16 shots in Chicago: A journalism professor’s reflection

by Curtis Lawrence

In November 2015, Chicago became the latest city to react to a longtime, nationwide pattern of unarmed black men being killed by white policeman.

41a3ce370949f06cc04787cba5941dcbOn Nov. 24, two days before Thanksgiving, police released video of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot while walking away from police 13 months earlier. McDonald was was shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, charged with murder the same day the video was released.

It was a Tuesday evening and I was standing in the hallway with Dr. Lillian Williams and a handful of students from the Communication and Media Innovation department at Columbia College Chicago. Dr. Williams and I both teach in the  journalism  program and were watching news coverage of  the video on one of the mounted TVs in our open hallway where students congregate and work at computer stations.

Watching the video of Laquan McDonald for the first time in its entirety, I realized my role as a journalism professor would require a lot of me. First, I’d have to help my students process witnessing this atrocious act – a young man being pummeled with bullets, falling to the ground, then shaking and twitching as he continued to take shots while he was down and clearly not a threat to anyone.CSM Newsletter Spring 2016

I listened to the students, black and white, try to process their outrage. Some considered whether they would join the protests that evening as mostly young people took to the streets of downtown Chicago. I encouraged them to follow their hearts, but to be careful and safe.

Later, I learned that a couple of them had participated. I also had discussions with students on social media.

One of my students wrote: “It took 400 days for a disturbing video to be released to all of the world to see. UNFAIR! Yes I understand the world is going through some things, but here at home, no threat of any faction from Iraq, the Middle East or ANYWHERE can amount to the killings we’ve seen from uniformed, white officers against Black men. I close an amazing chapter of my life to come home to yet another sad book, another sad story of unwarranted and egregious acts by those who are supposed to serve and protect. Sadly, until something is done, this repetitive scene will continue to be played over and over again.

“I just pray I will never be put put in a situation to judge whether or not blue flashing lights will be the last ones I see. #LaquanMcDonald”

I responded: “Lillian Williams and I watched the dash-cam video in the Orange Area with a few students last night. Who could not be angry watching that. Then I feel a sense of pride knowing that there are young journalists like yourself, who will not let injustice go unnoticed or unanswered. Stay strong and focused.”

CSM Speaking Out on 16 Shots
CSM Speaking Out on 16 Shots

As reaction to the video release unfolded, I saw my responsibilities increasing. I had to offer advice that was wise, and as an adult, partly responsible for my students’ safety, I had to be careful with my words. I had to tell my young journalists that they did make a difference and their work would make a difference, even when I had doubts myself.

On Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, I took my journalism class to cover a press conference by the Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus. We split up with some students covering the press conference, which included comments from aldermen and from young activists on the front lines of the protest. We returned to our class newsroom and wrote a collective story that was published on ChicagoTalks, our journalism program’s online news site. On the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year known as Black Friday, activists targeted Chicago’s historic Magnificent Mile. It’s a collection of the country’s classiest department stores, boutiques and restaurants. A longtime journalist friend of mine urged me to meet him there to witness and report the protest. I wrestled with myself about whether to attend or enjoy a well-deserved day off. But this friend has a way to tug on a conscience, so I went.

I was glad that I did. It was heartening to see the young people on the front lines – some of them challenging the old guard activists and expressing their anger in stark, unapologetic chants: “No justice, no peace, no racist police.” And throughout the protest others shouted: “No Justice, no shopping,” and “Thirteen months, 16 shots,” reminding that it took more than a year before the video of the shooting was released or the police officer was charged.

My next challenge will be to determine what’s next. Will I continue to observe and report events as I have done most of my life. Or do my responsibilities as a teacher, veteran journalist and community elder require more. In my office at Columbia, I look to my bookshelf at two of the framed photos there: Vernon Jarrett and Lutrelle Palmer. I’m sure they will have the answers.