As Chicago Goes, So Goes the Nation?

[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion, Policing and the Media: The View from Chicago. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Steve, Margaret, Joy:

I want to thank you for such a provocative initial round of comments and questions; you’ve given us lots to think about both in terms of how to historically situate the McDonald killing, and also the complexities of the relationship between the police, the citizenry, and the media.

The Atlantic ran a piece by Noah Berlatsky in December of 2014 on the history of police violence in Chicago. In retrospect, the article seems to miss the elephant in the room; although Laquan McDonald’s funeral had happened only weeks earlier, the murder had not yet attracted national news attention, and Berlatsky makes no mention of the then-recent events. (This is no indictment against Berlatsky; as Steve explained in his post, the intrepid reporting of people like Jamie Kalven had not yet begun to bear fruit in December 2014, so much of what we now know about McDonald’s death was still hidden behind a blue wall of silence.)

Yet even without the incontrovertible evidence of the dash cam video in hand, the existence of the Atlantic article speaks to Chicago’s historical “police problem”: the extent to which the city’s policing and political cultures conspire to render young black bodies particularly vulnerable (to borrow Joy’s phrase). This can be seen, as Berlatsky argues, in the uncomfortable links between the reign of torture of police commander Jon Burge and the work of State’s Attorney-turned-mayor Richard M. Daley.

But the Burge years were hardly an isolated incident in Chicago’s history. Writing in the Chicago Reader, Christopher Chandler documented a similarly fraught moment amidst the riots that erupted in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when the Chicago Sun-Times buried a story by its own reporters alleging that four of the nine people murdered during the riots were actually killed by police. The following year, the police and the FBI carried out the tactical assassination of Fred Hampton.

And yet, as Joy’s title suggests, the past remains uncomfortably present; in recent months, The Guardian has reported on the existence of a secret detention facility on Chicago’s West Side in the very same neighborhood wracked by violence after MLK’s assassination forty-five years earlier. While the McDonald killing does not show evidence of the same degree of brazen premeditation that Hampton’s did, both are united in two respects: each was a young black man whose death at the hands of police catalyzed a social justice movement, and in both instances, the mediation of their killings helped determine the public response. (Howard Alk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton, released in 1971, helped bring international attention to Hampton’s assassination.)

So at the risk of pulling the conversation in two different directions in this second round, I’d be curious about your thoughts in two divergent areas. One is this particularly bloody history in Chicago. I’m thinking about how we might link the allegations of cover-ups at the highest levels of the Emanuel administration to previous instances of politically-sanctioned police violence, and whether there is actually something unique about the structural history of the city that perpetuates this vicious cycle.

At the same time, I’m wondering to what extent we can generalize from Chicago and link what we’re talking about here with similar cases of police violence across the nation: according to watchdog group Killed by Police, 2015 was the deadliest year ever for police violence, with over 1200 incidents of deadly force. In light of difficult statistics such as this, I wonder whether Chicago’s long history of police violence is more the norm than we’d care to recognize.

Photo by niXerKG

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