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In Chicago, Two Activist Davids Puncture Goliath’s Blue Shield

CHICAGO — It all started with a phone call. In early November 2014, Craig Futterman, a civil rights attorney and law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, heard his phone ring. The caller, a source within Chicago law enforcement, told Futterman about the existence of a dash-cam video showing a black teenager being shot by a white police officer. What it depicted, the source said, was shocking.

Weeks earlier, the police department had issued a generic statement about the October 20 shooting of a 17-year-old African American, Laquan McDonald, who police said had lunged at officers with a knife in the city’s Archer Heights neighborhood, a largely Polish enclave in Chicago’s southwest sector. One of the officers shot the teen in the chest, and he was later pronounced dead, the police said. But this video, the source told Futterman, flatly contradicted that account.

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“This looked like nothing short of an execution,” Futterman recalled the source saying. “They shot him like he was a dog in the street.” His source went on to explain that the teen never lunged at the officers but was, in fact, veering away from them when an officer shot him, emptying his pistol and ultimately hitting McDonald 16 times.

Hearing Their Stories: Jamie Kalven (at right, standing) and Craig Futterman (sitting to Kalven’s left) talk with students at Hyde Park Academy about their interactions with police. Image by Patricia Evans

Make sure this doesn’t go away, don’t let it get buried, the source told Futterman, who continues to protect this person’s request for anonymity. So shortly after, from his Hyde Park office, Futterman called his longtime colleague, Jamie Kalven, a writer and activist, and they began to dig in.

The two men knew each other well; they’d been working together for nearly two decades on issues of police accountability and social justice. But they also share a heritage: Both hail from Jewish backgrounds, Futterman from the Northern suburbs and Kalven from the city’s South Side. For years they have pushed the Chicago Police Department for transparency and for answers. Today, however, it is not lost on these two Jews that what’s come of their crusade has not only upended the city, but also threatens the political viability of its first Jewish mayor, Rahm Emanuel.

“There is such hostility toward the mayor because of this,” Kalven said, referring to the consequences of their efforts. But, he added, such anger is misguided and shortsighted. Emanuel inherited this problem. “He did not create it. And having his head on a stick is not going to cure it,” Kalven added. “The only way forward…is police reform in Chicago.”

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After hearing from Futterman’s tipster, Futterman and Kalven tracked down witnesses, obtained the autopsy of McDonald’s body, gathered confirming accounts and, in a widely distributed statement on December 14, 2014, revealed the existence of the video that the city had sought to keep under wraps.

Rahm Emanuel. Image by getty images

The two men publicly demanded the video’s release. And when the city refused multiple requests, Futterman helped bring a lawsuit against the city, arguing in court that the public had a right to see it.

At the time Futterman initiated his campaign, Emanuel was running for re-election in what turned out to be a very tough race. In February, three days after the incumbent mayor was forced into an unexpected runoff, lawyers for the McDonald family contacted the city seeking $16 million in compensation. By this point, the family lawyers had themselves obtained a copy of the video through a subpoena. Lawyers for the city reached a settlement for $5 million with the family in mid-March, even before the family filed a suit. But the settlement required approval by the City Council, which did not come until April 15—eight days after Emanuel won his runoff.

The settlement included a provision requiring that the video of McDonald’s death be kept private until the completion of an investigation.

It was not until November 26, thirteen months after the shooting, that the city produced the video under a judge’s order. It showed exactly what Futterman’s source had described. Just hours before the forced release of the video — and more than one year after the killing — the Cook County state’s attorney announced the indictment of police officer Jason Van Dyke on a charge of first-degree murder for shooting McDonald multiple times.

Jamie Kalven. Image by Patricia Evans

“There are very few things in life that are black and white, but this pretty much is. It’s an execution,” Futterman said.

Critics have charged that the city fought release of the video at Emanuel’s instigation, to prevent it from exploding his re-election prospects. It’s a charge that the mayor has adamantly and repeatedly denied, saying he himself did not view the video until the public did. Its public release earlier, he said, would have contradicted long-established city policy of holding onto such evidence during the course of a live criminal investigation.

