Cinema Verite

Hey. It’s been awhile. Hmm. Let’s see. I’d say about a stretch of time equal to several alarming videos being released having to do with mostly white police officers killing black people. Call them “gotcha!” videos that capture what almost always appear to be police with itchy trigger fingers when encountering their African-American “subjects,” to use the lingo of police officials. This is an old story, and by that I don’t mean just the past few years or so. Seriously, what is really old about this story is just how far back the”gotcha!” moments go. As where before the hand-held camcorders became readily available in the marketplace, replacing bulkier, cumbersome equipment, by the early 1990s more and more people could use their easy-to-carry-around, video recorders. Hey. Instant video journalists! Find those video moments. Ready. Aim. Action! The world finally seen…through a viewfinder.  Cute animal moments. Even cuter kiddie moments. At the ballgame. From that hilltop. By the river. The beautiful birds landing on the backyard feeder. The family cat pouncing… (never mind); Uncle Ernie’s birthday bash…smashed…trashed.

Wait…did I say bash?

Hey…that guy, over there. What the? What’s happening? That’s no party! It’s a lively urban street scene, yes. Some black guy seems to be getting the shit beat out of him by several cops, apparently taking turns whacking him with their nightsticks. The guy seems defenseless. He’s groping about on his hands and knees. What the hell?! Camcorder, don’t fail me now!

When did that happen?

Remember, Rodney King being beaten senseless in March of 1991 in Los Angeles, as a nearby member of John Q.Public had a camcorder capturing the four officers treating Rodney like a pinada? The officers were charged with abusive actions, but their trial ended with all four being acquitted. In spite of the “smoking gun” video.

Then came the riots and the looting of mostly inner city L.A. as a response to the perceived miscarriage of justice. When the riot ended there were 50 dead, 2000 injured. $1 billion in property damage. This post-acquittal action was captured on video as well, but on live video from news choppers. It was bloody, ugly and angry.

Fast forward 23 years, and Rodney King’s beating seems almost an act of restraint by the L.A. police. Now, with dash-cam and body-cams on police personnel and vehicles, as well as seemingly everyone with video capture on their smart phones, we have seen a disturbing number of near-instant fatal encounters by young black men with officers of the law. Shoot first, sort it out later, seems to be the police force modus operandi.

And these days, the various video sources serve as near-literal smoking gun evidence.

Some video “gotcha” moments come to light quickly, others not quite so. It depends on the source of the video. In the Chicago area, there’s the now notorious case of Laquan McDonald being shot sixteen times by one officer. By the time the dash-cam video was handed over to the media, after legal action forcing its release, mayor Rahm Emanuel had survived a run-off election against a Hispanic opponent. Now, the prevailing opinion of a lot of people, of various races, is that the video was held back for political reasons. Hmm. Playing politics with justice?!  Say it isn’t so!

And of course these videos, whether from back when or occurring as I write this, are all about politics. Racial, most obviously. In the city of Chicago, where I have lived most of my life (and I have memories of the Mayor Richard J. Daley  years, starting in the mid-50s) the plight of  “people of color” on the South and West sides has seemingly not ever changed for the better. At all. Their schools are underfunded by a rotten, state-wide taxing process based on an area’s revenue generation by (in some places) a healthy business district. Most of the South and West sides have few, if any, major businesses. Lots of liquor and dollar stores, for sure.  Property values are very low. The term “food desert” connotes this dearth of branded big business where the residents can shop–or find decent employment opportunities. And, instead of well maintained public spaces, there are countless encounters with the broken glass glitter of empty, littered lots. Gang violence is a daily dose of bitter reality on the streets around these trashed out empty spaces. Decades and decades of socio-economic stasis. City government at work. Well, for some. And so it goes, on and on, as if that is simply the way it was meant to be. Mayor after mayor, police chief after police chief.

I don’t have the formal expertise or mental energy required to intricately, concisely, analyze my direct, long term, observations of the dubious conditions of above noted parts of Chicago. But one certainly need not have a doctorate in social science, psychology, political science, economics or public policy  to see this particular reality and assume that the lack of progress for the West an South sides is quite intentional. Social planning? Sure, building cookie-cutter, drab, poorly managed and barely maintained high-rise public housing was some urban planner’s most inspired project. After several decades of their mismanagement and governmental neglect, and becoming natural nesting grounds for gangs, drugs, violence and despair, they’ve all been imploded. So, the skyline looks a bit different. But the basic view from ground level is still the funk and flotsam of Chicago’s mean streets. City Hall? Any new ideas?

