There’s an old saying amongst those who fear police frame-up jobs: “Informants don’t just sing, they compose.” And while much of the country seems to have a built-in skepticism about criminals who seek to lessen their own legal burdens by leveling accusations against others, police are frequently granted a blanket exemption from such considerations.
We witnessed a classic case of this phenomenon in recent hours as Chicago activist Malcolm London’s mugshot was splashed across the internet by media outlets as they uncritically echoed police claims that London had punched a police officer during Tuesday night’s protests. London, a local poet and organizer with the grassroots group BYP 100, has at times been treated as a media darling in the city of Chicago, but amid its scramble to cover the city’s reaction to the announcement of charges against police officer Jason Van Dyke, for the killing of Laquan McDonald, the media was all-too-ready to grab on to the next stage of the story, as presented by police.
The Chicago Police Department, States Attorney Anita Alvarez, and the Emanuel administration had just had their complicity and participation in a cover-up exposed on a national stage, but police claims against an activist who played a leading role in challenging them were barely critiqued as events unfolded.
Now that the charges against Malcolm London have been dropped, we should all probably take a moment to reflect on how the accusations against him were absorbed by the public in the first place, and what this can tell us about the state of our society.
For over a year, Officer Van Dyke walked free, with his income intact, despite eye witness accounts, physical evidence and an actual video that established his guilt. The public was told to wait, for over a year, for the powers that be to figure out if Van Dyke had actually done anything wrong, in spite of footage that Emanuel now admits proves that the officer broke the public’s trust “on every possible level.”
London, on the other hand, was grabbed off the street and convicted in the headlines overnight. His guilt was assumed because the very entity he was criticizing for covering up a murder opted to redirect the public’s attention toward the face of a Black man. This is not a difficult task in a society that is all too inclined to accept that a white police officer may have had his reasons for gunning a Black person down, under just about any circumstances, while the mere appearance of a mugshot is enough to define a Black person.
And that mugshot wasn’t just present. It was ubiquitous.
London is a very prominent activist in Chicago. There are countless images of him available to the media that do not paint him as being inherently criminal. But much in the same way that the media defaults to using the mugshots of those killed by police to summarize their existence, Malcolm was instantly reduced to the accusation being leveled against him.
In this case, the accusation was a PR distraction orchestrated by a police department that should itself be on trial.
Please remember, as you process these events, that the police weren’t just replacing Van Dyke’s face with London’s in above-the-fold news stories. They were misdirecting the public to avoid discussion of the fact that Van Dyke’s indictment barely scratches the surface of this situation. In addition to being no guarantee of a conviction, this indictment in no way addresses the fact that Superintendent Garry McCarthy, States Attorney Anita Alvarez, and the Emanuel administration all conspired to conceal Van Dyke’s guilt. Their obfuscations and legal maneuvers kept a killer cop free for over a year, and ensured that our tax dollars continued to line his pockets.
I was there when Malcolm London was arrested. He had just given a speech to a silent crowd. “Don’t believe the narrative that the mayor tells you, that we don’t love our people,” he told protesters. London then called for the firing of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, mere minutes before being bum rushed by police in an arrest that played out like a violent kidnapping.
The march, which was about to disperse under the leadership of London and his fellow organizers was re-energized by London’s arrest. With reinvigorated outrage, protesters turned toward downtown Chicago, raising their voices loudly against police. They counted out the sixteen shots that Van Dyke fired into McDonald, again and again as they marched. They lifted up Laquan McDonald’s name in lights as they shut down street after street, including a major expressway.
And all of this, much like the beginning of this painful media spectacle, happened because of the unjust and unnecessary actions of police.
Is it a coincidence that amid the city’s current PR nightmare, an activist who recently refused to meet with Mayor Emanuel, and who had just called for the firing of Garry McCarthy, was violently tackled by police and smeared to the press? Or is it possible, that just maybe, we should all stop letting the city of Chicago reframe its own crimes, and join Malcolm London’s call for the firing of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and the indictment of this whole damn system?
Author’s note: If you would like to join me in demanding that the city drop all charges against three other local organizers who were arrested last night, two of whom are elementary school teachers, you can call Mayor Emanuel’s office at 312-744-3300 and ask that all charges against Johnaé Strong, Troy Alim and Page May be vacated.