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Beyond the Usual Beating: The Jon Burge Police Torture Scandal and Social Movements for Police Accountability in Chicago

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The malign and long-lasting influence of Chicago police commander Jon Burge cannot be overestimated, particularly as fresh examples of local and national criminal-justice abuse continue to surface with dismaying frequency. Burge’s decades-long tenure on the Chicago police force was marked by racist and barbaric interrogation methods, including psychological torture, burnin The malign and long-lasting influence of Chicago police commander Jon Burge cannot be overestimated, particularly as fresh examples of local and national criminal-justice abuse continue to surface with dismaying frequency. Burge’s decades-long tenure on the Chicago police force was marked by racist and barbaric interrogation methods, including psychological torture, burnings, and mock executions—techniques that went far “beyond the usual beating.” After being exposed in 1989, he became a symbol of police brutality and the unequal treatment of nonwhite people, and the persistent outcry against him led to reforms such as the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois. But Burge hardly developed or operated in a vacuum, as Andrew S. Baer explores to stark effect here. He identifies the darkness of the Burge era as a product of local social forces, arising from a specific milieu beyond the nationwide racialized reactionary fever of the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, the popular resistance movements that rallied in his wake actually predated Burge’s exposure but cohered with unexpected power due to the galvanizing focus on his crimes and abuses. For more than thirty years, a shifting coalition including torture survivors, their families, civil rights attorneys, and journalists helped to corroborate allegations of violence, free the wrongfully convicted, have Burge fired and incarcerated, and win passage of a municipal reparations package, among other victories. Beyond the Usual Beating reveals that though the Burge scandal underscores the relationship between personal bigotry and structural racism in the criminal justice system, it also shows how ordinary people held perpetrators accountable in the face of intransigent local power.  


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The malign and long-lasting influence of Chicago police commander Jon Burge cannot be overestimated, particularly as fresh examples of local and national criminal-justice abuse continue to surface with dismaying frequency. Burge’s decades-long tenure on the Chicago police force was marked by racist and barbaric interrogation methods, including psychological torture, burnin The malign and long-lasting influence of Chicago police commander Jon Burge cannot be overestimated, particularly as fresh examples of local and national criminal-justice abuse continue to surface with dismaying frequency. Burge’s decades-long tenure on the Chicago police force was marked by racist and barbaric interrogation methods, including psychological torture, burnings, and mock executions—techniques that went far “beyond the usual beating.” After being exposed in 1989, he became a symbol of police brutality and the unequal treatment of nonwhite people, and the persistent outcry against him led to reforms such as the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois. But Burge hardly developed or operated in a vacuum, as Andrew S. Baer explores to stark effect here. He identifies the darkness of the Burge era as a product of local social forces, arising from a specific milieu beyond the nationwide racialized reactionary fever of the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, the popular resistance movements that rallied in his wake actually predated Burge’s exposure but cohered with unexpected power due to the galvanizing focus on his crimes and abuses. For more than thirty years, a shifting coalition including torture survivors, their families, civil rights attorneys, and journalists helped to corroborate allegations of violence, free the wrongfully convicted, have Burge fired and incarcerated, and win passage of a municipal reparations package, among other victories. Beyond the Usual Beating reveals that though the Burge scandal underscores the relationship between personal bigotry and structural racism in the criminal justice system, it also shows how ordinary people held perpetrators accountable in the face of intransigent local power.  

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