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Mayor needs less hope, more responsibility

Shrugging off the lessons of the George Floyd riots sets up Chicago to fail again.

A man in a clown mask walks past a burning Chicago Police Department SUV near State and Lake in the Loop as thousands of protesters in Chicago joined national outrage over the killing of George Floyd, May 30, 2020. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
A man in a clown mask walks past a burning Chicago Police Department SUV near State and Lake in the Loop as thousands of protesters in Chicago joined national outrage over the killing of George Floyd, May 30, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Reviewing my actions over the weekend of May 29, 2020, the journalistic decisions made and strategic approaches taken to covering the Chicago riots, I have come to the conclusion that I was 1000% right in everything I did and would not do anything differently. That said, I’ve learned from the mistakes that weren’t made and won’t let them happen again, not that they ever did.

That doesn’t quite scan, does it?

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s take on the inspector general’s report on the city’s botched handling of the George Floyd riots ... where to begin? Search for the positive, I suppose: We should take comfort the mayor didn’t throw police Supt. David Brown under the bus.

But then, she couldn’t, could she? The man just took the job April 15, six weeks before the city erupted. Her support comes not so much from her cutting the new guy slack as understanding, if the Chicago Police Department leadership were as inept as the report suggests, it would also reflect badly on Lightfoot, who hired him. The buck stops somewhere else.

On Friday, Lightfoot said she conferred with her fellow mayors around the country, and they were also caught flatfooted by the unrest.

“No mayor expected what we all got,” she said, spreading the blame around. I might have to use that spin: Most reporters cowered in their safe suburban homes and didn’t rush downtown. It wasn’t just me.

The scariest thing Lightfoot said is she hopes the riots are a once-in-a-lifetime event. Wrong! Hope is not a success strategy. Hope caused the problem in the first place. Lightfoot hoped this wasn’t going to happen in her city. The report underlines the kind of magical thinking that worsens disasters like this. Expecting the worst is her job. That’s what the police are for. “Sorry! We were caught off guard by all this crime. We vigorously hoped it wouldn’t occur.”

This is the aspect of the fallout from a George Floyd, or a Laquan McDonald that doesn’t get parsed enough, because we’re all locked in the horror of seeing someone killed for being Black.

But the legitimate consequences of those atrocities terrify police, who get all defensive and risk-averse and sad, because they know in their hearts they could be the next cop caught on video reflexively murdering somebody. They don’t want to be that guy. So they stand back and stand by, to use the former president’s phrase, and you get carloads of looters gleefully storming Versace, secure in the knowledge they aren’t going to be arrested, because they won’t.

Circling back to my initial premise. I was downtown Friday, May 29, interviewing a store owner about to open up his men’s clothing shop after two months of being shuttered by COVID. I didn’t expect looters a day later either.

The decision that I chew on is not returning downtown Saturday evening. But I didn’t because a) the paper had people there already, so b) piling on seemed a blustery, Walter-Jacobson-on-the-scene, red-badge-of-courage move, and c) I had started listening to the scanner, CPD in one ear, CFD in the other, and that seemed a better way to keep track of what was going on, overall. Plus nobody was going to shoot me in the face with a rubber bullet while I did that.

In retrospect, I also see I’m assuming my presence would have helped. Maybe not. Maybe I would have said, “Hey Ashlee, let’s get coffee,” distracting her at the moment she otherwise would have been snapping that great photo of a guy in a clown mask passing a burning police squad.

Bottom line: If an independent critic put out a 124-page report saying that my actions were journalistic malpractice, a geriatric and timid blunder, and the resultant column was garbage, I would certainly use it as an occasion for reflection.

That last Saturday in May, police rushed from one crisis to another, playing a losing game of whack-a-mole, while obsessing over the rumor that 3,000 protesters were arriving any second from Indianapolis — seriously, they talked about it all night. I wanted to scream at the scanner. “On what?! A hundred buses?! C’mon guys, think!”

But that’s the trick, isn’t it? Defending yourself and your hires is easy. Looking carefully at what happened, taking responsibility and making changes, that’s hard. But somebody has to do it. For once.