Last week, President Trump took a break from announcing and signing executive orders targeting Muslim and Latino immigrants and refugees to remind brown and black Americans that he hadn’t forgotten about them. As he has often done in the past, he picked Chicago as the symbolic “inner city hell” he has railed against during his campaign, and tweeted that if the city doesn’t fix its “horrible carnage,” he will “send in the Feds!”
The tweet — which was reportedly prompted by a segment of Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show on crime in the city, as well as the president’s feud with Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel over inauguration day crowd size — confused even the city’s law enforcement leaders. “I have no idea what he’s talking about,” Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said.
In his first interview as president, Trump repeatedly declined to clarify what his tweet about Chicago meant, doubling down instead on his characterization of the city’s violence. “It’s horrible carnage. This is Afghanistan,” he told David Muir. “Chicago is worse than some of the people that you report in some of the places that you report about every night.”
Because the president’s often unhinged tweets have been remarkably accurate predictors of equally absurd policies, his comments about Chicago sent residents scrambling to figure out what he meant — did he mean federal funding for police, more federal agents than those already working in the city, or the National Guard? Whatever Trump meant, his tweet read to many like a threat to turn a place he described as “Afghanistan” into an actual militarized zone under martial law.
On Wednesday, at an event marking Black History Month in which Trump displayed a rather confused knowledge of that history, the president indicated that a sit down with “former gang thugs” in Chicago could help solve the city’s violence problem. Emanuel replied to Trump at a Wednesday press conference. “Just send them,” the mayor said. “What I would really like is the federal resources.” Then, probed about whether he wanted Trump to visit Chicago, Emanuel replied, “No.”
Trump’s comments about Chicago have been consistent with his promise to swap civil rights enforcement for “law and order.” The dark irony is that residents of the communities Trump describes in such derogatory terms already feel “as if CPD is an occupying force,” as noted in the Department of Justice’s scathing report on the Chicago Police Department, which was released after much anticipation just days before Trump was sworn in. The other irony is that some “feds” — the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division — have actually already been in Chicago for 13 months, conducting the investigation that culminated in the report and a serious indictment of the city’s police force. But that’s unlikely to be the kind of federal intervention Trump has in mind. As The Intercept reported last month, Trump’s pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has said in the past that federally enforced consent decrees pushing police reform, like the one that would normally follow the Chicago investigation, are an intrusion on local authority and an overreach by the DOJ.
Chicago’s gun violence is indeed on the rise. Last year, the city hit a bleak two-decade record, with more than 4,300 people shot and 762 killed. So far, that pace has kept up in 2017. But analyzing the complex set of factors that have led to the rise in gun violence can hardly be done in 140 characters, and certainly not with the kind of language and lack of understanding the president has demonstrated. Chicago’s violence is largely a product of long-standing failed public policies, particularly around housing, and it has only been further compounded by the deep distrust the communities most affected by the violence have in the city’s chronically corrupt police department.
To put all this in context, I spoke with Jamie Kalven, a journalist and police reform advocate who has spent a lifetime living in and writing about the very Chicago neighborhoods where Trump would like to “send in the feds.” Kalven blew the lid off the police department’s lies over the killing of Laquan McDonald — ushering in a new era of protest in the city as well as ongoing demands for an overhaul of department’s culture and practices. Last year, Kalven wrote a four-part investigation for The Intercept about a far-reaching criminal enterprise within the Chicago Police Department and the code of silence that enabled it.
Let’s start from the tweet. Who knows what he even meant. We don’t know if he’s talking about sending in the National Guard, or more federal law enforcement agents, or more money. But his comments came off as a threat more than an offer of help. What do you make of it?
My first reaction was, if sending in the feds means giving the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department a mandate to go forward and negotiate a consent decree with the city, to govern reform of the police department, that would be very welcome. The irony about the tweet is — the feds are here. On the eve of his inauguration, the DOJ team tasked with investigating the CPD in the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald revelations issued its report, based on a 13-month investigation. In the normal course of things, the next step would be a process of negotiation with the city that would result in a decree that would contain reform measures and a timeline and metrics for measuring progress and reform, and we would then have federal oversight of that process. But in reality, it’s very unlikely that Trump was referring to the Civil Rights Division when he tweeted about sending in the feds. The tweet reportedly was prompted on the night he saw the Billy O’Reilly show; I wish it had been prompted by a close reading of the DOJ report.
That’s certainly wishful thinking. I don’t think he even commented on it.
