As a teenager on the streets of Chicago’s South Side, Darrell Cannon learned not to trust the police—a lesson that continues to resonate for young Black men today. “They abused their authority—shaking us down, putting us up against the cars,” he recalls.
As an adult, Cannon’s life journey has run the gamut from high-ranking gang leader to maximum-security prisoner. Most importantly, he became one among more than 100 African-Americans in police custody who were tortured by the notorious, now-discredited police commander Jon Burge and his gang of rogue cops. In Cannon’s case, officers extracted a false confession that put Cannon in prison for 24 years for a crime he did not commit.
After he was exonerated and released from prison, Cannon joined with other torture survivors and activists to seek reparations from the city of Chicago. As a result of their success—a groundbreaking $5.5 million reparations agreement—the Chicago Public Schools is launching two new curriculum units that teach the history of the Burge case and its legacy.
This year, eighth-grade and 10th-grade social studies teachers will spend about a month on the topic. The younger students will culminate their unit by writing opinion essays expressing their thoughts on how to improve police-community relations, while the high school students will design a memorial to educate others about what happened and honor those who fought for justice.
For more than two years, Cannon has been a leader among the torture survivors committed to speaking with teachers and students about the Burge era and the importance of studying it. A number of his public speeches, plus testimony submitted in court, are included in the 10th-grade curriculum materials. Last spring, he served as a guest speaker to classes in the six schools that piloted the curriculum. This summer, while teachers citywide were trained on the units, he attended professional development sessions and spoke to nearly 1,000 educators.
He recently spoke with me about how and why he does this work.
What inspired this work?
It was imperative that torture survivors lead this work. I felt an awesome responsibility. We can come into schools and say, “Yes, I am alive.” And this is what we can do to prevent this from ever happening again in Chicago. That is why I’m so passionate today—I have had a crash course on this starting as a teenager. I have had to make some sense of it.
One of the things I’m always asked in just about every class: Do I have a fear of the police? I say: No, I do not. Regardless of what happens to me I do not have a fear or a hatred of the police department. It was only a few sick sadistic individuals who did that to me.
When asked, how are you going to stop them from doing this? I respond, “No, how are we going to stop this, collectively?” Instead of escalating up when you see a police officer and frowning, you can de-escalate and say, “How are you doing, officer?” or give a slight smile.
How do you promote a healthier dialogue?
So much wrong has been done under the name of law—when we see police, we don’t see sunshine. But we can take a lead role in finding which of them are human and which of them are diabolical. That doesn’t mean you have to get down on your knees and bow down to them. We are just suggesting that the way we don’t frown down when we see clergy or firefighters, we must include the police department, too.
Not all of them are like the Jon Burges. We stress this continually through the curriculum.
I don’t use words like hatred or killing—I’m not trying to give the impression you should hate police officers. In fact, you should not hate police officers.
What tips do you have for students dealing with the police?
We have the power to de-escalate a potential problem in our community. The children see police officers in their community on a daily basis. They can say “How you doing officer?” and they de-escalate a potential situation. They can say, “I respect you, I am not afraid of you and I hope you can respect me.”
I use myself as an example here. I do not see all police as being like Jon Burge and the officers who tortured me. I would not throw a blanket over all of them and say all of them are corrupt or all of them are racist. That would be going in the wrong direction.
I have encountered youngsters who say they hate the police. My first question is: Why? They say, “I have seen how they talked to my friends or to me.” I say, “You have a right to be angry.”
If an officer is disrespectful to you don’t be disrespectful to him. Take down his badge number, go and tell an adult you trust what happened. Get an adult to help you file a complaint. That is how you change the mentality of the police department, how you change your own mentality because of what you have seen and heard.
How do you help children address racism?
A lot of teachers were very nervous about teaching this because it deals with racism. I had to get across: Do not underestimate our children. Our children know more than we think they do. One of the things I had to tell the teachers vigorously was do not be afraid to deal with this issue. Through social media our children already have a good handle on what has been happening in the world. They’ve seen all kinds of beatings, shootings, this is not an issue that is foreign to them. Racism has become an ugly chapter in our history again, just as it was in Dr. King’s history. They are getting a crash course now.