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Even If Chicago 'Black Site' Story Is A Stretch, It Stirred Up Bad Memories

Aaron Cheney demonstrates outside a federal courthouse where former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge was on trial.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Aaron Cheney demonstrates outside a federal courthouse where former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge was on trial.

There are plenty of possible explanations behind Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's failure to get enough votes in Tuesday's election to avoid a runoff. His tenure has been plagued by gang violence. Many African-American voters are disenchanted with Emmanuel's decision to close some 50 public schools. And the mayor has been criticized for a top-down management style.

And on the morning of election day, The Guardian published a new report by Spencer Ackerman about an alleged "black site" facility operated by Chicago police, where people as young as 15 were allegedly shackled for hours, beaten and denied access to lawyers. While questions have been raised about elements of The Guardian story, Rick Perlstein, author of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan and a Chicago resident, says Ackerman's story may have spurred outraged voters to the polls despite Tuesday's bitter cold.

"People here," he says, "are hungering to get away from Chicago's 'bad old days.' "

Chicago's "bad old days" include the notorious case of former Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who was assigned to Chicago's South Side in 1972. For more than a decade, Burge and men under his command tortured more than 100 African-American men into giving false confessions. Burge served in Vietnam, and some believe he inflicted torture techniques he first adopted while in military uniform. Burge eventually served a 4.5-year prison sentence, but he still draws a pension from the city.

In 2013, Emanuel apologized for Burge's tenure, calling it a "dark chapter." But now, despite questions about whether The Guardian's allegations are overstated, the report about secret police brutality has likely stirred up bad memories for some voters.

The Chicago Sun-Times takes a closer look at Ackerman's piece. The Chicago Reader has collected over a decade's worth of reporting on Jon Burge. Emanuel will face Cook County board member Jesus "Chuy" Garcia in a runoff on April 7.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alexandra Starr

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