Project NIA: 2015 Year in Review

In April, we screened the “End of The Nightstick,” a film that documents the torture inflicted upon over 118 Black men and women by police Commander John Burge and his fellow officers from 1972 to 1991. It begins with a memorable quote from Alexander “Clubber” Williams, an N.Y.P.D. Lieutenant, in 1877.

“There is more law in the end of a policeman’s nightstick than in a decision of the Supreme Court.”

Chicago’s legacy of police violence runs deep, and persists today. We at Project NIA have worked to resist state violence and to advocate for both the living and the dead.


This year, Project NIA joined with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, We Charge Genocide and Amnesty International to co-lead an intensive six-month-long organizing campaign, #RahmRepNow, to pass a reparations ordinance for survivors of torture under Burge. And on May 6, 2015, we won. This victory was a long time in coming and built upon decades of previous organizing. It is the first time that any municipality in the U.S. will provide reparations to those harmed by law enforcement violence!

The #RahmRepNOW campaign was supported by several other groups and individuals who contributed their time, talent, and much more. These included the Chicago Light Brigade, BYP 100, Elephant Rebellion, Kuumba Lynx and others.

A sample of actions and events can be seen in this short video that we produced as part of the campaign.

We are so proud of what we accomplished together here in Chicago. In 2015, our work to address police violence was anchored by our successful fight for reparations for torture survivors. We also worked in various ways with many co-strugglers to raise awareness and organize against law enforcement violence, including co-organizing a conference attended by over 350 people in January and a teach-in this December about the new pattern and practice investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into the Chicago Police Department precipitated by the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke.

Throughout the year, we focused on the ways that police violence, of which the Burge case is an egregious example, impacts Black women and girls in particular. We also continued to center the experiences of youth in conflict with the law. Below, read about our year of work centering these two topics, and their nuances and intersections.

Black Women and Girls

11012094_10152907118111104_5667935191470925851_nCis and trans Black women and girls are major targets for police brutality and criminalization. Black girls in particular are the fastest growing population in the juvenile legal system, and are suspended, expelled, and arrested from school at a higher rate than their peers. In October, Project NIA, Lifted Voices, and The Chicago Light Brigade joined students at Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy to share radical art and discuss the school-to-prison pipeline that increasingly impacts Black girls in Doing the Math: Resisting High School Pushout.

In recent years, we’ve seen the stories of a few Black women who have suffered horribly at the hands of the law come to light, such as Rekia Boyd, murdered by off-duty Chicago police detective Dante Servin, and Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail after a bogus traffic stop and violent arrest.

In 2015, Project NIA focused on women like Rekia and Sandra, hosting numerous events and exhibitions with allied organizations aimed at lifting up their stories and experience with prisons, police, and their safety, or lack thereof. In July, we partnered with our friends at the Chicago Light Brigade to co-organize an action in support of Sandra Bland’s friends and family. The Chicago Tribune produced a beautiful short video of the event.

Following the unjust acquittal of Dante Servin, Project NIA, and allied organizations reclaimed August as Black August—Women and State Violence, hosting events including Killing Black Women: Race, Gender, and Capital Punishment and Criminalizing Black Girls: A Workshop. In these spaces, we considered how and why Black women and girls (trans and non-trans) are targeted, what are the effects of this disproportionate criminalization, and how we can interrupt the cycle of state violence.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (2015)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (2015)

Showing up, showing love, and showing solidarity takes a large emotional toll on our community. In 2015, we helped catalyze community building around the lives of Black women and girls, as well as resistance and education. In October, for example, a group of people gathered for a potluck closing event for the Blood At the Root: Unearthing Stories of State Violence Against Black Women and Girls Exhibit at Holy Covenant Church in Lakeview.

Check out these pieces from the exhibit highlighting Black women criminalized over the years. What do you see? We see women who fought back against violence, survivors, visionaries, and those who remind us of our mothers and sisters.

While perusing the exhibit (as seen above) before closure, people were encouraged to write letters and cards of love and encouragement to incarcerated Black women. The story Niya Kenny, a young Black student who was arrested for standing up for her fellow classmate, a young Black girl brutalized by a police officer in their classroom, was also a topic of letter-writing.

Criminalized and Incarcerated Children

12304140_10153747069598454_8970853397037735782_oBlack children are too often denied the chance to learn, grow, and simply play and enjoy their childhoods free of the danger of violence. Every year, Project NIA dedicates a significant portion of our work to advocacy for children in the system, and those who are victims of state violence.

