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By Charles Preston and Calvin Rashaud Davis
We could not have picked a better day to attend a Chicago City Council meeting. A Cook County judge ruled last December that meetings must allow time for public comment to comply with the Open Meetings Act, so the mic was finally open today for community members to speak.
For a total of 30 minutes, individuals were granted three minutes each to express their grievances, frustrations and appreciation to the gathered aldermen. Once the clock reached the three-minute mark, the mic went dead.
Interestingly, as citizens poured out their concerns, the mayor could be seen having sidebar conversations from his perch above the rest of the council. One woman constantly shouted “Rahm’s not listening” as a reminder to all.
“Everyone knows where I stand because I don’t hide it,” said the woman, who gave her name as Ms. Jenkins. “I have a built-in microphone and I’m going to use it.”
Here’s what else we saw at the meeting.
Though the meeting allowed for public comment for the first time, that didn’t stop old-fashioned protest action. A coalition of student and youth groups including STOP Chicago, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice attempted to disrupt the chambers seven times through spontaneous chants demanding tax-increment financing money for Chicago Public Schools funding.
They chanted, “Education is a right, not just for the rich and white!” and, “We need teachers, we need books, we need the money that Rahm took!” Most aldermen did not seem rattled and some appeared to be a little amused; the mayor was visibly flustered.
Students started their chanting as council members discussed the North Branch Development project. With a passing vote of 46–2, this project changes the boundaries of the North Branch corridor’s Planned Manufacturing Districts.
Discussion of the $38.75 million settlement grew heated as 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale vehemently voiced his frustrations with the structure of the class-action lawsuit which resulted in lawyers receiving the bulk sum of the funds, while actual plaintiffs were set to receive no more than $50 each.
Alderman Ed Burke, of Chicago’s 14th Ward, was the most vocal—issuing an “I told you so” to the rest of City Council.
“Stevie Wonder could see that there was something wrong with this program," said Burke, reminding the council and spectators that he had warned his colleagues about the dangers of the red light ticket program.
The two had a minor verbal squabble when Beale stated that each person involved in the class-action lawsuit would only receive $7. Burke immediately corrected Beale, stating that the amount would depend on the percentage of those opted in to the lawsuit—at most they’ll receive $42. Burke went further to rib on Beale’s CPS education.
It was an eventful meeting, and we’re excited to see what happens in the coming months with the implementation of the new public comment section. But we also wonder if the public will be speaking into the wind.
This summer, City Bureau reporters are collaborating with DataMade to look at Chicago’s City Council and how local legislation is influenced. If you have any tips or questions, leave a comment or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
City Bureau was 1 of 20 projects chosen to carry out the mission Democracy Fund Associate Director Josh Stearns laid out at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Phoenix on June 22.
In moments of uncertainty and volatility it can be tempting to gravitate towards a single solution to the pressing problem of misinformation and low public trust facing our media, technology, and democracy. However, when it comes to rebuilding the public square and ensuring what is shared is accurate information there are no silver bullets. As such, the projects receiving funding today represent a wide array of ideas and approaches from cognitive psychology and community engagement to computer science and news literacy.
–Josh Stearns, Democracy Fund
Our Documenters program is in its infancy, but it’s already building local trust—not just by producing content, but by involving the public in the journalistic production process itself.
Here’s how the program works:
We’ll start by addressing the clear barrier to expanding our Documenters program: the need for a platform to assist in the management and coordination of our growing Documenters network.
Since we launched the program in June 2016, we’ve received more than 200 applications and 50 applicants have attended an orientation. (The most recent was June 22 at our Public Newsroom, which hosts free weekly workshops at our newsroom on the South Side of Chicago.)
That workshop, like the orientations and trainings we host for our Documenters, shows the need we hope to support. We believe people want to be engaged in civic life — the problem is often that they haven’t been invited to the table. As journalists, we can bridge the gap between opaque civic processes that are largely inaccessible to the average person. Our Documenters program is a means of democratizing the tools and information needed to engage local citizens.
