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Editorial: No real innocents in Burge’s world of torture

Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

A man named Michael Tillman spent 23 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder, and now the taxpayers of Cook County will pay him $600,000 in restitution.

Who’s to blame for what happened to Tillman?

The quick answer, partially true, is former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his henchmen, who allegedly tortured a false confession out of Tillman, and the assistant state’s attorney who apparently looked the other way.

But that’s too easy.

Truth is, most of us are to blame for Tillman’s wrongful conviction and for many other wrongful confessions just like it. Blame belongs to the cops who Tillman says tortured him, the prosecutors who tacitly condoned torture, the media that barely cried foul and the public that was indifferent.

A culture of complicity ruled the day.

That point is made in an unsettling new play, “My Kind of Town,” written by Chicago Reader reporter John Conroy and currently running at TimeLine Theatre in Lake View. A fictionalized account of the Burge scandal, based on two decades of reporting by Conroy, “My Kind of Town” lets no one off the hook.

How did Burge and his men get away with torturing suspects through much of the 1970s and 1980s? And when the ugly truth finally began to surface, why was there so little public outrage?

It did not help that the first known victim of Burge’s electric shock treatment was the vicious Andrew Wilson, the indisputable killer of two police officers. It’s hard to work up outrage over the mistreatment, even the torture, of a cop killer.

Moreover, almost all of Burge’s victims were black men, who as a group get the short end of the presumption of innocence in American society.

“I think it has a lot to do with a willingness on the part of every society to cordon off some section of the citizenry — an ‘out’ group that is beyond the pale of our compassion, a torturable class to whom anything can be done,” Conroy says in an interview in Backstory, TimeLine Theatre’s play bill. “In this case, that group was African-American men, most with criminal records.”

But Conroy’s play digs deeper. The criminalization of black men as a class, the play suggests, is a prejudice that crosses color lines, a prejudice lurking even in many African Americans. One of the more poignant moments in “My Kind of Town” comes when the parents of a young black man in prison reluctantly admit to each other that, in their heart of hearts, they secretly dread their son coming home — because he scares them, too.

People are afraid. That’s why they turn a blind eye to the most basic violations of human rights. In their desire to feel safer, they condone the suffocation of a murder suspect in the basement of a Chicago Police station and the waterboarding of a terror suspect at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

But at what cost?

“Where do we draw a moral line?” asks PJ Powers, artistic director of TimeLine. “Do we care how to keep the streets safe, how the work gets done, or just that it gets done?”

The DNA of a Jon Burge runs through us all.

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