This year was no different. On November 22, 2015, it was the one-year anniversary of 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s death. He was killed by Cleveland Police Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback playing outside of a youth center. So on November 23, 2015, Black Lives Matter:Chicago, the Chicago Childcare Collective, and Project NIA joined forces to celebrate the precious life taken from us through a “play-in”— where children and youth PLAYED group games, made art, and created cards for Tamir’s family and more. By gathering community to play without fear, we refused to allow Black children to be robbed of their childhoods and their right to have fun.

Another way that the state harms Black children is through incarceration. To increase public awareness of the destructive impact of the juvenile justice system on children, we facilitated a workshop, Understanding the Illinois Juvenile Justice System: the Basics. Community members, parents, educators, young people, and organizers were trained to identify the resources and rights that youth have in and outside of the system, some issues that young people in contact with the law face, and more.

We didn’t stop at teaching about the juvenile justice system. We continued to provide direct support and advocacy for young people in conflict with the law. We also reached out to Chicago’s incarcerated children and those impacted by the incarceration of family members.

As part of this year’s National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth Bobby Biedrzycki, writer, artist, and educator, led a an interactive session where participants wrote letters, poems, and prose to incarcerated children. These beautiful notes will be compiled into a zine mailed to children incarcerated in Illinois youth prisons as part of a project that we catalyzed this year called Liberation LibraryLiberation Library provides books to youth in prison to encourage imagination, self-determination and connection to the outside worlds of their choosing. Book donations are always needed. Find the list here.


As we continue to fight for incarcerated children, we also need to consider how to talk to children about their incarcerated loved ones. We strongly believe that art, like the zines mentioned above, are a powerful tool for reimagining what our community health and safety can look like outside of relying on systems like the Prison Industrial Complex. Chicago-born artist, and our former intern, Bianca Diaz explores new ways to talk about incarceration through a beautiful children’s book titled The Princess Who Went Quiet, which she wrote and illustrated. The Princess Who Went Quiet serves as a visual entry point to address how to talk to kids about incarceration.

Young People in Chicago Resist Criminalization

Young people in Chicago are organizing hard and consistently against police violence and criminalization—many of them queer, black women.

With all that our community has accomplished this year, Project NIA with Tom Callahan produced a visual love note to our fellow activists and organizers who spent all year in righteous struggle to end police violence:

An important way that we tangibly contributed to the development of young Chicagoans this year was by piloting along with the Chicago Freedom School a new program called “Young Leaders for Justice (YLJ). YLJ was an opportunity to support young people ages 17 to 24 to develop their knowledge about criminalization and to learn organizing skills. Over eight sessions spanning four months, participants learned about the dynamics and nature of the prison industrial complex, oppressive policing, the juvenile justice system, healing justice, using social media as a tool for organizing, and more. In the final couple of sessions, participants learned about strategies for grassroots fundraising and embarked on a historical walking tour of Chicago.

Understanding that many of Chicago’s young organizers are actively inspired by Assata Shakur’s life and legacy, we also co-organized a well-attended teach-in in May to connect our current historical moment with Assata’s resistance as a Black woman and member of the Black Panther Party.

In a letter to the members of the Hands Off Assata Campaign who were organizing actions in honor of her 60th birthday (in 2007), Assata wrote:

“I am 60 years and it is doubtful that I will ever live to see my people free of oppression and repression. But I am totally convinced that our collective dream of freedom will some day be realized.”

Let us be inspired and heartened by Assata’s words. We are so proud of what we have built in 2015. Let’s keep rising in love and solidarity with one another to work towards our collective freedom.

*Exhibition Highlight 2015*

Over the past few years, Project NIA has documented the ways that oppression and criminalization impact specific groups (particularly Black people). One of the ways that we’ve done so is through creating exhibitions that bring together thousands of people across Chicago to learn about and address these issues. This fall, we co-curated a new exhibition titled: Making Niggers: Demonizing and Distorting Blackness Through Racist Postcards and Images

From the 1890’s through the 1950’s, thousands of postcards depicting racist caricatures and stereotypes of Black people were produced across the United States and the world. In our exhibition, Making Niggers: Demonizing and Distorting Blackness Through Racist Postcards and Images, we asked:

How did white people justify their continued subordination of Black people post emancipation?

Our exhibition illuminates the racist attitudes and ideologies that were/are endemic to U.S. culture and society. Relying primarily on postcards from co-curator Mariame Kaba’s collection, this exhibition speaks to the legacy of anti-Black racism that still structures our present. The racist images underscore the ‘routine’ denigration of Black people. They illustrate how little Black lives have mattered in this country. They belie the need for a hashtag and a movement affirming that #BlackLivesMatter.

