Dr. Laurence Ralph, professor of anthropology at Princeton University, is the author of Renegade Dreams: Living through Injury in Gangland Chicago (2014) and The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence (2020). The latter book discusses the history of the open secret of police torture in Chicago. He tells this story through a series of open letters to those affected by—including those complicit in—police torture, and finally to the reader. A longer version of this conversation originally aired on Recall This Book, a podcast partnered with Public Books. You can listen to the whole thing here, or you can subscribe to Recall This Book on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Elizabeth Ferry (EF): I would start by saying that The Torture Letters is a timely book, except that one of the sad lessons of the book and of 2020 is that this topic has been around for a long time and doesn’t seem to be going away. At least the public discussion of it is growing, and, we hope, a sense of shared outrage that will persist beyond putting a sign in one’s lawn.
So, Laurence, perhaps you could start us off by telling us a bit about the project and the book.
Laurence Ralph (LR): Sure. My introduction to the topic of police torture came when I was working on my first book, Renegade Dreams, which was about gang violence in Chicago, as the question of gangs and gang violence has to do with policing and surveillance in urban communities.
This new book, The Torture Letters, centers on 125 Black men who were tortured in police custody under Jon Burge, a police commander who controlled Area 2 and Area 3 police precincts in Chicago. I follow what happened to the torture survivors, but also the activism that occurred in the wake of those torture cases that happened in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.
John Plotz (JP): One of the things that stands out is the decision to focus on letters—not just your decision to write letters, but also to think about public letters. It is such an interesting quality, because one of the features of letters is that there is usually a personalized recipient. In your work, you are flipping that model around.
In fact, when Elizabeth and I spoke, she had a wonderful line. She said, “It’s almost as if you’re hiding one genre inside another with your letters.” Can you talk about that decision?
LR: One of the first questions I always ask when I embark on a research project is, “Who do you want to make aware of this issue?” In this project about police violence, the sentiment was, police officers need to know this, politicians need to know this, and another generation of people needs to know this.
I thought seriously about that, asking, “What vehicle can I use as a scholar to reach them?”
That’s the genesis of the idea of open letters. Letters are very direct, and to a particular audience. You have to consider why the audience needs to know a particular thing, who wants them to know, and why you’re writing this letter. Essentially, you have to ask, “What is the point of it?”
When discussing torture, it can very easily go off the rails into something voyeuristic and sensational. I found that when my message was poignant and direct, I was telling people what they needed to know. That approach assuaged my concerns over voyeurism.
That is the primary reason why I picked the letters—they were different because they were open letters, in a sense. Open letters are often more polemical than the kind of letters that I was writing, though—they were really a kind of intimate open letter that pointed people to a particular history. I hope that, together, all of the letters will illuminate the larger landscape of police torture, not only in Chicago but transnationally.
EF: Maybe this is a good moment to bring in the second text that we decided we’d bring into conversation with your book, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is also formatted as a letter. Laurence, can you introduce the book and tell us why you chose it?
LR: The reason why letters are important to me is because there’s an African American literary tradition of writing letters to loved ones to warn of the hazards that they might face. There is a resurgence of this tradition, ushered in by Between the World and Me, but of course it has a longer history in Baldwin and The Fire Next Time.
One of the famous quotes from Baldwin is that “not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” That is the reckoning, telling someone information that they need to know because their survival depends on it. Between the World and Me, being an act of love written for Coates’s son, is the epitome of that tradition. In that way, it resonates with what I am trying to achieve in The Torture Letters.
EF: Coates was shown a sentimental picture of a policeman hugging a young black boy and was asked by a reporter about hope. This is the beginning of part of Coates’s ruminations on this question. And it seems that hope is a complex thing that relates to—but isn’t necessarily the same as—optimism. It also relates to despair, and you clearly are addressing this in your book, particularly in the letter that you write to Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the author of Guantánamo Diary. Can you talk about hope and despair and how those relate and how you work with them?
