Police torturer on trial

May 21, 2010

The man responsible for the torture of Mark Clements and some 200 other African American and Latino men in Chicago will go on trial on Monday in a downtown courtroom.

Jon Burge is former police commander who oversaw a squad of detectives who were notorious for using torture techniques to coerce false confessions out of suspects. One of their victims was a 16-year-old Clements. The incriminating statement that was tortured out of him was the main evidence used at the trial where he was convicted. Clements was sentenced to four life sentences plus 30 years.

Clements became an activist while behind bars. Finally, in the summer of 2009, with protest and pressure building for new trials for Burge torture victims who are still behind bars, Clements was finally freed--after serving 28 years for a crime he didn't commit. Today, he is a member of the Jail Jon Burge coalition, a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and an activist with the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

Clements talked to Jon Bougie and Lyn Kotecki about his experiences and about the rally planned for the first day of Burge's trial.

JON BURGE is the former Chicago Police commander who ran a torture ring that abused approximately 200 suspects in the 1970s and '80s. He is scheduled to go on trial in Chicago on May 24. Can you tell us a bit about your experience with Burge's torturers in 1981?

AT 16 years of age, I was taken into police custody by Virgil Jones and Aaron Gibson. I was arrested earlier for an alleged disorderly conduct charge, which resulted in police transporting me down to Area 3 Violent Crimes. I had no idea why I was being taken to Area 3 Violent Crimes.

They told me a fire had occurred, and that four people died as a result of the fire. They said someone informed them that I set these fires in the neighborhood.

I told them repeatedly that I didn't set this fire, I didn't know who set this fire, and I wanted to call my parents. I was 16 years of age. The detectives told me "no." There was no youth officer contacted who was with me throughout this interrogation. Because I was denied access to a phone, my parents had not been contacted.

Chicago police torturer Jon Burge
Chicago police torturer Jon Burge

I asked to use the bathroom. Inside the bathroom, I saw a Caucasian police officer (who turned out to be Detective John McCann) drinking liquor and looking out of a window. I was intimidated and scared, so I used the bathroom real fast.

After using the bathroom, police took me into a different interrogation room. They put me in a closet-sized interrogation room. I was handcuffed to a ring. Inside of this room, because it was so small, the only thing that could fit in it was a desk--a small table, with two chairs and three chairs up against the wall.

Detective McCann came into the room and told me he was sent to help me. He shut the door, sat behind the desk, and asked, "Did you commit this crime?" I said no.

The detective said he thought I was lying. He moved his chair from behind his desk, and set it directly in front of the chair that I was sitting in. He placed it right up against me. He started hitting me in my arms and my legs and using racial slurs, like calling me "little nigger boy." He started hitting me in the chest. I was only 120 pounds. It knocked the air out of me. He was hitting me in the back, along my legs.

What you can do

A demonstration is planned for the first day of Jon Burge's trial. If you're in or around Chicago, come to the Daley Plaza, 55 W. Randolph, at 8:30 a.m. Find out more about the protest and the campaign against Burge at the Jail Jon Burge Web site.

For more background on the long struggle to win justice for Burge torture victims, visit the Web site of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the Campaign's newsletter, the New Abolitionist.

He basically fed me the facts and circumstances of what he wanted me to say to a man who was an assistant Cook County state's attorney. His name was Kevin Moore, and he told me that he represented the people.

I told him the police didn't allow me to call my parents, I had not seen a youth officer, and the police beat me. Just hearing that, he packed his stuff up and left.

Detective McCann returned to the room, slammed the door and locked it. McCann said I was trying to get him in trouble with his boss. He started hitting me in the arms, smacked me a couple of times, hit me in the chest several times, and I remember bending my head down, and he was beating me in the back. He was beating me in my legs with his fists and open hands. He was beating me in the back and trying to get me to rise up.

He grabbed my genitals and began to squeeze. He kept squeezing harder and harder and harder. He told me, "You're going to cooperate, little nigger boy." That's what he was calling me. I started crying, and I told him I would cooperate.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Mark Clements at Socialism 2010 in Chicago, speaking on "Tortured Confessions: Fighting Police Torture." Check out the Socialism 2010 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

He re-fed me the facts and circumstances of the crime. This time, he got all of the detectives, and they all sat in the room. He had me tell them exactly what I would tell the state's attorney. Kevin Moore returned, and he acted like nothing had happened.

WHAT ROLE did race play in the Burge torture ring?

