by Whet Moser
I was almost completely off the Internets last week, which meant that while I wasn't able to completely miss the shitfit between Chicago Now and Time Out Chicago, I at least got to avoid it while it was going on, which was awesome.
Megan Cottrell provides the story, but in short: CN blogger wrote a thing. TOC prez/EIC Frank Sennett began a dispassionate and thoughtful discussion of whether it was racist. Chicago Now removed the post. Everyone went home angry. No one really addressed what was actually going on in the original post.
Sennett has two pieces of evidence that Joe the Cop is a racist. The first is the phrase "ghetto shooting template." Ghetto is always a loaded term, and frequently a specifically racially loaded term, but not always. From my readings of Chicago history, it's always had ghettoes, those ghettoes have always been the subject of vivid media descriptions about their poverty and violence (frequently accompanied by generalizations about the residents) . . . and the nature of those residents has varied over time, including Irish, Italians, and even ethnic southern whites.
Perhaps ghetto is racist now. It hasn't always been, though it's always had implications for the cultural groups that happen to inhabit the ghetto at a given time. I don't have a good answer for you.
The second is this: If, incredibly, ChicagoNow decides to stand behind this racist blogger—remember, that human being who was killed last week is worth more dead than alive—what changes will they make to the oversight of his blog?
Given my degree, avocation, work ethic, intellectual and professional interests, and general attitude towards other people and peers in particular, I'm probably worth more to my family dead than alive, too, if we're talking sheer earning potential over time. Which is what Joe the Cop actually said: "George Lash will be a better provider for his family as the subject of a civil lawsuit than he was ever going to be in his adult life." Worth is a much more slippery word.
None of which is to say I agreed with the post—just that whether or not it's racist strikes me as a screechy and not particularly useful question.
Joe the Cop's point was this: here are a certain set of things that happen sometimes. In his experience, the media and its audience come to a certain set of assumptions—which cause problems for law enforcement and government—and they should assume something else. Given that we're dealing with questions of law and media ethics, you can see where that's problematic.
Let's take it bit by bit:
A young black man with a healthy arrest record is shot and killed by the police; according to police he was armed at the time and threatening officers.
Fine; this is a factual account of what happened in this case and something that has happened other times, too.
Witnesses" come forward, but only to the media . . . Mims [who said that the victim was helpless when shot] goes on to say that he will not share his observations with police investigators, after he acknowledges his own "run-ins with law enforcement."
Emphasis his. Well, he said something else, too: "I'm afraid of retribution," he said. "I don't trust Chicago police. They protect their own."
While the suggestion that police would enact retribution against a witness strikes me as paranoid, the suggestion that Chicago police protect their own in cases of excessive or unjustified use of force, at least sometimes, strikes me as a banal statement of fact, probably because I work for a publication that has a long history of writing about such incidents:
Officer Alvin Weems shot an unarmed man [Michael Pleasance] point-blank in view of CTA security cameras. Investigators recommended that he be fired. Phil Cline promoted him.
Former homicide detective Frank Laverty, who died of cancer on December 5, will be remembered for turning the Chicago Police Department on its head. Perhaps that's too mild a statement. In standing up for an African-American teenager the state wanted to put to death, a young man he'd never met, he wasn't just turning the department on its head but bouncing it a few times for good measure.
Laverty paid for speaking up, but he also inspired at least one other person to do the same. The letter quoted above, one of a series mailed to the People's Law Office in police department envelopes by a still-unidentified person, broke open the Jon Burge scandal. It led Flint Taylor and his colleagues to one victim who led them to others, until finally the highest levels of city and state government admitted that for nearly two decades police had used torture to extract confessions.
Which is not of course to suggest that protecting their own is exclusive to cops:
The prosecutors who sent police torture victims to prison are now the judges who keep them there.
It goes up:
Since 2003 the city has paid some $7 million in legal fees to fight five police torture lawsuits it probably can't win. The latest turn in this saga involves a secret settlement agreement designed to protect Daley.
The city’s lawyers claim a gag order prevents them from discussing the strange deal they made to settle police torture lawsuits. There’s no order.
