A major scandal is currently engulfing the Chicago Police Department and the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel. It was all triggered by disclosure of a horrific video showing what appears to be the cold-blooded murder by a police officer of 17-year-old African-American Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times. That video shocked the nation and led to the arrest of the police officer as well as a Justice Department investigation of the department.
For more than a year, the city fought to suppress that video, ensuring Emanuel’s re-election could proceed without knowledge of what happened. A New York Times op-ed by former University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt explicitly accused Emanuel and the city of deliberately covering up the video to help the mayor’s re-election campaign, arguing that “the video of a police shooting like this in Chicago could have buried Mr. Emanuel’s chances for re-election.” Harcourt added, “These actions have impeded the criminal justice system and, in the process, Chicago’s leaders allowed a first-degree murder suspect, now incarcerated pending bail, to remain free for over a year on the city’s payroll.”
That this video is now public is largely due to the heroic, relentless work of a young independent journalist in Chicago, Brandon Smith. Numerous large media outlets filed requests for that video under the state’s FOIA laws, and simply took “no” for an answer when the city claimed its release would jeopardize an ongoing investigation. Smith, however, regarded the city’s claims with skepticism rather than blind reverence, retained his own lawyers, and sued the city in court. He won, and a Chicago judge ordered release of the video.
And now, as my colleague Juan Thompson reported yesterday, the resulting transparency is shining light on other police killings in the city. As he wrote, “The Chicago Police Department has an extensive and troubling legacy of violence. Over the last five years, Chicago officers have fatally shot 70 people, more than any other big-city police department in the U.S.”
In late 2012, the Freedom of the Press Foundation was created by Daniel Ellsberg, The Intercept’s co-founder Laura Poitras, John Cusack, Xeni Jardin, various EFF officials such as J.P. Barlow, and myself (along with those founders, the board now includes Intercept technologist Micah Lee and Edward Snowden). As I wrote when we announced its formation, the primary objective, beyond the original project of destroying the extra-judicial financial blockade of WikiLeaks, was “to ensure that truly independent journalistic outlets — devoted to holding the U.S. government and other powerful factions accountable with transparency and real adversarial journalism — are supported to the fullest extent possible.”
Brandon Smith is exactly the type of independent journalist we had in mind when we formulated that mission. As he recounts in the discussion I had with him (transcript below), he has struggled significantly since leaving his job years ago as a reporter for a local paper in Ohio in order to work independently, yet he just broke one of the biggest and most important police brutality stories of the decade through intrepid determination and an adversarial posture to those in power. Funding will enable him to continue not only the substantial work left to be done on the Laquan McDonald case, which he details here, but a wide range of other investigative projects he is pursuing.
Today, Freedom of the Press Foundation is announcing a new crowd-sourced fundraising campaign called the Transparency for Police Fund, which “will fund local journalists around the United States to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other transparency lawsuits aimed at uncovering police misconduct and video evidence of brutality against unarmed men and women.” The first two recipients are Smith as well as Invisible Institute, a journalism and transparency group in the South Side of Chicago that was also instrumental in forcing release of the McDonald tape.
Future recipients of the fund will be named in 2016 based on feedback from local communities and their work in exposing police brutality. Police brutality is a massive, out-of-control, and woefully under-reported pathology in the U.S., overwhelmingly affecting the poorest and most marginalized communities, with racially disparate harm. Few factions need greater accountability and journalistic scrutiny than the nation’s police departments.
The donate page created by the foundation enables you to choose where to earmark your donation, and you can specify whether you’d like to see it go to the brave journalists who forced the Laquan McDonald video into the public, and/or to the general fund, which will go to those future grantees in other cities who are currently involved in Freedom of Information Act or public records lawsuits for similar videos.
Below is the transcript of my discussion with Brandon Smith about his work in pursuing release of this video and about his journalism more generally (edited for clarity and length). This is exactly the kind of journalistic ethos that needs more support. I really hope everyone who can will donate to this fund to support him, the institute, and future police brutality investigations. You can do so here.
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GREENWALD: So let’s begin by your describing what interested you in the Laquan McDonald case and what you did to get the tape?
SMITH: My interest was really piqued when a friend of mine put me in a group text conversation with a friend of his. And this other friend who I had never met except via this group text thing, he said he’s an activist and that I should really look into this case of Laquan McDonald. I was like ‘Ok, why should I look into it?’ He says he’s pretty sure that a bunch of other media outlets had filled FOIA requests — for the video — and had been denied since the video was not out.
And he told me via text that he thought it should be out and that the courts could probably force it out. So, he basically found me out through this mutual friend because he knew I had sued for a prior FOIA case against the city.
