Preserving Disorder: On Being Held at Gunpoint by Chicago Police
Wednesday, December 9th was a day of notable protests in Chicago. Chicagoans were (and are) quite reasonably outraged by the conduct of our police, our state’s attorney, and our mayor.
The protests centered on North Michigan Avenue, two blocks east of my office on Wabash. Around 5:30 PM, an hour after the largest march ended, I was walking to meet a friend at the Billy Goat Tavern on Hubbard Street for a pint. I walked down Wabash, and (after overshooting Hubbard by a block) turned east on North Water Street, which, like the Billy Goat, is part of the subterranean network on either side of the Chicago River. Then this happened:
A number of Chicago police officers came around the corner from Rush Street running, weapons drawn. They were yelling and chattering into their radios. They were running at me: I was staring down the muzzle of a handgun, and the officer behind it was screaming: “DROP IT! DROP IT! DROP IT!”
My hands went up. I was holding a half full cup of tea. As the photo below illustrates, North Water is basically a dark alley. There’s at least one weapon pointed at my head, (if the guy holding it isn’t a raving lunatic, he’s doing his best impression of one) which means there are probably a few more I can’t see. Dropping a half full cup of tea onto asphalt from 6.5 feet in the air isn’t quiet.
I won’t soon forget looking down that gun, watching the cup fall from my hand, and wondering if I was about to hear a bang. It’s not every day you’re walking down the street, only to wonder if you’re ready to meet your maker. I grew up in the city. I’ve been scared by plenty of things. I’ve been a victim of crime. I’ve never felt anything quite like that.
He kept the gun pointed at my face and moved in, to about five feet away, during which time I focused on remaining very still, and not soiling my favorite pair of jeans. The other cops moved in too, and relieved me of my bag, searched me for a gun, (spoiler alert: I didn’t have one) and put me in cuffs.
Fortunately — no thanks to CPD — nobody got shot. It eventually took more than 10 individual cops on the scene to determine that I was in fact just minding my own business. Meanwhile (naturally) spectators were gathering on the riverwalk and above from the walkway. If you ever find yourself in this situation, this is the part where you see people taking pictures with their phones, and imagine your face on Reddit.
Once they were convinced I wasn’t a “terrorist,” (his word, not mine) the cop who cuffed me said they had a report of an individual with a gun, and that I had been tracked by video surveillance for nearly a half mile before they jumped me.
Then he asked what I was doing on Michigan Avenue, revealing that they didn’t even have the right person: I had walked on Wabash all the way from my office, at Huron. I hadn’t been on Michigan Avenue since lunchtime. He asked where I had been 30 minutes earlier: In my office. Sitting at my desk.
So what do we have?
- A vague claim that someone may or may not have a gun;
- Protests against CPD and the mayor making national news;
- CPD’s ability to subject Chicagoans to video surveillance at any time;
- CPD’s inability to use the rather creepy (3) to even catch the person they’re supposedly surveilling;
- Even if they had gotten the right guy, CPD was unable to use (3) to ensure the confrontation was orderly or safe.
To be clear: I don’t object to CPD investigating threats. But there’s a right way this could have been done, especially in light of their claim that they had been watching “me” on video for the last half mile. If an officer had approached me calmly with one hand on a holstered weapon and one in the air, asking for a chat, I wouldn’t be complaining. Unfortunately, the best they could do was to wave guns and scream like they collectively needed an exorcist.
This should have been among the easiest scenarios in which to avoid the use of guns. If CPD needs the Eliot Ness routine even in this situation, it’s frankly no wonder they shoot people so often — on average nearly once a week.
Pointless escalations like this are exactly how people get shot for holding cell phones, half full cups of tea, and so on. And in cases where the subject really is armed, it’s a recipe for getting cops shot — the fight-or-flight instinct is a dangerous thing to tempt. (The last time I had to work that hard to stay perfectly still, I was probably in kindergarten.) For everyone’s safety, cops should be trying to defuse that reaction, not cause it.
This behavior might be illogical and confounding by normal standards, but my theory is that in such cases, normal logic has been preempted in favor of the “logic” of brute force, which consists of a single premise: Any challenge, however small, must be crushed by superior power, no matter how monstrous or irrational the results, before anyone stops to think.
It will be said self-defense is a reasonable application of the logic of brute force; when officers fear for their safety, they should defend themselves. As a platitude, this is true. It ignores, however, the entire point of having a police force in the first place, which is to ensure the safety of citizens. (There’s a reason they’re called “peace officers.”) As cops are often the first to remind us, the social contract requires that they put themselves at risk in the service of public safety. We train cops for the express purpose of having people who can enter dangerous situations and behave rationally. If a hazy tip and some misinterpreted surveillance is all it takes for that to break down, then we need better cops.
