Saturday, January 10, 2015

How I CAN'T BREATHE Can Become I CAN BREATHE in Chicago (and elsewhere)

Printable version of this 2500 word post.

Derrick Rose started it all with a tee shirt worn without comment on December 6 during warm ups before a Bulls game with Golden State. Beautiful gesture. Reminded me of Muhammad Ali refusing draft induction with the words "I ain't got nothing against the Viet Cong".

Soon Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg would set Rose's silent protest in the tradition of athletes like Ali who spoke out on racial issues when no one expected them to.

Soon other superstar athletes were following Rose's lead. Why? Because most had grown up on rough neighborhoods. They knew all to well how police treat people there.

If you haven't seen it, here's the disturbing "I can't breathe" video that culminates with Staten Island/New York resident Eric Garner repeatedly saying "I can't breathe" to the police officers who held him on the ground and in a choke hold. Garner died. The video, below, begins with a lengthy standoff argument:

And leads to this still shot:

Hard to watch. Derrick Rose surely had it in mind when he wore the tee shirt that echoes Garner's last words. 

But guess what: Rose's protest hit Chicago like a summer squall: riveting for a few minutes, then forgotten as it blows over. So chalk up yet another lost opportunity for the city to improve police/community relations and reduce youth violence. Opportunities like those that followed the murders of Chicago innocents Hadiya Pendleton, Dantrell Davis, and, most recently, Demario Bailey. 

Youth violence and police violence? They're two sides of the same coin. Where you see one,  you see the other.

Question: will the time ever come when Chicago publicly and definitively commits itself to reducing the police and youth violence that for decades has plagued its poorer, nonwhite neighborhoods?

A few weeks after the Eric Garner incident, all hope for productive public discussion of police/community relations in Chicago (and elsewhere) was dashed, for the time being at least, when media were flooded images of New York's finest turning their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio. The mayor's comment that "centuries of racism" fueled the Garner incident had outraged them.

All this left Chicago frozen like a deer in headlights, awaiting the next Eric Garner, Michael Brown or Hadiya Pendleton incident. Amazingly, the January 11 episode of The Good Wife, taped before the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Missouri, prophetically affirmed (more on this below).

It's time for new ideas and new solutions. Specifically, it's time for new uses of media aimed at de-polarizing and unifying citizens (including police) instead of polarizing them as media have done for decades.

A couple weeks ago the ever-observant Dan Bassill of the Tutor/Mentor Connection sent me a link to his comments an interesting opinion piece about youth violence in Chicago. They are well worth reading. Here, however, I want to give my own thoughts on this piece.

The piece is "The lies about murder in Chicago" by Dan Proft, a political commentator, Republican candidate for governor of Illinois in the 2010 election and, until recently, a talk-show co-host on WLS-AM.

The above "fixed, not broken" message carries through in Proft's Chicago Tribune piece. His solution?

"Stop the lying," Proft says. "The politicians lie to us. We lie to each other. We lie to ourselves."  

Hate to say so, but these thoughts pretty much sum up my own experience of Chicago's efforts to address youth violence since I moved to the city 30 years ago. We've fooled ourselves into thinking of soluble problems as insoluble ones.

Proft doesn't hold back. "In short, Chicago's civic institutions are structural failures. City government has failed. The police department has failed. Nearly everything we have tried has failed."

It would be interesting to see their opinions measured in a citywide poll on these questions.

But what does Proft say needs to be done? "We need to contemplate and debate deep, transformative, difficult change", he says. Makes sense to me.

But where to start? Proft insists that he doesn't "pretend to possess the secret knowledge as to how to stop the slayings on our streets". A curious phrase, this "secret knowledge". It implies something hidden from public view.

I will reach to Dan Proft. I want ask him if he thinks the arena that holds his secret knowledge is in fact hidden in plain view for all Chicagoans to see: it's Chicago's media. To my mind, Proft himself confirms this fact with his insightful satire of the hollow rituals for media that invariably constitute Chicago's response to the murder of an innocent child:

Proft sees Chicago's media, and in particular the  24 hour news cycle of news media, as the stage for tediously repetitious performances that serve only to express and confirm the city's utter helplessness to deal effectively with youth violence.

