The Torture Letters, the new book by Laurence Ralph, an anthropologist and professor at Princeton University, grapples with the conditions that led to decades of police torture in Chicago.
He frames this lyrical and poignant examination of police violence as a series of open letters. He writes to the youth of Chicago, future city administrations, and past players in the sad history of police torture.
It’s a compelling and necessary look at the brutalism that inevitably emerges in the maintenance of racial castes, and the persistence of police violence today.
Ralph focuses primarily on the example of Andrew Wilson. In 1982, Wilson shot and killed two policemen. When he was arrested, he was brutally tortured under the supervision of Jon Burge of Chicago’s Area 2 precinct. Wilson’s suit against the Chicago Police Department lasted years and ultimately revealed a pattern of racially motivated torture.
What is the role of torture in enforcing a racial caste system in Chicago?
When it comes to racial caste in criminal justice, Michelle Alexander popularized that notion with The New Jim Crow. It definitely relates to police torture. We are talking about the way people that are guilty of crimes are not given the same protections as others. And it’s racial.
Andrew Wilson was a test case, because he had a long criminal record, a history of violence against the police.
He was known. And so when his trial happened, the jury noticed that he had been tortured, but they decided that he didn’t need any recourse from the violence he had suffered.
His torturer, John Burge, didn’t need to face any form of sanctions.
Andrew Wilson would expose police torture in Chicago through his civil cases. But it took a long time. And the reason that that took so long was that he was viewed as a criminal, and that he was deserving of the punishment that he got.
You’ve identified that police torture is often viewed as committed by a few bad actors, rather than as a systemic phenomenon. What results does this viewpoint have?
It’s challenging. It presents challenges to the question of “How do we hold police accountable for the torture they commit?”
We’re unable to hold people accountable if it’s always a few bad apples because the conversation doesn’t move to “What is to prevent this from happening again?” That’s why it’s so vital to frame this at a systems level.
One of the main focuses of The Torture Letters had to do with the people that worked with John Burge, who were not themselves torturers and racists, that did not confront him or hold him accountable.
There have to be incentives for police officers to report torture. Because otherwise they are not going to put their careers and their safety on the line to confront the conditions that produce torture in the first place.
How does the use of force continuum relate to the question of police violence and torture?
It’s important to remember that use of force by police officers exists within a spectrum. It can range from a stern look to torture or even death.
The two ends of the spectrum reinforce each other. When someone has experienced police force, the presence of a police car can engender a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Constant interventions can create a sense of always being afraid. It’s a persistent sensation of being scrutinized and menaced.
And when that’s bolstered by the other extreme of the use of force continuum, there is a definite sense of impunity on the part of the police who commit acts of violence. All of this reinforces psychological trauma.
How does this relate to the torture done by the military in places like Guantanamo?
There are definite parallels between the use of force on military detainees and police torture. The decision to torture in both instances often comes from a person being perceived as not a person but only as a member of an enemy group. That person starts to stand in for an entire group that is demonized and feared, and the violence that is done is done with all the stereotypes about that group in mind.
Were there stories about Area 2 that you did not include in the text?
Yes, and many of the stories about John Burge came from submitted legal statements in cases regarding police torture in Chicago.
But one thing that I didn’t really get too far into was the depth of John Burge’s racism. There were anecdotes of him bragging in taverns about belonging to the KKK and torturing criminals because they were black.
It was a fine line to walk, because I wanted to show that he was a racist. But part of the story was also that the people around him were incentivized to remain silent. It was a system of complicity that allowed torture to take place and continue over the course of many years.
You grew up in Maryland. Did that present challenges for your ethnographic work? Were there things about the South Side you wish you knew before you started?
Yes, this book was a little bit of a corrective. When I was writing my previous book, Renegade Dreams, I would always hear people talking about Burge, connected to contemporary examples of police violence.
I would hear, “They never did anything about Burge, they wouldn’t do anything about this case either.”
And what I came to understand, that I previously didn’t know, was there was a generational pain caused by police violence. There was a generational aspect to the trauma. And police violence has persisted across the last century, and that legacy continues. And so the terrible people like Burge become reference points for the injustice that persists in the criminal justice system.
Can you talk a little bit about the notion of transnational policing? And then, what additional reading would you recommend for people interested in supporting the work to end police torture?
Transnational policing is a way to think about the connections between the policing across different countries.
Part of these connections I explore in the book. Richard Zuley was a police officer in Chicago with a questionable record that went to Guantanamo Bay to torture there.
The transnational lens asks questions about how we understand the systems that allow these connections. Broadly, militarism and policing. “How does someone with a checkered record continue this violence within a state sponsored capacity?”
For people interested in ending police torture, there is a lot of new work that is coming out on these issues. A lot of work that looks at the history. There is Occupied Territory by Simon Balto. From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton.
Part of what really inspired me as I was working on this project was the community of people that were working so hard to bring to light the history of police torture.
So there are books with a legal angle, lawyers have written books. There’s The Torture Machine, by Flint Taylor. And there are books by activists, and the Chicago Torture Victims.
The Torture Letters comes at this from an academic lens. I see myself in conversation with those books, working to address a broken system so that something like this will not happen again.
The Torture Letters
By Laurence Ralph
University of Chicago Press
Published January 9th, 2020
Joseph Houlihan lives and works in Minneapolis, MN.