Now, if you’re reading this in a uniform and taking umbrage, may I say: First, I understand fully I’m not describing every cop in Chicago. There are plenty of good ones. I’m just describing enough of them that you and I both have a problem here that won’t go away with platitudes. Second, (should you identify more closely with my characterization) there’s nothing wrong with being unable to behave rationally in the face of mortal fear. We just need cops who can. Don’t take it personally.
Besides, even in this situation, somebody had to be rational in the face of mortal fear. CPD methods just ensured it was the scared-witless citizen, instead of the trained, armed cop. Here’s a quick comparison: The cop thought I maybe-possibly-can’t-rule-it-out had a weapon; I, on the other hand, had a very real gun shoved in my face. The cop got to make the first move, after 15 minutes of electronic tracking; I was daydreaming until ambushed by bellowing aggressors. Apparently it’s reasonable to ask me to keep my composure. Why can’t we ask the same of him, especially after all of that training and oath-taking?
The answer (I suspect) is that the logic of brute force is not entering this situation by way of self defense at all, but by way of rehearsed ideology. I doubt this cop even considered trying to defuse the situation— he had ample chance, and declined. In the seconds leading up, I clearly couldn’t have escalated a situation I didn’t know was unfolding. He decided to come out yelling and waving a gun long before he saw me on Rush Street. This is a matter of policy, not split-second reaction.
As a microcosm, consider what happened to the box shown here. It had the misfortune of being in my bag when the cops got a hold of it. I understand that because the product depicted on the box has knobs and lights, it will be regarded with suspicion by post-9/11 American law enforcement. (I informed the cops that it was audio equipment, apparently just in time.)
My question is, regardless of what the cop suspected, why did he think it was a good idea to start ripping the box open like a puppy with a newspaper? For just about any item of interest it could have contained— stolen property, valuable information, or, naturally, a bomb — ripping the box to shreds right there in the street seems like the dumbest strategy imaginable.
And yet that’s exactly the one he went with. Any sensible strategy for opening this box was preempted in its favor. I doubt he worried about corrupting evidence or setting off a bomb, despite how obvious those concerns might seem in hindsight. There was just maybe something (read: someone) bad in that bag (alley), and by gum, it (he/she) was going to bend to his will.
Irritated as I am, my experience is a relatively benign footnote in CPD’s long history with the logic of brute force, which plays out on an industrial scale. There are plenty of individual monsters — Jason Van Dyke looks fit to join the likes of Jon Burge and Anthony Abbate, both of whom were the beneficiaries of state coverups according to our judiciaries — but I doubt the cops pushing guns in my face were genuine psychopaths. (The one I thought might shoot me seemed downright personable when he was rifling through my wallet.) They seemed like average cops, which should be properly horrifying when you consider how escalation magnifies garden-variety race and class biases, and denies the officer a second thought about them.
Furthermore, the logic of brute force boasts a small army of powerful enablers, which is where common venality comes in. As grotesque and incomprehensible as the Laquan McDonald shooting was, CPD (it seems) immediately began destroying evidence at the scene. Despite State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez having a video and autopsy report which grossly contradicted his statement, Van Dyke spent a year getting paid to sit at a desk, while our mayor avoided a natural progressive outrage that could have ended his career. I submit we have no reason to think Van Dyke would ever have been charged, if the city’s hand had not been forced in court.
Lest you think these are anomalies, I’d like to point you to the 2013 case of a veteran commander shoving a gun in a man’s mouth. Or the 2013 case of officers beating a Chinese-American tanning salon manager and threatening to “put [her] in a UPS box and send [her] back to wherever the **** [she] came from.” Or the 2012 case of cops caught Tasering a jailed man into submission, then dragging him off camera, where he died. Or the 2010 case of a drunken cop allegedly accosting a man and woman, “grabbing [her] by her neck and and sticking a gun in her mouth, hitting [him] with his weapon and leaving both bloodied.” Or the 2010 case of two men who were beaten senseless by police for literally crossing a police officer in the aisle of a taco joint. They spent the next two and a half years under legal and even physical intimidation. (I thought of this last case particularly when I was standing there with my hands up.)
