Activist/Journalist responsible for the release of the Laquan McDonald video speaks out

Today’s indictment of Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke on a first-degree murder charge and the release of the video showing him shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times is the result of activst/journalist Jamie Kalven, who fought for months to get the Chicago Police Department to release the video. 

When the incident happened in October 2014, it was widely reported as a man with a knife who was shot by an officer fearing for his safety and the safety of his fellow officers. The mainstream press reported it and moved on. Kalven himself didn’t think much more of the incident at first, until a source within the City tipped him off that there was more to it and that there was a video that showed that the police version of events was not credible.  

The Chicago Ambassador spoke to Kalven today about the video, the city’s response since October 2014, the failure of the mainstream press on this story, and what he would like to see happen now. 

Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.

CA) Do you call yourself a journalist or an activist?

KALVEN) I’m a writer. I’m a writer who has also been an advocate, really much in the vein of what I think of a writer under the first amendment. Nobody knows how to describe me, least of all myself.

CA) The thing that sticks out to me about this whole thing is how the mainstream Chicago press handled it. It looks like they reported the police version and let the story die. Are you disappointed in them?

KALVEN) Yeah. I include myself frankly, even though I’ve been on the story for some time. There are roughly 40 to 50 police shootings a year in Chicago, not all ending in fatalities. When I last looked at the numbers, 85 percent of those shot were African Americans. There’s a basic recipe for how these stories are reported and Laquan McDonald was a perfect example. ‘Black youth, shot on the Southwest Side…’ Pat Camden, long-time police spokesman who now works for the police union, is at the scene saying that it was an act of self-defense by the officer. In this case the narrative was that a young man with a knife lunged at the officer. The police officer, protecting himself and his fellow officers, shot him and he died sometime later. The press release wasn’t as colorful as Camden’s account but it was the same storyline. The press basically reports that. In less than 24-hours, that story disappears. The last line in stories like that is usually ‘The Independent Police Review Board is investigating.’ Investigations usually take average 18-months for police shootings. By the time they come back with a finding, and their findings with one or two exceptions have all been that the shooting is justified, it’s old news. That happens again and again and again. I wish I could take credit as a reporter smelling something when I first heard about this case, but weeks later in November [2014], I got a tip from somebody close to the investigation who told me that it was horrific and that there was video. At that point, I began to look into the case and found a civilian witness and began to build my own understanding of what happened.  My colleague, civil rights attorney Craig Futterman and I released a statement letting the world know there was a video and calling on the Emanuel administration to release the video, making an argument that it is public information and that the public should have access to it. I completely agree with your assessment that the media has failed to do the hard reporting on this case. What the city is engaged in, and they are doing it now in a different way — we’ve talked about the code of silence within the police department. It’s not so much a code of silence than a strategy of narrative control.

CA) It seems like there’s a pack mentality with the press in Chicago, and they get upset when an outsider scoops them. We saw it with the Homan Square stories from The Guardian —

KALVEN) Yeah, right, the pushback on that. I think there were flaws in that story, but the press response in Chicago was petty. Now, this story has been in plain sight for a year. I’ve been reporting on it and reporting on it prominently. In February when I received the autopsy results, I wrote a piece in Slate that had a huge audience. At that point, a lot of media filed Freedom of Information requests for the video, but with the exception of Carol Marin, there was very little reporting in Chicago. Now we have this incredible media frenzy with everyone chasing their tail to say something new about the case. So, while there are huge problems with the way the city manages and suppresses information, and this case certainly illustrates it, the press has a lot to answer about, I completely agree.

CA) Why do you think it’s so important that the video come out?

KALVEN) Let me flip the question and say, ‘Imagine what a different scenario we would have right now if within days or weeks of the incident, the city on its own initiative put out the video?’ I think the reason it’s important is that if we are going to make progress on police accountability issues, which have huge consequences for the whole city, then we have to start by acknowledging the reality of what happened. What’s stunning to me about where we are right now, and this is probably the biggest crisis in the Emanuel administration, this is a huge defining moment — they knew everything that is known now since the video came out — everything was known to the police department and I’m quite sure to the mayor’s office within hours of the incident.

CA) Mayor Emanuel said today that he hadn’t seen the video yet. Do you believe him?

KALVEN) I can believe that, but it was publicly described by his corporation counsel, the chief lawyer in the city, more than a month ago when they settled the case [for $5 million].

CA) Was today the first time you saw the video?

KALVEN) Yes. I had seen stills from it and knew what to expect. All this information was available to Superintendent [Garry] McCarthy and Emanuel within hours of the incident. The autopsy was performed at 8:30 the following morning. McDonald was declared dead at 10:45 p.m. the night before. They had all this information. With Ferguson on all the front pages, I have very little doubt that they suppressed the information. This was a huge crisis from the first moment. And their strategy, to go back to your question about why it’s important that the video came out — had they been open about what happened and said something like ‘An appalling incident has occurred. We are investigating, here’s what we know thus far..’ That would have built public confidence. For people to know now that they’ve had this information and knew what happened at 41st and Pulaski, and at every level their strategy was to contain it, suppress it and sell a false narrative. I think that’s going to be the big story further downstream. Not just what happened but how did the city respond. Bad things are going to happen in a big, complex city with a police force of nearly 13,000. The best supervised, best trained police forces still have bad things happen. The critical thing is how does the institution respond. I think this is a casebook example of how not to respond.

CA) What would you say if, hypothetically, riots occur and people say the video incited them. Would you feel any responsibility if something like that happens?

KALVEN) It hasn’t happened yet. You know, I lived in the city when the West Side burned down in the 1960s. I would hate to see that kind of behavior. I think it’s regrettable, that it [the McDonald investigation] could have been handled better and would have reduced the chances of that. I think it helps that he [Van Dyke] was indicted today. If the video had come out without the indictment… I think that’s why the [Cook County] state’s attorney [Anita Alvarez] stepped up her investigation. She wasn’t going to do it on this timeline, nor were the feds. The mayor, for political reasons, agreed to release the video —

CA) Do you think the mayor knew the indictment was coming?

KALVEN)  I think it was coordinated. Every expectation was that the feds were going to indict first for civil rights violations, so the way it played out was somewhat unexpected, but it was choreographed.  I’m sure there will be protests, and maybe massive protests, but the hope is that they won’t get out of control. One problem in our society with large protests is that there will always be a contingent who wants to be disruptive. I think what we will mostly see is dignified protests. There’s a principal in first amendment law called the heckler’s veto. The idea is that, think of a situation where a hugely unpopular speaker is giving a speech and the audience is heckling and threatening disorder. Is the appropriate thing under the first amendment to stop the speech in order to avoid disorder, or to manage the crowd and the disorder? It’s a pretty firm principle that you protect the speaker and you address the disorder and the crowd, because if you don’t do that, then you give the heckler a veto. So, what we’re talking about is a sort of riot veto. If you don’t do that, you confer power to criminal elements.

CA) Do you think Anita Alvarez and/or Garry McCarthy should resign?

KALVEN)  I’m not a fan of either, but I’ve seen so many times in the city where there have been major scandals and the solution has been to chop off somebody’s head, but the underlying, systemic conditions don’t change. I think we have an opportunity right now to do better than that. I don’t think I’d regret seeing them leave, but I don’t think that’s the remedy to what ails us.

CA) Does Rahm bear responsibility as well?

KALVEN) I think so, I think he has great responsibility. At the same time, I have sympathy to just how difficult these issues are. It takes real leadership, it takes someone really special. I don’t think we’ve seen that here.


 The video released by the City of Chicago is below. Please be advised that the images are graphic.

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