By AARON GETTINGER
Experts and historians participating in a University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA) panel discussion on the police shooting of Laquan McDonald delved into issues such as racism within the Chicago Police Department and its treatment of the city’s communities of color.
WBEZ Anchor Jen White, who hosts the “16 Shots” podcast about the shooting and trial, moderated; Historian and Kenwood resident Timuel Black, U. of C. Law School Professor Craig Futterman, Black Youth Project 100 Member Janaé Bonsu and SSA Professor Reuben Miller sat on the panel.
Futterman said that in the 30 years before McDonald’s killing, Chicago Police shot a person a week on average, and three-quarters of those shot were black. He charged that the force’s systemic abuse of rights of minorities has been protected by its internal code of silence; he said the Chicago Police promoted a false narrative of the McDonald shooting before whistleblowers brought it to outsiders’ attention.
“While the media tend to describe the problem of police abuse in Chicago as ‘crisis,’ this is the antithesis of crisis,” he said, “because ‘crisis’ implies something that is a departure from the norm. The painful reality in Chicago is that this is the very nature of the norm.”
“So often, these incidents are looked at as if they happen in a vacuum,” said White, adding that a lack of understanding about Chicago’s historical background leads to a lack of understanding about the City’s “righteous rage.”
Black, who moved to Chicago from Birmingham, Alabama, in 1919, described the complicated issues at play through the two Great Migrations of black Southerners to Chicago. The first, after World War I, brought black Southerners to Northern cities for economic opportunities and to escape Jim Crow laws. Black said the number of African-American police officers in Chicago swelled after the First Great Migration, and those officers tended to live in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
“They were part of the neighborhood,” Black said. “There was violence, but not to the extent that came later.”
The Second Great Migration was spurred by the industrialization of Southern agriculture, however, he said, and brought masses of African-Americans who were evicted from the land and had not been educated to the North. Black said those of the Second Great Migration were not as economically successful nor socially accepted into Chicago as the established African Americans had been — and neither were they treated as fairly by the police, who became whiter and lived outside of black neighborhoods.
He later argued that McDonald would not have been shot if he were white, even if he was carrying a gun.
Miller spoke to the current effects of Chicago Police living “south of 95th Street, west of Western on the Southwest Side — no longer part and parcel of communities they tend to police.” Nevertheless, he noted that white and black police officers mistreat black people, noting that out of the around 400 police killings by 2016, over half had been done by officers of color.
Miller said “the narrative of racial difference” does not solely affect white people in their violence against African Americans. “That’s not how racism works,” he said. “It’s not just police having antipathy towards black people, it’s black people saying things like, ‘Yeah, he deserves it.’”
Bonsu brought up the distinction between prejudice, which she said is personal, and racism that is “sanctioned and legitimized by larger institutional structures.” A police officer can be prejudiced, she said, but the police force, structured by the courts, officers’ union contracts and departmental policies, is racist. She said should Van Dyke be acquitted, the message to everyone should be that the systems of which he was part will sanction shooting someone 16 times.
SSA will have another panel discussion after the Van Dyke trial concludes.