Police officers at the scene of a shooting on the North Side of Chicago

Carlos Javier Ortiz

Police officers at the scene of a shooting on the North Side of Chicago, 2009

Chicago has a police torture problem. The exact size of this problem is not known and perhaps never will be. What is known for sure is that between 1972 and 1991 at least 125 black Chicagoans were tortured by police officers in the Area 2 precinct building on the city’s predominantly black South Side. Depending on the day and the officers involved, the victims were beaten, shackled to steaming hot radiators, electrocuted, and raped with sex toys. They were tortured into confessing, and sometimes tortured more afterward; these confessions were used to send them to prison, and in some cases to death row. The horrors of Area 2 have received the lion’s share of attention from activists, lawyers, and especially journalists. But few would argue that Area 2 is the whole story: there are also serious and credible allegations of torture on the city’s southwest side, at what used to be called Area 3, and more recently at Homan Square, an off-the-books interrogation site in the North Lawndale neighborhood. And over time, torture seeps into a community’s expectations, becoming one of the many silent threats accompanying every traffic stop. During the recent wave of protests set off by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it was obvious that, for many in Chicago, the city’s legacy of police torture was a palpable presence, informing the protesters’ anger—but also their anxiety about the fate of their arrested comrades.

In Chicago and beyond, the city’s history of police torture is indelibly associated with a single name: Jon Burge. Burge was a Chicago police officer who served at Area 2 from 1971 to 1988 and at Area 3 from 1988 to 1991, climbing the ranks from detective to commander. Before joining the force, Burge had served in Vietnam, which may have been where he learned about electroshock torture. At Areas 2 and 3, he was often personally involved in torture sessions, and as commander had a central part in encouraging torture, especially among an “A-Team” of officers who shared his sense that brutal violence was a necessary tool for the policing of black Chicago. Thanks to his leadership in both precincts, Burge has often been the figure at the center of victims’ legal complaints. He is the singular villain of the story as it tends to get told in the media, and almost equally so in the version historically preferred by the Chicago law enforcement establishment (when they are not absolutely denying that torture ever took place). After all, while one thoroughly rotten apple in a city is bad enough, it’s nothing compared to a barrelful: the entire legal system of a city ignoring the torture of black suspects by white cops. From 1981 to 1989, prosecutions of Area 2 torture victims were overseen by Richard M. Daley, who was county prosecutor at the time and left the office to become mayor. Lawyers for torture survivors have repeatedly sought to compel Daley’s testimony on the subject, but with no success.

In 1993, Burge was fired for the “physical abuse” of a suspect; to this day, he remains the only Chicago police officer seriously disciplined for involvement in torture. He left Chicago for Apollo Beach, Florida, where he lived off his police pension and the proceeds of a small fishing business. Through the 1990s and 2000s, more and more Chicagoans brought claims of police torture into courtrooms. Some were able to have their sentences overturned or the cases brought to retrial with their original confessions thrown out. Some sued the city for damages; settlements in Burge-related cases have cost the city over $100 million. When deposed in these cases, Burge would generally plead the Fifth. But in a 2003 deposition he was, for whatever reason, moved to speak: he insisted that neither he nor any officers under his command had ever tortured anyone. In 2008 a creative federal prosecutor used this provably false statement to charge Burge with criminal perjury and obstructions of justice. (Thanks to a five-year statute of limitations on police brutality cases in Illinois, any possibility of criminal charges for torture itself had long expired.) A jury found Burge guilty, and in 2011 he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. In 2014 he was released, and in 2018 he died at home in Apollo Beach.

This meant Burge lived just long enough to see Chicago’s city council bow to years of pressure by antitorture activists and pass a bill that established a “reparations fund” for police torture victims. This bill, signed in 2015, acknowledged that police torture had occurred—though not the full extent of the city’s complicity—and set aside a pool of $5.5 million, from which victims of Burge or his subordinates could receive $100,000 each, regardless of the legal system’s final determination of their own guilt or innocence. The city also pledged to support the creation of a monument to police torture survivors, the opening of a psychological services center for survivors, and the creation of a curriculum on Chicago police torture to be taught in eighth- and tenth-grade public school history classes.


It would be impossible to deny what an astonishing—even historic—document the reparations bill is. It recognized the immorality of torture as a principle that stands alone, separate from whether the person being tortured is “good” or “bad,” “criminal” or “innocent.” Just as crucially, it acknowledges that reparation—the repair of harm—is by necessity a process that cannot happen without attention to the stories we tell ourselves through public spaces and school history lessons.

