Policing and the Media: An Introduction

The death of Laquan McDonald in October 2014 was, in too many ways, shockingly familiar: a young black male, shot to death by a Chicago police officer seemingly without provocation. What was exceptional about McDonald’s death was its documentation: unbeknownst to the public, a dash-mounted camera in one of the police cruisers recorded the McDonald shooting. This video, suppressed by the Chicago Police Department for more than a year, was eventually released by court order in November 2015. The existence of video evidence – and the efforts to keep it hidden from public eyes – has ignited an even-greater storm of controversy and catalyzed a wave of protest against the Chicago Police Department and the city government. Thus far, the city’s police chief has been fired and calls for the resignation of the mayor and other city officials have grown louder.

The McDonald killing forces us to confront a series of questions about the relationship between policing and media in the contemporary moment. Police-sanctioned violence is hardly a novel occurrence in Chicago, a city whose history is so pockmarked with incidents of violence upon its citizenry that it gave birth to the notion of the “police riot.”1The phrase was popularized by the Walker Report, commissioned to investigate the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention that concluded with brutal police crackdowns against protestors in Chicago’s Grant Park. From the Haymarket riots of 1886 and the race riots of 1919, to Mayor Richard Daley’s infamous “shoot to kill” order in 1968 and the police riots at that summer’s Democratic National Convention, up through the decades-long reign of torture under Jon Burge and the recent spate of shootings, Chicago’s history of policing is as violent as any city in America. And yet among the thirty seven people shot by police in 2014, it is Laquan McDonald’s death that has catalyzed public reaction; thanks to the existence of video documentation, we can see what happened with our own eyes.

This seemingly simple observation belies a much more complex set of issues regarding the relationship between policing and media in the contemporary moment. With this roundtable, we seek to investigate those in some greater detail. To do so, we’ve convened a panel whose varying perspectives on the topic promise us a complex and multifaceted look at the issues.

To start our conversation off, I have a few questions, both general and specific:

Steve, in some ways you are uniquely well-positioned to speak to a particular contradiction at the heart of this debate – what, for lack of a more elegant phrase, I might describe as the relationship between media organizations and media objects. That is to say, part of what is novel about the McDonald killing is that the tape – the media object – exists, which in some meaningful way pierces the traditional process of mediation between news reporter and news consumer. As a longtime observer of Chicago media, I’m interested in your thoughts about how mainline and alternative news outlets reported on this story: for instance, did you observe any meaningful differences between the way that the killing – and subsequent protests – were reported on across various media? And to what degree does the impulse to treat police killings in “crisis management” mode affect the way that knowledge is disseminated to the public? Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been widely criticized for his handling of the shooting and its aftermath; recently-released emails indicate the degree of coordination happening at the highest levels of the mayor’s office.

(And somewhat relatedly, I know that you’ve spent time thinking about the legal issues at stake here as well – how the right to record police-citizen interactions is not necessarily mutual. I’d be curious to hear how you see those issues playing out.)

Joy, in your own work I know you’ve thought a lot about another young black Chicagoan, Emmett Till; the circumstances of his life and death seem to offer a number of parallels in our thinking about McDonald and the present moment more generally. It was the decision of Till’s mother, of course, to leave her son’s casket open and thus turn her family’s private moment of mourning into a public media event, one that would help shape the national civil rights movement in the years ahead. I wonder how you see the present moment in comparison; does the Till legacy offer us any way forward for thinking about the crisis in police violence today?

Margaret, your recent book, Dead Matter, introduces the concept of the “iconic corpse” in a way that I think really helps clarify the stakes of what we’re talking about here. You talk about how a corpse is at once a thing and a representation – a body in the street, and a symbol of a breakdown in civil governance. Your book examines a series of historical photographs in making this argument, but I wonder what you make of the particular ways in which dead bodies are mediated in the current environment. Is there something meaningfully different about the existence of video footage, for instance? How does this change the iconicity of the corpse?


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