He has not commented, but among the things that suggest that the DOJ will leave the field in Chicago — rather than doing the most constructive thing it could do and follow up on the report — are various statements by both the president and his designated attorney general. Jeff Sessions has expressed great skepticism about consent decrees as a legal tool. Sen. Dick Durbin from Illinois tried to get him to commit to the consent decree process going forward, but got no response. I think one of the more telling things is that the DOJ report came out virtually on the eve of the inauguration, and among the first tasks of the new administration was to reboot the White House website, and on a page that I believe used to be dedicated to expressing the previous administration’s commitment to civil rights, under the heading “Standing up for our law enforcement community,” the website states, in its opening paragraph, “The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump administration will end it.” I think that the fundamental issue here is that the Trump administration appears to see police accountability measures as an impediment to effective law enforcement rather than a necessary condition for effective law enforcement.
The DOJ managed to release its report on the CPD ahead of the new administration coming in. It also signed a consent decree in Baltimore a day earlier. But federally mandated police reform in Chicago remains in an uncertain position, because you don’t have a consent decree yet, though you at least have the results of the investigation. Where does the city stand on all this? Are Chicago officials committed enough to the process to be able to sustain a loss of federal support?
I think it’s welcome news that the city entered into the agreement with the Civil Rights Division, but that doesn’t have much force right now. The general expectation here, in light of statements by the president and his designated attorney general, is that the normal process of a negotiated consent decree is not going to go forward. It would be wonderful to be pleasantly surprised in that regard but none of the evidence we’ve seen suggests that that will happen. So really, the interesting thing in Chicago is that as welcome as the DOJ intervention was, and as high as our hopes have been for it to be productive, it seemed important to me and others that it not derail the political process of grappling with these issues. Because the DOJ is change from on high, dictated and mandated by the federal government, and if we’re going to fully realize this historic opportunity for fundamental, enduring change, it’s going to have to be a matter of citizen engagement, and pressure, and local political actors rising to the occasion.
This is such an interesting, odd moment in Chicago, but it may serve to crystallize and sharpen some of the issues, and whether he’ll rise to it or not, it’s actually an opportunity for Mayor Emanuel to assume a national leadership role on this issue. While his political circumstances have dictated that he advance or at least acquiesce in the reform process since Laquan McDonald, at times he seemed genuinely equivocal about the underlying issue. I think there’s been a kind of dichotomy for him between police accountability and effective law enforcement, and my impression is that he’s seen himself as a kind of political juggler with these two competing concerns. But I would strongly argue that they are not competing concerns, and he could be a strong voice and perhaps a counterpoint to Trump and Sessions and others we’re going to hear from, if he insisted that police accountability is necessary to good law enforcement.
The interesting thing is that the DOJ report, to return to that, is really quite a remarkable document, an excellent piece of work, even from a journalistic point of view. It’s well written, and it’s granular, and it has narrative details as well as broad analytic interest, and it provides, beyond its diagnosis of this underlying pathology in this police department, also a substantial blueprint for the reform process going forward. It’s a detailed set of prescriptions, and it’s also important to note that many of those prescriptions have to do with improving working conditions for the police: more resources, training, support. So let’s assume for the moment that the DOJ leaves the field, and even if I’m skeptical about the serious intent and will on the part of the city to negotiate a binding consent decree, we just don’t have another party to do that with, I think the DOJ report is still a really important tool.
We certainly have seen this broader mobilization for police reform you describe in many cities. But even before Trump was elected we also saw a backlash against that, and a re-entrenchment of law enforcement, especially from police unions. Now we have this law-and-order narrative, and Trump has talked about ending what he calls a “war on cops.”
Absolutely. It’s something that we saw even before Trump’s ascension to power. In Chicago, those of us working on these issues had discernible impact in the last year, and there has been this sense of possibility and even sometimes this sense of exhilaration that fundamental change might be possible. But I think it needs to be tempered by realism about this larger gravitational field you just described, which is really strong and, I think, getting stronger. The police union in Chicago, at least in terms of public perception, is kind of back on its heels after being subject to a great deal of criticism. I have no doubt that they’re feeling resurgent at the moment and I think that’s true nationally.
