Jamie Kalven

Jamie Kalven

Jamie Kalven rode up on his bike to Build Coffee, the Experimental Station mainstay on 61st Street and Blackstone Ave., smiling and waving at its customers and staff. It was a humid Chicago day threatening rain, and as Kalven spoke softly, his voice was almost drowned out by wind and the Metra running just a block away. Before diving into a discussion of his lengthy career and even lengthier history as a Chicago resident, Kalven scrawled down a few sentences on scrap paper in cursive. He’s the rare writer who pens all his pieces longhand.

Kalven, a Chicago-born journalist, human rights activist and former executive director of the South Side’s Invisible Institute, has been back on the streets reporting since stepping down as director last year.

In April, Kalven was honored with the  I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence, which recognized his human rights reporting. The award honors journalists who exemplify an “independent spirit, integrity, courage and indefatigability.” 

I.F. Stone Medal jury chair Ricardo Sandoval-Palos said: “For decades, Jamie Kalven has practiced journalism in the tradition established by his role model, I.F. Stone. And like a steady drumbeat, Jamie has produced stories that have held government and police accountable. Our jury was unanimous in voting this year’s medal to Jamie in recognition of the impact of his work and the infrastructure he’s established for up-and-coming independent investigative journalists.”

Kalven described winning the prestigious award as a way to reflect on a long and storied career.

Living on Kenwood Ave. and 48th St., less than a block from his childhood home, he said he is “intensely rooted” in the neighborhood, although he’s traveled the country and world in the course of a half-century long career.

His at-times circuitous path to local social-justice journalism has taken him through the worlds of legal scholarship, war reporting and high-profile court cases. Kalven was already a well-published journalist in his mid-20s and was preparing for a career in foreign correspondence when his father, noted legal scholar Harry Kalven Jr., died at age 60, leaving behind the rough draft of an extensive manuscript on the history of free speech in America. Following his father’s death, Kalven decided to complete and publish the manuscript, which became the book “A Worthy Tradition: Freedom of Speech in America.” It took more than a decade and set his life on a new course.

After the book’s completion, Kalven found himself drawn to Chicago stories that weren’t being told. He describes the city as “desperately poor and abandoned, really abandoned by every public and private institution, including the press.” Out of this frustration, he began to “build a practice of writing from the margins,” immersing himself in Chicago communities experiencing poverty, over-policing and violence. 

“A lot of the work since (my father’s death) is built on those twin foundations: a really unusual kind of immersion in First Amendment law, which powerfully shapes my sense of vocation as a journalist, and an immersion in this part of the South Side, which I regard — and this is really fundamental — as part of my neighborhood, not some alien, distant, exotic place,” Kalven said.

His use of free speech made national headlines in 2014, when he sued the City of Chicago over access to documents related to police misconduct in Kalven v. Chicago. He won the landmark trial, leading to the release of documents naming hundreds of Chicago police officers with over ten instances of alleged misconduct in the period between 2001 and 2006. 

Alongside activists in Chicago, Kalven helped bring national attention and local action to CPD officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder of Laquan McDonald

Initial coverage of McDonald’s death was minimal, and the murder largely disappeared from mainstream view — until Kalven received a tip that spurred a month’s long investigation and battle for information with the city. After accessing McDonald’s autopsy report, Kalven published “Sixteen Shots” in February 2015, revealing that Van Dyke had shot McDonald sixteen times. 

This reporting influenced the firing of CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy and led to Department of Justice investigations of human rights abuses within the CPD.

Kalven is a stalwart advocate for journalism that takes on social problems from an activist lens. Chicago journalism legend Studs Terkel, who was a lifelong friend of the Kalven family, once described him as a “guerrilla journalist,” a label Kalven likes.

To combat justifiable suspicion many people have of journalists, Kalven said he has worked to build a network of sources who are also his friends and neighbors, and who know the lengths he would go to protect their identities.  

At times, Kalven’s commitments to his sources have led to legal battles.. After publishing his 17 article series on police abuse, “Kicking the Pigeon” from 2005 to 2006, the city attempted to gain access to Kalven’s notes. In 2017, he was subpoenaed by Van Dyke’s lawyers in an effort to reveal sources for “Sixteen Shots.” In both instances, Kalven refused to give up his sources. “I had absolutely no question in my mind that I was going to jail,” he said.

Since the early 2000s, Kalven has channeled his work through the Invisible Institute. Initially, the name referred to a loose web of collaborators and creators doing work around race and poverty in Chicago. Over time, the institution built relationships in the city, even collaborating with civil rights attorneys and law students at the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School. Following the decision in Kalven v. Chicago, the Invisible Institute incorporated as a non-profit organization and formally hired staff.

Kalven argues that his work with the Invisible Institute is different from most mainstream journalism, which fails to embed itself in communities or practice neighborliness. 

“Central to (our) work is the conviction that there are things that can only be learned on the ground, from the people most affected by whatever policy practice you're writing about.”

At 72, after spending decades as a  journalist, some might assume Kalven is ready to retire. Instead, he said he is far from done reporting on stories about Chicago and injustice.

In addition to reporting full-time, Kalven is training the next generation of guerrilla journalists. For a long time, he said, he never considered himself a mentor, but after working with co-creators to run the Invisible Institute, he found the process of collaboration uniquely fulfilling. He serves as an advisor to the University of Chicago’s undergraduate student newspaper,The Chicago Maroon, and said the neighborhood is “rich with possibilities” for proactive and energetic young people interested in journalism, citing the neighborly relationship between local outlets like the Herald and South Side Weekly

“I feel like for 30 years, I have been working on the same story. I wake up every morning, feeling like I haven't broken the story,” Kalven said. “It's about how construction of race is reflected in the hyper segregation of Chicago, enforced by particular modes of law enforcement and policing. And how impoverishing that is for all of us.” 

(1) comment


Thank you for the great article. I hope the young people who want to live in peace with their neighbors and the world realize that it is unachievable without free speech, no matter how unsettling or ugly the speech is sometimes. Our media currently drown out dissent to such an extent that I fear the right to be informed—rather than propagandized at every level—is slipping away forever.

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