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Black Lives Matter – Winning the Battle but Losing the War

Over the last few years, the African American community has been focused on a few issues regarding law enforcement in the United States. The issues of excessive force and unlawful lethal force regarding “unarmed Black males,” civil rights violations from police departments on African Americans in various jurisdiction, and the need for law enforcement working with urban communities to lower crime in these high crime communities. However; the primary issue that Black public intellectuals and movements like Black Lives Matters have centered on, has been the issue of unarmed Black men being killed by police.

There were some victories that came from the BLM Movement. Coalescing on the tragic incidents of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray, Sandra Bland and Laquan McDonald. Black public intellectuals and the BLM called for federal probes and investigations of these various incidents, this was one of the problems. The reality was and is, that these were issues best dealt with utilizing political strength on a local level. If the issue was racial biases in law enforcement that lead to unequal outcomes regarding lethal force, then holding political leaders accountable on a local level was and is foundational in addressing the issues. Because what these communities are not understanding, is that police departments are not autonomous of the governing authority that grants them their police powers. Further; the local level is where the people have the most control over these issues. However; using the old civil rights paradigm, the African American communities in these various jurisdictions appealed to the authority of the federal government.

An example of both realities can be clearly seen in the case regarding Laquan McDonald. The case was a clear example of excessive force. Seeing the community hold local politicians accountable, like former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who was ousted because of how she handled the Laquan McDonald case. However; getting a new State’s Attorney and new police superintendent are only part of the winning the war, holding the new public servants accountable also comes into play. This is where the community and the leadership in the community generally fails. Because after that victory on the local level, instead of following through, the shift went to appealing for FBI and Justice Department investigations. While it is understandable to go that route as a tactic, one of the issues with this tactic was the timing was strategically wrong.

The community called for this intervention from the federal government, and December 6, 2015 US Attorney General Lorretta Lynch called for the Justice Department, under President Obama to launch an investigation into the Chicago Police Department.[1] Again, the tactic was understandable, but absent serious pressure from the community for reforms on a local level, this was an ill-advised course of action. Because the report was going to take a while to complete, and shortly before the end of President Obama’s second term was to end, the DOJ report came out, just in time for President Trump to come into office. The report’s findings were clear:

"The Justice Department announced today that it has found reasonable cause to believe that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) engages in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. The department found that CPD officers’ practices unnecessarily endanger themselves and result in unnecessary and avoidable uses of force. The pattern or practice results from systemic deficiencies in training and accountability, including the failure to train officers in de-escalation and the failure to conduct meaningful investigations of uses of force.[2]"

The Obama Administration’s Justice Department had given the public a report that told everyone what they already knew, that water was wet. Part of the findings were:

"The department found that CPD’s pattern or practice of unconstitutional force is largely attributable to deficiencies in its accountability systems and in how it investigates uses of force, responds to allegations of misconduct, trains and supervises officers, and collects and reports data on officer use of force. The department also found that the lack of effective community-oriented policing strategies and insufficient support for officer wellness and safety contributed to the pattern or practice of unconstitutional force.[3]"

This resulted in a consent decree. The first problem with a consent decree there is no admission of guilt or liability, even though the alleged issues is agreed to be addressed. The second issue regarding this decree is that the remedies that were outlined were left up to the incoming Trump administration’s Justice Department and Attorney General to execute. This is where the war begins to be lost.

For whatever reason, there were some people who expected the Trump Administration’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions to follow through on the Obama Administration’s Justice Department findings. This should have been ridiculous at face value to anyone who had paid attention to the Trump campaign, but you can’t blame people for hoping. The reality that the Trump Justice Department would not follow through became clear in March of 2017 when Attorney General Sessions set up meetings with Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.

"Sessions, who was confirmed last month as President Donald Trump's top law enforcement official, has vowed to "pull back" on federal civil rights probes of local police departments like the one in Chicago. He also has pushed the idea that officers' hesitance to police aggressively is driving rising violence in major cities, including Chicago.[4]"

This should have been an expected response from the Trump administration’s Justice Department, as this mirrored the spin that Candidate Trump used during the debates, moving the goal post of the discussion from police misconduct to that of respecting law enforcement and focusing on dealing with violent crime. Which goes to losing the war.

By the BLM movement and its supporters ignored the reality, that even though focusing on individual issues of police misconduct and excessive force was necessary, ignoring or objecting to addressing the larger issue of violent crimes in these same communities taking hundreds of Black lives created a space for Candidate Trump to move the goal posts. Tactically focusing on police misconduct issues in exclusion to other issues taking Black Lives in these same communities may have seemed the correct course of action, but strategically, it was a miscalculation that ultimately set back their protesting efforts. Protesting without thought to long term policy or context of other related issues, is a futile exercise. Because regardless of the wrong way the Laquan McDonald case was handled or the reality of abuses by CPD to the African American community, the focus of the federal government and the Chicago Police Department administration has now been moved squarely to the issue of violent crime in these predominantly Black urban communities and the issue of misconduct or civil rights violations is once again a foot note.

In the Laquan McDonald case the battle was won, Alvarez was removed from office, task forces and probes were done and results found. But, the war, was pushing forth on a local level with an agenda of holding leadership accountable, on a local level creating policy that would change the culture of these police departments (in this case the Chicago Police Department) and this war was lost. This should have been independent of and not beholden to whatever the federal government would do, because at the end of the day, the federal agenda is not always the agenda of the local community.


[1] Nausheen Husain, “Data: Laquan McDonald timeline: The shooting, the video and the fallout.” The Chicago Tribune, January 13, 2017. (accessed March 30, 2017).

[2] “Justice Department Announces Findings of Investigation into Chicago Police Department

Justice Department Finds a Pattern of Civil Rights Violations by the Chicago Police Department,” Department of Justice - Office of Public Affairs, last modified January 13, 2017, (accessed March 30, 2017),

[3] Ibid

[4] Jeremy Gorner, “Top cop to meet with Jeff Sessions about gun violence in Chicago” The Chicago Tribune, March 16, 2017. (accessed March 31, 2017).

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