicago schools’ 8th and 10th grade curriculum.
Commander Jon Burge’s case is only one of countless similar cases of race-based police violence which have garnered national recognition lately, but his is remarkable in its scope. For three decades, Burge and those under his command cruelly tortured hundreds of innocent African-American Chicagoans under the guise of conducting routine police investigations. He and his forces electrocuted, brutally beat and verbally abused “suspects” after detaining them for petty crimes. After hundreds of victims began coming forward with their stories backed by irrefutable evidence, Burge was convicted of torture in 2010 — even after the statute of limitations on his crimes had run out, highlighting their graveness. Even then, he was only imprisoned for four years, and, as of February of this year, leads a comfortable life in Florida, thanks to the police pension Chicago is still sending him. A pension siphoned out of the same pool of public funds as the reparations paid to his victims — twisted justice, indeed.
Paying reparations to the survivors of the attacks — even forty years later — is a step in the right direction, albeit a timid one. In the hotbed of outrage born from America’s police brutality debate, Chicago’s reparation plan sets a positive precedent. It’s a promise that police torture won’t be swept under the rug and that certain measures of accountability will be taken against aggressors who can no longer remain virtually untouchable.
However as encouraging as it is, Chicago’s cash-laden apology is, by nature, retroactive. While it does recognize effects of the problem, it fails to actually attack it at its racially-charged roots.
When accountability comes too late and doesn’t address the source of the issue, it begs the question of whether it’s a genuine attempt at progress, or a selfish bid to boost Chicago’s reputation in the midst of America’s furious, racially-torn dialogue. The reparation plan is an expensive band-aid over a wound which has festered for centuries. Paying back victims of police brutality says, “we recognize that this happened,” but it does little to combat similar aggressions in the future.
Of course, creating pariahs out of policemen does little to address the underlying systems at play. Accountability for Burge and those similar to him is appreciated, but it only goes so far. To create lasting progress, we must not lash out at scapegoats. We must instead attack the very social constructs of which they are entwined, and try to understand how to effect change from the ground up.
The most effective piece of the reparations puzzle is the education component. Teaching Chicago 8th and 10th graders about the Burge case is a surefire way to at least introduce impressionable middle and high-schoolers to the very tangible nature of racial injustice.
Even children from communities heavily entrenched in racism have something to gain from classroom dialogues on police brutality and institutional racism. By refusing to gloss over the ugliest parts of America’s distant, as well as recent, history, we can begin to face our issues with a dose of reality. Only by teaching a new generation to actively recognize that the American system is flawed can we begin to strip it of its injustices. Education isn’t a foolproof cure-all, but it’s the shot in the dark we desperately need.
Chicago’s reparation plan is a good-spirited gesture which, if nothing else, highlights the fact that there’s a hell of a lot left to repair.
Megan Cole is a first-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at email@example.com.