Steinberg: Plenty of blame to go around

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Outrage is easy.

You find something outrageous and react to it.

And the video of Laquan McDonald, 17, being shot 16 times last year by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke is sure to cause outrage, or the city would not have struggled so mightily to keep it under wraps.

Effort that, like so much the Rahm Emanuel administration has attempted lately, came to naught, when Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ordered Thursday that the video be made public by Nov. 25.

Just in time for Thanksgiving.

The shooting of McDonald happened Oct. 20, 2014, when the black teen, walking erratically along Pulaski Road, was confronted by police. They ordered him to stop, followed him briefly and then Van Dyke shot him. Sixteen times.

Since then, the city has argued every angle: that it would impede the investigation. That the time was not “appropriate,” to use Emanuel’s weaselly word. That release of the video would endanger the policeman’s life.

Perhaps the few days before the video is released can be put to a good use, to give the public the chance to think a bit about what we’re going to see.

McDonald was not merely strolling along, minding his business. He had PCP in his system, and yes, he was holding a knife — neither capital crimes, last time I checked. He had, supposedly, slashed at a police cruiser’s tires. Police said that he “lunged” at him, but it is a certainty, were that actually true, you would have seen the video long ago. Videos that exonerate the police don’t impede investigations, apparently.

Two thoughts, one that will make the video seem even worse, one that might mitigate it, a little.

First, when you see the video, remember that McDonald is not just one teenager being executed for the crime of being black and failing to snap to police orders, but he represents a long chain of youths slain in similar fashion over the years and decades, Chicagoans whose death images were not taken by dashboard cameras, whose names never appeared in the paper. As bad as it is now, remember, nothing has changed except for cellphone technology being here to capture it. This is what the police do when they know they’re being recorded. Imagine what it was like before.


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Second, while the video will no doubt spark outrage at the police, and rightly so, I would point out, quietly, there is blame to go around. Blame to the media, which historically downplayed the value of black lives and, it can be argued, still does, short of occasional bursts of hand wringing. Blame the mayor for trying to cover this up. Blame for Supt. Garry McCarthy for trotting out the same tired statistics, as if that were a defense. Blame for McDonald, a little, for taking the PCP — animal tranquilizer — that caused his erratic behavior that drew the cops and blunted his ability to respond to a situation where his life was at stake. The margin of error is far less for black teens than for teens in, oh, Wilmette, and while that shouldn’t be, it nevertheless is, and McDonald, impaired, made it easier for the cop to shoot him. A kid who hadn’t taken PCP might have made a different choice at that moment.

Blame culture that helped put the drug into the 17-year-old’s hands, and that reacts energetically to police officers killing young people, a relative rarity, but more mutedly to young people killing each other, a much larger problem, because it is easier to be aggrieved than responsible.

That might sound harsh. But we have video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting because police are required to have dashboard cameras. Nobody took a video of the execution of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee. That would shock, too. And the bulk of young black people shot in Chicago are shot, off camera, by other young black people. No one takes videos of that, but I bet those would be hard to see, too. By focusing outrage on the cops, people reacting to a fluke of technology, channeling outrage that is certainly deserved, somewhat, but also belongs to the entire gang culture and the society of silence and acceptance that surrounds and supports it. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

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