'The Torture Letters': Laurence Ralph explores Chicago’s dark history

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
Jan. 9, 2020

On a hot day in 2004, Laurence Ralph, recently arrived in Chicago to attend graduate school, stood on the corner of Lawndale Avenue and Cermak Road.

Two young teens, a boy and a girl dressed in white shirts and khaki pants, knelt on the sidewalk while six police officers emptied the contents of their book bags onto the concrete. For 26 minutes and 43 seconds, Ralph watched transfixed, wishing he were a family member or friend so that he could intervene to ask if the students were OK.

He was also reliving a memory from his own childhood, when shortly after moving from Baltimore to suburban Maryland he went with his two older brothers to the mall. A plainclothes officer followed them from store to store, finally stopping them near a railing on the second floor overlooking the food court, where the officer frisked the older boys.

“I could feel myself in my own skin unlike ever before,” Ralph writes of that moment in his new book, "The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence" (University of Chicago Press, 2020). “Adrenaline spiked my senses. All of a sudden I felt hair stand up from the follicles on my forearms. I could catch the sound of people chattering below me. I could smell fried potato wedges from the Boardwalk Café on the floor below, where a crowd of people gathered, eyes upward, watching the commotion against the second-story railing. I had been in that restaurant, eating those thick fries, just a few hours earlier. I wanted desperately to return to that moment.”

Observing the sidewalk scene in 2004, Ralph was relieved when the police finally released the Chicago teens, just as he had been when the mall’s officer finally released his brothers. “I also felt a familiar combination of cowardice, anger, guilt, frustration — and yes, fear.”

This episode and the memories spurred Ralph, now a professor of anthropology at Princeton, to focus his research on police violence against black and brown people, and particularly on a dark chapter in Chicago history: the torture of people of color at the hands of police from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s.

In "The Torture Letters," Ralph details the appalling brutality of officers at Chicago’s Area 2 precinct. There, officers abused numerous suspects, sometimes wresting false confessions that resulted in death penalty sentences.

Delving into letters, court records, testimonies and other sources as part of his research, Ralph soon realized that torture was not just the work of a few rogue cops. Aimed primarily at black males, the cruelty involved generations of police officers and was an open secret, shared with officials as high as Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, who would later become mayor of Chicago.

As Ralph learned more, he came to realize that his investigation was less about the violence itself and more about why, despite widespread awareness of the problem, so little was done. “Why have so many powerful and influential people in Chicago been unwilling to publicly acknowledge acts of extrajudicial police force such as torture?” Ralph asks in the book’s preface.

Public allegations of torture by Chicago police officers first surfaced in 1982, after a man named Andrew Wilson was arrested for murdering two police officers during a traffic stop. Brought to the station after a days-long manhunt, Wilson confessed to the crime. But the worst was yet to come.

In the ensuing hours, the officers didn’t merely beat Wilson. They connected his ears and nostrils to a contraption that administered electric shocks and pushed his chest against a hot radiator. Although his injuries were documented at the Cook County Jail and a report was sent to Chicago’s chief of police, no investigation was launched.

Wilson received a lengthy sentence, but later filed a lawsuit from behind prison walls with the help of a legal aid firm. What happened next was surprising. In two separate trials, despite photos, medical reports and other evidence, jurors could not unanimously agree that Wilson had been tortured. The jury had little sympathy for a confessed cop-killer. The first trial ended in a hung jury. In the words of one juror in Wilson’s second trial, “[The officers] were just acting out their anger toward this guy.”

That remark and others like it awakened Ralph to one of the ways in which many witnesses, including precinct officers who did not participate in torture but also did not report it, justified their lack of action: the victim deserved what he got.

Ralph explores this notion — that violence is justifiable depending on the identity of the victim — as problematic not just from a moral stance but also because of America’s history of enslaving African Americans. For hundreds of years, Ralph writes, Americans were conditioned to think of blacks as inherently prone to criminal acts — since running for one’s freedom was a crime — and violent in nature, hence the need for chains and beatings. “The tendency of white Americans to view blacks as criminals,” Ralph writes, “helps us better understand the phenomenon of police torture.”

Although Wilson was denied justice, the publicity around the trial spurred an anonymous whistleblower called “Deep Badge” to come forward, leading eventually to the identification of 50 Area 2 police officers involved in torture. Between 1972 and 1991, roughly 125 African American suspects were tortured by Chicago police.

In 2009, the state of Illinois set up a committee to investigate torture claims, which today number in the 400s. The city has paid millions in settlements both to victims innocent of any crime and those like Andrew Wilson, who were guilty. (His settlement money went to his victims’ families.)

But settlements will never be enough until the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is extended to blacks, Ralph writes. Deeply held prejudices cause police officers to escalate too quickly toward use of force even in everyday interactions. “By hating and condemning people, we actually make them more vulnerable for torture,” Ralph writes.

This link between racism and torture is evident not only in Chicago but also around the United States and the world, according to Ralph. In his book, he explores links between torture in Chicago and at the Guantánamo Bay military prison. These links are both metaphorical and tangible: One of the officers at the U.S. military prison in Cuba was on leave from the Chicago police force where he had been a torturer.

Ralph also talked to civil rights leaders who define the torture of black people as a type of genocide. At first torture and genocide seem nothing alike: torture terrorizes individuals, while genocide annihilates populations. But Ralph came to understand the connection: Blacks are one of the most marginalized groups in American society, and therefore are at greater risk of being tortured.

During his time as a graduate student, Ralph recorded Chicago’s chilling history with the meticulousness required of academic research, but he kept coming back to the image of the two black teenagers kneeling on the hot pavement. He was living in West Side Chicago where every friend and neighbor could recount the story of a police encounter that was frustrating, humiliating or terrifying.

“I could not help but think long and hard about these residents’ concerns,” Ralph writes. “I did not want what they told me to just be beneficial to other scholars who theorized torture for a living. I wanted to honor what I had learned from them by embracing their challenge to speak to multiple audiences.”

Breaking with scholarly anthropological tradition, Ralph decided to write his book as a series of open letters to friends and neighbors, to torture victims, perpetrators and witnesses, and to officials both past and present who have the power to stop the torture.

One is “An Open Letter to the Boy and Girl with Matching Airbrushed Book Bags on the Corner of Lawndale Avenue and Cermak Road.”

“By writing to this larger group,” Ralph writes in the letter, “I hope that my silence that day in 2004 will be replaced by a loud voice that insists on my apology to you for not stepping forward back then. Through my letters, I’ll also be talking to the big, beautiful community of kids of color who still have to reckon with the same institutional racism that you faced on that day.”

Ralph’s book is ultimately a missive to society, asking us to challenge our beliefs — that violence is justified if the victim is guilty, and that people with black skin are more likely to be criminals or are less deserving of the police’s respect.

“Fear of ‘the other’ made it possible for torture to become a routine part of interrogating criminal suspects in certain Chicago precincts,” Ralph writes in the book’s last letter, directed to the reader. “That same fear allowed the tentacles of torture to reach the shores of Guantánamo Bay.”

The letter continues: “With this contraption splayed wide open, let us all finally see how understanding police torture — and taking concrete steps to prevent it — requires us to dismantle the fear at the root of this pernicious American practice.”

This article was originally published in the University’s annual research magazine Discovery: Research at Princeton.

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