But Proft fails to take this invaluable insight to its logical conclusion: namely, that Chicago's news media are themselves part of the problem. After all, their constant ritualistic depictions of this helplessness are instrumental in demoralizing the public and creating the state of civic apathy that holds Chicago in its grip today. When Proft he concludes his satire by asserting that "Everyone moves on", "everyone" necessarily includes Chicago's news media.

There, I submit, you have the secret knowledge of which Dan Proft speaks. It's a knowledge of which, paradoxically, he seems to be imperfectly aware. As a former radio talk show host, he's a member of the media. Chicago's news media, I've long felt, are able to hold up mirrors to just about everyone but themselves.

So let's hold a mirror up to news media with a view to seeing how they can put their resources to constructive use. To this end, Chicago, including its media professionals, need only to acknowledge media's extraordinary power to shape public opinion and behavior for good or ill. Then they will be in a position to use some their communications tools accordingly.

It's as simple as that. And I've often said, media can profit handsomely from constructive uses of their resources. But then things get tricky. Why? Because media's attention span - the 24-hour news cycle, described at Wikipedia that meets audience demand and delivers audiences (consumers) to advertisers - is so short. EXTREMELY short!

The 24-news cycle, marketers, advertisers and media professionals alike tell us, is driven by incessant public demand for latest developments, by an insatiable appetite for constant newness.

In this context, Derrick Rose's startling "I can't breathe" moment riveted the attention of Chicagoans for several days. It was truly new and completely unexpected! So also was the spontaneous support of other big-time athletes who wore the same tee short in support of Rose.

But what happened next? "I can't breathe" soon faded from the evening news and from public view. Why? Because it was followed by no subsequent newsworthy developments. And, to borrow Proft's image, because Jay Cutler was benched.

So let's ask ourselves: what would a sequence of newsworthy developments following Derrick Rose's "I can't breathe" gesture look like?

Well, here's one. Get ready, it's a bit of a newsflash. CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy could tell all Chicagoans what he's repeatedly told West Side residents since 2009: namely that African-Americans have reason not to trust their police. (McCarthy said this, by the way, in at least one press that was covered by major news media.)

Next, Mayor Emanuel and Superintendent McCarthy could jointly commit to developing programs committed to reducing inflammatory language and conduct of both police and citizens in every one of Chicago's high-crime neighborhoods.

Not just some. In every high-crime neighborhood. Chicago needs a citywide project, not yet another pilot project.

The YMCA's "Bridging the Divide" program is currently working to improve youth/police relations in high crime neighborhoods. But it's not a citywide. And - surprise, surprise - it's not getting attention in Chicago's mainstream media.

So what to do? Well, once a city leaders (including police) and media have mapped out an effective citywide program, Derrick Rose and other Chicago Bulls (if they wished) could wear I Can Breathe tee shirts during warm ups for Bulls games.

How beautiful would that be? NBA teams in other cities would likely follow suit. Good things resulting from I Can Breathe in Chicago could begin to happen nationwide. 

But all this would be just a beginning. We must keep good things happening. To this end, a coordinated, citizen-participatory sequence of newsworthy activities occurring on the street and in the media would have to be in place.

One useful media activity would be for news media to give all Chicagoans what they presently lack: access to resources in their neighborhoods that they can use to prevent and reduce youth violence. One promising technique for disseminating these resources has been set forth in this Full Story proposal that Chicago Civic Media is now advancing to several groups in Chicago:

Another would be the routine airing on the TV evening news of dynamic video footage telling the ongoing story of young people and police striving and struggling to improve communication. Striving and struggling, in other words, to help each other, and their communities, to breathe.

To get through to the African American teenagers who are coming of age Chicago's violent neighborhoods, audio footage of these efforts could be broadcast on hip hop radio stations like WGCI-FM 107.5 and WPWX 92.3 FM.

These first steps would do something, but not nearly enough, to rouse Chicago from its 50 year nightmare of youth violence. Much more would need to be done in order to inspire and mobilize Chicagoans - including Chicago's finest - to step up and take responsibility for improving police/community relations and reducing youth violence.

For help all this to happen, a network TV series - a reality TV series, I'm thinking - could tell the ongoing story of the successes and failures of Chicago's ongoing I Can Breathe efforts.

Sound unrealistic? Bear in mind that two successful mainstream TV dramas have already dramatized the story of youth violence in Chicago. The first aired last January:

It was the eight-segment Chicagoland series, produced by CNN in part as a response to "vagaries of the news cycle", as the Hollywood Reporter said in its review of the series. As the above image suggests, it struck many in Chicago as propaganda for Mayor Emanuel.