LR: This is a bit of a divergence between where I go with open letters and where Coates goes. There was a debate between Coates and Cornel West a couple of years ago, around this issue of hope. In Coates’s work—and this was Cornel West’s point—the domination of police power can seem wholly determining in a way that, no matter what you do, you can never overcome it. The historic scale and length of the violence become an annihilation of life. There is a way that you can read Coates as a concession to that.
You can see that’s always been the purpose of the American system of government and that will always be. There’s a way in which torture is attractive to people in a voyeuristic and sensational way, where people derive some sense of power and pleasure from seeing domination. And this is juxtaposed against a history in which people are always fighting back, always reckoning, and always trying, no matter how overwhelming the odds.
That’s part of my conception of injury, where I have to talk about the potential for repair. For me, that is talking through these issues with someone like Mohamedou, who was tortured in Guantánamo Bay by Chicago police officers. I’m taken aback by his radical sense of optimism.
When I talked to Mohamedou, I asked him what he actually did every day. He kept track of the days by reciting a certain passage of the Qur’an because he knew that if he recited a certain amount, it would take up a certain number of hours. He would also ask people, such as his interrogators, for things in ways that would reveal their wrists, so he could look at their watch. He kept track of the days and time that way, when they didn’t want him to know what time it was. These are literally ways in which he survived. And so those actual tactics are important.
There is something individualistic about it, that the strength to overcome is in one’s own power. But I do recognize how understanding that can be a tactic and a strategy for fighting against oppression in the long run and also making different survivors of police torture visible to each other.
So there’s the theoretical or the abstract notion of hope, but then there’s the everyday practice of hope.
In terms of hope, what torture survivors in Chicago have been able to attain is pretty remarkable. They’re using the language of reparations and won a reparations ordinance in 2015. That was really a landmark, because the way that we deal with police violence in this country is often through settlements, which often stops victims from then sharing what happened to them.
This reparations ordinance wasn’t only about individual compensation. It was also about collective resources, and it included a torture-justice center where people could get counseling, and it included job training and education for the torture survivors. It also included a mandate that the history of the torture cases be taught in Chicago public schools.
Those kinds of resources—and having redress on a collective level—are a hopeful model for how to address something like police violence. The limitation of that model, though, is that it doesn’t ask anything of the police themselves. It puts the onus on the community to address their own problem and provides resources to do that. But it doesn’t ask the police to address their own complicity.
EF: Right. In some ways that movement to a collective model, rather than an individual settlement, reminds me a lot of truth-and-reconciliation commissions that we see in other countries.
I hear what you’re saying about the individual or even departmental accountability of the police. But it also seems that these efforts undermine a sense of American exceptionalism. It runs counter to the idea that we don’t commit human-rights violations, or that it’s only in other countries where you have to have such reckonings.
LR: There was a lot of debate, as you can imagine, about whether this was just brutality, or actual torture. It’s been a lot of work for us to say, “no, this is police torture.” But that came from the international comparison, comparing what actually is happening—including what devices people are using for torture—with what is happening in other spaces.
The first set of comparisons happened in the ’90s around dictatorships in Latin America, but then that debate died down. There is an attempt within Chicago to erase and mute those experiences and classify them as mere brutality.
There was a resurgence of that language of torture with the War on Terror, though. Another resurgence was when it came to the atrocities that happened at Guantánamo. This is not divorced from what’s happening internationally at particular periods of time, and has been vitally important in seeing torture as torture in the US.
JP: Has Hannah Arendt’s work been helpful to you at all? Do you think through some of the “banality of evil” argument? Toward the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, there is not optimism but hopefulness about how stories are going to emerge and the impossibility of keeping the truth down.
LR: Yes. I thought a lot about Holocaust studies in general when looking at these cases. I was really interested in the role of the witness and how to convey the unimaginable as a mode of witnessing.
