You can hear Charles Johnson’s skull and facial bones being beaten in with each of the 19 blows his murderer deals out in a bystander video taken last month on a rain-soaked Chicago street.
The murder weapon—a glass liquor bottle—breaks only when Johnson’s killer has had enough and smashes it on the pavement next to the dying man’s head.
“Damn!” is all one of several bystanders says as the deadly beating plays out at rush hour on a Monday night.
Johnson’s murder in West Englewood is one of more than 770 killings in Chicago so far this year, and its brutality is only slightly more notable because it was caught on camera and because the weapon was a bottle, not a gun.
“Fucked-up crime in a city of fucked-up crimes,” a veteran Chicago police officer tells The Daily Beast.
The city has already hit a 20-year high for homicides this year—up more than 300 from last year—and could hit 800 for the first time since 1995. Across America, homicides are up 14 percent, with Chicago’s murder problem accounting for a staggering 40 percent of that national year-to-year rise.
“If we went all-in with bottomless money and bottomless personnel, we might be able to see some effects in a matter of years, but in the meantime it’s five below zero and we’re seeing 40 shot and 10 or so dead over the weekend,” the officer, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about violence in Chicago and the state of the department, said about last weekend’s gunplay. “In a few days it’s going to be Friday night, and the question now is, what do we do to prevent people from shooting and killing each other this weekend.”
As Johnson’s killer keeps hitting, and hitting and hitting and hitting him, cars pass and people walk by on both sides of the street. In that sense, the killing recalls the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, when a young woman was raped and murdered in her apartment when, at least according to a famous New York Times account, 38 New Yorkers ignored her screams.
At least one other bystander can be seen in the recording this February in Chicago pulling out a phone to record the killing, which remains unsolved; the suspect hasn’t been identified and is still on the loose, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. Police and paramedics arrived soon after the video ended, and took Johnson to Stroger Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
“This is the society we live in now, where things like this sometimes become the next viral video,” the officer said.
People are searching for the reason that this year was so much more violent than the last one. But there isn’t one, according to the officer, only many.
Chief among them, though, is a political environment in Chicago that has officers concerned about starring in their own viral videos if a police stop goes wrong. Jedidiah Brown, a police-accountability activist who also mediates gang conflicts in the city, said gang members and other criminals have become emboldened following the long-delayed release of a video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting and killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald’s death.
“I’ve never seen such disrespect or such bold disregard for law enforcement,” Brown said recently. “That’s a perspective that I can’t really share as much as I want to.”
Another issue, Brown speculated, is that as activists are fighting among themselves following the release of the video, those who may be looking to them for an alternative to criminal life may be turned off, and head back to the streets.
But there are any number of factors that need to be examined before any conclusion is reached for Chicago’s bloodier-than-usual 2016, both Brown and the officer agree.
The release of the McDonald video, which led to the firing of Chief Garry McCarthy, plummeting approval ratings for Mayor Rahm Emnauel, and the ouster at the polls of two-term State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, is universally seen as a marquee event that’s changing the nature and scope of policing in Chicago.
The city is in a state of flux, simultaneously having to reckon with what many call a lawless police department that unfairly targets people of color and what many call lawless streets. The question now is, how to move forward and stem the bloodshed?
The officer who spoke with The Daily Beast suggested the new state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, who defeated Alvarez in the Democratic primary in March, should focus less on her campaign promise to investigate officers accused of misconduct and those involved in police shootings, and more on securing convictions for repeat offenders who have been shown to be responsible for much of Chicago’s violence. Brown said the activist community must play its own role in stopping infighting and providing a way out of street life for those looking for one.
Both Brown and the officer agree that Mayor Emanuel—who withheld the tape from public view for 13 months after the shooting, until after he’d won re-election, and whose approval ratings then plunged below 20 percent this year, before starting to recover—and other city politicians aren’t helping matters.
“Rahm Emanuel is the worst thing to happen to Chicago,” Brown said.
“There is no political will to address these complex issues,” the officer said. “This city is completely willing to let people on the South and West Sides fight for their very existence.”
Charles Johnson didn’t appear to do much fighting in the video of his death. He appears on screen as a dark, motionless blob as the headlights of cars flicker on the wet pavement around him. Whatever happened before his fatal encounter with his murderer isn’t known publicly, and Johnson’s wife declined to speak about her husband’s killing, fearing retaliation from the killer.
“She’s concerned about talking and repercussions in the neighborhood,” a friend said.