We should also say something else about the context: Trump wasn’t just responding to something he saw on the O’Reilly show. The day before, Mayor Emanuel had chastised him for obsessing about the size of his crowds, and there was that kind of tit for tat, in that usual way [Trump] responds when he perceives he’s being attacked. There’s also the additional factor, and he has come back to this repeatedly, and other voices in the administration are seizing on Chicago as their favored dystopia because it is Barack Obama’s hometown. The thing I don’t want to suggest is that the homicide rate in Chicago is not a matter of concern. And there may very well be ways the federal government could be helpful — but this kind of posturing is anything but helpful.
What would be helpful? One of the concerns is that if sending in the feds meant sending in federal funding to law enforcement, that could translate, as it often does, in further militarization of the police, the acquisition of more surveillance technology and so forth. What kind of federal help could Chicago actually use?
There already is federal participation. There’s the FBI, the ATF — there are always joint investigations going on, particularly into narcotics activity. Conceivably more resources for that would be helpful and not counterproductive. The feds just recently had a big federal trial in Chicago of gang leaders — a gang called the Hobos. But it’s a mixed bag. One thing that we’ve seen, and I suspect other cities have had this experience as well, is that in years past you had these monolithic gangs with hierarchies, and there was a measure of control and some built-in constraint on violence, because violence was bad for business. I don’t want to be an apologist for gangs and the drug trade, but federal prosecutions effectively decapitated the major gangs in Chicago, and I think a lot of what we see now with these small cliques, almost block by block, creates a much more chaotic and violent situation. I’m obviously not saying that you don’t address various aspects of criminal activity by gangs, but there can be unintended consequences to intervention, and we’ve been dealing with some of them.
I have no doubt that there are resources that can be helpful but so much of this — and I think this is the problem in so many areas with Trump — is that his utterances are most often in the form of tweets, and that the discussion and commentary they provoke in the media makes productive conversation difficult. Here in Chicago, the breakdown of police-community relations in certain neighborhoods didn’t start with Laquan McDonald. We are talking about generations of abandonment and displacement and community trauma from public policy. But we can’t even get close to having that conversation while we are talking about the president’s tweets. I think we want to be careful about not getting pulled into that. Like any kind of propaganda machinery, they perform this kind of blocking function, and rational, evidence-based discourse is displaced. We could be talking about the details of the DOJ report, which is a lot to digest, and thinking critically about what it accomplishes but also what it doesn’t accomplish, and things that it doesn’t include. But we’re not going to talk about that, we’re going to be talking about his tweets — and I think that’s the problem across the board with a whole range of fundamental issues, and a dilemma for us in the media now.
How can we talk about this violence in a way that’s actually helpful?
I live on the South Side of Chicago, I’m in these neighborhoods all the time. I’m not dismissing the numbers or the spike in violence. The press in Chicago and elsewhere often aids and abets this phenomenon, but I have never seen it to the degree that we have now with the kind of language that Trump uses: carnage, ravaged, hell. What happens with the discourse about violence is that we end up talking about it, and too often reporting on violence, in a way that just excludes the rest of life. These are communities like other communities, where people are living their lives, raising their children, going to work. That whole world of human care, solidarity, mutual aid, and just basic daily decency is completely bleached out of the picture and all we see is this terrible violence. And first of all, that’s completely defamatory of the people who are the principal victims of these conditions, but the other thing — and this is where I think we in the press need to recalibrate how we write about these things — is that it is also hugely demoralizing and the possibility of humane interventions and investments just seems like fantasy. You essentialize a whole complex community and population in light of the bad acts of a relatively small subset of the population. I think we in the press fall into that pattern, and now we have this rhetoric at the national level that pushes that framework, so even engaging in the counterargument in some way legitimates that way of talking about fellow citizens.
What are you hearing from your neighbors and the people you know in these communities about the way Trump and others talk about Chicago?
I have had this conversation over time, not so much in response to this last tweet. I think it’s a mixture. People are offended for being characterized in these terms. But at the same time, and I saw this over the years, when people legitimately feel like they have been abandoned by public and private institutions and are desperate for resources, and, in this case, public safety resources, often they’ll take whatever is offered. Back in the 1990s and the final years of high-rise public housing, I saw really conscientious community leaders accepting extra-constitutional measures, like sweeps of their buildings where everybody got searched, because they just wanted something. I think there’s a general revulsion in Chicago at the idea that he would send in the National Guard, the troops, the tanks, that kind of thing, but the idea that there might be other kinds of resources or that this could be the beginning of a conversation about what a multi-faceted set of interventions with federal support might look like — I don’t hold much hope of that, but I’ve heard some people talk in that vein, at least not completely dismissing the idea that there might be some non-militaristic federal participation. The political conditions that have led to Trump’s seizing on Chicago as this kind of go-to dystopia, as a way of beating up on Obama, as a way of sounding these sinister national themes about law enforcement and getting tough — I think that’s generally pretty offensive to most everybody in Chicago. I wouldn’t cross out the exception of some police union officials, but I’d be curious to hear about how more police rank and file feel about it.
