I repeat: transparency is a social justice issue.
But don’t take it from me, the Guy Who Never Stops Yelling About His (Ongoing) FOIA Lawsuit. I’ll let Selma director Ava DuVernay explain:
Without video's release, there'd be no criminal charges made. Without video's very existence, there'd be no attention paid. #LaquanMcDonald
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) November 25, 2015
And Massachusetts state senator Jamie Eldridge:
— Jamie Eldridge (@JamieEldridgeMA) November 25, 2015
And D.C.-area reporter Surae Chinn:
— suraechinn (@suraechinn) November 25, 2015
The video they’re talking about shows Chicago Police officers killing a black Chicago teenager, Laquan McDonald, on October 20, 2014. For a long time, the video was not released. Now it is. And a police officer has been charged with murder, 400 days after the shooting occurred.
Now, it’s true, the facts of case might be more complex than these three tweets indicate. We’ll certainly get a lot more info when Officer Jason Van Dyke goes to trial. But it’s hard to argue with DuVernay/Eldridge/Chinn’s basic equation: transparency = attention = accountability.
In this case, enormous credit goes to Brandon Smith, a Chicago-based freelance journalist with the excellent Twitter handle, @muckrakery, and the even better website tagline, “showing powerful people the consequences of their actions since 2007.” It was a lawsuit from Smith that triggered the release of this video, and he should be credited every time this video is mentioned. (An example of how not to share the video: this CNN/ABC-affiliate story that says only “After a journalist filed a freedom of information request, a judge ruled that police had to release the video by November 25.”)
We live in tumultuous times. And, sometimes, transparency will lead to more tumult. There may very well be protests in Chicago as a result of this video’s release. But this is not a reason for local and national governments to draw the blinds and lock their doors. Transparency is the lifeblood of democracy.
“We the people” can only “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity“ if we know what’s being done in our name, and with our money. This means examining our country’s mostly-secret drone program. This means learning how a former lawmaker snuck through a loophole in Rhode Island’s revolving door law. This means seeing the evidence from a trial that sent a Chicago doctor to prison for four consecutive life terms.
The video of Laquan McDonald’s untimely death is a reminder of all of this.
To learn more about the state of transparency in Rhode Island, take a look at ACCESS/RI and MuckRock’s disturbing 2014 report, “Access Limited: An Audit of Compliance with the Rhode Island Public Records Laws.” Or read about a recent instance when released documents jump-started the accountability process. Or follow some crazy local freelance journalist who, with the help of the RI ACLU and two Providence-based pro-bono attorneys (Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell from Nixon Peabody), is suing the federal government right here in our backyard.