But it is easy, especially for journalists, to misrepresent the nature of the reparations victory. Just as journalists love villains like Jon Burge (because they provide their stories with memorable characters), they also love victories, because victories give their stories satisfying endings. The truth, however, is that the reparations bill was not the end of anything, but one way station in a long, ongoing struggle. Most Chicago residents—black and white alike—are not aware that the bill exists, much less what it asks of the city. Almost five years later, the promised monument has not been built; activists have selected a design, but it is not yet clear who will pay for it, or where it will go. The counseling center is open, but the city’s pledged period of support has ended, and the center’s long-term financial future is uncertain. The school curriculum was unveiled for the 2017–2018 school year, but teachers receive very little training on how to deliver it. While reporting a story on the first-year rollout, I learned that at some schools it wasn’t being taught at all, while at others it was being introduced over vocal opposition from concerned parents. Even when it is being taught, the content of the curriculum is likely enormously different from school to school and neighborhood to neighborhood, not least because Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country. Teachers have great latitude to present Chicago police torture as a contained story—something that happened in the past but is now fixed—or as one that’s wide open: an illness that continues to fester, finding expression in many symptoms besides those stemming from Burge-ordered torture.

Even the basic facts of the story are still undetermined. In 2009 Illinois established the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission to expedite the review of Burge-linked torture cases. The commission was quickly overwhelmed with petitions, most of which it hasn’t yet processed even eleven years later. In 2016, in response to the weight of revelations about torture not overseen by Burge, the commission agreed to expand its scope to include cases from anywhere in the city. It now has 543 cases pending; according to a recent calculation by the investigative news organization Injustice Watch, if it proceeds at the same average speed it has shown over the last decade, it will take another three decades or more just to process the claims that have been filed so far.

The vast majority of what has already been written about police torture in Chicago has been focused—for understandable and proper reasons—on marshaling the essential facts: exactly who did what to whom; who knew what, and when; who turned a blind eye. On this front, the contribution of Laurence Ralph’s The Torture Letters is relatively minor. Ralph, a Princeton anthropologist, doesn’t add much new material to the record. The immense value of his book lies instead in how he delivers this information to the reader. It is, to a striking extent, a project shaped by an awareness that while unearthing and circulating true stories of brutality may sometimes be necessary, it is rarely sufficient, and always fraught with peril.

The writer who takes up violence always risks becoming a voyeur, or, more accurately, a scavenger, harvesting and arranging the details of other people’s suffering for purposes that may include stimulating and facilitating the voyeurism of readers. In formal academic writing especially it often seems that brutal violence, including torture, gets pressed into the service of this or that theory—often something to do with Foucault—in hopes of spicing things up with a dash of raw evil plus the frisson of intense physicality. Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and authority on government torture, has noted that academic debates about torture are rarely about torture itself and instead reenact abstract debates about the law and politics:

One could substitute for torture controversial concepts like the death penalty, abortion, political deception, or hostage taking, and the dance form will be more or less the same. The form of the dance washes out any particulars about the specific practice being debated. It is a cultural form Americans use to talk about hot topics; other cultures have other dances.

Self-consciously literary writers who address violence have a tendency to note their own ambivalence about doing so; this sometimes feels like honesty, sometimes like a preemptive bid for absolution, and most often like both at once.


Putting violence on the page is especially treacherous when—as in the case of Chicago police torture—the violence targeted members of particular communities, accompanied long-standing racial prejudice, and inflicted lasting wounds in the psyches not just of individuals but also of their families and neighbors. It is all too easy to push aside one prejudicial account (in which they are fundamentally inferior) only to end up replacing it with something not much better: a story in which they are fundamentally broken. The scholar Eve Tuck has a useful term for work like this: “damage-centered.”

Ralph’s first book, Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago, was deeply concerned with damage but also with not becoming damage-centered. Rather than dwelling exclusively on the injuries and indignities experienced by residents of poor black Chicago neighborhoods, Ralph focused on how those residents themselves conceptualized those injuries, and—crucially—the enormous individual and communal effort they made toward overcoming them. The Torture Letters shows a similar commitment, never shying away from torture’s destructive effects but also refusing to present those effects as a dark morass that is impossible to overcome.

