Graphic video: Chicago police and activists ask, 'How much transparency?'

The video of an officer shooting a teenage boy was released Tuesday despite opposition from Chicago's mayor, police, the victim's family, and some activists.

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/AP
Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, accused of fatally shooting a black teenager, arrives at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago on Tuesday. Van Dyke was charged with first degree murder in the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Even as the Chicago Police Department released Tuesday a potentially explosive video that shows an officer killing a 17-year-old black teenager named Laquan McDonald, some police-transparency activists have taken a new and curious position: They want the video to remain secret.

Chicago prosecutors on Tuesday arraigned Officer Jason Van Dyke on first-degree murder charges for his role in the shooting of Laquan last October. The video of the shooting was released Tuesday despite opposition from the police department, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Laquan’s family, and some activists. The release comes as the result of a lawsuit from an independent journalist.

That there should be pushback against transparency after a year when videos have been integral in a nationwide policing reform movement, experts say, comes partly out of concern for the slain teenager’s family.

“From a public opinion perspective, it’s interesting because people are very supportive of cameras in the interest of transparency, but they’re much less supportive of the general public having access to video,” says William Sousa, director of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. “It ties back to this idea that transparency is a very good thing, but we have to also balance the rights of the officers, the rights of citizens and respect due process in terms of the way that we treat evidence – and it’s all a balance that cities are really struggling with now.”

Cities aren’t the only ones grappling with such questions – transparency and free speech have become issues on campuses across the country this fall. Some of this, experts say, comes amid the rise of a new generation of social justice activists – one that appears more comfortable with the idea of censorship than in the past, and, at times, wary of free speech. This week, Pew found that 40 percent of Millennials support government censorship of some views and ideas that they find offensive or oppressive, a far higher rate than older generations.

In Chicago, the video’s graphic nature, as well as its potential to inspire unrest, means that activists and the police find themselves on the same side of the issue. In April, the city settled with Laquan’s family for $5 million, before the family even sued. Part of that settlement included a clause forbidding the release of the video. To some, that settlement flew in the face of the power of such videos to bring light to excessive police actions.

The United States has seen a spike in police prosecutions since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. Mr. Van Dyke, for one, became the first on-duty officer ever in Chicago to face first-degree murder charges. That’s even though the city has a history rife with police abuses, including more than $500 million in settlements and reparations for a period in the 1970s and ’80s when some officers were found to have abused, even tortured, African-Americans.

The video in Chicago shows Van Dyke firing 16 times at Laquan, many of the shots coming after he was already down and in a fetal position. Laquan had been wielding a four-inch knife and had slashed a cruiser tire, but was reportedly walking away from police when Van Dyke opened fire. The teenager, the coroner found, was on a powerful drug called PCP that may have loosened his grip on reality.

A major concern for the city is whether the video has the potential to inspire violent protests, making it a public safety issue. Mayor Emanuel met with officials on Tuesday to ready for potential unrest.

“The question for many is, once the video is there, what do you do with it? There’s all kinds of situations where a video can inflame a legal situation where you’d rather it be dealt with more quietly,” says Michael Kazin, a historian of US social movements at Georgetown University in Washington.

But for activists, concerns about the video have more to do with how it may be consumed more broadly by the public. That raises the question of whether its release actually supports the public’s right to know about the actions of their hired officials, or whether it’s graphic titillation that will only bring more pain to those affected.

“I worry a lot about these videos, because we have seen a lot of them and they get consumed [like entertainment,” Page May, an activist with the group We Charge Genocide, told The Chicago Reporter. “If the family didn’t want this released, then [public airing of it] just adds to the injustice. This video is about to be seen by millions of people. If [a police officer kills me], I don’t want my body turned into a viral video."

Those sentiments echoed calls by growing social justice movements on US campuses to censure uncomfortable or potentially hurtful thoughts or speech. Such movements have called for “safe spaces” and solidarity pledges from journalists.

Earlier this fall, the student newspaper at Wesleyan University in Connecticut saw copies destroyed and faced potential defunding after Black Lives Matter activists objected to a critical article. And earlier this month, a University of Missouri communications professor was widely criticized for calling for “muscle” to oust reporters trying to cover a protest. The professor resigned one of her appointments as a result. Last week, Smith College protesters barred reporters from covering a sit-in unless they were willing to pledge allegiance to their cause, “in an effort to create a safe space from potential insensitivity,” as a MassLive reporter who was turned away wrote.

Other social historians argue that the impulse to keep the McDonald video out of public view may be more the result of Americans uncertainly crossing a new legal frontier, enabled by technology and now questioned by even those energized by what some of those videos have revealed. 

“This [video release] sounds like it’s unnecessary [from the viewpoint of activists] since clearly what they want is results,” which they have achieved with murder charges faced by Van Dyke, adds Mr. Kazin at Georgetown. “What’s happening on campus is somewhat different, where it’s a matter of people being part of an institution that they feel has not treated them equally, and where there’s a history of racism or at least condescension based on race. But it’s also true that without Ferguson, there wouldn’t be Black Lives Matter, and without Black Lives Matter there wouldn’t be these campus protests.”

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