The earliest movies were glimpses of real life. Workers leaving a factory, a train arriving, a blacksmith hammering. Shot in 1895, these first short films — each less than a minute — were called actualités by their creators, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. Nobody thought to make up a story on film until “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. Just seeing pictures move was thrill enough.
The next year, Lumière cameraman Alexandre Promio came to Chicago and, of all the scenes that could have represented the city, the stockyards or riverfront or the Ferris wheel left over from the World’s Columbian Exposition, Promio chose police officers solemnly marching down Michigan Avenue, four abreast, in their Keystone cop helmets, nightsticks at the ready. “Chicago Police Parade,” filmed in September 1896, is considered the first moving image shot in Chicago. You can watch it on YouTube.
Was that reality? The parade was staged for the filmmaker, the police showing off their order and discipline. Not exactly in step with their reputation. “Weak discipline was probably most evident in the inability of police administration to control excessive violence,” the Encyclopedia of Chicago notes of police at that time. The more things change ...
Film technology evolved, Chicago police violence worsened, and eventually the two collided, further back in history than you might imagine. In 1937, striking workers marched on the Republic Steel plant at 117th and Burley, intending to set up a picket line. They found 200 policemen waiting. Ten marchers were killed. Police claimed they were attacked by an armed mob, whipped up by outside Communist agitators, and the press believed them. “RIOT BLAMED ON RED CHIEFS” blared the Tribune headline.
But Paramount had set up a newsreel camera at the Republic plant gates. It shows the strikers carrying flags and signs. You see the waiting police, tapping their batons. The cops attack, the strikers flee. Police shoot 40, most in the back. The city responded by banning the newsreel. That became Chicago’s go-to move for documentary evidence of police brutality. If you don’t see it, it’s not there.
That was still the strategy when a $5 million payout to Laquan McDonald’s family kept the dashboard video of the 17-year-old being shot 16 times in 2014 under wraps until an enterprising reporter shoved it into the light, to join the videos that year of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown.
The names piled up, outrage upon outrage, followed by protest after protest, culminating with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. Maybe it was the length of time Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck — over nine minutes. Nothing split second about that. Or the way bystanders begged him to stop. Protest thundered around the world. The jury in Minnesota went out Monday, and the Illinois National Guard was deployed in Chicago. On Tuesday, Chauvin was found guilty of murder.
Change happens. Jason Van Dyke was convicted of McDonald’s murder and went to prison. Even before Tuesday’s verdict, something new and significant had already occurred in the Chauvin trial. His fellow officers testified against him, including the chief of police. That’s an earthquake. Crimes and mistakes will always occur; what doesn’t always have to follow is the code of silence cover-up.
The police solution is still to blind prying eyes. Minnesota State Police are harassing journalists trying to cover protests, and when one photographer asked why, a trooper replied, “Because that’s our strategy right now.”
Immediately after watching the Adam Toledo video, I re-watched the 1896 Chicago Police Parade. I’m not sure why. Maybe to consider the yawning chasm between then and now, between the lingering ideal and sickening reality. And man, does that ideal linger. People were tweeting last week that now we know police lie. Really? Now? It’s dawning on you now?
There is one positive worth considering. These police abuses have always gone on, unwitnessed. But thanks to a technology that sprints ahead while our moral sense crawls behind, we can now see what happens in midnight alleys, or at least one version.
As with the Chicago Police Parade, any one video is not the complete story but only part of the story, a snippet. Maybe the key part. Maybe not. Still, these images radiate an air of truth, a hard truth we are finally dealing with. At least now we can see for ourselves, which has to be a step forward.