11th Street Blues

Robert Blau has mixed feelings about cops. “On the one hand, they were so dissatisfied and angry you could feel it in the air around them,” he says at the end of his new book, The Cop Shop: True Crime on the Streets of Chicago. “Uncorked, they were among the most dangerous people on earth . . .

“Yet it was impossible to cover the crime beat without coming to respect the demands and dangers of the job cops were asked to do.”

Blau took over the police beat in the spring of 1988 and held it to the end of 1990. For him it was a tour of duty, not a life. Most police reporters retire on the beat. They like the company of cops and share cops’ vision of the world. This empathic fraternization makes them invaluable at extracting necessary information from recalcitrant desk sergeants but limits their ability to dig for deeper truths. Other beats are changed every couple of years, but the cop-house reporter stays where he is, every other inch a journalist.

Blau’s predecessor, Phil Wattley, had been at 11th and State 12 years and expected to stay forever. But the Tribune decided to defy tradition and rotate him out. Wattley fought the change for a year and finally was ordered back to the Tower and put on nights. A few weeks later, packing for a vacation, he dropped dead. His widow wrote editor Jim Squires a letter accusing the Tribune of killing him.

Blau, who was still in his 20s, just wanted to taste what there was to taste and move on. In his spare time he studied creative writing in Hyde Park. Late in his tour Blau went to the funeral of Johnny Martin, an officer who’d been shot in an alley near his own home. “A dozen kilted, bagpipe-playing members of the police Emerald Society ushered the slain officer’s white hearse down Lawrence Avenue,” Blau writes about this defining moment. “Johnny Martin was a black cop, and the musicians were white Irish, but on this day the differences were invisible. . . . LeRoy Martin was the first to take the podium, delivering a short speech on the ultimate price paid by the dead officer. Then he surprised everyone by leading a round of applause for officers who had died in the line of duty, 403 all together. The church thundered. The superintendent had found the right tribute.”

Blau’s book lets few ironies go unremarked. But here’s one. Two years before Martin died he shot and killed a motorist whose car had bumped his outside a dance hall on West Armitage. A police investigation cleared Martin, and then the motorist’s family sued the city. One day before we talked to Blau we’d run into the family’s lawyer, a friend of ours. He said the city settled with the family for a million dollars.

So did you leave the beat with an altered consciousness? we asked Blau.

“Yeah. I really think that as a society we’re so imperiled by the cynicism and contempt that comes from seeing and hearing the terrible things that happen to people. That personally is something I grew up with, knowing a lot of people who lived through the Holocaust and were permanently embattled and embittered, while others who lived through the same experience found a way to preserve hope. It was a delicate balance of human nature that I was always curious about.”

Where do cops strike the balance? we wondered.

“The oddest thing. Even cops have a bottom line to what they’ll accept. So often a cop in an interview would say, ‘This was a really bad one. This was a kid. This was someone who didn’t deserve it.’ In that sense they reflected what society has grown accustomed to accepting or rejecting. It’s an equation that seems to hinge on the, quote, innocence factor. If a victim is innocent, then there’s more willingness to be outraged. But if the victim is even partially, quote, guilty then that compassion doesn’t exist. And the question becomes, what makes a person guilty? Is it that they were out on the street too late at night? Is it that they are carrying a dime bag of cocaine in their pocket? Is it that they were carrying a gun so they belonged to a gang? And if even one of the red flags goes up, the willingness and sometimes even the ability of cops and many other citizens to feel any pain isn’t there.”

It seems to us the line defining innocence has been ratcheted far to the right. “Oh yeah,” said Blau. “That’s the reason Dantrell Davis became the quintessential symbol of the innocent victim. A seven-year-old boy walking 100 yards to school holding his mother’s hand. And I think in an unspoken way the consensus became, how much more innocent than that can you get? It seems impossible.”

We said the next little boy killed the way Dantrell was won’t trouble anyone as much. Blau isn’t that cynical. “A crisis has to reach this type of crescendo before setting off a public debate. I don’t want to act as a booster of the Tribune, but that “Killing Our Children’ series has the potential to keep people’s eyes open. Hopefully it will. It takes that–it takes this type of uproar.”

