A New Way to Commemorate Atrocity

Lessons from Chicago and beyond.
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(Photo: Chicago Torture Justice Memorials/Facebook)

(Photo: Chicago Torture Justice Memorials/Facebook)

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera wrote that the constant flow of news about atrocity serves to erase itself: “Ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten.” How can memories of tragic events remain a living history, inspire action, and prevent future tragedy?

These days, says American Studies professor Erika Doss, “the way we deem something really important is to make a memorial about it.” In her 2010 book Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America, Doss remarked that the previous few decades had seen memorials erected to “executed witches,” “dead astronauts,” “civil rights activists,” “cancer survivors,” “organ donors,” and many more. (Scholar Tiffany Jenkins claimed in 2005 that “more memorial museums have been opened in the last 10 years than in the past 100.”)

At their best, memorials raise awareness of shameful histories and help victims cope with their traumatization. But memorials can also become tourist sites that don’t activate viewers. Permanent memorials sometimes have the unintended impact that “people sort of pay their respects and then they go away, they feel like they are done,” Doss says. (Philip Gourevitch recalled visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and seeing the identity cards of victims—ones distributed to personalize the tragedy—in trashcans alongside discarded soda bottles.)

As police brutality against people of color receives national media attention, the subject requires the state to look at itself as a perpetrator, something that might hamper official memorializing efforts.

One of the most recent proposed memorials, to the victims of Chicago police torture, attempts to avoid this fate. A coalition of artists, activists, and lawyers formed the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials project to commemorate the systematic torture of poor and black detainees and the larger history of racialized police misconduct in the city.

The most infamous examples, and the ones motivating CTJM’s efforts, are the torture chambers that were active under the command of Chicago Police Detective Jon Burge between 1972 and 1991. He and his colleagues held more than 100 captives, most of them African-American men, and used a number of brutal methods of physical abuse. In some cases, detainees were suffocated, beaten, or shocked with a cattle prod to their genitals. Meanwhile, white department leadership received awards for its ability to extract confessions.

Burge was fired from the department in 1993. He eventually served four years in prison in 2010 for lying under oath but none for the documented cases of torture. Some death sentences of those imprisoned after coerced confessions have been commuted or pardoned, but 20 men remain in prison.

“The vast majority of torture survivors have received no financial compensation or psychological counseling for their suffering,” says CTJM member and artist Mary Patten. The group’s vision is that cultural work and public art—alongside media outreach, activism, lobbying, and protest—can raise the voices and experiences of survivors and continue to push for justice.

CTJM is hosting an ongoing and completely open call for proposed memorials, so anyone in the world can submit. Submissions thus far include poems, videos, sculptures, installations, and architectural renderings. All proposals are displayed at various sites across town—in public, in galleries, at events—and are also viewable online. The focus is to “present diverse visions from many contributors as itself a form of collective memorial,” Patten says.

Interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, located south of the National Mall, on 14th Street in Washington, D.C. (Photo: AgnosticPreachersKid/Wikimedia Commons)

Interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, located south of the National Mall, on 14th Street in Washington, D.C. (Photo: AgnosticPreachersKid/Wikimedia Commons)

And the range is indeed wide. One proposal is to add a fifth star to the City of Chicago flag. Another is simply a drawing made using human hair of a hooded torture victim. Another is a list of possible actions—both symbolic and actual—to respond to torture. One reads: “Go to a furniture store and find something you like—something that really jumps out at you. Think of how that object could be used to inflict pain, injury, or death at the hands of a strong individual or individuals.” Another: “Engage in a discussion about race and white privilege with a group of strangers. Some of these actions were printed on bronze plaques for an earlier exhibit.

The diffuse and decentralized nature of the CTJM call for proposals avoids what is otherwise a common strategy: a competition to create a single memorial. The 9/11 international design competition led to fierce battles over who got a say in the architecture of the former World Trade Center site, how the names of victims would be arranged, and whether to include information about the hijackers.

And design contests don’t always result in a popular memorial. The National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., which consists of a large pool and fountains surrounded by grey pillars, has been described as “imperial kitsch,” “the worst kind of authoritarian architecture,” and even reminiscent of “1930s-era fascism.” By avoiding these grandiose structures, CTJM reflects what museum scholar Paul Williams has referred to as the new generation of “counter-monuments.”

Though a permanent monument supported by the city is a long-term goal, CTJM de-emphasizes this aspect. Patten indicates that the group studied past efforts and saw “how some memorials may mark a struggle as ‘over’ or ‘finished.’”

The group is right to avoid a sense of historical closure: Recent reporting from the Guardian indicates that secret police facilities hiding serious abuse and misconduct might still exist in Chicago. A number of people have come forward who claim they were detained for hours at Homan Square, a police warehouse, without access to a lawyer. Some, it’s been reported, were handcuffed to a metal bar to force confessions before their arrest was formally processed or recorded. After these revelations, many locals, especially citizens of color, lament what they call the long history of “the denial of constitutional rights in their city” at the hands of the Chicago Police Department.

As police brutality against people of color receives national media attention, the subject requires the state to look at itself as a perpetrator, something that might hamper official memorializing efforts. In fact, the grassroots model of CTJM may be by design but also by necessity.

If there is never a stone or metal tower dedicated to Chicago torture victims, no triumphant sculpture or building, is that a failure? Doss argues that “a permanent memorial is a form of closure, and I don’t think we’re anywhere near closure on this issue.”

The group, in collaboration with partner organizations, does have at least one major victory under its belt: After being stalled in Chicago’s City Council since 2013, the torture survivors reparations ordinance was discussed by the Council’s finance committee today, where a preliminary agreement on terms was reached.

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