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View From the Ground

BY Aaron Sarver

Journalist Jamie Kalven characterizes his experience covering Stateway Gardens, a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) development, as “human rights” reporting.

For 10 years Kalven maintained an unofficial office at Stateway and was a daily presence there until the buildings were demolished over the last few years. Stateway was dismantled under the City of Chicago’s Plan for Transformation, which mandates the replacement of all high-rise CHA buildings with mixed-development condo units.

His reporting will play a crucial role in an upcoming federal civil rights case, Bond v. Utreras et al., in which plaintiff Diane Bond charges members of the Chicago Police Department with systematic physical abuse and harassment. All of Jamie Kalven’s documents have been subpoenaed by the city for the case. In These Times recently talked with Kalven about his work, available online at viewfromtheground.org.

You’ve called the dialogue around public housing bankrupt. What else needs to brought into the discussion?

The words “public housing” lock us into an impoverished discourse that treats this as only a housing issue. Chicago’s Plan for Transformation has gone forward on that basis and so we talk about community development, affordable housing and the mechanics of the Plan in terms of relocation and support services. But the people I’ve worked with over the years, primarily at Stateway Gardens, can’t give voice to their experience or seek redress of their grievances in that language. So we need to start somewhere else.

Experience has led my colleagues and me to look first at fundamental issues of human rights violations by the state through the police department. The war on drugs, and the police brutality that it enables, is a huge ongoing phenomenon in these communities that not only shapes how they’re perceived and stigmatizes everybody who lives there but also entails real injuries to real bodies.

Why do you consider your work “human rights” reporting?

It starts with the notion of particular injuries to particular people and then treats those injuries not as a case study to illustrate a larger thesis but as something that needs to be closely attended to in itself. For example, when I examine someone living in wretched physical conditions in public housing that affects the health of their family, I pay attention to the details of those conditions, to the particularities of that family, in that unit, in that building, and then I work back toward larger patterns. Is this an isolated instance of a malfunction of an otherwise smoothly working system, or does this happen with some frequency? Is there a pattern of insults and human rights violations that can be identified? Is this in fact ultimately what this system produces more often than not?

It’s a different kind of reporting and it starts with the notion that everybody has a set of fundamental rights that should be granted. The right end of the telescope to be looking through is the concrete injury to the individual, and then working back up toward larger patterns, the macro forces that contribute.

So in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a time when the whole country is grappling with these issues, you can see what has been missing in the kind of reporting and discourse that we have. Journalists as well as everybody else have been stunned by the perspective that the hurricane provided on the nature of our society. But you know, what we’re seeing down there can be seen in Chicago on any day. And it’s what we’ve seen constantly in public housing over the years–a radical disjuncture between the way life is lived in one place and the way life is lived in another.

What role does police brutality play in the lives of CHA housing residents?

It’s a huge factor in the way people experience their immediate world and the way in which they view the city and civil authority. I should be clear, we’re talking about perhaps 5 percent of the police force being seriously corrupt. In no sense is our work published at viewfromtheground.org meant to defame law enforcement in general. But a few bad apples, if they operate with impunity, can have a huge impact on whole communities. Entire areas of the city will experience the four or five officers who they see every day as the face of authority. They can define your experience, not just of the city, but of your sense of home.

Aaron Sarver is an independent audio producer and writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared in In These Times, The Chicago Reader, Alternet.org, and on Free Speech Radio News. For nearly three years he produced and co-hosted the radio program, Fire on the Prairie, which featured interviews with progressive writers and activists, and is archived at fireontheprairie.com.

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