They say that seeing is believing. Then again, sometimes you don’t want to believe what you are seeing. Here’s an example: the shooting death of Laquan McDonald. Despite initial efforts to keep this out of sight, we, collectively, brought it out of the shadows and dealt with it in the way that citizenship requires, through the Courts. Kudos to Jamie Kalven, the journalist who broke the story and injected a dose of moral courage into Chicago's body politic.
Our city's struggle with the Van Dyke-McDonald tragedy, while painful and anxiety producing, seems to me to be a sign of civic health. When push came to shove, we didn’t bury it, we allowed ourselves to believe what we saw, and we’re trying to work it through. There's a lot of working through to do.
As part of this process, on Wednesday October 17, the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute will be hosting a conversation with States Attorney Kim Foxx, whose election to this office was an early consequence of the release of the police videos that forced us to pay attention. I’ll be speaking with her about her role as the head of the 2nd largest prosecutor’s office in the country. I’m sure we’ll talk about Jason Van Dyke and Lacquan McDonald.
The States Attorney’s office and the Courts are one component of what we refer to as the “Criminal Justice System.” (The other 2 are our police and our prisons.) As part of my “homework” for this event I read a book about the “System.” It’s called “The New Jim Crow,” by legal scholar and former civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander, who has just joined the New York Times as an op-ed columnist.
In her book Ms. Alexander provides a context for the McDonald-Van Dyke story that is, in it’s own way, as hard to look at and as impossible to disregard as the police video of McDonald being shot. She puts it this way: “Hundreds of years ago, our nation put those considered less than human in shackles; less than one hundred years ago, we relegated them to the other side of town; today we put them in cages.”
You may not be aware of this, but we have around 2 million people in prison throughout the country, and a very high percentage of them are black. Many are serving large amounts of time for crimes of very small magnitude. Most are traumatized by their time in prison, and upon release those with felony convictions are in many places deprived of fundamental rights and employment possibilities.
Alexander argues that this system in the current version of the Jim Crow laws that were passed in the late nineteenth century aimed at locking black people into a separate and inferior status. In our contemporary version she posits that the “War on Drugs” begun in the Reagan era created a series of incentives that, in toto, has led to the creation of a class that we have rendered invisible by locking them up in prisons.
This may strike you as wildly implausible, or at least exaggerated. But Alexander backs up her argument with facts and reasoning that connect dots that form a straight line leading to something that’s pretty hard to digest. She demonstrates how the nation’s drug policies have weaponized the Criminal Justice System and encouraged arrests, racial profiling and a culture that makes what happened to Jason Van Dyke and Laquan McDonald that night a little more comprensible.
What Alexander’s book suggests is that we, as a nation, are unconsciously repeating our historical efforts to dispossess and dehumanize a large portion of our population. We may think we’re better than that, but….we don't seem to be.
I hope that the Van Dyke trial turns out to be a tipping point, and that it will spur us forward to address our tendency to institutionalize racism, which we haven’t been able to address very successfully since the Civil War (despite all the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's) Not sure where to go from here, but it seems like a good first step is to have a conversation with Kim Foxx and get her ideas. I’m grateful for the opportunity.
So please consider joining our conversation on Oct 17. Here's the link: