Surviving Police Torture:
The Story of Darrell Cannon

Revolutionary Worker #1007, May 23, 1999

Gregory Banks. Marcus Wiggins. Steven Bell. Ronnie Bullock. Philip Adkins. Alonzo Smith. Darrell Cannon. The names of these torture victims are unfamiliar to most people. No TV specials detail the brutality inflicted upon them. Their tormentors won't have their faces plastered all over America's Most Wanted. Because their abuse came at the hands of a gang of Chicago cops led by Lieutenant Jon Burge.

From the early '70s through the early '90s, dozens and dozens of Black men in Chicago--from middle age to teenage--were terribly brutalized by Burge & Co., subjected to what Burge himself called the "horror chamber." There was "Russian Roulette"...electroshocks with cattle prods and a device known as the "black box" that delivered high-voltage charges...burns from hot radiators...suffocation with a plastic bags...and just plain old beatings with fist, foot, phonebook and baseball bat. Burge and his men carried out this brutality to coerce "confessions"--and for the sheer sport of it.

These were not the actions of "rogue" cops. A 1990 Chicago Police Department (CPD) document reported that a number of "command members" allowed and/or were involved in "systematic" abuse and "planned torture." A 1993 lawsuit called the abuse "de facto" policy. Burge was a high-ranking officer, commander of the violent crimes division at CPD's Area Two and later Area Three. Top police brass and city officials were long aware of Burge & Co.'s activities, tolerated the abuse, and tried to cover it up. Complaints to the CPD's Office of Professional Standards were whitewashed, while the city spent an estimated $1,000,000 defending Burge against charges of torture.

In 1993--amidst growing scandal, protest and lawsuits--Burge was finally kicked off the force. He reportedly enjoys a Florida retirement. For his victims, police torture has left emotional scars and led to years wasted in prison. Some are serving life sentences, others wait on death row.

Over the last year, a reporter from the Revolutionary Worker spoke at length with three people whose lives have been scarred by Burge and his associates. Two, Darrell Cannon and Ronald Kitchen, were tortured. The third is Ronald's mother, Louva Grace Bell. Their voices take us past the cold statistics to the human cost of police brutality. And they serve as an example of the strength, courage and spirit of the people. Part one begins with Darrell Cannon's story.

A Journey to Hell

When I first met Darrell Cannon, he was sitting behind a glass divider in the visitor's room at Cook County Jail. He was transferred there several months earlier to await a new hearing in his case. He wore an easy smile, his face deceptively younger than his 48 years. There was a spark about him, and when he spoke, his eyes were piercing. 30 plus years in the joint and the guy ain't been broken--if nothing else that is a victory in itself. Why he's survived became clearer through many hours of conversation. Some seriously righteous anger. A welcome sense of humor. And a strong belief that struggle will beget justice.

He began with what now seems like a lifetime away--those tense moments in the early morning of November 2, 1983, when the brutal acts of Chicago police officers sent Darrell on a journey to hell. They came around dawn--armed, dangerous and all-white. A dozen and a half plainclothes Chicago detectives surrounded a residential building on the city's south side. Inside were Darrell, his then common-law wife Carla, and his 7-year-old stepson Russell. Cops kicked in the front door. "B*tch, shut up," barked one detective when Carla demanded a warrant. The detectives quickly found Darrell, ordered him to the floor and took aim. "N*gger," said a cop named Dignan. "If the boy and girl weren't here, I'd blow your muthafucking head off and put a gun in your hand." Darrell was handcuffed and taken away.

The cops had come to question Darrell about the murder of a drug dealer whose body was found a week earlier. The police said they heard Darrell was in the same car as the man suspected in the shooting. The cops wanted information, and wouldn't take "no" for an answer.

Three detectives stayed with Darrell the whole day--Charles Grunhard, John Byrne and Peter Dignan. All worked out of Area Two under Lt. Burge. Like their mentor, all had an ugly track record of torture and abuse. They brutalized six men that year alone. Their most recent victim--Gregory Banks--was tortured only a few days before Darrell's arrest. That morning, Darrell was about to become victim number seven.

The cops took Darrell for a long ride that ended at an isolated area on the far southeast side, the site of the former Wisconsin Steel Mill. Darrell recognized the place--he had worked there for a few weeks as a teenager. Once filled with the noise and sounds of hundreds of people rolling out hot steel, the area was now quiet, desolate and abandoned. There was not a soul around.

The detectives began with "Russian Roulette." Dignan rammed a shotgun barrel into Darrell's mouth, while Grunhard said, "OK blow that n*gger's head off." Dignan squeezed the trigger--click!--then pulled the shotgun shell out of his pocket. The cops all laughed.

When "Russian Roulette" failed to get a word from Darrell, the police tried other methods. They shoved Darrell back into the squad car, stuck a gun to his head, pulled down his pants and shorts and held him down while Byrne shocked him in the testicles with a cattle prod. Darrell tried fighting back, but he was outnumbered. "I screamed until I was hoarse" said Darrell. "And nobody could hear me." No one but the police.

