A photograph by Chicago organizer Sarah-Ji Rhee shows a protestor holding a sign bearing the legend “abolition is radical imagination,” the latter words surrounded in thought bubbles. Art often outpaces law; activists have always had to redraw the boundaries of what seems politically possible. The point holds especially true in the case of reparations. The movement to demand material redress for chattel slavery’s profound social harms and its ongoing structural consequences has had more failures than successes, at least if measured in monetary terms. But, as Robin D. G. Kelley points out, the history of reparations can best be understood as a rich archive of imaginative activism, of attempts to provocatively challenge the status quo. When the City Council of Chicago passed a landmark reparations ordinance in 2015, the first such legislation to provide for the unconscionably large numbers of (mostly Black) survivors of police torture, it was thanks to the efforts of a coalition of artists and activists who put radical imagination into practice.
What should reparations look like? And what do reparations look like? I spoke to artists, activists and torture survivors who have examined these questions by tackling two cases: the well-documented tragedy of Chicago police torture and the ongoing international scandal of Guantánamo Bay. Their work is part of the exhibition, “Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture, and Reparations | Chicago to Guantánamo,” opening in March at the DePaul Art Museum. Connected concretely by figures like Richard Zuley, the detective who brought torture techniques honed in the Chicago Police Department to the camp in 2002, the two sites exemplify the many threads that knit the world-spanning military industrial complex together with the sprawling horror of the North American prison system.
I. Chicago Is Another Guantánamo
Mansoor Adfayi was kidnapped, tortured and held at Guantánamo Bay for over fourteen years without charge. “Chicago is another Guantánamo,” he argues, highlighting fundamental similarities between the treatment of Black torture survivors and Muslims held in military detention. Abuse, torture and the denial of fair judicial hearings are not simply well attested in both cases; they’re what make domestic policing and the “War on Terror” tick. A painting by Sabri Mohammed al-Qurashi—made at Guantánamo around the same time as his iconic vision of a hooded Statue of Liberty—depicts the shackled ankles of a figure clad in a bright orange jumpsuit. The light is harsh, evoking the hot Caribbean sun, but the closely cropped scene is dislocated from any precise context. It could just as easily be Ohio as Cuba. Though the world now knows about Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib (where Army higher-ups were inspired by Zuley’s techniques), publicly unraveling the depth and breadth of Chicago police torture has proven difficult. “Maybe to some extent it’s worse than Guantánamo,” Adfayi says. “We can see that the international community, other countries, even the American government, recognize that Guantánamo is wrong.”
II. A Constellation of Violence
Discussions of Chicago police torture have focused on a handful of notorious figures, most famously Jon Burge, who drew on his military experience to spearhead a decades-long campaign of torture and violence on the South Side. But, as artist Sarah Ross points out, the problem is larger: “Burge is one person in a huge constellation of people, not just police officers. States’ attorneys, a whole set of other people in the legal field. And clearly the same could be said about Guantánamo.” Seeking reparations means more than targeting specific individuals. It means transforming social institutions, structures of wealth and the histories we privilege, as well as recognizing specific torture cases as symptomatic of an overwhelming history of violence and anti-Blackness. The recent projects of Dorothy Burge—who’s unrelated to Jon—include exquisitely colored quilted portraits of torture survivors who remain incarcerated. “African Americans have been fighting against genocide since we got here,” she tells me, “I’m doing this series of quilts to raise awareness and keep this issue alive.” Torture is connected to other forms of policing, surveillance and everyday violence. “Right now I’m not safe,” Burge says. “I’m an elder. I’m proud of the fact that I’m an elder, going to a protest as an elder, being harassed by police for wearing a #BlackLivesMatter mask. Where’s the safety in that?”
III. Reparations Is Work
The fight for reparations is slow. To name an obvious example, Chicago’s City Council promised funds for a memorial to police torture—designed by John Lee and Patricia Nguyen—but has repeatedly failed to deliver the money. Of course, the work of movement building and imagining more just futures is also slow. Curator Amber Ginsburg describes the process in terms of artisanal practice: “As an artist and a person who connects to craft, I think a lot about the accretion of learning. When you first hit a pottery wheel, it takes a long time to learn a thing through your body.” Reparations, too, is a craft. Ginsburg connects foundational demands, like financial compensation, to questions of accountability and apology, the less obviously material components vital to the sustained success of any reparative project.
IV. Speculative Futures
Much of the art made at Guantánamo, like Ghaleb al-Bihani’s exquisite pastel work, is strikingly imaginative. Reparations account for the past, but reparative demands are inherently forward looking; they envision a good future that might grow from an imperfect present. As Maira Khwaja of the Invisible Institute puts it, “I think we’re all still on a journey, collectively, communally, to even understand what justice looks like. Justice that isn’t incarceration, that isn’t counter-violence.” Similarly, Rhee contrasts the diagnosis of technologies of violence with the celebration and invention of technologies of resistance. Radical imagination is the means to new forms of justice. (Luke A. Fidler)
“Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture, & Reparations|Chicago to Guantánamo” is on view at DePaul Art Museum, 935 West Fullerton, through August 7.