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The Untouchables: An Investigation into the Violence of the Chicago Police

In a 2020 audit of American cities, the municipal monitor Truth in Accounting gave Chicago an F for fiscal health. It called the town a “sinkhole” that’s $36 billion in the red and owes more per citizen — roughly $40,000 apiece — than any metropolis save New York. It borrows huge sums to meet its obligations, routinely raises taxes on property owners, and claws back millions from teachers’ pensions to float its annual budget. What it doesn’t do is face down the ruinous costs of police misconduct against its people. Chicagoans pay more to the victims of cop violence than the residents of any U.S. city per capita. In 2018, the last year for which there are records, the city spent about $100 million on claims, and tens of millions more in legal fees to the lawyers who brought the cases.


But the deep story here is not fiscal injustice and a city’s refusal to face it. Instead, it is the state of policing in America, embodied by the town that gave its cops a charter to put their knees on the necks of black citizens. It began with the first wave of the Great Migration, that African American exodus from the Jim Crow South to the industrial cities of the North. In 1916, sharecroppers by the thousands boarded trains in Mississippi for Union Station in Chicago, drawn by the promise of ready jobs in the stockyards and steel mills. The barons of those outfits were not ardent lefties integrating the workforce; they were ruthless misers out to undercut wages and break the backs of white unions. And so they sent recruiters, called labor agents, to lure unskilled blacks off of the farms. At the time, people of color constituted two percent of the census in Chicago. By 1970, they were a third of the population of the then-second-largest metropolis in America.

The arrival of this vast new cohort of families wasn’t met with balloons and cake. Black residents were forced into the South Side’s slums and beaten by mobs when they tried to test the boundaries of what quickly became known as the Black Belt. During the annus horribilus of 1919 — the Red Summer of race riots in America’s cities — huge mobs of whites tore through the South Side, burning down homes and pulling black people out of streetcars and stoning them to death. Three-quarters of Chicago’s police force was sent to the scene to establish a hard perimeter. Instead, they stood and watched or escorted gangs of white goons into and out of harm’s way. One member of those gangs: a teenage Richard Daley, who would rise to become the mayor of Chicago and rule it like a crime boss until his death.

“This was domestic terrorism, plain and simple — aided and abetted by the CPD,” says Simon Balto, an assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa, whose Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago From Red Summer to Black Power is the essential text on the subject. “Two-times-more blacks died by violence than whites — [and] two-times-more blacks were arrested.”

Despite their baptism of blood in Chicago, families of color continued pouring north, growing a culture and an economy in apartheid. Churches and blues clubs and restaurants sprang up, seeding the “Chicago Renaissance” of the 1930s. That first generation birthed a black middle class of doctors, managers, and union stewards, and served as a beacon for hesitant blacks still trying to eke by in the South. But the second great wave, of the Forties and Fifties, sparked new rounds of racist reprisal. Pushed to their breaking point, black communities rose up, staging marches on City Hall. Daley, the former-rioter-turned-dynast-czar of the Democratic machine in Chicago, responded by hiring Orlando Wilson to run the CPD. It was Wilson who turned the city’s police force into a numbers-driven dreadnought of racial suppression.

Instead of standing sentry at the South Side’s borders, his cops surged in by the thousands each day to harass and bust at will: stop-and-frisk mandates; summonses for small infractions; arrests and ticket quotas for patrolmen. Their job was to take back territory, says Balto, under the banner of law and order. It bears noting that violence soared under Wilson. Murders rose by a third during his watch.

Though Wilson retired in 1967, the fruit of his labor was on view the following year, when the city went up in smoke not once but twice. If you Google “Chicago riots” and “1968,” the top results link you to the Democratic Convention, when Daley’s cops beat and arrested hippies for peacefully picketing outside. But four months earlier, when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and black kids took to the streets, the police swarmed in and shot down dozens of them, 11 fatally. That wasn’t enough blood to suit Daley, however. “Shoot to kill arsonists!” he ordered his cops, and, “Shoot to maim the looters!”

In December of the following year, 14 heavily armed cops stormed the apartment of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. Hampton was sound asleep beside his nine-months-pregnant wife when the CPD burst in blazing. They killed his bodyguard, Mark Clark, shot several of Hampton’s friends, then made their way to the bedroom. Hampton, who’d been drugged by an FBI mole, may or may not have roused before cops killed him. He’d been gravely wounded in the initial barrage; then one of the cops coolly finished him off, shooting him twice in the head.

We know these facts because a neophyte lawyer fought to make them known. G. Flint Taylor, the twentysomething founder of the People’s Law Office in Chicago, sued for 13 years on behalf of Clark and Hampton before settling in 1983 for $1.85 million, then a record sum for a civil rights case. Taylor, still practicing law at 74, is a walking passcode to CPD misconduct. It was Taylor and his colleagues who unearthed the crimes committed by the “Midnight Crew,” a squad of racist cops who tortured blacks to extract their false confessions. Once again, a tip from an anonymous cop — Taylor calls him “Deep Badge” in his memoir, The Torture Machine — launched a probe into the CPD’s worst actors. Headed by Jon Burge, who climbed from beat cop to commander faster than anyone in department history, the Midnight Crew deployed a device with clamps and electrodes to wring information from detainees. “He rigged a generator up and attached clips to people’s genitals, then shocked and burned and beat and choked them till they told him what he wanted,” says Taylor.