Is the loss of federal programs and support less relevant than the work happening at the local level?
I think it’s less relevant. From the start of this remarkable era in Chicago that opened up after Laquan McDonald’s transformation of our political landscape, while there are resources from the federal government, programs from the federal government, and obviously the intervention possibly of federal oversight – all of that is really welcome. But the main event in Chicago is a political struggle over these issues, and the on the ground political process. At this moment, it’s critically, critically important that citizens take full responsibility with government, so we’re not just banging on the door but looking for ways to actually address these problems in civil society. An example is our database, our police data project. In a better world that would be a function of government, but we said “No, we’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it at the highest level, we’ll invest in it and we’ll maintain it in civil society.” I think there are a range of interventions and strategies like that. I’m very grateful to the Black Lives Matter movement for keeping this space open in public discourse — I’m not personally an advocate for abolition of the police, it seems utopian to me, but I’m very glad that that conversation is going on because it opens up space, it’s an invitation to imagination. One of the things that we need to grapple with, beyond questions of abuse and impunity, are just the limits of law enforcement, to keep us safe in our communities, to create the conditions for the full flourishing of individuals and the community. Those are conversations that have to take place in real places, among neighbors, in block clubs, in various units of association among fellow citizens. It’s not the only strand and I don’t want to diminish the importance of some of the more institutional reform processes that are going on, but it seems to me that is really a critical part of this. And that’s beyond what the DOJ can do, or what the federal government can do— that’s us as individual citizens.
I’ve been saying from the start of this extraordinary period in Chicago that the moment is best understood by analogy to settings like South Africa emerging from apartheid, or Central Europe emerging from totalitarianism. These are moments when we’re not just engaged in tweaking institutions, we’re not just engaged in fixing some otherwise well-functioning machinery that malfunctioned. It’s about ultimately becoming a different kind of society, incrementally, step by step. I think the diagnosis that has emerged in Chicago — and nationally but I speak from Chicago — that is apparent in the DOJ report and in the earlier report by the mayor’s police accountability task force — is that we are dealing with really foundational racism in the institutions of the criminal justice system and law enforcement. That’s different from saying something broke down. That’s why I have resisted the language of cover-up with respect to the Laquan McDonald case. I wish it were a cover-up, a matter of a few bad actors, but what it is, is standard operating procedure, and that’s what we’re reckoning with, and that’s what this diagnostic process is all about.
We’re so habituated as journalists about using the framework of a crisis – that’s why we report on something, because it’s news, it’s a crisis, and I think what is really challenging in where we are with these issues is that a crisis is a departure from the norm, and in truth what we’re confronting is the norm. We are dealing with forms of structural violence that are just built into the society we have created. That’s what makes this such a daunting and challenging moment and such a moment of possibility. To be gradually gaining some diagnostic clarity about those conditions, finding language to describe them and seriously engaging with the question of remedies — it’s a matter of becoming ultimately a different kind of society. It’s not just a discrete set of institutional police and criminal justice issues, it’s much more fundamental than that. Our challenge over time — over, I suspect, many years — is to build that path: a path from the issues that we’re engaged with now to these really fundamental bedrock issues of race and racial inequality enforced by law.
These aren’t days filled with particular optimism, but ironically this moment might be a catalyst for that kind of conversation to happen more systematically.
I’m with you. I think the other thing to remember as we hyperventilate over the latest Trump tweet about Chicago is that fundamentally the paradox of where we are with these issues is: This is a set of great, and fundamental, and defining, national issues, that for the most part only have local solutions. Even in the most divine circumstances, the federal government is very limited in what it can do in terms of national conditions of unconstitutional policing. It can intervene, it can enforce informed reporting, it can hold up best practices and standards, but real change is going to come jurisdiction by jurisdiction and it’s going to be a matter of people who live in those places contending with one another and their elected officials. But all of that process can go forward under the authoritarian regime we now find ourselves with — and it needs to go forward. There’s a great deal of space for constructive action, resistance, innovation, at the local level, and it’s absolutely incumbent on us to occupy that space.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.