Delving into killing of Harith Augustus

Investigative journalist Jamie Kalven, founder of the Invisible Institute. (Herald file photo)

Staff writer

On July 14, 2018, barber Harith Augustus was walking home from work on 71st Street in South Shore when Chicago Police Officer Megan Flemming noticed he was carrying a gun. An experienced Black policeman stopped him, and he showed him his gun owner’s identification.

As they spoke, Flemming and Officer Dillan Halley, both of whom were new to the force, came up from behind and grabbed Augustus. Flemming later said she was trying to handcuff him, which was improper. They never gave a verbal warning. The officers were performing an investigatory stop: Augustus was never under arrest.

Augustus fled into the street, away from the officers, and touched his holstered gun. Halley shot at him five times — four in quick bursts and another shot some two seconds afterwards — after a supposedly split-second decision. Augustus fell to the pavement, and an officer retrieved the gun from his body. He died holding his identification, his gun holstered at his hip.

A night of unrest followed in South Shore, but the Chicago Police, operating in the aftermath of the murder of Laquan McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke, were quick to release Halley’s body camera footage. The controversy subsided.

The Invisible Institute — founded by investigative journalist Jamie Kalven, the Kenwood resident who broke news of the McDonald coverup — probed the killing with Forensic Architecture, the University of London-based research group.

What they found from digitally modeling the incident from several different videos taken from it was substantially more nuanced than was reported at the time. Their work is on display at the Chicago Architectural Biennial and the Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., through Jan. 5.

“Overall with this Biennial, we’re taking a very expansive view of what architecture is,” said Artistic Director Yesomi Umolu. “I think they are quite interested in the practice that intervenes into architecture and the built environment and different ways of making space, which can be the work of an architect or the work of a planner or a social movement of an investigative journalist. For us, it seemed right that we invite these two entities to participate.”

“If you look at the Biennial as a whole, we’re really interested in interrogating urban conditions,” she said. “For us, it’s important to think about how questions race, representation, violence, policing affect our understanding of space in a city like Chicago.”

The videos of Augustus’ death on six screens tucked away upstairs at the Experimental Station contextualize the killing across timeframes, from years to milliseconds. Viewers see the killing in real time and are enveloped in its aftermath, from Flemming frantically trying to comfort Halley as Augustus lay dying to the protests that followed, which devolved into civil unrest and four arrests.

“What we hope that the project makes apparent to people is just how problematic the split-second frame is for understanding these events, because it excludes context and the earlier events that produce the split second,” Kalven said. “There’s a whole sequence of events that occur before that split-second moment, and I think the only way to look at this incident is that the police produced the split-second and killed this individual inside that moment.”

“The cumulative effect is to demonstrate that the killing of Harith Augustus was not the product of any criminal activity on his part but was the product of really aggressive and inept policing,” he continued. “If you take the police off the street that day — if they’re just not on 71st Street — nothing bad happens. The police brought the chaos, and the police created the situation, manufactured the ‘split-second,’ and then reacted inside it.”

Observers see what Halley saw because of his body camera, but the exhibition uses footage from a patrol car’s dashboard camera and street security cameras — released a year after the killing and after the police said all their relevant material had been given to the public — to animate the entire incident. We know what every person involved was doing by the fraction of the second.

Observers also see a computer simulation of the incident from Augustus’ perspective. He may have touched his gun — narration by Trina Reynolds-Tyler says he could have been holding it in place or grabbing it — but the simulation indicates he appeared to be trying to run away.

“People should think about who gets in trouble for having a gun and who doesn’t get in trouble for having a gun,” said Reynolds-Tyler, who works for the Invisible Institute and Black Youth Project 100, in an interview. “If Harith Augustus was a White man walking down the street with a holstered gun on him, the police wouldn’t say anything because we live in a city with concealed carry.”

“You don’t stop every person who has a car to check to see if they have a driver’s license,” she observed.

Chicago law licenses concealed carry of firearms, but not open carry.

The video of Augustus’ death is available online and on display at the Experimental Station on Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; visitors should check in first at Build Coffee.

While the videos of Augustus’ death are online and incorporated into the exhibition at Experimental Station, they are not included at the Biennial.

“We’re all awash in images from around the world of human rights disasters and crimes. I think there are really important questions around representation and questions for each of us about what the implications are of looking,” Kalven said. “What responsibilities do we incur when we know something through this kind of reporting or through images of this nature?”

“Right now, at this moment in neighborhoods like South Shore, Woodlawn Englewood, West Side neighborhoods, we as citizens have the power to address and change some of those things,” he said. “But if we don’t, it’s all-but-certain that there will be other equally tragic, equally wasteful incidents that occur in the future.”

If the McDonald case epitomized a departure from the norm in Chicago, Kalven said, the Augustus case represents the norm in police shooting cases. Reynolds-Tyler concurred.

“I think a lot of police officers, they become cops because they want to catch bad guys,” she said. “They’re waiting for that moment. That’s the issue with policing right there: we are dehumanizing people, we are making assumptions as to who they are — a lot of times based on what they look like.”