We agree. One of the threads in Blau’s book is the papers’ lack of interest in police-blotter stories, no matter how compelling those stories might turn out to be if given the time and space to be told. There was too much crime, too much black crime, and too many suburban readers who probably didn’t care. But the Tribune promised to take notice of every child killed in Chicago in 1993, and it has kept the promise impressively.

“I reached a point where one catastrophe melted into the next, and I think I realized if it continued my own sense of outrage would just disappear,” Blau was saying. “I was relieved at various points that I would really find myself awed by what victims put up with and by what their families put up with, and how somehow they emerge from their own personal tragedies not entirely embittered and not eternally angry. It sort of clarified what can and can’t be justified by merely seeing bad things happen. Terrible things happen, and too often that becomes the excuse for not caring or for beating the shit out of people or cursing them out.

“I remember going to visit someone in the hospital around Thanksgiving a year or two into the beat and this young woman, 17 or 18, had an X carved into the back of her neck with a knife. Believe it or not, it was going to be a Thanksgiving Day feature about her struggle to recover. She’d been paralyzed. So I went into the hospital thinking I’d get this out of the way quickly and soon realized that here was a person who had been singled out for no good reason, attacked, carved up, and yet in the most epic, heroic way was going to rebuild her life. And that’s the standard against which we’ve got to measure ourselves and the police and everyone else. There is no excuse–there’s never an excuse for bashing people’s heads in or torturing them.”

This was the point of Bad Lieutenant, a movie we’d thought was pointless. Blau hadn’t seen it.

Selling Allusions

Without a Rodney King Trial II to raise the specter of fresh urban pandemonium, the Tribune and Sun-Times have had to make do with Bulls Championship III. When two lopsided victories over Atlanta put the Bulls just 13 wins from another NBA title, the papers were off and running.

City officials “are preparing for the worst,” said the Tribune, which recalled “violence and looting” after the Bulls’ first and second titles. “Police officials said they would be ready to make mass arrests if rioting breaks out.”

The Sun-Times recalled that the ’92 crown prompted “an outbreak of violence and vandalism. About 340 businesses were looted.”

The papers reminisced about the ’92 mayhem with a lot more candor than they’d reported it. But you’ve got to appreciate their position. All Police Superintendent Matt Rodriguez has to do is put a lot of extra officers on the street the night the Bulls repeat. As one can see from last year’s front-page allusions to “exuberance” and “high spirits” and “uninvited shopping,” the papers must strike a delicate balance between euphoria and the facts. Each paper has to come up with a front page that somehow acknowledges the criminal rampage that followed the victory, yet is blissful enough to be reproduced on a T-shirt.

Simply Resistible

We hate to see stressed-out postal workers shooting each other when most of the mail they deliver we never wanted anyway. There are exceptions. The other day an envelope arrived sporting the president’s signature and the announcement “1993 Your Membership Card Enclosed.” Through the window gleamed the silver credential of the “Democratic National Committee.”

We hadn’t asked for a post on the Democratic National Committee, but we don’t run from duty. “By accepting this membership card,” said the note inside from “Bill Clinton,” “you will be playing a vital role in reinventing America.”

The problem is time. We’re still trying to find time to remodel our kitchen, and reinventing America is after that. Fortunately the president offered a position tailored to our circumstances. When the silver card was out of the envelope we could read all of it; it said, “1993 contributing member, Democratic National Committee.”

We’re tempted. In years past we’ve been a contributing member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the National Security Council, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the FBI. Closer to home, we’re contributing members of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Chicago Department of Sewers. It’s work we understand.

But we have to turn the president down. We’re raising our daughters to be contributing members themselves one day, but modesty has always been our approach to public service. The silver card puts matters on too fancy a plane. One day the kids will insist we flash it to command a better table at Shoney’s or a discount on a cup of coffee. We’d rather not.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.