Not really. Except to have police answer dramatically to those pesky 9-1-1 calls coming from Desolation Row. Make no mistake about it, the police are weary of the residents of the South and West sides as much as the residents are weary of the men and women sworn to serve and protect.
As noted above, this has been a loooonnnng running situation. The conundrum of “chicken or egg?” comes to mind

Back to that Laquan McDonald video. Caught on dash-cam from a police cruiser. The African-American community, taking up the “black lives matter” mantra that has been echoing around the country, are demanding that Mayor Emanuel resign, along with Cook County prosecutor Anita Alvarez.  Sure, why not? The accusation that the video took about a year to be released for media viewing reeks of mayoral and prosecutorial covering up. I agree, in principle, with the activists taking to streets. Presumably,  those who reside in Chicago and live in those Chi-raq battlegrounds should be fed up.  Articulate your disapproval and disgust! You’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore! Grrr. Argh! Professional camera operators are there to capture your moments. Keep calling for the mayor to resign. A mayor with this kind of kiss-my-ass stink on him just has to go. And now! Resign! As for Ms.Alvarez, well all the protesters have to do is go to the polls next year and VOTE HER OUT. Democracy at work! Vote all the bums out!

Vote? Wait a minute! This arrogant Rahm guy who is now having many fingers pointing at him as no friend of the minority victims being shot dead by the police, didn’t he just have to run for re-election? Right. Just earlier this year, 2015. And if memory serves, I believe he was forced into a run-off with one Chuy Garcia. Rahm needed more than 50% of the vote but garnered only 45%. Chuy got 36%. A handful of others got the other 19%. Hmm. That means that 55% of those who voted in the mayoral election in Chicago early this year did NOT want Rahm returned to office. So, those who went to the polls sent a clear signal that Rahm wasn’t cutting that metropolitan mustard. Of course! The VOTER speaks! And as we all know, when the run-off election came around a couple months later, all those 55% voted against Rahm again, with others who sat out the initial election from the battered and bloodied mean streets joining in and Chuy became mayor of Chicago! The power of the ballot! Hell yeah!

Wait. Wait. I re-call my re-call! That was what I assumed had to happen. Rahm was political dead meat and he sensed it by his mopey apologies to those 55% of detractors. But I’ll  be damned if  Rahm didn’t win the run-off. It wasn’t even close. Now, what in tarnation happened?! Didn’t all these protesters/voter-citizens band together before the run-off, take to streets and urge their fellow citizens to make a change? But I can’t recall any media coverage of big rallies to that effect. In fact, barely anyone went to the polls for that run-off. Those who did certainly couldn’t have been mostly from the South and West sides. Not to mention the Hispanic neighborhoods. Didn’t they come out in droves for one of their own? WTF?

I guess not. Gee. And all they had to do was think for themselves, and not let prevaricating political ads put them in a stupor. Or not take their ballot-box marching orders from their righteous local ministers. Most of the ads were for Rahm. Sure. He had deep-pocketed corporate backers. But still, Chuy must have gotten donations from regular people. Maybe not wheelbarrows of money but still… just seize the goddam ballot booth. Wake the fuck up on run-off day and go VOTE! Remember what happened when you DID let your actions speak louder than your words, as in getting African-American Harold Washington elected Chicago Mayor 30 years ago? And Richard M.Daley was his high profile, well financed  opponent!

But the Rahm defeat did not happen. And now the protesters want a “re-call” vote. The protesters march and have “die-ins” and  block pathways to Mag Mile retailers, seemingly oblivious to the blatant irony and ineptitude that frames their cries for urgent action. You had your re-call chance and blew it. You blew it really bad. But now you want another re-call.

You’re making it hard for me to not to wish you’d all go away.

Dash cams, chopper cams, body cams, smart cams, it’s cinema verite, all right. Reality TV! And if it bleeds, it leads. CSI: USA. The news cams will give the at-once beleaguered and befuddled Chicago citizen-activists attention as they continue demanding to have happen what they could have made sure happened months ago.

For other communities fed-up with their police and local governments, I wish them well in their demands for change. But we still do have elections, and if enough people get to the voting booth…things could…maybe…possibly…somehow…someway…change?

Yawn…have you checked how local and national government is doing lately? Uh, we voted for this? Who’s “we”, pale face?, to quote Tonto. We the People. Ugh. Never mind.

Time to see the news. Oh, no! Another “gotcha!” video. This story needs a re-write.






























About jharrin4

mass communication/speech instructor at College of DuPage and Triton College in suburban Chicago. Army veteran of the Viet Nam era.
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1 Response to Cinema Verite

  1. Catt1111 says:

    As aptly related here, this is a story without an ending owing to the repetition of history now captured on camera again and again. Demonstrations can be effective but to demonstrate without bothering to vote makes no sense, and all but guarantees that nothing will change. Where is the light at the end of this tunnel?


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