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Chicago Activist: City’s Call for Peace over Laquan McDonald Video Does Not Extend to Police Dept.

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As Chicago braces for protests ahead of the release of video footage of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, we speak with Charlene Carruthers, the national director of the Black Youth Project 100. Her organization declined a meeting with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office on Monday, as the city tries to quell impending protests. “For us, it was important not to take a meeting with the mayor where it was clear to us that this series of meetings was about how are we going to quell our fears—being the Mayor’s Office’s fears—about what young black people are going to do once this video is released,” Carruthers said. “They’re very concerned with the city remaining peaceful. But, unfortunately, the community, or the target, that is being told to remain peaceful is not the Chicago Police Department.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Chicago, a police officer is about to be indicted for first-degree murder. We’re joined by Jamie Kalven, founder of the Invisible Institute, freelance journalist who first broke the story of what happened to Laquan McDonald, actually killed October [ 20 ], 2014. We’re also joined by Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100.

This is very unusual, Charlene Carruthers, a police officer about to be indicted for first-degree murder. Can you talk about your response to the fact that a judge has just demanded that the video be released to the public by tomorrow, as well as the officer, we believe, about to be indicted?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: So, I sat in the courtroom last week listening to the judge’s decision on whether or not to release the video to the public. And in my mind, over and over again, the narrative of that—this is not an isolated event. This is not the first time that this has happened. And there is nothing unusual about the killing of a young black person in the city of Chicago by the Chicago Police Department. And so, we listened to Judge Valderrama list reason after reason as to why the Chicago Police Department had no standing to withhold that video from the public. And so, for us, we know that videos of black people being gunned down by police officers are nothing new to the American public and the broader international public. At the same—on the other hand, we also know that between Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Superintendent Garry McCarthy, there has been moment after moment of inaction and poor decision-making regarding policing in this city. We live in a city where the Chicago Police Department takes up 40 percent of our budget, while at the same time, just a few years ago, we closed over 50 public schools. And so it says a lot to us about what and who our city prioritizes, and who we don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: So, here you have this story of a white police officer, Jason Van Dyke, who shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on October [ 20 ], 2014. Talk about, Charlene, when you started to understand what had actually taken place. In fact, didn’t you have a major rally in Chicago just a few days afterwards at the time?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Well, as Jamie mentioned earlier, last year, around the same time that Laquan McDonald was killed, there were nationwide protests around several police-involved killings in black communities. And we were actually—we had several protests, yeah, within that period in the wake of the non-indictment decision of Darren Wilson in killing Mike Brown. We had a national moment of silence day that we had an action here in Chicago and in other places around the country. And so, for us, the killing of Laquan McDonald is one more gruesome, violent signal that our organizing to build black political power in Chicago and also nationally is absolutely essential. And so, we, BYP100, along with organizations such as Fearless Leading by the Youth, We Charge Genocide, Assata’s Daughters, we organize every single day in Chicago. We, BYP100, we organize in Detroit, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., New York City and the Bay Area, because, again, what happened to Laquan McDonald, there’s nothing unusual about that in this country. And how the mayor reacted, even with having access to all the information, is absolutely not unusual.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I want to correct the date, that he was shot by police officer Van Dyke on October 20th, 2014. Now, the mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who used to be the chief of staff of President Obama, the mayor invited you, Charlene Carruthers, and your group to meet with him, is that right, on Monday?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yes. The Mayor’s Office invited a number of black-led youth organizations, that do work every single day in the city of Chicago, to attend a meeting. The Mayor’s Office also invited a number of people who are—that the office determines to be leaders in the city of Chicago to meet with him. And so, for us, it was important not to take a meeting with the mayor in a moment where it was clear to us that these meetings, this series of meetings, was about how are we going to quell our fears—being the Mayor’s Office’s fears—about what young black people are going to do once this video is released. And so, while at the same time we know that the city continues to divest from the things that we need in our communities, like quality public schools, job creation, mental health services, things of that nature.