As far back as you want to go, examples abound. Bracket your moral horror momentarily, and consider that these are all examples of absurd, irrational behavior — unless they are interpreted according to the logic of brute force. People have gotten in my way in the aisles of taco joints a few times. Never, even when I have been three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk, would it have ever occurred to me to trail them out to the parking lot and beat them to a pulp. In these cases, police are not trying to be peaceable and failing; they’re operating under a different mindset entirely. Again: Any challenge must be crushed by superior power. Protests such as occurred on 12/9/15 are nothing if not a challenge.
Protesters here correctly realize that even though he isn’t the ultimate cause of police violence, Rahm Emanuel is a toxic obstacle to pushing justice through City Hall. The longer the unrest goes on, the fewer sacrificial lambs will be left as bargaining chips. It is an existential threat to his legitimacy. Using cops to ratchet up pressure on protesters is a time-honored Chicago tradition.
Neither the CPD or the mayor has any credibility in this matter. All things considered, it is entirely plausible that the mayor would want cops calm on the protest line, but discreetly busting skulls at their earliest probable cause. He would like nothing more than for people to think twice about exercising their First Amendment rights at the moment.
The fact is, I have no idea how or why this happened, and the explanation I received from the cops makes no sense at all. I was supposedly tracked coming down Michigan Avenue. Remember, Michigan and Wabash run parallel, two blocks apart with Rush Street between them. In order to get picked up heading towards Michigan Avenue west of Rush Street, they would have had to lose “me” on surveillance long enough for “me” to leave Michigan Avenue, double back (at least) a full two blocks to Wabash, and turn around again. How much certainty therefore could they even have possibly had as to who they were pointing a gun at? For that matter, just how specific was that report? Was it a confirmed sighting, or just a rumor? How closely did I actually match the description? Is there even a record of this alleged report?
There was no apology at the scene. On the contrary, it was treated as something to be put up with as a natural cost of the First Amendment. The sergeant in charge just shrugged and said “well, these are scary times we live in,” (verbatim quote) before letting me go like nothing happened. If that doesn’t sound like intimidation, I don’t know what does. He apparently thinks your average city-dweller should just expect to get pulled off the street at gunpoint every so often. This is probably some kind of mile marker on the descent from proud democracy. Forget the tradeoff between liberty and safety: If this is the new normal, we’re being asked to accept that we have neither.
Of course, for much of the city it is normal and there’s nothing new about it: Take this same story, and instead of River North, transplant it to West Pullman. Instead of a white dude on his way from the office, make the subject a young black man. In both cases, it’s dark, the cop thinks the subject has a gun, and the subject is carrying something innocuous. The cop proceeds directly to chaotic, armed confrontation.
I was walking for a good second or two with a gun pointed at me before I realized what was happening, moving towards the officer with something in my hand. Given that my hand was at my side, complying with his order to raise my hands necessitated raising that object, though hopefully not too fast, or too close to his general direction. In the chaos, with no light, every one of those cops represented a finger on a trigger, who could have thought I was brandishing my tea cup when I was only raising it, or even just been set off by the sound of it hitting the ground.
A presumption of criminality here — based on race, class, the siege mentality of police — can literally prove fatal. You’re kidding yourself if you think a young black man has an equal chance of surviving that encounter. Again: it is the logic of brute force being allowed to ride roughshod over any common sense or moral compass. It is like a disease.
Protest can bring on acute cases, like the CPD meltdown at the 1968 Democratic Convention. But then there’s the chronic, insidious form that forces black parents to lecture their children on how not to die at the hands of law enforcement. As a white dude, it’s a sad marker of privilege that I was so dumbfounded, so unbelieving that I could be the one getting pulled off the street; that the cop could think I had a gun; that in the shadows, the cop knew I was holding something, and was ready to take lethal action.
Someone reading this, somewhere, is pondering the criminality of these young black men and women who will typically fare worse than me in this situation. I challenge you to not privately believe anything you wouldn’t say to the family of nineteen year old Calvin Cross, whose lone brush with the law was a curfew violation at fifteen. He died accused of firing a weapon at officers. About that:
It soon became clear that they had found a gun there, though Benson was perplexed, he told me, since Calvin hadn’t run anywhere near him. According to the investigations by both the Chicago police and I.P.R.A., the recovered gun was a Smith & Wesson revolver, so old and clogged with “dirt and grime” that a State Police examination determined that it was inoperable. It had been manufactured in 1919. Moreover, all six bullets were still in the chamber. Investigators found no gun residue on Cross’s hands and no fingerprints on the gun.
The officers were never disciplined.
Think also about what you would say to the family of Rekia Boyd, who died at 22 at the hands of Officer Dante Servin, who was off-duty and on a late night burger run at the time. He “fired five shots over his shoulder while sitting in his car” into a crowd, from an unregistered weapon. Witnesses claim he was intoxicated at the time.
