CN Feb 16 2017


“We have a crisis of the civil order in Chicago.”

That’s the terse assessment of one of Chicago’s most tenacious and respected journalists and writers. Jamie Kalven has been immersed in Chicago’s most impoverished neighborhoods for decades, but he’s still holding on to some fundamental optimism. “I think what’s hard to hold in focus,” he explains, ” is – on one hand, that’s a huge opportunity. An opportunity to achieve not just tweaks of institutions but real fundamental social change that I never thought I would see in my lifetime. Whether we can rise to the occasion, whether we can sustain the political will, whether we can do it, is an open question. But we have the opportunity. At the same time, and for many of the same reasons arising out of the same circumstances, there are areas of the city that are like failed states. Not a reflection on the people who live there so much as the inability of our government to be effective.”

Kalven, who among many accomplishments founded the Invisible Institute and who is busily nurturing and mentoring young community journalists,  tells us he lives in Kenwood, where the police come when they’re called, and where the police and the residents have a degree of mutual respect.

“If that were the reality in Englewood, in Auburn-Gresham, in Lawndale, that would be transformative,” he asserts. “These are kind of bedrock issues for the city and the society, and they’re fundamentally issues about race.”

“…we know what to do, we know how to do it and we don’t do it,” he continues. “And I think that’s this blood-knot a the center of American life, where we have this ability to know and to not know at the same time. And I spend a lot of time in the neighborhoods where bodies have been falling, and earlier for many years in high-rise public housing before it was demolished. It’s kind of in plain sight. You have areas that have been abandoned by public and private institutions for generations, and then we ask, why the violence?”

Kalven recently authored a sweeping account of two police officers who attempted to blow the whistle on a massive police-run drug ring operating in Stateway Gardens and  Ickes Homes in the 1990’s. Their efforts were not rewarded. Instead, they were ostracized by their fellow officers and they both ended up out of CPD. Meanwhile, many of the implicated higher-ups quietly resigned and collected their pensions.  It’s a lengthy, but breath-taking read, and highly recommended. You can find it HERE.

Jamie Kalven was central to the legal proceedings that resulted in the release of the Laquan McDonald autopsy and later the infamous videos. Without those, the case against Jason Van Dyke would likely never have moved forward, and in fact Van Dyke and McDonald would probably not be names familiar to any of us. His research and pursuit of factual data has been the underpinning of some of Chicago’s most significant journalism in recent years. In the McDonald case, the repercussions from the video release are still being felt, and could result in massive changes in the way Chicago polices itself.

“If those bad actors – for the sake of argument we’ll say substantially less than 5% of the force – if they are allowed to act with impunity, then for whole areas of the City they become the face of civil authority,” he warns. But he’s concerned that the changing of the guard at the Department of Justice could mean a huge lost opportunity for change.”What we’re now hearing really loud and clear I think from Washington is that police accountability measures are impediments to effective law enforcement,” he asserts.

“They are saying that the only effective policing and effective policing of neighborhoods of color, the only effective policing is unconstitutional policing,” he continues. “That’s what the argument is, and that’s a critically  important argument to win. And to demonstrate that police accountability in the various forms it takes is a necessary condition for effective law enforcement, that the reason that there are where areas in the City where the people won’t cooperate with the police and won’t respond in any constructive way is closely related to a history of abuse and inability to get any redress of their grievances when they complain through various channels.”

Kalven draws a line from the public debate over torture and the calls for a more stringent kind of policing. “You know we lost that argument, so there’s a fundamental moral case about torture, but then there’s this other argument about the efficacy of torture, and both arguments are important. The moral revulsion, but then does it work, is it ever justified. And we’ve had a huge ongoing public discourse about that, and we fundamentally lost that argument and now torture is basically seen in our political life as a policy option.”

And how does that relate to urban policing? “It would be tragic at this moment, in this post-Ferguson Black Lives Matter moment if, and I don’t think this is an impossible outcome, if we have our ongoing public discourse about these issues, and where we end up is with the principle that only violating peoples’ rights is effective, and only in black neighborhoods, in only certain neighborhoods. So we need to win that argument, and I think Chicago, partly because of the place it’s now assumed in the national discourse, is a really critical, a sort of center stage for that.”

Jamie Kalven likes to quote a New York  City police official.

“In a democracy there’s nothing as good as a good police officer and there’s nothing as bad as a bad police officer.”

It was an honor to have this important leader at our table this week.

Meanwhile, you can watch the show at the link above, or listen to it on SoundCloud.

And you can  read a full transcript of the show HERE:  cn-transcript-feb-16-2017


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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