I honestly don't mean to call out cops and law enforcement; compared to the arrests and prosecutions going on every day since time immemorial, high-profile incidences of wagon-circling are a small percentage.
I'm just calling out people in general, I guess, who are acculturated to protect their colleagues, peers, neighbors, and fellows in socioeconomic solidarity. Joe the Cop clearly doesn't trust young men with criminal records (and their families, but consider your innate willingness to trust that a mother won't paint a rosy picture of her kid). Young men with criminal records clearly are going to be unlikely to trust cops. Prohibitions against snitching cut both ways. None of this should come as a surprise to anyone.
Joe the Cop's point is, as I read it: the odds suggest that George Lash was a pretty bad guy in some respects, and did something to get himself shot, and that the witnesses who say otherwise either didn't see what happened or are full of shit for their own reasons. Maybe probably is too much—maybe what you'd bet if you had to—but that's the direction I get from what he wrote, which fell short of a specific conclusion.
But here's what's important: the odds don't matter. It doesn't matter if Lash went to church or not; it doesn't matter if he was really trying to get his GED or just saying he was; it doesn't matter if he was a terrible person, or a good person, or a terrible person who was going to be good at some point in the future. All that matters is whether he provoked the officers into a justifiable use of force. It shouldn't matter for reasons I hope are too obvious to bother pointing out.
And finally, the conclusion:
"The family cries for "justice". Which really means, they call a lawyer and file a lawsuit. In some demographic groups, having a family member shot by the police is like winning the lottery. The harsh reality is, George Lash will be a better provider for his family as the subject of a civil lawsuit than he was ever going to be in his adult life. Even if every single review shows that the officers acted justifiably, the City of Chicago will probably cut a check in the tens of thousands of dollars just to make a lawsuit go away.
This is a divisive issue, which Mick Dumke wrote about in 2008, and a serious one. Chicago has paid out much more than other cities in its weight class in lawsuits, and lawsuits against the police department make up a higher percentage of that than in comparable cities.
Dumke asked a lot of people about this, and there's no consensus at all. Some people think it's greedy plaintiffs; some people think it's a culture of bad police work. No one seems to know.
Finally, this is what I think was wrong with Joe the Cop's post. He implies that many young black male dropouts with arrest records are prone to violence or at least the show of same, and implies that many lawsuits against the police are unnecessary.
Again: many doesn't matter. It's a problem that those manys exist in whatever number, but in the case of George Lash, they're irrelevant—irrelevant to the story and irrelevant to the lawsuit. Even if we stipulate that he's right and that these stories follow a script, he's leaving before the third act. In the case of the Michael Pleasance shooting, the Office of Professional Standards report that recommended the two officers involved be disciplined came 420 days after the incident, and the internal investigation might have amounted to fuck-all if Pleasance's family hadn't sought legal action against the city, as John Conroy points out:
[Alvin] Weems might never even have been censured but for forces beyond the department’s control. Pamela Pleasance, Michael’s mother, wanted to sue the city, and her lawyers, Al Schwartz and Craig Mannarino of Kralovec, Jambois & Schwartz, asked private investigator John Byrne to see what he could turn up. Byrne is a retired homicide detective and sergeant (he was the right-hand man of former commander Jon Burge during the years that much of the torture of suspects took place at Area Two). “I could see the security cameras suspended from the ceiling,” he said in a recent e-mail, “and, due to their positions, I realized that they had to have captured some of the events that occurred.” Schwartz and Mannarino filed a motion in circuit court to get the CTA to preserve and provide the video. In August 2003, law division judge Diane Joan Larsen ordered the CTA to turn over a DVD but told Schwartz and Mannarino not to publicize or publish it. The following February, Schwartz and Mannarino filed suit against the city, the CTA, and Weems, and in October 2004 another law division judge, Jeffrey Lawrence, lifted the ban on circulating the DVD.
You read that right: Jon Burge's former colleague, in the employ of lawyers suing the city on behalf of a family "seeking justice," prevented the scandal from being swept under the rug. The truth is often stranger than the trends.