The second program is The Good Wife. Now in its sixth season, it airs Sunday evenings at 9:00pm on CBS. The January 11 episode entitled "The Debate" is a must-see from the standpoint of its depiction of the breakdown of police/community relations. It tells a story in which Chicago is torn by citywide protests that unmistakably echo those of Ferguson, Missouri.

This episode opens with a jumbled, cell-phone video of a fatal incident of possible police brutality over which is layered the following astonishing statement:

This statement gives this entire episode a quality that is nothing short of prophetic. After the video comes a TV news anchor's account of the incident as seen on someone's laptop computer:

These two media accounts of a Michal Brown-type incident - a cell phone video of it and a media newscast account of it - are the first of several media accounts of this episode and its aftermath that, among other drivers, drive the complex narrative of this episode. It's well worth watching.

I think of Chicagoland and The Good Wife as strong precedents for future network TV programming that will take Chicago to the next level in its quest to solve youth violence and improve broken police/community relations. The next level? The possibilities are limitless. But consider the following. Careful, it will surprise you.

Consider a Chicago-based I Can Breathe Reality TV series. Think of a reality-based and reality-driven documentary television that is committed to a truthful reporting and telling of the ongoing story of Chicago's efforts to do what no other American city has ever dared to do: use its media - the city's public communications system - for the constructive purpose of defining and solving, with full citizen input, a problem that threatens the city's and region's future.

This ongoing documentary could air weekly over a full 15 or 20 episode season, just like American Idol. Better yet, it might air year-round, with weekly, bi-weekly or monthly episodes. Occasional televised Chicago Town Hall meetings could commit Chicago to placing on the public record the success or failure of the city's collective I Can Breathe efforts.

Would this programming catch on with Chicagoans? Would they watch it? Ask yourself: what could  possibly be more powerfully dramatic to Chicagoans and their city's future than the life and death issues of youth violence and the underlying issues of gangs, guns and drugs.

The story of these issues would furthermore of necessity be grounded in history: in that of the growth of drug-dealing gangs in Chicago since the 1960's and in that of the successes and failures of the so-called War on Drugs.

To get through to Chicagoans and to dispel the polarities that set us against each other today, I believe that the drama of the city's I can't breathe efforts would have to be told in a certain way. It would have to be tragicomic in tone. This needs explanation.

First, this drama would have document the sheer tragedy of the fact that "Chicago has lost two generations of young people to gangs and drugs", as Mayor Richard M. Daley put it in 1992. (Today, of course, that total is three generations and counting.)

Second: into this tragedy would be infused rich veins of the dark, gallows humor that Chicagoans - police, young people, politicians, community activists and journalists - have developed in the face of the city's often laughable attempts to stop youth violence.

Now let's take a look at this Chicago scenario from a national perspective. For years national news media have pilloried Chicago as the Murder Capital of America. But when Chicago's media-driven I Can Breathe efforts begin to succeed in making good things happen, national and international media will rush to extol Chicago as the first city in America to use its mainstream media to improve police/community relations.

How beautiful would that be? Today, however, none of these good things are happening. Not one is even on the horizon. So what is happening instead?  Dan Proft has answered that question to my satisfaction.

So then: what will it take for Chicago to jolt itself from its 50-year nightmare of youth violence? The answer sure ain't rocket science.

And the answer sure isn't blowing in the wind. For decades it's been staring us in the face from dawn to dusk on our TV screens and in our newspapers. Alarmist images like this Sun-Times logo only sink us deeper into our nightmare of apathy and helplessness.

I betcha anything Derrick Rose would agree with all of this.

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At January 20, 2015 at 9:12 AM , Blogger Tutor Mentor Connections said...

Good article Steve. I posted my own version of this at

Getting more frequent stories is certain to raise awareness. However, if this does not include a "act now" message like included in weekly retail advertising and sales promotion material, it's not likely to draw the consistent flow of talent, dollars, ideas and technology support to all the places where maps show high concentrations of violence, poorly performing schools and other indicators of a need for youth tutor/mentor programs and other forms of family and community support.

At January 22, 2015 at 3:59 PM , Blogger Steve Sewall, Ph.D. said...

"Act Now". Thanks, Dan. Working on this.


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