Get your photo gallery fix here. The exhibition ends at the end of January 2016. Find visiting information and more at the website.

Research and Curriculum Development

This year, we continued to host discussions about the importance and uses of data, and to analyze/summarize relevant juvenile justice-related information. You can find two recent reports about juvenile and school-based arrests here and here. Our work and research continued to be cited in the press this year.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (2015)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (2015)

We also held true to our mission of educating as many people as possible about the impact and effects of the carceral state by developing and sharing (free) curriculum resources like Teaching about the Prison Industrial Complex and Criminal Legal System: Exercises, Simulations, Resources, and Discussion Ideas. To date, over 500 copies of the curriculum have been distributed at no cost. Thousands of people around the world rely on our resources.

Thank You

We would like to thank all of our donors, volunteers and partners for their contributions to our work this year. Without you, nothing that you read about in this end of year summary would be possible. Project NIA is a volunteer-driven organization that operates on a very lean budget. But we do a lot with a little. If you would like, you can continue to support our work by making a financial contribution today.

Happy holidays and see you in 2016!


City Council Makes History In Passing Reparations Legislation For Burge Torture Survivors!

image by Monica Trinidad

image by Monica Trinidad

Chicago, IL – This morning Chicago Police torture survivors and their family members attended a Chicago City Council hearing to witness passage of historic legislation providing reparations for the torture they and scores of other African American men and women survived at the hands of Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and officers under his command. Some of the torture survivors and family members traveled from out of the City and State to attend the hearing.

The reparations package is the product of decades of organizing, litigation, and investigative journalism, and represents the culmination of an inspiring intergenerational and interracial campaign led by CTJM, Amnesty International, USA, Project NIA and We Charge Genocide, re-invigorated by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Forty-six organizations endorsed the ordinance, the U.N. Committee Against Torture specifically called on the U.S. Government to support the passage of the legislation and scores of Chicagoans attended demonstrations, rallies, sing-ins and a Citywide Teach-ins over the last six months to urge Mayor Emanuel to support the reparations ordinance.

“Over the course of the past 6 months, a coalition of individuals and groups organized tirelessly to achieve this goal. Today’s historic achievement, passage of the reparations ordinance, is owed to the decades of organizing to bring some justice to the survivors of Burge and his fellow officers’ unconscionable torture. We have successfully organized to preserve the public memory of the atrocities experienced by over 110 black people at the hands of Chicago police torture because we refuse to let anyone in this city ever forget what happened here,” said Mariame Kaba, founder and executive director of Project NIA.

The reparations resolution represents the first time Chicago’s City Council has formally acknowledged and taken responsibility for the police torture that occurred in Chicago, and recognized its obligation to provide concrete redress to the survivors and family members. In addition to the establishment of a $5.5 million Reparations Fund for Burge Torture Victims, the City will provide survivors and their families specialized counseling services at a center on the South side, free enrollment in City Colleges, and priority access to job training, housing and other city services. Additionally, a history lesson about the Burge torture cases will henceforth be taught in Chicago Public schools and a permanent public memorial will be erected to commemorate the torture and survivors.

“It is the first time that a municipality in the United States has ever offered reparations to those violated law enforcement officials,” said Joey Mogul, a co-founder of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, partner at the People’s Law Office and drafter of the original reparations ordinance. “This holistic model should serve as a blueprint for how cities around the country, from Ferguson to Baltimore, can respond to systemic racist police brutality.”

The final legislation was the product of an agreement reached with Mayor Emanuel, CTJM and Amnesty International, USA on the eve of an April 14, 2015 hearing on the original reparations Ordinance introduced into City Council by Aldermen Proco Joe Moreno (1st Ward) and Howard Brookins (21st Ward) in October of 2013.

While torture survivors, family members, and activists were pleased with the reparations package passed today, they noted that much more work needs to be done to address racially motivated police violence in the City of Chicago.

“Today is an important and historic day, and the result of a courageous, decades-long effort to seek justice. But this is not the end. We must make sure that this curriculum places torture under Burge in a broader context of ongoing and endemic police violence. We must expand counseling and treatment services so they’re available for all survivors of police violence. And more broadly, we must fight for an end not only to these horrific acts of torture, and police shootings of Black youth, but also against the daily police harassment and profiling of young people of color in Chicago and across the country,” said Page May, an organizer and activist with We Charge Genocide.

The Reparations Ordinance was drafted to provide redress to approximately 120 African American men and women subjected to racially-motivated torture, including electric shock, mock executions, suffocation and beatings by now former Police Commander Jon Burge and his subordinates from 1972 through 1991. Although Burge was convicted on federal charges for perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from the torture cases in 2010, he continues to draw a taxpayer funded pension.

