Highland Park, Jayland Walker, and a holiday weekend defined by shootings

At first, people thought it was fireworks, or a military salute to the flag. This detail topped several news stories—in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune—yesterday after a gunman in Highland Park, Illinois, opened fire on a Fourth of July parade, killing six people and injuring dozens more. One local resident told the Chicago Sun-Times that they heard as many as twenty-five shots amid the ensuing pandemonium. In videos posted to social media, NBC Chicago calculated, more than fifty shots could be heard.

The idea of celebration giving way to carnage reverberated through the news cycle all day, in analysis pieces weighing what the shooting said about America on a day dedicated to national meaning, as well as in awkward juxtapositions. A fireworks graphic in the shape of the Stars and Stripes popped over thumbnails of news articles about the shooting when users Googled “Fourth of July.” On CNN, a segment about the shooter still being at large cut directly to a firework-studded commercial for the network’s planned evening of celebratory coverage, with “music from Pitbull, Maren Morris, Machine Gun Kelly.” Later, as that coverage kicked off, Dana Bash, in DC, called the shooting a “painful reminder of the challenges we face as a nation as we mark 246 years of independence,” but also recognized that “tonight, Americans are coming together in the spirit of celebration to enjoy one another and what’s best in America.” Don Lemon, in New York, agreed. “We do not want to let one bad guy win tonight,” he said. “We do not want to let one shooter upend the time-honored traditions of this Fourth of July.”

ICYMI: The head-spinning coverage of COVID vaccines for the youngest

No little coverage of the shooting also juxtaposed the horror of the act with the typical sleepiness of Highland Park, a well-off suburb about twenty-five miles north of Chicago that, we were told, is “quiet,” “usually safe,” “unaccustomed to such violence.” If a shooting can happen there, headlines in the Post and CNN warned us, then “nowhere is safe.” This is a common framing in the aftermath of mass shootings in suburban areas; on this occasion, some observers suggested, mainstream-media types may have been extra keen to stress the distance between Highland Park and downtown Chicago as a preemptive rebuttal to the right-wing media impulse to portray that city as a gang-infested, lawless hellhole. It’s also, unavoidably, a coded framing, as observers also noted yesterday. Reporters’ asking suburban residents whether they ever expected a shooting to happen here, the writer and professor Tom Zoellner pointed out, is often “an unconscious or conscious reference to the affluent whiteness of the community.” Ashley Brown, an editor at NPR, urged journalists to drop the last place you’d expect conceit—because “no civilian place, no matter how under-invested or affluent, should ever have to ‘expect’ gun violence.”

While the Highland Park shooting attracted by far the most media coverage, it was not the only mass shooting over the holiday weekend. The Gun Violence Archive, which tracks mass shootings, counted thirteen, with nearly half of those taking place yesterday: in Highland Park, as well as Boston (four people injured), Kansas City (four injured), Richmond (six injured), Sacramento (four injured; one killed)—and Chicago, where five people were injured in a shooting on the city’s South Side. Local outlets covered that shooting, albeit perfunctorily, relying heavily on the police account of what happened. (According to officials, all of the victims were taken to hospitals, and were said to be in “fair” condition.) On the national level, the Times mentioned the shooting as part of a brief story, pegged to the Highland Park attack, noting that in total, nine people were shot dead in Chicago over the long weekend (not including the victims in Highland Park).

Also over the weekend, the police chief in Akron, Ohio, confirmed that more than sixty shots were fired in a shooting in that city last Monday. The shots in question were all fired by local officers at Jayland Walker, a twenty-five-year-old Black man, killing him. Walker had fled after the officers tried to pull him over in a traffic stop; officers said that Walker fired out of his car window (and video footage would seem to corroborate this), and a gun was subsequently found in the vehicle. But the police chief conceded that Walker was not armed at the moment the officers shot him dead. By that point, Walker had gotten out of the car and started to flee on foot.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

At first, Walker’s killing was not treated as a big news story; according to a Stanford University tool that tracks cable news coverage, his name wasn’t discussed at all on any major network between the date of his death and this past Saturday. Local outlets were quicker to the story, but the early police narrative often framed initial coverage; various news organizations referred to the killing as an “officer-involved shooting”—euphemistic law enforcement jargon that leading newsrooms pledged to stop echoing in 2020, following the police murder of George Floyd, only for its use to tick back up more recently, according to research published by HuffPost and the Garrison Project. As the days passed, however, the Akron Beacon Journal noted key questions that the local police chief had failed to answer; Cleveland’s WKYC reported, based on an autopsy report, that police fired ninety shots at Walker in total; and the voices of Walker’s family and those of protesters started to ring louder in coverage. Bigger outlets began to take an interest, crescendoing on Sunday, when the police chief offered more details and released some body-camera videos of Walker’s killing.

Meanwhile, protests in Akron grew day by day; on Sunday, hundreds of people marched in the city. The demonstrations were by and large peaceful, but on Sunday night, a subset of demonstrators turned “violent,” the police department said, and caused some damage to property. Around fifty people were arrested, and the police reported firing tear gas. Yesterday, Akron’s mayor ordered a curfew and canceled several Fourth of July fireworks displays. Headlines in numerous major outlets centered that development, sometimes alongside the words “state of emergency,” which the mayor had also declared, and references to a city “on edge.” Last night, protesters gathered again in front of Akron’s police department, but, according to Cleveland.com, dispersed without incident after the curfew came into effect and fifty officers in riot gear emerged from the department. When I checked earlier this morning, I couldn’t find a single story about Walker on the homepages of the Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Associated Press. The Post had one story, far down the page, focused on the fifty arrests.

Yesterday evening, after a lengthy search, police in Illinois arrested a key person of interest in the Highland Park shooting. He fled in his car after officers tried to stop him, but was later caught and detained. According to NBC and CBS, he surrendered “peacefully.” (The former network attributed that description to police officials.) The danger in Highland Park would seem to be over. While the shooter there might have been “one bad guy,” though, America’s huge, multifaceted gun violence problem can’t be reduced to that—collectively, that problem did upend the rituals of July 4, and not just in Highland Park. It might be tempting for the press to frame the shooting there as the unforeseeable shattering of an idyllic, unifying holiday celebration; of Americans’ inviolable common right to come together and share public space. But it’s important to remember that this feeling does not speak to a universal American reality. It never has.

Also yesterday, revelers watching fireworks in Philadelphia ran for cover after shots were fired there. Bullets grazed two police officers. A bystander told a local ABC affiliate that he thought the shots might have been fireworks. People also fled the sound of gunfire in DC and Orlando, where some of them jumped into a lake. In those cases, it turned out, the sound was actually fireworks.

Below, more on shootings and policing in America, and the press:


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Tech platforms, data, and the aftermath of Roe v. Wade

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: A stretcher is seen after a mass shooting at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade in downtown Highland Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb, Monday, July 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)