GREENWALD: What was that case, that prior case?
SMITH: It was three FOIA requests rolled into one. Two requests to the police department, and one to Streets & Sanitation about recycling of all things.
GREENWALD: Ok, so you had a little bit of history pursuing FOIA requests in the court. One of the things that I’ve always wondered about in reading about the work you did in this case is there are obviously a lot of big media outlets in Chicago like The Chicago Tribune and a bunch of network affiliates and other reasonably well founded media outlets. Why did it fall on you to pursue this case on the courts? What was it that they were doing about being told essentially by the city and the police department to go away?
SMITH: Well, so its… I do agree with a lot of people who say that they, these other media outlets failed in their watchdog job. But it’s not so much like a really obvious failure it’s more of like, just a general trusting on their part of government and process. You know, I was a newspaper reporter for five years in Ohio and I got into the same groove of trusting my sources and like getting into a relationship with my sources. And so when they say, “Oh, the investigation is ongoing, to release a video would mean to screw up our investigation,” then I’m sorry to say that I was one of those reporters that just didn’t say boo to that.
And over the years I’ve kind of developed this independent mindset that I think is really important in our work and I wish more people had it.
GREENWALD: I mean, I understand what you’re saying, and you’re being very generous in your description of the behavior of other journalists and I don’t even necessarily disagree with it. At the same time, it’s kind of remarkable because it’s not as though there’s some ancillary principle in journalism that you know is one of the details that says, “Oh hey, by the way, you should subject official claims to some skepticism.” It’s kind of completely central. It’s probably the defining feature of what journalism is supposed to be. So for you to say that journalists are operating without it is in one sense unsurprising to a lot of people but in another quite remarkable. What do you think explains that?
SMITH: Oh man, I mean, I have adopted the same kind of radical mindset that you and many others have. And so, like, it’s hard to have, to give like a blanket diss to all journalists everywhere. But like, people are really getting far too cozy with their sources. I mean, that’s the bottom line. Hey, I think it starts way back in journalism school. I know you were a lawyer way back when, I don’t know if you went to journalism school or not. I went to two different journalism schools and it wasn’t drilled into us to question authority in this way. And then, you know, in your first few jobs you’re often set up covering city council meetings and just sort of like reporting what is said in them and like all this bullshit! Well, I mean…yes, and it is bullshit!
That kind of reporting is not reporting as it’s been described by people for the public. You know, when people talk about journalism they describe this watchdog adversarial thing where an authority is questioned, but what that does is it serves to kind of placate people like, “Oh, the journalists have got our backs, you know. The journalists are questioning authority enough so I don’t have to.”
And frankly like, not a lot of people, like, so many people these days — with the kind of destruction of the middle class — they are working too hard to feed their families so it really falls on journalists to question this authority and we’re not.
GREENWALD: So you describe yourself as an independent journalist, when you got this case what kinds of journalism were you doing? In what capacity and how have you been funding it?
SMITH: I mean, it’s a group effort. It’s like, me, and my family, and chosen family here in Chicago kind of funds my life. And you know, like, freelance fees are pitiful — we’re talking like twenty cents a word, which is not a living wage generally for anything you have to extensively report. Anything other than events really, that’s not a living wage. So yeah, reporting has not been funding my journalism, other stuff has and other ways of making money.
And I think that’s the way for several like, people in Chicago who do this kind of work, independent journalism. It’s not a full time thing; they have other things to support themselves. And it would be great to have more provision to fund their work, the work of everyone who really gets it in their head that something should be investigated.
GREENWALD: Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, part of what we want to do is create and start raising money for exactly that kind of fund — focused on police brutality and abusive citizens using police power — but also raise money specifically to make the journalism that you personally are doing more potent and easier. So, what kinds of journalism do you envision doing if you were better funded? I mean, one of the things that triggered my attention in terms of our ability to raise funds for you and people like you was this GoFund project that you created before this case. So, what were you hoping to accomplish with that? Was it more just being able to earn a living while you do this sort of journalism or do you have a bigger project in mind?
SMITH: Oh yes, I have a dozen or two-dozen bigger projects that I’ve started work on. At any rate — and it’s really hard to continue the work on them because it takes so much time. These are largely worked on through FOIA requests and we’re talking about stories in the nature of privatizing public assets, police surveillance technology, which as you know is sometimes more potent that NSA. I have some things having to do with pollution, because to me pollution ends up in the poorest places: communities of color. And other things…
With the money I raise from the Freedom of the Press campaign, I will be able to commit full-time to spearheading my investigations.
