The Torture Letters

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 16 Sep 2019

Member Reviews

I have never read anything like this, I have no words.  Laurence Ralph did an excellent job gather information from multiple resource (focus groups, and interviews) to create these letters of police torture. I’m not kidding I was in tears reading parts of this book. I’m still processing, but my God, this is a must, must read. 

Many thanks to Univ. of Chicago & NetGalley for gifting me this copy.
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This book rather devastated me. I knew that there was an ugly subcurrent of racism and brutality in policing and the world at large; I just never realized how deeply it is entrenched in our culture. As an activist, it gave me more fuel to keep fighting for what’s right and equality. That was a definite positive in my mind, as it’s so very easy to get worn down and feel as if it’s all screaming into the void. 

My negative was the tone of the writing. It seemed to shift between a call to action and a research dissertation, I found that it impacted the book’s ultimate readability.  I do have a struggle with non-fiction in general, so that may be taken with a grain of salt.

I’m incredibly grateful to the publisher and NetGalley for my free ARC in exchange for my honest opinion/review. It was definitely a book that I would recommend, despite the frequent tone shifts. It’s important to know what is occurring just beneath the surface of our country, and bring it out into the light to be fully taken care of.
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Torture is an open secret in Chicago. Nobody in power wants to acknowledge this grim reality, but everyone knows it happens—and that the torturers are the police. Three to five new claims are submitted to the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission of Illinois each week. Four hundred cases are currently pending investigation. Between 1972 and 1991, at least 125 black suspects were tortured by Chicago police officers working under former Police Commander John Burge. As the more recent revelations from the Homan Square “black site” show, that brutal period is far from a historical anomaly. For more than fifty years, police officers who took an oath to protect and serve have instead beaten, electrocuted, suffocated, and raped hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Chicago residents.

Being a new Chicago resident, currently going through law school and learning the ins and out of how things really work here in Chicago - this was a compelling and all too familiar read.
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When approaching a nonfiction book about such a heavy topic written by a Princeton University professor, it's normal to assume that it's going to be a slow and difficult read. But in this case, you would be wrong.

Written as a series of open letters to victims, witnesses, and past and future leaders of Chicago, the book focuses on the (unfortunately radical) premise that torture is ALWAYS wrong, whether the victim is a wrongly accused innocent or a "bad guy." It is an engrossing page turner, and not at all what I was expecting.

It is a shocking indictment of the Chicago political system, which had for decades protected torturers and silenced victims. As someone who had grown up in the Chicago area, I was disgusted to read familiar names and hear of their roles in cover ups; some of these people are still in power.

However, there will still stories of hope in darkness, highlighting the work done recently by young activists in bringing light to crimes, and small steps towards reform in the Chicago Police Department. 

It certainly challenged me to open and soften my heart towards perceived  threats and not to buy into a societal fear that expects crime around every corner. Fear, the book reasons, leads to violence and torture, and we must be brave enough to say enough.

Also, it was not a religious book by any means, but it still spoke to me as a Christian in its assertion that inside all of us is a basic and inalienable holiness in our humanity, wherein no one should be subject to torture, whether you are an unrepentant killer or simply someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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The worst bit about this book, is that it can't make up its mind whether to be a research-form paper or a spoken-word performance.

The good bits—nota bene: plural—make up for that.

This is a book that delves into systemic torture performed by police; the author focuses on Chicago, USA, which is simply symptomatic of systematic torture not only performed in the USA but all over the world where unchecked fascist rule is enabled. The book also goes into other areas where not only police are involved, but also places like Guantánamo Bay.

Here are the facts: between 1972 and 1991, approximately 125 African American suspects were tortured by police officers in Chicago. The means of torture were numerous, but they all were conducted at Chicago’s Area 2 police precinct, which is located in the Pullman neighborhood but patrols much of the South Side. Beyond these verified instances, in 2003 journalists documented other episodes of torture before and after these dates, and elsewhere in the city, placing the total number of survivors of police torture in Chicago at roughly two hundred.

With some rare exceptions, all the torture survivors were men, and Black men in particular.

Racism runs through the choices that police make, all the time. It's getting better, but let's not kid ourselves: the plague is still there.

Police misconduct payouts related to incidents of excessive force have increased substantially since 2004. From 2004 to 2016, Chicago has paid out $662 million in police misconduct settlements, according to city records.

Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that these figures will decrease. Hundreds of Chicago Police Department misconduct lawsuit settlements were filed between 2011 and 2016, and they have cost Chicago taxpayers roughly $280 million. When I was writing this letter in July 2018, the city had paid more than $45 million in misconduct settlements thus far, in this year alone.

One of Ralph's best traits as an author is his ability to string together parts to make out a narrative in one single paragraph, like here:

On July 5, 2018, Chicago youth of color staged a die-in at city hall to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to spend $95 million to build a cop academy. The young protestors set up cardboard tombstones with the names of people who had been killed by the police written on them with black ink. They also wrote the names of schools and facilities that had shuttered because of a lack of public funding.

Ralph goes into length to explain how Jon Burge became infamous for not only applying systematic torture but allowing others to go on using it.

The witness testimonies are startling and required reading:

Porch said that the police had handcuffed his arms behind his back and that one of the officers stood on his testicles. He said they hit him with a gun on his head. Then one of the officers tried to hang him by his handcuffs to a hook on the door.

My main issues with this book are Ralph's open letters to different Chicago officials. Although they are most definitely needed and warranted, I feel they don't really fit this book. In any case, I wish they'd been formatted so that they could have been part of this book as part of research; instead, they delve into the world of spoken word, even poetry, which I felt doesn't do the book too much good. It's not like hearing Fred Hampton orate, which would have been great.

Overall, this book serves a vital and fervent purpose. Everybody needs to know that police torture (and abuse) is rampant and must be stopped. The question is how.
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