In addition to offering skills-exchange sessions and trainings, we hope to connect people with the information they need to leverage power, inform their neighbors and build trust with our news organization. We pay Documenters around $15/hour because we believe it’s a worthy investment, and we respect the time our Documenters put into strengthening their communities despite their busy schedules.
We’re honored to have been awarded a $50,000 Prototype Fund grant. Out of 800-plus incredible applications, we’re grateful that the selection committee at Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund (see: The Local News Lab) saw the potential of our Documenters program — and, more importantly, the power of our Documenters.
Over the next nine months, we’ll continue planning the online platform that will ultimately allow us to spread our Documenters model further. We’ll talk to members of the public, media organizations, technologists, organizers, funders, community groups and anyone else who wants to shape the future of civic journalism with us. We’ll post regular updates on our progress — both our successes and shortcomings — and we’ll create a handbook to share our findings, processes and structures with the public.
First, the news: We’re thrilled to announce that City Bureau has received a $100,000 grant from the Voqal Foundation to continue its work creating equitable, community-centered coverage on Chicago’s South and West Sides. This comes on the heels of a generous $75,000 grant from the McCormick Foundation, an early supporter of City Bureau.
With these grants, Voqal and McCormick renew their commitment to supporting media that is from and for the public. We feel lucky to spend our days building an innovative model for participatory journalism by supporting the work of emerging, diverse and civically engaged journalists in Chicago—and we’re grateful for the financial support needed to continue that work.
We believe in paying people for their time and efforts, whether that’s making journalism, hosting community-centered events or serving as on-the-ground watchdogs in their community. Since City Bureau has started, we’ve devoted the vast majority of our funds to our programming, while relying on a small group of dedicated volunteers to manage administrative work. But with the success of our programs, we believe it’s time to grow—to take our proven strategies to a larger and larger audience.
Most immediately, operational funding from Voqal will allow our organization to hire two of City Bureau’s four co-founders, Andrea Hart (community engagement director) and Darryl Holliday (editorial director), to strategically expand our programming. As our organization expands, we hope to add more full- and part-time staff to help us grow and manage the burgeoning City Bureau network. Full-time employees like Darryl and Andrea ensure that growth will happen quickly and efficiently—while also pursuing more avenues of funding that will support even further expansion of our programs.
Speaking of expanding our programs: Journalists in our 10-week Reporting Fellowship are paid $15 to $20 an hour to produce local, community-centered reporting while mentoring young Chicago media-makers. Likewise, our Chicago-based Documenters program pays hourly for local community members to attend, record and disseminate information from public meetings, and our Public Newsroom pays a $50 stipend to our guest speakers and workshop hosts.
These numbers add up, but so do the public benefits. Since our launch in October 2015, our reporters have produced over 70 articles and mentored more than 70 youth mediamakers; City Bureau Documenters have completed 50 assignments; and our Public Newsroom has drawn hundreds of attendees to our South Side newsroom for inclusive dialogue, collective joy and skill-sharing events.
Additional staff and funds will also help us create a project we’ve long envisioned—creating a City Bureau Handbook that will document our programs, successes, stumbles, and everything in between. We firmly believe that the people at City Bureau are producing some of the most innovative work in local journalism; not just the content, but the different outreach strategies, including ways to talk to our audience while keeping our community involved in our work every step of the way.
That’s great if you’re hanging out at our newsroom (6100 South Blackstone Avenue) a few times a week (and hey, if you can, you should!) but we don’t want it to stop there. So we’re embarking on the Handbook project to create a wiki-style guide to building a civic journalism lab, based on the lessons learned at City Bureau, in your own city or town. Have specific questions you want answered or sections of the wiki that you want to make sure get written? Just let us know.
We believe that foundations have a critical role to play in maintaining the integrity and promise of a free press—but we believe sustainable business models and individual support are in the public’s best interest when it comes to funding a media landscape that is equitable, diverse, inclusive and robust.
For more on Voqal and the amazing group of organizations that were awarded grants along with City Bureau, please visit their website (below):
The Voqal Fund is pleased to announce six new grants to organizations working in the Chicago area to enhance the community and strengthen social equity. The grants to Chicago Filmmakers (Chicago Digital Media Production Fund), BYP100, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, City Bureau, State Innovation Exchange (SiX) and Illinois Humanities reflect Voqal Fund’s commitment to support progressive movements for social change.
