Jamie Kalven's Acceptance Remarks for the Ridenhour Courage Prize [+VIDEO] / by Darryl Holliday

JAMIE KALVEN:  Thank you, Wes. My first reaction when Randy called to tell me I'd been selected to receive the 2016 Ridenhour Courage Prize was to recall a Robert Benchley line my father was very fond of. "You must be thinking of the other Mozart." [laughter] My second reaction was at once to be honored and humbled to have my name linked with that of Ron Ridenhour and to find myself in the company of past recipients of the prize.

My third, and enduring, reaction is profound gratitude for this acknowledgement of past work that serves as an inspiration for the work that lies ahead. When I first stood at the site of the Laquan McDonald shooting several weeks after the incident, I couldn't have imagined standing at this podium 16 months later. Nor could I have imagined the extraordinary and mysterious process by which Laquan McDonald's story has become a public narrative that bears comparison with that of another child of Chicago, Emmett Till. The story has broken through into the moral imagination, providing an avenue for deeper understanding of systemic conditions that give rise to police abuse and impunity. The crime, the execution of a child on the streets of Chicago, is shocking.

Jamie Kalven, a journalist and human rights activist, who has long reported on police abuse and impunity in Chicago, is the 2016 recipient of The Ridenhour Courage Prize.

Equally shocking has been the institutional response to that crime. While the boy was bleeding out on the street, the machinery of denial went into motion. Evidence was destroyed, witnesses were intimidated, police reports were falsified, public information was withheld from the public. And ultimately, a $5 million settlement was entered into by the city with the family of Laquan McDonald on the condition that the now-famous video not be released.

For 13 months, at every level and at every turn, city officials maintained a narrative about the incident they knew to be untrue. The term code of silence evokes something essential; the coerced silence of police officers who don't report misconduct by fellow officers for fear of reprisal. And equally, the silence of abused citizens who believe they have no redress.

Yet, the term is also something of a misnomer. For the larger phenomena is not a matter of silence, it's a matter of narrative control. The code is best seen as a set of tools for enforcing that control. To an extraordinary degree, in the wake of the political upheaval precipitated by the McDonald case, the City of Chicago has lost control of the narrative. [applause] This has created an historic opportunity for real and enduring reform.

As Danielle noted, last week a task force on police accountability appointed by the mayor, issued its report, a sweeping indictment of entrenched racism within the department and a detailed blueprint for reform. The report states, and I'll quote this extraordinary language again, "The police in Chicago have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color." That's from an official body in Chicago.

Racism is foundational. Issues of police accountability are embedded in the great unfinished business of American life, the blood knot of race. If reform is to run true, we must construct a path forward akin to South Africa emerging from apartheid that leads over time to a different kind of society.

It won't be easy. While this may prove to be a transformative moment, there are no transformative remedies. Rather, there are an array of concrete measures, reforms, interventions, none of them transformative in themselves, that may in the aggregate begin to change systems and cultures.

It's yet to be seen whether we'll be able to rise to the occasion. If we are to do so, we must resist the tendency, in itself a form of denial, to rush past diagnosis to prescription. While it's imperative to implement particular reforms as soon as possible, it's also critically important to sustain the process of diagnosis, of truth telling, of public acknowledgement.

The knowledge necessary to fix the system exists within the system, but it's atomized, scattered, divided from itself. In recent years in Chicago, we've broken through official secrecy and established the principle that police misconduct files are public information. We thus have unprecedented access to police disciplinary data. It's equally important, though, to access information on the ground in the communities most affected by abusive policing, and equally to create conditions such that conscientious police officer do not have to risk everything in order to report misconduct by fellow officers.

This process of public acknowledgement is exemplified by the McDonald case. We would not know the name Laquan McDonald were it not for the civic courage of two individuals who must, for the moment, themselves remain unnamed; a whistleblower in law enforcement who reached out with a tip about the case and a civilian witness, who despite his fears of police reprisals, told me what he had seen. I dedicate this unexpected and heartening award to them. Thank you.