After Van Dyke’s indictment, the policeman’s attorney, Daniel Herber, told the Chicago Tribune, “This is not a murder case,” and that his client has a “valid defense.”

In recent weeks, Futterman and Kalven’s dogged efforts have culminated in massive political fallout. Protesters spilled into the streets of Chicago, disrupting holiday shopping and demanding Emanuel’s resignation. The mayor summarily dismissed the city’s police chief, Garry McCarthy, and the head of the police oversight agency. The Justice Department has launched a wide-ranging investigation into the police department, and some angry residents are demanding a recall election to force the mayor and the state’s attorney out.

Neither state nor city law contain any provisions for a recall election. But the calls to hold Emanuel and other city officials accountable are likely to only intensify with the mortal shootings by Chicago police on Saturday of an unarmed mother of five and a 19-year-old college student, both black, in an apartment building on the city’s predominantly black West Side.

Bettie Jones, 55, was shot through the door of her first-floor apartment, according to her cousin, Evelyn Glover. Reporters on the scene found a single bullet hole in the wooden door to her apartment. Police said Jones was killed by accident and extended their condolences. The college student, Quintonio LeGrier, was shot seven times, according to his mother Janet Cooksey. Family members said police were called after LeGrier, who was said to be suffering from mental illness, threatened his father with a metal baseball bat.

The police department provided scant additional information, saying an unspecified weapon was recovered and no officers were hurt. Police did not say whether there was a video of the incident and provided no information on the officers involved.

Whatever happens now, nearly all agree that Kalven and Futterman’s work helped expose the lack of transparency and failed response by the city, setting off the subsequent firestorm. But for Kalven and Futterman, their work on police accountably in Chicago has been more of a slow burn, spanning 15 years of daily phone calls and twice-weekly meetings, plotting their strategy and next steps. Their partnership has been a fruitful collaboration between a civil rights lawyer and an activist, working to empower the city’s most vulnerable citizens. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Futterman said.

In early November they launched the Citizens Police Data Project, an unparalleled public database of 56,000 misconduct complaint records for more than 8,500 Chicago police officers. It is the result of a decade of diligent work together and a successful 2014 landmark case, Kalven v. Chicago, which held that documents of allegations of police abuse are public information. But the police union is actively fighting the decision, and a judge barred the release of any misconduct records older than four years while the city and union go through arbitration. If the union doesn’t prevail, the database will soon be flooded with the disciplinary history of every Chicago police officer since 1967.

“If we win, having built the database infrastructure, we will make this extraordinary body of information public,” Kalven said. Indeed, no such thing exists in the country.

Kalven, 67, who has deep-set eyes framed by a full head of silver hair and a matching beard, is the son of the renowned lawyer and First Amendment scholar Harry Kalven Jr. The elder Kalven, a professor at the University of Chicago, kept the company of legends such as writer Saul Bellow and legal scholar Hans Zeisel. (He once defended controversial nightclub comedian Lenny Bruce.)

Kalven was raised in a secular Jewish household in the racially integrated Hyde Park neighborhood, where he still lives today with his wife Patsy Evans, a photographer. But it was not until his father died unexpectedly in 1974 of a heart attack at age 60 that Kalven took on a task that became a journey tinged with a sense of religious mission.

At his death, Kalven’s father left behind more than 1,000 pages of unedited manuscript for a book on freedom of speech and civil liberties. Kalven took it upon himself to finish what his father had started and spent the next 14 years on it.

“The work on my father’s book was this intensely talmudic exercise,” Kalven said; so much so that in the afterword of the completed book, titled “A Worthy Tradition: Freedom of Speech in America,” Kalven cited a quote from the Talmud itself: “It is not upon you to finish the work; neither are you free to desist from it.”

Kalven’s work as a self-proclaimed “human rights” journalist and community organizer includes a decade he spent working in Chicago’s public housing projects — primarily Stateway Gardens in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood — turning vacant lots into gardens, cleaning out decrepit apartments, planting scores of trees on its grounds.

It was there, he says, that he saw police misconduct run rampant.

“It took me a while to see how different and disturbing patterns of policing were,” he said. “Once I saw it, I could not not see it. It became more and more central to my work to document and understand.”

