“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” poet and philosopher George Santayana warned more than 150 years ago.
And even before him a biblical poet wrote: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”
Those quotes echoed as I walked through the graveyard of celebrated but mostly ignored or forgotten reports of commissions, task forces and blue ribbon committees convened by politicians confronted with major crises involving law enforcement. They contain warnings ignored and lessons not learned.
One of the most celebrated in the last 50 years was the result of work done by the Kerner Commission tasked with understanding the causes of the deadly and destructive riots that wracked urban America in the 1960’s.
In its massive report the commissioners found that “the abrasive relationship between police and minority communities has been a major and explosive source of grievance, tension and disorder….”
That conclusion grew out of studies of riots in New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles when in every case it was an action by police in a minority community that exploded in reaction.
The commission also reported that: “To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a “double standard” of justice and protection—one for Negroes and one for whites.”
That was in 1968. But both the language and the conclusion are mirrored in the Police Accountability Task Force Report that was belatedly appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel following the unconscionably long “investigation” of the shooting death of Laquan McDonald. McDonald was shot 16 times in 2014 by Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who was indicted for murder a year later after a video of the incident was released.
And as if the Kerner Commission could see Ferguson, Mo. 50 years in the future, it condemned ”moves to equip police departments with mass destruction weapons, such as automatic rifles, machine guns, and tanks. Weapons which are designed to destroy, not to control, have no place in densely populated urban communities.”
Another report from Chicago’s past, the Walker Commission’s investigation of rioting at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, concluded that the violence was “a police riot.” And it said, again in statement that is virtually echoed in the current report on Chicago Police:
“Police violence was a fact of convention week. Were the policemen who committed it a minority? It appears certain that they were—but one which has imposed some of the consequences of its actions on the majority, and certainly on their commanders. There has been no public condemnation of these violators of sound police procedures and common decency by either their commanding officers or city officials. Nor (at the time this report is being completed—almost three months after the convention) has any disciplinary action been taken against most of them. That some policemen lost control of themselves under exceedingly provocative circumstances can be understood; but not condoned. If no action is taken against them, the effect can only be to discourage the majority of policemen who acted responsibly, and further weaken the bond between police and community.”
Mayor Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force Report is at least the seventh to study weaknesses and failures within the Chicago Police Department. And the U.S. Department of Justice is at work on yet another investigation.
Chicago is not alone. Studies have been done on nearly every major urban police force in the last 200 years. New York alone has been subjected to at least six.
And we study on, hoping for the best but with little memory of the past. Cynicism comes easily.
Author and onetime Chicago journalist Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive….”
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