Credit: The Marshall Project

The stories in “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” are not meant to soothe, but rather to agitate, to poke and prod our assumptions, to force us to wrangle with the way justice looks in Chicago. With candor and directness, these men and women speak to who we are as a city and who we are as a nation. They speak of forgiveness and of second chances. They speak of anguish alongside joy. They speak of vengeance pitted against forbearance. In their stories, they each in their own way pose the question: What is justice? It is a question we all need to contemplate.

It seems only right that here in Chicago—home to Studs Terkel, who saw the poetry in the language of everyday people—people tell their own stories. In this collection of videos, we hear from them directly. A former warden and a former gang member. The parents grieving the loss of their daughter and a cop grieving the loss of fellow officers. A judge and a prosecutor alongside a man and a woman each involved in a violent crime. When we watch their stories, we can’t look away.

It’d be a mistake to think of these stories as just about Chicago—for here, in the country’s center, we find all the fissures present in the American landscape, and here we can take stock of how we’re doing. It’s a place where the violence has sapped the spirit of individuals and of community, where the laws are uneven and where the relationship between the police and communities of color is permeated by mistrust. Chicago, for better or for worse, is America’s city.

Richard Wright, who lived in Chicago, once wrote that we “can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as (we) can from a lack of bread.” The men and women in these videos, each of whom has been touched by our criminal justice system, are inching us along to that self-realization. They’re asking us to listen, to mourn those they’ve lost and to celebrate those who have refused to give in. They are asking us, at least for a moment, to stand in their shoes, to see the world through their eyes, to understand what it means to persist in seeking what is right and just. These stories—full-throated and heartfelt and true—feel necessary, especially at a time when our city and our nation have fallen short. Wright observed of Chicago: “There is an open and raw beauty about the city that seems to either kill or endow one with the spirit of life.” That tension courses through these stories. Sit back—and listen. —Alex Kotlowitz

Watch the videos at Read more:

‘I’m the bad guy now’
Retired cop Bill Dorsch on outing police misconduct
By Maya Dukmasova

Living with trauma
Celia Colón aims to transform the lives of prisoners through mental health workshops at the Cook County Jail.
By Andrea Michelson

Rewriting the narrative
Lisa Daniels shares how her son Darren’s murder launched a movement based on empowerment and healing.
By Sarah Watts and Lucius Wisniewski

Responsibility and recovery
Channyn Lynne Parker inspires incarcerated trans women to use trauma as the root of resilience.
By Janaya Greene v