Learn more about the work of the Voqal Fund by visiting the Voqal Fund webpage.
We had to record in a car. The Real Chi Youth room in the Old Sears Tower had horrible acoustics; my microphone would pick up the crinkling of cookie wrappers and chip bags as other young journalists ate snacks and took breaks from their projects. So, the four of us took the world’s slowest elevator down 12 floors and sat in Ronald Reese or Johnny Thrower’s car in the Homan Square parking lot, as I recorded our reflections, conversations and jokes while people walked past and wondered why four 20-something guys had locked themselves in a car in the middle of the afternoon.
Our project — a collaboration between City Bureau and Real Chi Youth — was a short video piece on police settlements: taxpayer money given to people who are physically or verbally abused by the city’s police officers. We’d interviewed lawyers, activists and, in one instance, a woman in Douglas Park whose nephew was killed by police officers in 2002. The story is familiar, but we all came at the topic with different perspectives. Johnny is a 22-year-old from North Lawndale who wants to work in the law enforcement field when he’s older; Ronald, a 21-year-old Marine who works at a factory and who just started his own entertainment production company, grew up in neighborhoods across Chicago’s South and West Sides; Martin Xavi Macias, 27, another City Bureau reporter and an activist from Brighton Park who’s getting his master’s in journalism; and me, a 25-year-old former AmeriCorps member-turned-journalist from the Philadelphia suburbs.
Originally, we were just producing the video piece, but soon I realized that an audio documentary could tell the unique story behind the story. Early on, when I interviewed Ronald in the hallway outside our newsroom, he told me how he’d seen his first dead body when he was five years old: how his mom had asked him not to go outside for a while to stay safe, how he hadn’t been scared, and how he’d asked why, since the man outside of their house had been killed so easily, he and his family hadn’t been shot yet. Then, moments later, he went back inside our newsroom and asked all of us, “Man, has anyone played the video game ‘Dark Souls II’? That shit is hard.”
We wanted to avoid the “tragedy/disaster” narrative that encompasses so much news coverage of North Lawndale and the people who live in similar neighborhoods. The audio doc allowed for Johnny and Ronald’s personalities to shine; their voices go from bantering about girls on Facebook to talking about the merits and pitfalls of aggressive policing. It shows all the complexity of how these two young black men view police in the neighborhood where they grew up, while reporting on it at the same time.
Journalism faces a lot of issues in 2016, not the least of which is its lack of diverse voices. This project clearly shows how invaluable that diversity is. Xavi’s activism background lent us important historical perspectives that contextualized our reporting; Johnny and Ronald, who grew up in neighborhoods filled with residents who’d received settlements because of aggressive policing, aided our understanding of police-community interactions; my work in the education field helped us to process information and talk about how it had — or hadn’t — changed our own views.
Once, on our way to interview an attorney who had represented plaintiffs in police settlement claims, we saw a cop helping an older woman get out of his car. It looked like the officer had given her a ride. Later, while recording tape for our audio story, I sat with my back against Johnny’s car’s dashboard, reflecting on how it was nice to have a moment like that: to be reminded, in the midst of a project about police brutality, that there are good cops who—clichéd as it is—help old ladies cross the street.
Johnny, who’d challenged me during the entire reporting process to understand a police officer’s perspective, felt the anecdote validated his trust in law enforcement. Even Ronald, the skeptic who is wary of cops, said that our reporting had helped him see the good side of police officers.
But Xavi had a counterpoint we hadn’t considered: “I’ve seen good examples, where cops do something good, and I think, ‘Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope that there are some people who are good in uniform,’” he said. “But for me, I can’t separate that. They’re representatives of a system, and that system isn’t accountable.” In three sentences, he showed just how complex and multilayered the story was.
This is ultimately what the journalism industry needs: collaborative discussion that leads to an elevated understanding of each story’s central issues, to give them the nuance they deserve. Those lengthy talks in un-air conditioned cars made us better journalists and better humans by giving us the opportunity to deconstruct our own thoughts and emotions—especially important when stories are (literally) close to home, like it was for Ronald and Johnny.