This refusal determines the very shape of the book. With the exception of the prologue and an appendix, The Torture Letters consists entirely of open letters, written in prose much more direct and accessible than standard academic texts. Some of these letters are addressed to imaginary or generic recipients: Chicago’s future mayors, the city’s youth of color. Others are written to specific individuals, some living—like Chicago’s former police superintendent Eddie Johnson (in the gap between the book’s completion and publication, Johnson was fired)—and some dead, like Andrew Wilson, the first person to bring a civil suit for torture against the city of Chicago, in 1986. Ralph writes to black antibrutality activists of the past and present. One letter is addressed to Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian man tortured in 2002 at a CIA black site in Jordan; later that year he was transferred to Guantanamo, where he was also tortured, with many of his most violent interrogations overseen by a Chicago cop named Richard Zuley. Slahi was never charged, and was released in 2016.

The open letter is, by definition, a literary Janus. To the extent that it is like a letter, it is imbued with a certain directness, and creates a heightened sense of intimacy. To the extent that it is “open,” it knows its intimacy is at least partially artificial, constructed out of words with a wider audience—or, often, multiple audiences—in mind. James Baldwin’s 1962 “A Letter to My Nephew” is full of things Baldwin wanted to say to his teenage nephew about race and America. But he was also talking to other black youth his nephew’s age, and to other black uncles and aunts and parents about what they might say to the next generation. The letter contained a message—implicit but thus perhaps all the more effective—for Baldwin’s considerable white readership, too, something along the lines of Do you see? This is how America compels me to talk to my beloved nephew. A recent example of this dynamic can be found in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which takes the form of a long letter from Coates to his fifteen-year-old son.

In The Torture Letters, this effect is refracted several times over. While preparing the book, Ralph held a series of focus groups in Chicago, soliciting the views of city residents on the police and torture, and sharing excerpts from the letters he was working on and asking who else he should write to, what else he should say. Along the way we get a sense of Ralph’s own evolving motivations. One of the book’s earliest letters is addressed to “the Boy and Girl with Matching Airbrushed Book Bags on the Corner of Lawndale Avenue and Cermak Road”—children whom Ralph saw getting stopped by a team of six Chicago police:

I am writing to you today because when I see kids in Chicago being stopped and frisked by the cops, I always feel guilty for not knowing what to do, just like I still feel guilty for not helping you that day. I’m also writing because we all need to talk—whenever and however we can—about the awful things that we have to deal with as Black people in this country, as well as what we can do about them.

In the next letter (“to Chicago’s Youth of Color”), he confesses his ambivalence about academic research on torture:

Back in 2015, I had been researching police torture for more than a decade. In fact, I was thinking about giving up my research because I was convinced that nothing would ever change. But the thought of helping to educate you filled me with a renewed sense of purpose. I felt that my contribution could be to help teenagers of color like you rethink the idea of what it means to be guilty and to help explain the damage that judging someone to be guilty can do….

That’s why in all of my letters I ask you not to think of the innocent person as the quintessential torture victim. Rather, imagine a person who committed a crime that you regard as especially heinous. Imagine that person being bagged and suffocated and beaten within an inch of his life. Ask yourself, can I see enough humanity in him to understand why it is just as wrong to torture him as it is to torture an innocent man?

The final letters frequently reference both one another and the focus groups, alchemizing several scattered exchanges about torture—some imaginary and some real—into a single conversation that is a bit of both: it never actually happened, and yet you can hold it in your hands and feel its power. Writing to former superintendent Johnson, Ralph states bluntly that “your city government…has created a world in which the tortured exist but torturers do not. This contradiction is a stain on your police department. It is part of what makes your talk of trust and legitimacy ring false.” It makes a difference that Ralph’s arrangement of the book places this letter after the other two I have just quoted. The more you read, the more it feels like the letters are drawing all of their recipients—living and dead, powerful mayors and ordinary teenagers—into one impossible room together. Of course, the reader is there too.

To what end? Certainly the letters, read together, do a decent job of telling the story of what happened at Area 2. Ralph advances—slowly and patiently, and with sympathy for the fact that his readers may disagree—his moral argument that torture is always wrong. He encourages his readers to conceptualize police torture not with the usual image of bad apples but rather through the metaphor of a tree, one with deep roots and lots of branches, in Chicago and elsewhere, including the US military. But any of these goals could have been pursued effectively without open letters; none of them, it seems to me, is the primary purpose—or at least the primary accomplishment—of The Torture Letters. Though Ralph never explicitly says so, a central function of his book is to nurture one of the primary forces that torture sets out to destroy, and which the vastness of history tends to obscure: the sense that individual action has meaning.