And so, we—for us, it did not make sense, for what we’re trying to build in this city, to meet with a mayor who also allowed people to starve for over 30 days during the Dyett hunger strike, black folks calling on a quality public school in the neighborhood that I live in, in Chicago. And so—and thinking about how we, as young people, believe in organizing and not representing all black people, we called on a public meeting. We don’t want to have closed-door, private meeting with the mayor to talk about an issue that doesn’t just impact the 30, 40, 50, 60 of us. It impacts thousands, hundreds of thousands, of black people, not just in Chicago, but across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did the mayor respond to you saying no, and what was the reason you gave?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: So, we don’t have an official response from the Mayor’s Office regarding our decision not to take a meeting with him and to discuss the execution of Laquan McDonald. But for us, we know that the mayor has called meetings before. And we’ve had meetings with the mayor before. We’ve not always said, “No, we won’t sit down with you Mr. Emanuel, to talk about policing in this city.” But what we did know is that in this particular moment that the city has very specific interests around what happened, and they are very concerned with the city remaining peaceful. But, unfortunately, the community, or the target, that is being told to remain peaceful is not the Chicago Police Department.

I just learned that—I just learned there are reports that the Chicago Police Department, they’re suiting up, through November 29th, to deal with whatever comes after the video is released. And our concern is actually what Laquan McDonald’s family will feel once this video is released, and then what the young black people who walk down the street in Chicago every single day, who drive in their cars every single day, worried about whether or not they’ll be the next Rekia Boyd, the next Ronnieman, the next Laquan McDonald—the list goes on and on and on of young black people who have been gunned down by the Chicago Police Department.

AMY GOODMAN: So what are you calling for right now, Charlene Carruthers?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Oh, we’re calling for what we’ve always called for. We’re calling for a massive divestment from and defunding of the police and investment in black communities. As I mentioned earlier, the Chicago Police Department comprises 40 percent of our budget. That absolutely has to change. We’re calling on what—most recently, we’ve called on the firing of Officer Dante Servin. And just last night we learned that Superintendent Garry McCarthy is recommending that he is fired. And so, we want that to continue. We want full decriminalization of black people in the city, be it for minor marijuana offenses or any other behaviors, when other people engage in them, they’re not criminalized for. I mean, I want all kinds of things, but our demands have not changed that focus squarely on defunding the police and investing in things like public schools. And that’s something that the mayor could do, and we are committed to organizing to make that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Ira Acree, a pastor at the Greater St. John Bible Church, told reporters after meeting with the mayor, quote, “Many in my community feel betrayed … Protests are imminent. … We’re hoping that these protests and demonstrations will be peaceful. We know they are coming. If there would be no protest, that would mean that we have become immune to this madness.” I wanted to go back to Jamie Kalven. How unusual is it for a police officer to be indicted for first-degree murder?


JAMIE KALVEN: Did she ask?


JAMIE KALVEN: What was the question?

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie, how—Jamie Kalven? Can you hear me?


AMY GOODMAN: —unusual is it for a police officer to be indicted?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: How unusual is it for a police officer to be indicted?

JAMIE KALVEN: So, this will be—assuming the indictment comes down today, this will be the first time in Chicago history that a police officer has been criminally charged for an on-duty shooting. So we’re in this curious space where this is an unprecedented and in some ways monumental event, and at the same time sort of the capstone of—I’m not sure “cover-up” is the right word, but a profoundly false narrative that has been maintained by the city about what happened that night on October 20th.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie Kalven—and I know that you don’t have an earpiece, so Charlene has to say it to you. So, Charlene, you can say it even as I’m speaking; we’ll pull down your mic. Can you talk about what the Invisible Institute has found when it comes to police being held responsible for police brutality?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Right. So, I think that really is a critical part of the story. You know, when we talk about police accountability, it has two dimensions. One are the particular abuses. And, you know, even if you imagine the best-trained police force in a city the size and complexity of Chicago, with a police force of roughly 13,000, bad things will happen. The critical question is: How does the institution of the police department, and the larger institutions of the city, respond when they do? You know, if you have an effective disciplinary system, vigorous investigation, that incentivizes good behavior. It reduces the number of abusive incidents. It builds public confidence. It builds a degree of trust between communities and the police. That’s not what we have in Chicago. And we have statistics, and they’re the city’s, based on the city’s information, that demonstrate that this is a system that is largely dedicated to not connecting the dots, to not knowing things it’s within the city’s power to know about fundamental human rights violations against citizens.