Something that emerges out of Holocaust studies is the tendency to ask the question, “What is to prevent this from happening again?” A lot of that has to do with the banality of evil, in the sense that there’s a pervasive aspect of complicity.
I was interested in that question when it came to Chicago police torture, and talk about the open secret of police torture. People knew about this the whole time. But they also knew that to say something about it would mean that they would risk their careers—and lives, in some cases. There became incentives for people to move up the ranks. Once they moved up the ranks, once they were a district attorney who had heard someone say, “I’ve been tortured,” and they ignored it, then that district attorney becomes a judge. When he or she is a judge, they don’t want to hear any torture cases, because they themselves are complicit or the people who they work for are complicit. And so there is a way in which it then becomes a coordinated effort to conceal the truth.
JP: From a literary-studies perspective, I really appreciate that account of what you can get out of Holocaust witnessing studies. For too long, the discourse of trauma has seemed so predominant in terms of defining the unspeakability around terrible crimes. In so doing, this discourse ignores the number of ways to talk about the silencing of witnessing or the suppression of witnessing that does not involve trauma.
Trauma is like a psychological aporia, which is definitely there and real. But it isn’t the only account for why silence would spread. I just think it’s important to keep something like the Arendtian account of the difficulty of witnessing. At the same time, it gets away from the singularity of the Holocaust.
LR: There’s a resonance there between African American studies and slavery. There is an unspeakability of the horrific, but also where nothing can compare to it as well. On the one hand, there is a perspective that it’s so horrific that you can’t really describe it, and to try to describe it only plays into a kind of pornography of violence.
On the other hand, when it comes to the legal aspect in truth and reconciliation, and the practicality of having to tell the stories through the court of law, it is a different thing, because people have had to say what happened. They have had to show the scars on their body. They had to describe the instruments of torture in order to gain recognition.
There is a balancing act between how you describe that process and how to pay careful attention to the pitfalls of describing suffering in a noncritical way. This is why the letters for me became important, because they’re a way to mediate that tension.
EF: It makes a lot of sense. There is a good connection there to the final part of our show, where we bring in books or other kinds of things related to our conversation, or for which our conversation has provoked some thoughts.
Frederick Douglass’s 1876 speech on the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument very much connects to this question about how slavery is represented and what might be some of the pitfalls of representing it. This speech also has one genre nestled inside another. It is a commemorative speech—which is supposed to be unqualifiedly praising—and yet Douglass clearly hates the monument: because it has this slave kneeling, while Lincoln extends his benevolent white hand over him to save him.
Douglass manages to convey that highly ambivalent history of Lincoln’s relationship to slavery and to enslaved and non-enslaved Black people. He gave a very incisive history hidden inside the commemorative speech.
That is my example. Laurence, do you have something you’d like to talk about in relation to what we’ve talked about today?
LR: I’ll be happy to talk about “Strange Fruit” and Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit.” Not only is it a historic song in the way we think about state-sanctioned violence in the US and what kinds of bodies are disposable, but it also merges two critical metaphors in my book, the torture tree and the black box.
The torture tree is about a structure of torture in which people rise through the ranks and are allowed to hide torture in plain sight because they become complicit, which I mentioned earlier.
The black box was a device that Jon Burge used to electrocute torture victims, but I also conceive of the black box as a reservoir in which knowledge gets obscured. People say things like, “We can’t ever know what actually happened because it’s his word against the torture victims” or “We can’t know about it because there are no witnesses.”
I am interested in exploring those silences. What does the black box teach us? In this case, it literally connected torture survivors through the scars left on their bodies. People were able to say, “This is the mark of electrocution that could only have occurred from attaching this device to my body in this way,” and other torture survivors were able to show the same thing. There is the black box as a torture device and as a kind of epistemological apparatus, in that it produces certain kinds of knowledge about torture.
In “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday is talking about a tree; a tree that lynches Black people is a torture device. There is that resonance of the way that this history is always with us and that this history is also foundational to the Black experience in the US.