Laurence Ralph’s animated short, The Torture Letters, begins with the image of two young Black teenagers, a boy and girl wearing matching white bookbags, kneeling on a street corner surrounded by Chicago police.
As the 13-minute film progresses, Ralph carefully connects that singular moment he witnessed in 2004 to the documented history of Chicago police brutality and literal torture of people by notorious city police detective Jon Burge and his “Midnight Crew” of fellow officers.
Between 1972 and 1991, Burge and his team used beatings, suffocations, burnings, and a black box that administered electric shocks to the genitals to coerce information and confessions out of predominantly Black men.
The film’s message is clear. The harassment, trauma, and fear instilled in the Black community during Burge’s brutal reign continue in various forms to this day. While police-involved beatings and fatalities make headlines, Ralph’s focus is on the broader damage daily police aggression and tactics are having on the health and well-being of Chicago’s Black children and their communities.
It is within this context, that Ralph, a Princeton University Anthropology professor, and Yale School of Public Health Assistant Professor Chelsey R. Carter, a Black feminist anthropologist of medicine, public health, and race, along with a small group of students from Princeton, Yale, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University recently traveled to Chicago to meet with more than a 150 middle school students. The goal of the pilot program was to encourage the students to talk about their interactions with police and to help them process their feelings and fears while also providing them guidance should they have encounters with law enforcement in the future.
“Dr. Ralph’s film shows how police violence has become part of the core culture of Chicago, and also frankly, part of American culture,” Carter said. “It’s not just one bad apple here or one bad apple there. It’s structural… So, we looked at this, police violence, as a public health issue and we asked the students how police violence and torture has impacted their lives.”
The power of letters
Held at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, the student session began with a showing of Ralph’s film followed by a discussion with several panelists that included Chicago human rights lawyer G. Flint Taylor, Ralph, and two local survivors of police torture — Sean Tyler and Reginald Henderson.
The students were hesitant at first, said Carter, who moderated the event. But they began sharing their feelings after hearing Tyler’s and Henderson’s personal stories, which resonated with them, she said. Separated into groups of 10, the students were asked to draw pictures and write letters about their feelings based on what they had learned and their personal experiences in dealing with the police.
“They wrote to survivors, they wrote to police officers, their parents, even the president of the United States just sharing what they learned and why this information was so powerful and impactful and telling others what they wanted them to do about it,” Carter said.
Said Ralph: “Undergraduate and graduate students from Yale, Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University really helped these students process their feelings. I think the students we brought along to facilitate the event were great role models for the Chicago Public School students.”
Carter, who worked closely with Ralph when she was a Princeton postdoctoral fellow (he was her faculty advisor), said the group targeted middle school students for a reason.
“We sometimes think these things [the psychological traumas from police violence] start happening with high school students, but we know middle school students are also experiencing these things,” she said. “It’s also an important age developmentally when kids experience more freedoms and privileges. Maybe they’re now walking home by themselves or hanging outside later, they need to know how to interact with police and what could happen, unfortunately, because of the color of their skin.”
Middle school is also when students in Chicago public schools learn about the city’s history of police abuse through a mandated curriculum. The curriculum was part of a series of actions taken by the city following the exposure of Burge’s tactics and numerous investigations and civil lawsuits. The city also established a reparations fund of 5.5 million dollars for Burge’s victims (the first such fund in the U.S.) and pledged to build a memorial to the deceased.
Ralph said he was inspired by the reparations judgment and its mandated curriculum component. “Writing about torture is difficult and it takes a mental toll,” Ralph said. “But as an educator, the prospect of contributing to this curriculum really gave me a sense of purpose.”
Later in the evening on the same day as the student sessions, the program leaders held a separate meeting on police violence that was open to the public. Ralph’s film was also shown at that meeting, which included two co-founders of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, torture survivors, and local activists as panelists.
“We talked about what do we do next. How do we make sure this history doesn’t disappear,” Carter said. “Because when you look at what’s happening across the country, in places like Florida where there is a subjugation of actions that have happened and Black history in general, the fear is that this [police violence] will become hidden, a hidden history.”
Like Ralph, Carter sees police violence as having a much deeper and broader impact on communities of color beyond the tragic shooting fatalities and beatings that get reported in the media. When a person is removed from society and incarcerated, it impacts not only them but their families, their children, and even their communities, she said.
“If one person gets impacted by the carceral system, everyone gets impacted by the carceral system because now, not only do you have the pain and trauma of losing that person, you have an adult who can't contribute to the home economically and who can’t be a caretaker to their children,” Carter said. The stigma attached to those released from prison also makes it hard for people to reintegrate into society she said, and as a result, the community suffers.
“When we talk about fatalities, I think this is just like a fatality because it is so damning,” Carter said. “When you can’t get fully exonerated, when you can’t explain the loss of those 26 years when you weren’t building a career, when you can’t make enough money to support yourself or help your family survive, that incarceration has radically changed your life in so many ways. It’s just completely fatal.”
That loss radiates through communities, Carter continued. “It’s like a communal pain, a communal trauma,” she said. “It makes me think of the work I do with ALS (another focus of Carter’s scholarship). When a person is diagnosed with ALS, it doesn’t just affect them, it affects their household, their whole family, and the same thing is happening here with police violence.”
Carter and Ralph hope to scale up the intervention and visit other Chicago schools in the near future.
“We want to help students not only by talking about police torture but also by helping them heal so they can use these techniques back in their communities where they may not have access to art therapy or training in breathing techniques to help them deal with anxiety, panic attacks, and a fear of the police,” Carter said.
For Ralph, one of the most impactful things about the events was seeing the torture survivors interact with the middle school students. “They were only a little bit older than them when they were tortured by the police and wrongfully incarcerated. So, they were able to speak to students in a way that demonstrated the resilience of the human spirit,” he said.
Looking back on the pilot event, Carter said it was very moving to see the students process what they were hearing and learning.
“I think the students felt heard. They felt seen,” Carter said. “They felt in a way that they could honor the people that came before them who experienced these abuses. To engender that kind of empathy and care in a seventh grader is just huge.”
The pilot program was made possible with funding from the Field Foundation of Illinois.