On the Brink of Historic Legislation: Reparations for Burge Torture Survivors

The City of Chicago is poised to enact historic legislation which will provide long overdue reparations to the Burge torture survivors and their family members.  This legislation is the culmination of years of dedicated activism, advocacy and organizing.  Thanks to the truly inspirational campaign co-led by CTJM, Amnesty International, Project NIA, We Charge Genocide with the support of actions by BYP100 and the Chicago Light Brigade, and to everyone who worked long and hard over the past six months—the Burge Torture Reparations Ordinance is on the brink of passage.

Today at a special hearing of the Finance Committee of Chicago City Council, it was announced that an agreement was reached with Mayor Emanuel and the Ordinance co-sponsors Aldermen Proco Joe Moreno (1st Ward), Howard Brookins (21st Ward) and Joe Moore (49th Ward) on the terms of a comprehensive reparations package for those who survived torture at the hands of former Chicago police commander Jon Burge and police officers under his command.

However, the fight is not over yet—we still need alderpeople to vote in favor of this legislation in the Finance Committee in a couple of weeks and at the full City Council meeting on May 6, 2015. We ask for your help to ensure that this historic legislation is passed and swiftly implemented to bring a measure of justice to survivors of Chicago’s police torture scandal.

A Reparations Package for Burge Torture Survivors

Rooted in a restorative framework and reflecting critical provisions of the original Reparations Ordinance filed in October of 2013, the reparations package the City has agreed to includes a myriad of remedies that aim to meet the concrete needs of the Burge torture survivors and their family members. It will include:

  1. A formal apology from the Mayor and City Council for the torture and abuse committed by Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and police officers under his command;
  2. A permanent public memorial acknowledging the torture committed by Burge and his men;
  3. Inclusion of a lesson in the Chicago Public Schools 8th and 10th grade U.S. History curriculum on the Burge torture cases;
  4. Provision of trauma and other counseling services to the Burge torture survivors and family members on the South Side of Chicago based on the model of services provided by the Marjorie Kovler Center and Heartland Alliance;
  5. Free tuition or job training at Chicago’s City Colleges for Burge torture survivors, their family members, including grandchildren;
  6. Job placement for Burge torture survivors in programs designated for formerly incarcerated people;
  7. Priority access to City of Chicago’s re-entry support services, including: job training and placement, counseling, food, housing & transportation assistance, senior care, health care, and small business support services;
  8. Financial compensation to the Burge torture survivors who are still with us today.

The City will set aside $5.5 million to establish a Reparations Fund for Burge Torture Survivors.  Every person found to have a credible claim of torture or abuse committed by Burge or his men at Area 2 and 3 Police Headquarters from 1972 to 1991 will receive the same exact amount from the fund.

It is important to note that the passage of this legislation does not foreclose a Burge torture survivor who is later exonerated from suing the City at a later date.  But if they choose that course of action, they cannot take part in the financial reparations offered here.  Like many class action lawsuits, people can choose to opt-in or opt-out from filing for and receiving these reparations.

This package is not perfect. The financial compensation is not the amount we struggled for. But it does bring us closer to our goal of each claimant receiving $100,000. To quote torture survivor Darrell Cannon: “This isn’t the world.  It’s just a small piece of the world … but we are in the world!” Additionally, the counseling services will not initially be offered to all people who have been tortured by law enforcement officials.  We have always recognized that law enforcement torture did not begin or end with Burge and there are many others in need of these services as well.  But our hope is that with private fundraising and other donations we can develop a center on the South side that can provide holistic services for others who have been affected by police violence.  As torture survivor Anthony Holmes shared, “There’s still so much work to do … Don’t let this struggle be for nothing. Keep going forward, together.”

A Strong Message

The legislation now before Chicago City Council sends a strong message that activism and organizing matter in the ongoing struggle for human rights and social justice. The City of Chicago is for the first time acknowledging its responsibility for gross human rights violations, violations recognized by the UN Committee Against Torture, and committing significant resources to begin to repair some of the harms inflicted on the torture survivors, their families and the communities from which they come.

A Historic Victory

Remarkably, this legislation marks the first time in U.S. history that a city has passed legislation providing reparations, including financial compensation, for police violence.   The City of Chicago’s recognition that people who were tortured by law enforcement officers deserve compensation and redress—regardless of any crime that they were accused of or may have committed—is an important recognition that torture is never excusable and the ends do not justify the means.  Every individual’s dignity matters.

