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EDITORIAL: Like it or not, the whole world is watching the cops more than ever

Police push back protesters near the scene where an officer fatally shot a man on July 14 in South Shore. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

If the “whole world” was watching in 1968, you can bet they’re watching even more now.

Fifty years ago this week, during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the police response to all that watching was to pummel news photographers and smash their cameras. At least 17 reporters — a disproportionate number of them photographers — were physically attacked by baton-swinging officers during clashes with anti-war demonstrators.

The cops really didn’t want the world to see.


It didn’t work, though. Beating up the messenger just embarrassed our city more. And it works even less now.

Cameras are everywhere, including on the chests of officers and in the hands of anybody with a cellphone. For police officers today, whether they like it or not, candid cameras are the new reality. The whole world really is watching — every day and everywhere.

We write this now because the Chicago police don’t seem to have figured that out.

They continue to swat cellphone cameras out of the hands of citizens who dare to record encounters with the police, often enough that the ACLU has called for new procedures to investigate this violation of rights. The news media, as in 1968, continues to be targeted as well.

Video by Nader Issa

On the evening of July 14, a Sun-Times reporter, Nader Issa was covering a clash on the South Side between the police and a crowd that was enraged because a local barber, Harith Augustus, had been shot and killed by officers. It was an extremely tense situation in which the police moved forward in a line and scuffles broke out. Cops struck people with their batons. Protesters threw punches and glass bottles at the police.

Issa recorded it all, as best he could, and tweeted the developments live.

“Internet is bad so it’s taking a minute for this video to upload, but the Chicago Police just rushed the parking lot and started hitting people,” he wrote at one point. “I have my press badge on and identified myself as a reporter, but I got shoved to the ground by two cops who smacked my phone out of my hand.”

In a follow-up tweet, Issa reported that he had lost his balance, but could not be sure he hit the ground.

As we watch Issa’s video now, we have two thoughts:

* The police were in a tough spot, with angry people swarming all around. If you are fair-minded, you can understand that they must have felt threatened. And while some officers may have overreacted, many others used obvious restraint, reluctant to push too hard.

* Swatting Issa’s camera out of his hand was plain stupid. All around, as the video shows, other people were holding up their cellphones and recording, too. The cops could never swat away all those phones. The whole world was watching, and it always will be watching.

As part of a federal consent decree — a court-enforced agreement — to reform the Chicago Police Department, the ACLU has argued that all First Amendment complaints should be investigated by an outside monitor, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

When we asked the ACLU recently why such a change was necessary, they specifically cited the example of cops interfering with people with cameras.

“As people use cell phones to record officers more frequently, we are receiving more complaints that officers have interfered with their First Amendment right to record,” Ed Yohnka, director of communications for the ACLU of Illinois, told us. “We believe that should be investigated by COPA, not Internal Affairs, which has a long history of poor investigations.”

To this day, you can invite a heated argument at your neighborhood bar by declaring that one side or the other — the cops or the protestors — were most to blame for the street violence during the 1968 convention. An official report later called it a “police riot,” but plenty of Chicagoans have always seen it differently.

“No unnecessary force was used,” a former police sergeant, still nursing resentment, told the New York Times almost 30 years later. “It was an insurrection, a planned assault on our city. We stopped our city from being destroyed.”

We’re going to stay out of that debate for now, but we will say this: Free speech is free speech. The cops acted like thugs in 1968 when they smashed news cameras, and they’re as out of line today when they swat away phone cameras.

Every citizen, like every reporter, has a First Amendment right to record the police at work, as annoying to an officer as that can be.

COPA should investigation every alleged violation.

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