"I had been beat by the police before," remembered Darrell. "Typewriter cover, phone book, the whole works--but I had never in my life experienced what they did.... It seemed like I wasn't going to ever leave that place. I'm sure I couldn't have been there no more than 35 to 40 minutes, but it seemed like I had been there a lifetime being tortured. My internal system was burning, and I got to the point finally where I say, `OK, man, look, I tell you anything you want to know, just stop this here. Just stop this."'

The abuse continued for hours as police drove to other areas of the city. More beatings. More cattle prod. When Darrell finally arrived at the police station, he was ready to say whatever the cops wanted to hear. He signed a statement implicating himself as an accessory to murder. Mission accomplished.

The Railroad

Darrell was tried twice on the murder charge--in 1984 and 1994. Both trials were a farce. Each time the cops lied under oath, denying that they tortured Darrell. Each time, prosecutors purposely struck Black candidates off of the jury. During the first trial, the prosecution cut 14 out of 17 potential Black jurors, dismissing one woman simply for being a long-time resident of public housing. The judge, John Maloney, was grossly corrupt--years later he was convicted of taking bribes. The racism was so blatant that an appeals court ordered a new trial.

But the retrial was no better. One of the judges in the second trial, John Mannion, used to be an Area Two detective and had testified in defense of Jon Burge during a police board hearing on charges of torture. The other judge, John Morrissey, was a former prosecutor. They barred testimony from over two dozen police torture victims--including those tortured by the same cops who abused Darrell. They even barred any mention of police mistreatment of people at Area Two. What they didn't bar as evidence, however, was Darrell's coerced statement.

Darrell testified in court that he was tortured, insisting that he neither aided the shooting or knew in advance it would happen. All his words were outweighed by that piece of paper the police had forced him to sign. The verdicts were a done deal. Darrell was found guilty of murder by accountability and sentenced to "natural life"--to rot in prison until he died.

Darrell's Early Years

"Born to a premature death, a menial, subsistence-wage worker, odd-job man, the cleaner, the caught, the man under hatches, without bail--that's me. The colonial victim. Anyone who can pass the civil service examination today can kill me tomorrow. Anyone who passed the civil service examination yesterday can kill me today with complete immunity."

The quote from George Jackson--Black Panther and revolutionary prisoner who was murdered by San Quentin prison guards in 1971--reflects the fate of far too many Black men in this society. And it well describes Darrell's own situation. Darrell told me about his life and the world he came up in.

Darrell was the baby of his family, the youngest of four kids. His step-dad William was a doorman and then banquet room manager for a downtown hotel. His mom Earline went from nursing to managing currency exchanges and hotels. They both worked hard to make sure no child wanted for food or clothes. Darrell remembers that it was a loving family and a strict home. But Darrell was drawn to the fast life of the gangs--the discipline, the camaraderie, the excitement and the power.

In 1966, two rival gang members stabbed one of Darrell's friends. Darrell found them and shot them. They survived. Darrell got a case of attempted murder and two years in a juvenile prison.

When Darrell got out in 1968, he stepped into a world being turned upside down. Chicago was rocked by protests and police riot at the Democratic convention. Cities around the country were exploding in rebellion in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination. Darrell met Illinois Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton and was moved by his vision of uniting all the street organizations against the system. That dream was a potential nightmare for the government, which tried to spark a war between the Panthers and Darrell's group, known back then as the Blackstone Rangers. "FBI sent us a letter," remembered Darrell, "saying that the Panthers were going to assassinate us. And the FBI sent the Panthers a letter saying that we was going to assassinate Fred and a bunch of the Panthers." The plan didn't work, and by the end of 1969 the government took the direct approach--they murdered Fred Hampton in a police raid on the Panther offices. Darrell calls this police murder a "travesty."

Darrell fondly refers to the '60s as the "golden years," but back then he was much less politically awakened and much more a little "Jesse James," as he puts it. One day in early 1970, 19-year-old Darrell got into an argument with a man who ran a policy wheel in the backroom of his toy store. Words got heated and both reached for their weapons. Darrell was quicker, resulting in a murder one conviction and a sentence of 200 years.

With a long stretch ahead of him, Darrell got as much knowledge as he could. He woke up to the revolution, devouring The Ballot or the Bullet by Malcolm X, the Red Book of Mao Tsetung, and George Jackson's Soledad Brother. Jackson was like a mirror to Darrell's life. "He had came from a wild young crazy fool out in the streets with no goals, no ambitions, nothing else, into an educated man that knew about the system and wanted to change it by any means necessary. That whole persona there blew me out the water."

In 1983, Darrell got a second chance. In violation of their own rules, the prison parole board refused to even consider Darrell for parole. He sued, won and was released almost 13 years after his arrest. "It was beautiful to be home," remembered Darrell. He tried to make up for lost time. He spent every weekend with his wife and stepson, taking trips to the zoo, to museums, and to movies. Prison was still never too far behind. "I would periodically sit down on the bench that we had out in front of our apartment building," said Darrell, "look up at the sun and remember all the times that I did that when I was in prison, in the yard.... I would reminisce about those times and then look at myself now as a free man."