Community Dinner to Discuss the Legislation and On Going Struggle

You’re invited to a Dinner for Reparations this evening from 6 to 8 pm at Grace Place, 637 S. Dearborn. This will be a chance to share updates, discuss recent developments especially following the hearing, share food and build together. No cost to attend. Thank you to Project NIA and CTJM for helping provide food!

We Still Need YOUR HELP to Make This Historic Victory a Reality!

This fight is not over.  We still need you to call your Alderperson to urge them to vote in favor of the Chicago Reparations Ordinance at the next Finance Committee meeting.

You can find their names and numbers here.

Once the legislation passes out of the Finance Committee, we need you to call your alderpeople once again to urge them to vote to pass the Reparations Ordinance on May 6 at the full City Council meeting. You can find your alderperson here.

We will post other action items here.

Come out and be part of achieving a measure of justice and making history on May 6th! Join us at City Council and show your support for the Burge torture survivors, family members and the Chicago Reparations Ordinance!

With Hope for Justice.

See you on May 6th!


Feb 7: Who Are We Jailing?


Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) is generally defined as the phenomenon of Black and Latino youth coming in contact with the criminal justice system in far greater numbers than they represented in the general population.

To begin a deeper conversation about DMC and related social justice issues, we are hosting a summit to share information and set an agenda for a new generation of advocates. We will leave the day with hope and ideas of a strategy for change.

Friday, February 7, 2014
9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Roosevelt University Congress Lounge
Auditorium Building, 2nd floor
430 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago


May 4: Join the Chicago Freedom School To Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Children’s March

Please join the Chicago Freedom School on Saturday May 4th from 2 to 4:30 p.m.

Birmingham Children's March (May 1963)

Birmingham Children’s March (May 1963)

“On 2 May, more than a thousand African American students skipped their classes and gathered at Sixth Street Baptist Church to march to downtown Birmingham. As they approached police lines, hundreds were arrested and carried off to jail in paddy wagons and school buses. When hundreds more young people gathered the following day for another march, commissioner Bull Connor directed the local police and fire departments to use force to halt the demonstration. Images of children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police officers, and attacked by police dogs appeared on television and in newspapers and triggered outrage throughout the world.

On the evening of 3 May, King offered encouragement to parents of the young protesters in a speech delivered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He said, “Don’t worry about your children; they are going to be alright. Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail, for they are not only doing a job for themselves, but for all of America and for all of mankind.””

CFS will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Children’s Crusade/March with a screening of the documentary “Mighty Times: The Children’ March” followed by a panel of contemporary Chicago youth activists and organizers who will discuss how they are currently working for social change and justice.

Saturday, May 4
2 to 4:30 p.m.
Chicago Cultural Center
78 East Washington Street
Garland Room

Please register for this event HERE.

Read more about the Children’s March here.

Guest Post by Davon Smith: Police Violence & the LGBT Community

We are so very excited to feature this guest post by Davon Smith who is a student at Bowen High School here in Chicago. I will be featuring other guest posts in advance of a series of events about policing, violence and resistance starting on March 18th. I thank Davon for sharing this with me and also special thanks to his teacher Bert Stabler who has engaged all of his students in this project. This post appears as Davon wrote it.

It doesn’t take a lot of searching to come across a story of inequality and unfairness towards the LGBTQ community; and it isn’t rare that people hear stories of neighbors or friends who were treated unfairly, especially in times when they are not in the position to fight back. But what you rarely hear about are the times in the past that the LGBTQ community became fed up and fought back.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot occurred in August 1966 San Francisco. This was one of the first recorded transgender riots in United States history. Compton’s Cafeteria was one of a chain of cafeterias that were owned by Gene Compton. Because cross-dressing was illegal at the time, police sometimes used that for their reason to raid or close the bar. The transgender customers began to grow tired of the discrimination and during a raid they fought back. Afterwards the NTCU (National Transsexual Counseling Unit) was started, which was the first peer-run support and advocacy organization in the world.

Another riot followed soon afterwards. It was June 28, 1969 just after 3 a.m. when the police raided the Stonewall Inn which was a gay club in New York. It began to get violent when onlookers began to throw bottles at the police as they began to put three of the gay participants into paddy wagons. Although the police were legally justified in raiding the club, the LGBTQ customers were tired of police- who had already closed down other gay clubs in New York. It is also sometimes seen by many as history’s first major protest on behalf of equal rights for homosexuals.

Now I’m sure you understand why I see these events as police brutality. It is highly unfair for the police to discriminate against gays. The LGBTQ community deserves to live in a society in peace without fear of being uprooted for their lifestyle. These events should’ve never had to happen. But they did start a movement to reform the way that gays are treated by police and other authority figures.