Futterman, 49, who is the director of the Police Accountability Clinic at University of Chicago Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, grew up in the staunchly middle-class suburb of Niles, to the city’s northwest, in, he said, “a Jewish home with a strong sense of a Jewish identity.” But Futterman, who stands 6 feet tall with a broad smile and a smoothly shaved head, spent much of his childhood on Chicago’s predominantly black South Side with his grandparents, with whom he was very close. They were the only Jewish family in the mostly African-American Auburn Gresham neighborhood, and Futterman said he was welcomed by neighbors and found an extended family there. He observed for himself the stark realities of the city’s pernicious segregation and socioeconomic inequalities. But there was also a point of connection. “As a Jewish person, I identified far more with discrimination and racism,” he said.

Married now for 21 years to Kenyatta Tatum Futterman, who is African American, Futterman finds that his notions of race and religion are all the more entwined. The couple has two daughters, both of whom celebrated their bat mitzvahs at Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation that is home to the now retired rabbi who married Futterman and his wife. “I have black and Jewish family members. It’s who I am. It’s who my family is. I don’t consider those identities in tension with one another,” he explained.

After working as a Cook County public defender and civil rights lawyer at a boutique firm, Futterman took a teaching job at Stanford University’s law school, where he also directed the school’s public interest program. When he left California in 2000 for a job at the University of Chicago, a mutual friend introduced him to Kalven. The connection was immediate. Futterman was looking to do a citywide project on police misconduct. With Kalven’s help he began to focus on the areas of the city where Kalven, in his work at Stateway Gardens, had seen officers act with impunity.

“Our collaboration came to be very central to that project,” Kalven said. Over time, the combination of Kalven’s reporting skills and Futterman’s legal work resulted in multiple federal and civil rights suits. Futterman and his students would regularly work out of Kalven’s office in a Stateway high rise.

“Craig and Jamie’s values are so similar,” said Sunny Fischer, the former executive director of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and a longtime friend of Kalven’s. “It’s just a fabulous partnership, and it has made a huge difference for the city and people and communities that were abandoned.” Fischer currently serves on the governing board of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

Kalven and Futterman both say they are concerned with the issue of black-on-black violence, which some point out kills many more people than police shootings. But Futterman said, “That is not the fundamental focus of the work that I do.” Choosing the battle they feel they are in a position to fight, they see their work to be the fight for police accountability and transparency.

Lately, Futterman and Kalven have been working around the clock. There is so much more to be done, and both are acutely aware that this tsunami of attention — from MSNBC, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker and Politico — must be harnessed.

Futterman reminds me in our interview that the tip about the McDonald video “is far from the first call I have gotten like this.” What’s more, the police union is fighting the release of the police records Futterman and Kalven fought for, and won, in court. The union is citing a provision of its contract with the city that says misconduct files should be destroyed after five or seven years, depending on the category of the file.

In other words, in the midst of a DOJ inquiry into the city’s police department, its history dating back to 1967 is at risk of going up in flames. “The stakes are really high,” Kalven said. “It’s like the institution blinding itself.”

The Fraternal Order of Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

And so, Kalven and Futterman continue their fight. Both admit they have had little sleep and even less time to process and reflect on what they’ve done, or how their work has pushed this city over a difficult but necessary precipice toward honesty and transparency, and meaningful reform.

But there was a time — in the midst of fighting for the video and pleading McDonald’s case to the public — when Futterman and Kalven felt like the city was stuck in a cycle of denial and dishonesty. “Part of what this case revealed is the very nature of the norm,” Futterman said. “Immediately the machine of denial goes into effect and the code of silence goes into effect, and this case is an example of that.”

Today both men see an important shift — post-Ferguson, post-Baltimore, post-Staten Island, post-Chicago.

“Collectively, in Chicago and around the nation, we are in a very different place,” Futterman said, citing the work of young organizers and massive protests after the killings of black men by police or in their custody.

It’s “forcing all of us to grapple with the everyday realities and police abuse in black and brown communities,” he said. “It’s forcing us to care.”

Contact Meribah Knight at [email protected]

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