Harold Washington Library Center’s Cindy Pritzker Auditorium was a full house at the opening screening of a new local series focusing on injustices in the criminal justice system. On Sept. 12, The Marshall Project released 15 video testimonies of Chicago voices affected by the justice system, “We Are Witnesses: Chicago,” is the latest installment of the nonprofit news organization’s award-winning short film series “We Are Witnesses” which explores the nature of crime, punishment and forgiveness.
Produced and directed by Maggie Bowman and Stacy Robinson, the series is in partnership with Kartemquin Films and Illinois Humanities, and is part of “Envisioning Justice,” the Humanities’ city-wide initiative to foster a stronger criminal justice conversation through arts.
The opening screening at the downtown auditorium was presented by WBEZ’s criminal justice reporter Shannon Heffernan and showed four of the 15 short videos. A panel discussion with the witnesses, moderated by Carroll Bogert, president of The Marshall Project, followed the screening.
Bogert, a native Chicagoan who had a career in journalism abroad before returning home, shared her hopes that the audience will better understand the flawed criminal justice system by watching these testimonies and, ultimately, support responsible journalism fighting for reform. “By being an audience, you are assisting in understanding these issues better,” Bogert said.
The premiere featured the stories of Carrie Steiner, a former Chicago police officer; Xavier McElrath-Bey, a previously incarcerated teenager; Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, the former warden of Cook County Jail; and the Pendletons, parents of a slain daughter who received extensive media attentionafter she was murdered almost seven years ago.
Each witness shared their deeply personal and painful experience with the criminal justice system — and how they have worked to heal their wounds and help others.
“I found a voice after Hadiya was murdered, and I discovered a way to draw shape and color to the overall experience,” Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton said. “I took my voice and I try to use it for as many speaking opportunities as possible to try and help people understand what it is like to be subject to a crime such as this.”
McElrath-Bey, who as a young teenager spent 13 years in prison after his role in the killing of Pedro Martinez, was released at 26 years of age and met the Martinez family in 2016. They forgave him and now are friends with McElrath-Bey. Through tears, he told the audience how sorry he was for his actions and that to heal from his past, he needed to work on forgiving himself. But despite forgiveness, he said the hurt will never go away.
“I am sorry you had to go through that and I am sorry I was ever a part of something that caused that harm to someone,” he said to the Martinez family, sitting in the front row. “I am also sorry that we live in a society where people feel like they have to do something like that.”
Though it was difficult for McElrath-Bey to share his emotions and retell his story, the family and a friend in the crowd shouted, “We love you, Xavier.” He now works at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, where he is trying to ban life without parole and other extreme sentences for children.
Much of the discussion centered around ways to end the cycle of gun violence and how to help heal from traumatic events by sharing personal stories.
Jones Tapia, who worked at the Cook County Jail from 2006 to 2018, had the difficult job of speaking to men charged for fatal crimes, like the one that took Hadiya Pendleton’s life. That trauma deeply affected her, she said, just as it does police officers, guards and people on the other side of the system.
“You have to find a way to balance the humanity in a system that is built on a lack of humanity,” Jones Tapia said, recalling her time as warden.
A major aspect of that humanity is destigmatizing mental health and the image of police officers, said Steiner, who was a police officer for 13 years and now runs the First Responders Wellness Center. In her testimony, she said that during her time at CPD, 18 officers killed themselves. “In the mental health field, there are so many stigmas about police officers,” she told the audience.
She is working to help first responders be more open about mental health and cope with the trauma they experience. She also wants people to remember that while officers are trained to make critical decisions and protect communities, constant scrutiny and judgment puts pressure on their shoulders. At the end of the day, they are humans too, she said.
To move forward, McElrath-Bey said teens need to be helped and have better resources. Nathaniel Pendleton said that work starts in the neighborhoods.
“A lot of times we blame our politicians for it and we should not,” Nathaniel Pendleton said. “We have to take our neighborhoods ourselves and go back to each one, teach one.”
“We Are Witnesses: Chicago” is partnered with WBEZ, the Chicago Reader and Univision Chicago, which translated the series into Spanish. Throughout the next three months, The Marshall Project, in collaboration with the Chicago Public Library, will hold free screenings and discussions in 23 library branches across the city. To see a full list of the showings, visit the library’s website.