For months they’ve been relegated to the back burners of life, because I’ve had to do things other than journalism to make money. The craziest thing is that I have about 50 smart and capable friends—most of whom have day jobs outside journalism—who want to volunteer to help with the investigations. I haven’t even had time to direct them.
These friends refer to our group as “Allegedly.” We own the domain alleged.ly and will have a simple landing page there by late tonight with a logo, a mission statement (also pasted below), and—when the FotP campaign goes live—a link to donate. Soon we’ll have a bit of a blog there, but like ProPublica, we’ll likely partner with larger media for their built-in audience and to procure compensation for our reporters.
Here’s a sampling of the stories I’ve dug up but haven’t fleshed out:
– abuse at Chicago’s police “black site” that’s even more horrific than what’s been reported before
– where law enforcement in Chicago placed its first surveillance cameras and how that differs from what they were telling the public about the program
– how the Illinois state victims compensation program, in its nonchalance, has ruined the credit of almost all victims of violent crime
– exactly what percentage of the bills passed by our statehouse were nearly verbatim form bills written by extremist think tanks
– why isn’t anybody talking about the half dozen cleanups of deadly pollution within Chicago’s city limits each year?
– what Chicago Police Department spends its “civil forfeiture” money on
– which beloved Chicago companies and “nonprofits” do a ridiculous amount of business with the defense industry and intelligence communities
– why police keep using stingrays and hailstorms prior to subjects’ arrest, despite the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says police can’t invade cellphone privacy after arresting someone
– educational disparities in Chicago’s city school system, particularly when it comes to computer science education
– inspecting the cozy relationship chemical companies have with the agencies tasked with regulating them, in conjunction with new research on plastics that interact with almost all our food, disrupting our endocrine systems
As background if you need it, the first $5,000 of my GoFundMe campaign will be used to purchase physical necessities for my continued reporting. I itemized those in an update on that campaign. I just increased the goal to $8,000 in case I get a bunch more visitors. The difference will purchase functional, mostly physical, items for the operation of the group I describe above. (I’ll also devote some portion of my FotP funds to this end.) It might include our very affordable office rent; transcription services for certain timely interviews; web hosting; SecureDrop hardware (though most of that is in place); food and drink for meetings; and components of an AV editing station.
Within our organization, we already have the volunteer services of not just journalists but FOIA lawyers, police brutality lawyers, data analysts, filmmakers, GIS experts, security professionals, privacy researchers, community organizers, radio documentarians, composers of music, social scientists, web designers, long-form authors, startup founders, and program managers.
And here’s our working mission statement:
To investigate abuses of the public and public assets by Chicago’s leaders and institutions, through interrogating the city’s systemic problems.
To use transparency laws to demand documents and data that might uncover the extent and causes of those injustices.
To protect whistleblowers who might shed light on problems of which the public is yet unaware.
To equip a group of capable and engaged citizens with the tools and guidance they need to investigate the issues that matter to them.
To use our findings to produce educational, interesting, and empowering works for public consumption with the intent of creating a more fair and just Chicago.
Just kind of a quick run down of the effects of two FOIA requests, literally just two FOIA requests. The first one of course was for the video and the second was like, last week basically for everything involved with the case. And a lot of other media organizations kind of followed me in that second request so the response went out to everyone for that but it would be great to sort of mention what the effect of two FOIA’s is. In this case it’s like — see I put it up on my Twitter page, kind of the summary — you have a murder charge of course, the police chief being fired, the department of justice civil rights investigation of the city, and also, most recently, the head of the police review authority quit. So two FOIA’s made that happen and of course they were well placed FOIA’s, you know, and it has to do with talking to people and reading the news and caring and figuring out what’s important. But all that to say that the people seem to still have some power and I’m happy to tell people that.
GREENWALD: All right, excellent. Well, I’m really excited. I think, you know, obviously, I think the thing you’ve done here is like a model of independent journalism. It’s incredibly impressive and easily created an earthquake both in Chicago but then more broadly like in terms of the whole debate around police departments in large cities so congratulations on that. It’s incredibly impressive what you’ve done and I hope that we can raise a lot of money for you so you can formalize the work you’re doing and continue to do it.
SMITH: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. The most heartening thing about all of this is that a lot of people seem to feel more empowered now, after they have read all of these stories about this, and how like, I’m not kind of an establishment journalist. I’m just like sort of some guy just like them.
Top photo: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy speak at a news conference in Chicago on Nov. 24, 2015, announcing first-degree murder charges against police officer Jason Van Dyke in the death of Laquan McDonald. The city then released the dash-cam video of the shooting to media outlets.