This nurturing happens in part in the individual letters, but ultimately in the expanded zone of intimacy that the book creates as it moves from letter to letter. For example, Ralph writes to Doris Byrd, a retired Chicago police officer who worked alongside Burge in Area 2. As a black woman, Byrd was not a candidate for inclusion on the A-Team, which was composed overwhelmingly of white, male military veterans. But Byrd and other black officers—Ralph refers to them as the B-Team—knew more or less what was happening. They also knew that Burge had enough support within the department that lodging any kind of complaint against him would likely generate reprisal. They’d seen white officers get demoted after crossing him: What would happen to them? In 2004, called from retirement to testify under oath for an Area 2 civil suit, Byrd described her decision to keep her head down. Ralph narrates it back to her:

You developed ways of remaining willfully unaware of anything that might compromise your ability to rise in the ranks of the police force or put you at personal risk. When it wasn’t your shift, you stayed out of Area 2 precinct as much as possible. Whenever you got wind that the A-Team was on the verge of giving a criminal suspect the “Vietnamese Treatment,” you hit the street to pursue leads, or you took your paperwork home so as not to be within earshot of a suspect’s pleas. You…even came up with a name for this willful circumvention: “the ostrich approach.”

This confrontation would be discomfiting enough on its own. But the presence, in the text, of Ralph’s other interlocutors—especially present-day black Chicagoans disappointed by her actions—makes it especially devastating. It is possible to feel sympathy for the situation Byrd found herself in, while also feeling that she made the wrong choice. Ralph doesn’t claim to know that Byrd could have stopped Burge or anyone else. But he does imply that trying would have mattered, if only because it would have lent strength to anyone else also inclined to try. Byrd is still alive, and Ralph ends his letter by asking her directly to join the battle against police torture.

A similar effect is achieved by a longer chain of letters that stray not just from Area 2 but from Chicago altogether. Ralph starts this chain by writing to Francis Grayson, a black Virginia man executed in 1951 after being found guilty of rape. In another, he writes to Francis’s still-living wife, Josephine, who after her husband was executed signed “We Charge Genocide,” a Civil Rights Congress (CRC) petition to the United Nation accusing the US government of treating its black citizens with genocidal intent. He then writes to William Patterson, the deceased former CRC president who had the original idea for the petition, and who delivered it himself to a UN meeting in Paris. (According to one telling of the story, which Ralph relates, the copy of the petition Patterson packed in his suitcase was confiscated by US officials en route to Paris. In anticipation of exactly this development, Patterson had mailed different sections of the petition to allies in the city. After his flight landed, he went to each of their houses, reassembling the document piece by piece.)

Finally, Ralph writes to Dominique Franklin, a Chicago teenager who died in 2014 after being Tasered three times by police. He describes to Franklin—but also, implicitly, to William Patterson and Josephine and Francis Grayson and everyone else in the book—how, in the aftermath of his death, several of his friends started a group called We Charge Genocide. Using online funding tools, this group raised money to fly to Geneva, Switzerland, where they spent several days living in an Airbnb and lobbying the UN Committee Against Torture to include the ongoing police violence in Chicago in one of its annual reports. He tells Franklin how much his friends enjoyed Geneva’s public transit, and how simultaneously difficult and invigorating the trip was for them, the way “the fight for recognition was wearing [them] down and saving them at the same time.” Finally, he writes to Page May, the Chicago organizer who led the trip, telling her how rewarding it was to show pictures of the group in Geneva to the frustrated young people in his focus groups.

In Ralph’s imaginative linking of the sacrifices and schemes of these far-flung actors, he manages to make palpable the way that, however isolated and defeated they sometimes felt, their lives and actions went on to create a supportive web of meaning that stretches across time. If the letter to Doris Byrd functions as a kind of moral alarm system—beware this variety of compromise!—the chain from Francis Grayson to Dominique Franklin makes the idea of doing your part feel that much more possible and valuable, whether you are Chicago’s next mayor, a low-ranking employee who learns her workplace is a branch on a torture tree, or, like Ralph (or me), an outside observer trying to figure out how to write about torture—and why doing so might matter.