Whitewashing the Violence of the Local State

Photo by dkantoro
[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.]

Thank you Brendan, Margaret, and Joy for what has been a very interesting discussion so far. I’d like to respond to both of the questions Brendan posed in his most recent post. He wonders 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 further queries whether Chicago’s history of police savagery “is more the norm than we’d care to recognize.”

A Long String of Cover-Ups

The Laquan McDonald killing is just the latest example of Chicago’s political leaders attempting to bury and deny episodes of police violence. The city’s government officials have a long and depressingly repetitive record of covering up the egregious violence committed by the city’s police force against people of color and political dissidents.

Consider, for instance, how Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley and his backers responded to the national media’s unflattering coverage of the notorious police riots that took place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. During convention week, television audiences across the country were treated to network news footage of peaceful anti-war protestors being teargassed, pushed through the plate glass windows of Michigan Avenue’s Hilton Hotel and beaten with batons by police and National Guard troops. Immediately after the national reporters left town, the mayor’s communication team began rewriting the narrative. Daley slammed the national media for their “distorted and twisted” accounts of the violence. City hall issued a hastily assembled and self-serving “white paper” entitled “A Strategy of Confrontation” about the convention disturbances which pinned responsibility for the mayhem on out-of-town “revolutionaries” and praised the police for their restraint. The “white paper” was given extensive coverage by each of the city’s four daily newspapers and the Chicago Tribune actually printed the entire text in the front section of the September 7 issue of paper. Two weeks after the convention, the city produced a similarly slanted one-hour-long “documentary” about the riots called “What Trees Do They Plant?” that portrayed the police as victims of ruthless armed radicals bent on causing chaos; it aired on WGN-TV and over a hundred other stations around the country. In other words, the local media actively colluded with and helped to sell city hall’s whitewashing of law enforcement’s brutal behavior. This, despite the fact that the official inquiry into the convention debacle, the Walker Report, found evidence that police and the National Guard had deliberately attacked a number of journalists, including reporters and photographers from Chicago papers.

One year later, on the morning of December 4, 1969, a group of Chicago cops—operating at the behest of the FBI and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office– conducted a raid on the apartment of Black Panther Leader Fred Hampton. In the course of the raid, Hampton and one other Black Panther were killed. Press conferences called by State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan and Mayor Daley suggested that the arresting officers had been fired upon from inside the apartment and had fired back in self-defense. Initially, the Chicago Tribune and other local media went along with the official story and the Trib actually ran what were later revealed to be mislabeled photos supporting the police version of events. State’s Attorney Hanrahan also arranged to have WBBM, the Chicago CBS affiliate, broadcast an unprecedented “reenactment” of the raid – supervised by Hanrahan’s office– in which the officers involved in the raid acted out what supposedly happened while narrating their actions for the cameras. In this case, the official cover-up failed. Eyewitness reports, careful sleuthing by reporters at the Chicago Sun-Times and evidence gathered by the video team headed up by Howard Alk (that, as Brendan points out, would be incorporated into the documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton) ultimately threw much of the official story into question. Eventually, material from Alk’s documentary would be used in a civil rights lawsuit that the city, Cook County and the federal government would settle for $1.85 million.

Of course, the whitewashing of state violence has continued since the end of the Richard J. Daley regime.

Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge tortured hundreds of mostly African American suspects during the 1970s and 80s. Finally, in 1991, Burge was suspended and then later fired for excessive use of force in interrogations. At around the same time, Amnesty International called for a full investigation into police torture in the city. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that Burge was prosecuted for his actions. As usual, it was the alternative press –in this case, the Chicago Reader—that broke the news about the Burge’s serial use of torture.

For the past decade, the Chicago police department has maintained a secret detention and interrogation warehouse on the West Side called Homan Square. Between 2004 and 2015, some 7,000 prisoners were taken to this “black site” and subjected to strip searches, denied food and water, held in the lightless rooms and refused access to a lawyer.  The vast majority– 82%–  of those detainees were African American. Yet, not a single Chicago news outlet saw fit to print or air a story about this modern day chamber of horrors. It wasn’t until August 2015, when the US edition of the London-based  Guardian newspaper sued the city for information about the off-the-books facility,  that the scandal came to the public’s attention.

It is inconceivable that the police department could keep the sensational facts about Burge’s torture spree and Homan Square under wraps as long as they did without the active assistance of city and county government officials and at least the passive cooperation of reporters for the major news media who either looked the other way or failed to ask some very obvious questions.

How Unique is Chicago?

While no other big city law enforcement agency has a record of bloodshed and brutality as widely publicized as the Chicago Police Department’s, I’d argue that the situation in the city is hardly unique. Baltimore, St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, Miami, Los Angeles—all have had their share of complaints about police violence, harassment of black and Latino youth, mistreatment of suspects, coercion of witnesses and so on. As Brendan point out, 2015 was the “deadliest year ever” for police killings with some 1200 incidents of deadly use of force nationwide.

Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, the mainstream news media are beginning to do more in depth reporting on police misconduct and police mistreatment of African Americans in particular. Yet, all too often that reporting fails to highlight just how violent policing in America is compared to policing in other parts of the world. Project Censored — a media watchdog group that compiles a list of the 25 most important news stories ignored by the mainstream media each year—identified the level of police violence in America as one of the top ten underreported of stories of 2015.  The group noted that, on a per capita basis, police in the U.S. kill citizens at 100 times the rate of cops in the United Kingdom. And the Guardian newspaper has pointed out that police in the U.S. kill more people in a few days than are killed by cops in an entire year in countries like Germany and Australia.

So, I guess the take away is that Chicago’s level of police violence isn’t particularly unique for the U.S. but the level of police violence in the U.S. is utterly unique in the advanced industrialized world.

Photo by dkantoro

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