Those moments were precious--and short-lived. The morning Dignan, Byrne and Grunhard broke down his door and hauled him away, Darrell had not even been out of prison for a year.

Locked Up But Not Broken

Between 1984 and 1998, Darrell did most of his time at Menard Correctional Center. Hypocrisy and corruption, Darrell explained, were the guiding lights of the prison administration. The warden and his cronies held dinner parties at the prison officials' cottage. One minute the warden would adopt a "law and order" posture--the next, virtually beg the heads of street organizations for help in keeping the prison looking good for inspections.

Darrell said he was a "mediator." The other prisoners trusted and respected him, and they looked on him to settle disputes between street organizations or represent them in dealings with the administration. It was nerve-wracking for Darrell. A misstep could lead to bloodshed or even death among the prisoners.

The authorities engaged in systematic efforts to break prisoners. Cell searches--aka "shakedowns"--were routine. Guards would remove an inmate from his cell, cuff him, and then tear up his cell. Those prisoners who tired of the b.s. and refused to cooperate were handled by an "extraction team" known as "Orange Crush." Those guards were dressed for battle, outfitted with orange jumpsuits, helmets with face guards, shin guards, shields, sticks and pepper spray. "Especially at Menard," explained Darrell, "the Orange Crush consists of all white southern hillbillies. Half of them are KKK. The other half belong to the Nazi party or one of them old racist groups there... They love to come in on you to hurt you."

The shakedowns came once a week--more often if the correctional officers had it in for you. Even the most minimal defiance would earn a trip to "segregation." Darrell made that journey more than enough times.

Inmates spending at least 30 days in "seg" would first be placed in a special cell. On the outside is a steel door with no bars, just bulletproof glass. On the inside, a light stays on 24 hours a day. "When you first go behind that steel door," said Darrell, "within 48 hours you begin to feel like you're suffocating, you're trying to gasp for air... In the summertime, if the temperature outside is 85 degrees, then the temperature in that cell gonna be every bit of 100. There's no ventilation. You're hemmed in and you're not getting air. It's so hot in that cell that just laying in the bed in your shorts you would still sweat as if somebody done poured water on you." The only "relief" from the heat were two small cups of ice water which the guards brought at noon. "It's torture." said Darrell. "Make no mistake about that."

A year and a half ago Darrell was transferred out to Tamms Correctional Center--the state's new experiment in controlling inmates--with the emphasis on breaking a person down mentally. There is no contact between prisoners. Entering and leaving a cell means constant searches, and shakedowns are carried out every eight to nine days. The "exercise" room is a small barren area, barely large enough to walk in circles. In the evening, a light in the cell goes on every 30 to 45 minutes, making sleeping difficult. Compared to the crude physical brutality of Menard, Tamms is much more "scientific" and "efficient" from the standpoint of the authorities.

Fighting for Justice

It's been 16 years since Darrell was torn from his home, tortured, tried and convicted. He's paid a very high price: A decade and a half of cellblocks and steel bars. Relationships strained and broken. Contact with some of his children lost forever. Last year, prison officials would not allow him to attend his step-dad's funeral.

Justice still remains elusive. None of the three detectives who tortured him was ever punished. Byrne retired. Grunhard died. Dignan got promoted to lieutenant. In 1994, Dignan received "Top Cop" honors from a national police organization and a photo opportunity with President Clinton for "heroism" during a police shootout with a suspected drug dealer. An exposť by John Conroy in the Chicago Reader made a strong case that this "hero" had pumped a few bullets in the back of that suspect as the man lay disarmed and dying.

On May 24, Darrell will be in court for new hearings to determine whether his torture-extracted statement should ever have been allowed in evidence. Many of Burge & Co.'s victims will be among those testifying on Darrell's behalf. Despite the considerable evidence supporting Darrell, there is no guarantee that he will finally win justice. Presiding over the hearing is Judge John Morrissey--the same judge who allowed Darrell's coerced statement into evidence during his 1994 trial.

What is in Darrell's favor is the growing and increasingly vocal opposition to police brutality, frameups, and wrongful convictions: The national protests on October 22nd. The movement to free Mumia. The voice of police brutality survivors and family members speaking out loud.

Recently in federal court, Gayle Shines, the former head of the CPD Office of Professional Standards, admitted that for three years she sat on nine investigative reports concerning charges of police brutality by Burge & Co. In at least six of the reports, including one concerning Darrell's case, the OPS sustained accusations of abuse. Instead of following up on these reports, Thomas Needham, counsel to CPD Superintendent Terry Hillard, dropped all nine cases for being too "old." Hillard supported Needham's decision but claimed he knew nothing about the details of the reports. This story has the potential to become a serious scandal.

"My anger has made me survive the most," said Darrell. "The fact that I just refuse to give up. I refuse to quit talking about this. I refuse to let them off the hook. That has been fueling my fire for the last 15 years. I know what happened to me--and somehow, someway, I intend to prove [it]. It took a lot of years before all these other cases finally came to light. But it's here now...and I'm elated about that."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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