Can Shame Stop the Games? 

Some folks think a city that hasn't resolved its history of police torture shouldn't get to host the Olympics.

By now most people are probably aware of Mayor Daley's dream team of Olympic boosters, who've been working feverishly the past few months to bring the games to Chicago in 2016. But a group of south- and west-side activists have been working almost as hard to keep the Olympics away.

On one hand you have some of the area's wealthiest power brokers teaming up with the city's most powerful politician. On the other are a cloutless collection of retirees and activists, led by civil rights attorneys Standish Willis and Lawrence Kennon and retired police officer Pat Hill, a 20-year veteran.

Unlike other critics of the Olympics proposal, Hill and her allies aren't calling attention to the numerous financial uncertainties of the city's plan for the games. Instead, calling themselves Black People Against Police Torture, they contend that winning the Olympic bid is a prize the city won't deserve unless it settles lingering questions about police torture and moves to remedy its errors.

As the Reader's John Conroy has reported at length (his stories are posted in a free archive at chicagoreader.com/policetorture), between 1973 and 1991, Jon Burge and officers under his command tortured confessions out of scores of suspects at the old Area Two station house at 91st and Cottage Grove, dubbed the "House of Screams" in a 1990 Reader cover story. The detainees were black; almost all of the accused police officers were white. The cops beat them with phone books, flashlights, and rubber hose, put guns to their heads, and administered electric shock, often targeting the genitals.

In 1982 convicted cop killer Andrew Wilson told his lawyers and an examining doctor that he had been beaten, burned, and shocked by Burge and his detectives at Area Two. The doctor wrote a letter to police superintendent Richard Brzezcek urging police to investigate. Brzezcek forwarded the doctor's letter to Daley, who was Cook County state's attorney at the time, asking him how to proceed. Daley never responded.

The truth of Wilson's claims became apparent seven years later, during the course of his federal lawsuit against Burge and the city. The police board fired Burge in 1993, and city lawyers admitted that he had savagely tortured Wilson. But Burge continues to receive a monthly pension--of $3,400.71--and he's never been prosecuted for any crime. Moreover, Chicago taxpayers continue to foot the bill for his defense in federal lawsuits filed by his victims.

Last summer two former prosecutors, Robert Boyle and Edward Egan, completed a four-year investigation, concluding that torture had occurred in at least half of the 148 cases they examined. "It is our judgment," they wrote, "that Burge was guilty of . . . abuse." However, "regrettably we have concluded that the statute of limitations would bar any prosecution of any offenses our investigation has disclosed." (Victims' attorneys argue that there are ways around this.)

Boyle and Egan also exonerated Daley and his office, saying, "There is insufficient evidence of any wrongdoing by any member of the state's attorney's office except one person." (Not Daley.)

What does any of this have to do with the Olympics coming to Chicago? "Everything," says Hill. "The Olympics is an honor. It represents peace, humanity, and good sportsmanship. You dishonor the spirit of the Olympics by bringing it to the torture capital of the Western world. You should not honor this city with the Olympics until this city comes to terms with this part of the past."

Hill and her allies want the police officers who committed the torture to be punished for their actions, want Burge stripped of his pension, and want the city to stop paying his legal fees. Finally, they want Daley to publicly explain why he never responded to Brzezcek's letter and why he never prosecuted Burge and other police torturers.

Black People Against Police Torture began pressing their case against the Olympics shortly after Egan and Boyle released their report last summer. Now former Olympian John Carlos has pledged his support. The bronze medalist in the 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympics, Carlos is best remembered for the black-power salute he and gold medalist Tommie Smith made from the winners' podium. U.S. Olympic officials came down on Smith and Carlos at the time, threatening to take away their medals. They kept them, and ever since, like Muhammad Ali they've been revered as athletes unafraid to stand up for their beliefs.

"I want the mayor to get off his fanny and address this issue," says Carlos, who lives in Los Angeles. "He was the state's attorney when this torture was taking place. The mayor needs to step up to the plate and get this thing resolved. It's not even just about the Olympics coming to Chicago. It's for Chicago too. These individuals who tortured shed a bad light on many good police officers that they have in the city."

In November, Hill and Willis sent a 250-page notebook filled with reports and newspaper clippings about the Burge cases to the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs. When the committee came to town on March 7, several members of the group gathered in Washington Park, hoping to meet with Olympic officials. "We knew they were going to visit the park after they had a presentation at McCormick Place," Hill says.

What ensued was an exchange between the protesters and police officers who demanded that they leave the park. "They said, 'You have to get out of the park,'" says Hill. "We said, 'It's a public park. How can you force us to leave a public park?'"

They were still haggling when the mayor and the committee members rolled up in buses. "We were ready to go over to the Olympic Committee members and introduce ourselves," says Hill. But the entourage never got off the bus. Afterward city officials told reporters that Daley had decided to keep everyone on board because there was snow on the ground.

Now Willis and other members of the group plan to go to Colorado to try to get an audience with committee members. And he says if the committee awards the U.S. bid to Chicago over LA, they'll take their case to the International Olympic Committee, which has final say on where the games will be held. While Daley and his boosters woo the world with slide shows, Hill, Willis, and their allies are determined that Olympic officials remember the torture that took place in Burge's house of screams--and the city officials who have yet to own up to their mistakes.

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagaoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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