The consequence of that—and, you know, you cited before, 97 percent of complaints ending in findings of “not sustained,” which is a kind of a shrug—we can’t figure out what happened. And among the small number of sustained complaints, it’s an infinitesimal number that actually get any kind of meaningful discipline. So what the statistics that we’ve amassed and have made public reflect, it’s a kind of a portrait of impunity. It means that those officers—and they’re a small—they’re not—it’s not a few bad apples, as is sometimes said. You know, it’s still a significant number of officers, and they’re not evenly distributed through the city. They’re in some neighborhoods and not other neighborhoods. But it’s still a relatively small subset of the department, is responsible for the lion’s share of abuse. But in a dysfunctional system, where they have a kind of de facto impunity, those officers who are disposed to be abusive—and abuse can take many different kinds—many different forms—you know, outright racism, just enjoyment of brutality, sort of perverse pleasure in acts of cruelty, corruption, shakedowns of drug dealers, robbing citizens, you know, vile behavior towards women—whatever the pattern of officers inclined to be abusive, they are much more likely to act if they know that they have de facto impunity, that they’re very unlikely to be identified. If identified, they won’t be effectively investigated. If investigated, they won’t be subjected—and a finding is made that abuse occurred, they won’t face meaningful discipline. So, this is a—you know, it’s a system dedicated to not knowing things that could be known.

And if the city did look for patterns in the citizen complaints and really, as I say, try to connect the dots, it would be an immensely useful tool for protecting citizens and also for protecting officers, I mean, for intervening before small problems become big problems, to intervene with particular officers. And at a time when there is such profound distrust and alienation from the police in the neighborhoods most affected, and such a lack of confidence—such a crisis of legitimacy for the institutions of criminal justice, this is one of the things within the power of the city to do to begin to restore a degree of confidence, to begin to restore a degree of trust. But it has to start—and I think this is a really important aspect of—it’s a way in which, as Charlene was saying, that Laquan McDonald—you know, Laquan McDonald has now joined Michael Brown and a number of other names as our kind of shorthand for fundamental, defining structural issues in American life.

And the importance of our current debate and discussion of the video and of what happened that night is, nothing can go forward, nothing—we cannot reform and improve the conditions we have right now if we don’t first acknowledge the realities. You know, and in this case, we could have—the reality of what happened that night could have been acknowledged the next day, the next week. It could have been acknowledged at the time, without prejudicing any investigation going forward, any criminal prosecution. This was public information that was withheld from the public. And so, you know, the importance of the statistics and the analysis of the city’s own figures on—its own information on complaints is there’s an opportunity there to be diagnostically smart about what the true conditions are. But we have to reckon with reality before we can go forward with sensible and just commonsense reforms that are within our reach to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlene Carruthers, is there a protest planned for today? Again, in these two days, it’s expected that the police officer, Van Dyke, will be indicted for first-degree murder and that the city will release the video of the police killing of Laquan McDonald on October 20th, 2014.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: So, after each time we learn of a tragic moment, or a tragic moment like the killing of Laquan McDonald becomes—goes on public display, and there’s an opportunity, a political—an opening for us to bring in more young black folks into this movement to actually not just receive justice for Laquan McDonald, but to end police brutality and police violence in this country, we do something. We’re organizers. And so, there will be—there will be actions in the wake of the release of the video.

But what I will say is that everything that we do is centered around: How do we build on this moment? How do we make it so there are no more parents, like Laquan McDonald’s mother, who have to mourn their children after they’ve been gunned down, after they’ve been sexually assaulted, after they’ve been harassed, after they’ve been stopped and frisked, after they’ve been incarcerated? What can we do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?

And so, actually, today, we’re holding a healing space for black folks on the—in the center of the city. And if folks are interested in more information, they should check out our social media. But, for us, we know what the media is going to do. We know that young black people will be vilified regardless as to what happens, whether it’s a so-called peaceful protest or a so-called not peaceful protest, because what we know for sure is that the police are highly unlikely to be peaceful with us. And so, we’re focused on protecting each other and making sure that our work moves forward.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100. And thank you to Jamie Kalven. We’ll certainly link to your piece, founder of the Invisible Institute, freelance journalist who exposed the autopsy of Laquan McDonald, who was killed by Police Officer Van Dyke on October 20th, 2014. Sixteen bullets riddled his body.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to Washington, D.C. Stay with us.

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