IT WAS very racist. In all of these cases, these men were called racist names while they were beaten. And some of Jon Burge's Black colleagues say he commonly used racist terms.

WOULD YOU say that torture and abuse by police officers is limited to Chicago, or is it spread wider than that?

Well, it is spread wider. California had a problem with police torture back in the '60s and '70s. Torture is no stranger to New York. There was a young man who was sodomized by a plunger, Abner Louima. There is the young man who was shot forty-some times reaching for his wallet, Amadou Diallo. There have been cases of unthinkable tortures in New York and California as well as Chicago.

YOUR CASE and many of the other Burge torture cases happened over 20 years ago. Some of those incidents you just mentioned were much more recent. Do you have thoughts on what goes on today, and how similar or different it is compared to what was happening then?

THE SYSTEM has really not changed. Even with recorded confessions, there are errors and flaws with that. There have been individuals who have had their confessions tossed out because it was determined that police strategized ways to turn off the recording device and inflict beatings or brutality on the suspect to force them to give confessions against their will.

I don't give Barack Obama credit for saying he wants change. Now, he is the president of the United States of America, but he hasn't done one thing to correct the torture that has happened to Iraqi citizens. He claimed when he was running that he would make change.

We need to question what was behind Burge. Who gave Burge the power to do what he was doing? Burge went to war and learned the techniques of torture in Vietnam. But who was giving Jon Burge the power to do what he was doing--because he was untouchable for a great time.

Mayor Daley knew of these tortures. There are 20 Chicago police torture victims who remain incarcerated. Our system is destroying us--from the prisons to the police.

YOU'RE VERY involved in the Jail Jon Burge (JJB) Coalition, which is calling for a rally on May 24, the day of Jon Burge's trial. Can you tell us about the current activity around the call to Jail Jon Burge?

WE HAVE gotten great responses from many colleges. I want to see May 24 turn out to be another May Day, like the immigrant rights march. Chicago needs to see this for criminal justice reform in my opinion.

I keep hearing about criminal justice reforms. Where are the reforms? There are no criminal justice reforms. Some people had a problem when I went to Springfield and spoke at the lobby day. When I spoke, I asked them, what would they do if their child was accused of a crime and sentenced to natural life?

Many people look at that as criticizing government officials. Society has it wrong when you're the ones serving the politicians. The politician is supposed to be serving you.

People are worried about retaliatory behavior by the city of Chicago. But I'm not worried. They already took 28 years. I never really got over prison.

WHY IS it important that Burge face consequences for what he did? Why is it important for people to come out on May 24 and call for jailing Jon Burge?

"JAIL JON Burge" was a slogan that was used by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty for many years. And it is a rightful slogan.

Most of these individuals can't deal with the heat that they dish out. Chances are that Jon Burge will see, at most, about 18 months in federal prison. If he gets any more, I will probably faint in the courtroom. That's how the criminal justice system operates.

But perhaps if he gets a prison sentence, he'll talk. Most of these 20 [people who were tortured and are still behind bars] are going to require more than the special prosecutor's report to get them new hearings, because that report focused primarily on about four cases. It's going to require detectives singing on other detectives and getting other detectives indicted to break down that machine that they have, because they have a strong machine.

WHAT SIGNAL do you think Burge's trial will send to police who might be engaging in torture or to judges who look the other way on abuse?

BURGE HAS been headline news, but every year, we hear about detectives and street cops engaging in unthinkable acts. Look at what the officer did to that bartender [Chicago cop Anthony Abbate, whose beating of bartender Karolina Obrycka in 2007 was captured on tape].

These things will not stop until the ring of Burge is brought down. That will cause others in the police department to stop and think. Right now, they are thinking it's just Burge and some retired officers. But there are new officers out there today, and they have their own operations as to what evils they're doing.

What I do believe is that Jon Burge Day can force politicians, judges, and prosecutors to come along with charges against additional officers. Taking Jon Burge down doesn't solve the problem.

When you're dealing with broad issues such as police tortures or the health care issues or prison abuses, we all have to come together to correct that. If we want to build the organizations that we need to do this, we need to get young people involved.

What I will say about May 24 is that I want to rock Chicago. I believe that it can be done. I don't believe that things are so impossible that we can't come together, old and young, and whatever.

Change isn't saying "I want change," but then backing down. From the mayor of the city of Chicago, to former Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine, to every abusive police officer who victimizes suspects, I believe that before I leave this Earth, you will be indicted--because I will work day and night to be sure that you are held responsible for your behavior.

Further Reading

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