Anita Alvarez charged Servin with involuntary manslaughter. In a Kafkaesque turn, the fact that Servin’s actions were “beyond reckless” meant, as a matter of law, that if any crime was committed, it was first-degree murder; however, he hadn’t been charged with that. The involuntary manslaughter charge was dropped, and because of double jeopardy, he could not subsequently be charged with murder. He was set free. (CPD claimed he never should have been charged in the first place.)
Many in Chicago feel Alvarez intentionally undercharged Servin. That claim is given some credence by the case of Miguel Adorno, a defendant that had appealed a charge of attempted murder, on the grounds that his conduct should have been considered reckless. Alvarez’s office replied that by Illinois law, Adorno could not have acted “recklessly,” because he pointed the gun at someone before he fired. This was in June of 2013. In November of that year, they were charging Servin with manslaughter, knowing full well he had pointed the gun at his victims before firing. In order to make their case, prosecutors would have to contravene a standard they themselves had just called “clearly and consistently held [by] Illinois courts” five months earlier.
This leads us to the repellent argument that black communities need to rid themselves of crime before they can be outraged by police terror. Again, bracket your disgust to consider the absurdity of this logic. If I had a black child, every time I would think about calling cops about crime, I would be worried about accidentally causing the death of my own child — would CPD be able to distinguish between him and the kid at the end of the block I’m calling about? Would there even be any consequence if they couldn’t? That is, obviously, a massive deterrent. People in this position are effectively being denied police services. Personally, I wonder what would happen if we cut off police services to white neighborhoods for a few decades. If you think crime would rise, the problem with this argument should be clear. (And if you think it would not rise, you must think the police we have are useless — after all, that means you think that getting rid of them wouldn’t do anything.)
The fantasy of Rudy Giuliani, and others, is then that (a) police services should be allotted on a racial-tribal basis; (b) police services should be rationed in inverse proportion to how much crime each race-tribe has; (c) no race-tribe shall have police services until they demonstrate that they don’t need police in the first place, by eliminating crime their damn selves. This would be hackneyed in dystopian fiction, but not in Republican politics.
I went to the protest in Federal Plaza the night after I was detained. I heard firsthand stories of mothers whose children were gunned down by cops who were never charged. Those children died in terror, probably knowing there would be no consequence for their life being taken. The last thing I want is to upstage that with a tale of some relatively comfortable white guy who escaped without a scratch. But frankly, not much has worked in this city over the years. If the people hoarding this city’s money and power need to see someone that looks like them pulled off the street at gunpoint for no good reason, I’m happy to paint that picture. Yes, it could happen to you too. Right there on the river. Does it matter now?
Most of us would agree (I hope) that it is incompatible with democracy for citizens to live under the threat of police terror. If what happened to me, where it happened to me, were a regular occurrence, wealthy Chicagoans would be pleading for the end of tyranny. Anecdotally, I’ve been testing reactions to this story (among Billy Goat patrons, e.g.). Multiple people, after recoiling in horror — “they can’t shoot you, you’re a white guy” — have casually accepted that it happens constantly on the South and West Sides.
It is frankly pathetic what white Chicagoans are willing to put up with in this city as long as we’re comfortable and it’s happening to somebody else. It wouldn’t kill you to feel a little civic investment in black neighborhoods, you know.
This is probably a good time to note that I’m not suing anyone. I don’t want money for my trouble, and I don’t want a belated apology. I filed my complaint with the IPRA, for all the good it will do. All I want is for Chicagoans to honestly ask themselves if this is the kind of city in which they really want to live; and if not, to kindly bear that in mind the next time they’re walking down a dark street. You don’t hear sirens the same after. Four days later an engine backfired while I was out with my dog in broad daylight; I jumped about a foot in the air.
Finally: I know there are good cops out there. I’m sorry, and I don’t imagine you condone every action of the CPD or the city. But you have more power to change this than I do. I can file a complaint with IPRA or write an open letter on the Internet, but you can bring some mindfulness to these situations before they come to weapons. When your colleagues are possessed by the logic of brute force, you can help break them out of it before they harm somebody. Please, consider what you can do to help reform CPD from the inside out. Be as subversive as you have to. You owe nothing to people who make the world a more violent place.
To recap: Despite their Orwellian advantage in surveillance, CPD was either unwilling or unable to avoid yet another chaotic confrontation with an unarmed civilian in the wrong place at the wrong time. They fully expect us to put up with it. Let’s not, shall we?