Now that it’s over, I miss the hot car, the emotional talks that turned silly after Ronald made a joke, the way Johnny played devil’s advocate. How I’d sit backwards in the passenger seat and sweat, pointing my microphone at whoever had something to get off his chest. Most of all, I miss having a built-in focus group where we could all test our theories and hear how others approached the subject, a process that has fundamentally changed my approach to newsgathering and storytelling.
Not one second of it felt like work, but every second felt like we were doing something vital.
Kelan Lyons is a recent graduate from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Now that’s he’s earned a Master’s of Science in Journalism, he’s currently job-searching. His radio piece, “On North Lawndale, From North Lawndale,” premieres on Vocalo on Friday, June 24, and will re-air on WBEZ on Sunday, June 26.
Real Chi Youth and City Bureau’s video project is below.
Text by Kristin Brown; Video by Monzell McKnight, Chelsea Barry, Patty Macias; Advised by Yana Kunichoff
The above video is a collaboration between City Bureau and Free Spirit Media. Below, Kristin Brown summarizes research from the video project.
In 2015, police killed nearly 1,000 American citizens; at least 564 of them were unarmed, according to the Washington Post. As part of a spring cycle reporting project, City Bureau journalists compiled a database documenting all 48 people killed by Chicago Police — the nation’s third-largest police force with its own longstanding history of police brutality — between 2012 and 2015. Although youth between the ages of 13 and 24 account for approximately 30 percent of Chicago’s population according to Census data, they make up 52 percent of people killed by Chicago police. All the victims were African American or Latino.
Most of these shootings were ruled justifiable homicides and/or the officer was cleared of any wrongdoing. According to the Independent Police Review Authority, the agency currently charged with investigating major allegations of police misconduct, a justifiable shooting is defined as “a killing without evil or criminal intent for which there can be no blame, such as self-defense to protect oneself or to protect another or the shooting by a law enforcement officer in fulfilling his/her duties.” Since IPRA’s inception in 2007, only two cases were proven to be unjustified.
When it comes to use of force, Chicago’s police directives state, “Members are not required to start at the lowest levels of the use of force model; they will select the appropriate level of force based on the subject’s actions.” A separate guideline says that officers will use the amount of force reasonable based on the circumstances, but that reasonableness is not capable of precise definition— rather, it’s judged by each individual officer in the moment. That subjectivity (also known as the split-second doctrine) was upheld in the Graham v. Connor 1989 Supreme Court case, which ruled that judgments involving law enforcement and excessive force may only take into account the split-second mindset of an officer, rather than the context of the entire situation, which would only be known in hindsight.
Students at Hyde Park Academy involved in the Youth/Police Project are aware of the stark statistics of young people involved in police shootings. They say they wonder why officers don’t instead shoot to disengage suspects instead of killing them. According to a 2014 article published in The Guardian, officers aren’t trained to wound suspects because it doesn’t make sense legally or tactically. Candace McCoy, a professor at City University of New York says, “If a police officer decides to fire, they will likely be doing so under intense pressure at a dangerous suspect who is likely moving quickly. They are trained to shoot center mass, roughly the chest region, because they’re more likely to hit the target and stop an imminent threat.”
As is well documented in neuroscience, teenagers tend to be more impulsive than adults because their brains are still developing. Neuroscientist Dr. Frances Jensen told the Huffington Post in 2015, “The brain is the last organ in the body to reach maturity and it continues to develop into the mid-20s.” As a result of this, young people are wired to be split-second decision makers, she said. Their decisions tend to be more emotional in nature. This may explain why oftentimes, their interactions with police turn deadly.
Based on the database created by City Bureau journalists, four of the police killing cases are still open. Officers in the other cases returned to regular duty. In an effort to reduce fatal police encounters, the Chicago Police department is expected to increase the number of officers equipped with Tasers in spring this year. But activists in Chicago, including Sarah Wild from Stop Police Crime, say there needs to be more widespread change within the system for police accountability to improve.