How struggle sent a killer cop to jail

October 8, 2018

Todd St Hill and Tyler Zimmer explain how a movement put the Chicago cop who killed Black teenager Laquan McDonald in jail.

FOR THE first time in more than 50 years, a Chicago Police Department (CPD) officer has been found guilty of murder while on duty. Jason Van Dyke, who on Friday was convicted of second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated assault, is now behind bars.

But we have to remember: they didn’t want there to be a trial in the first place.

In fact, they didn’t want Van Dyke to be charged at all. They didn’t want the public to see the video of Van Dyke shooting a defenseless teenager 16 times.

If Rahm Emanuel and his police department had gotten their way, the heinous slaying of Laquan McDonald would have been covered up and Van Dyke would still be stalking the streets of Chicago with a badge and a gun.

The only reason that’s not the case is that a mass movement — the Black Lives Matter movement — pushed back and forced the system to do something it rarely if ever does: hold a police officer accountable for their actions.

Activists stand in solidarity following the conviction of the cop who murdered Laquan McDonald
Activists stand in solidarity following the conviction of the cop who murdered Laquan McDonald (Alek S. | flickr)

That movement has deep roots in Chicago and has fought tirelessly to win justice for scores of people who lost their lives at the hands of the CPD. Dozens of different organizations in the city have marched and agitated for years to lay the groundwork for this verdict.

But it’s not just movement organizing in Chicago that brought us to this point. Van Dyke’s conviction would be unfathomable without the mass uprisings against racism and police violence in Ferguson and Baltimore.

And those rebellions, in turn, drew on the massive upsurge of protest that was sparked by the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Without the hundreds of thousands of people who participated in these acts of defiance and protest, Jason Van Dyke would be a free man and Rahm Emanuel, in all likelihood, would be running for a third term as mayor.

VAN DYKE was charged by prosecutors with murder in the first degree, but he was ultimately convicted by the jury of a lesser charge of second-degree murder. In Illinois, to find someone guilty of murder — whether first-degree or second-degree — it must be proven that they killed someone without lawful justification and that they intended to do so.

The difference between first- and second-degree has to do with whether there are “mitigating circumstances” — such as “sudden, intense passion” on the part of the killer or an ultimately unreasonable belief by the killer that the killing might be legally justified. Whereas first degree murder carries a sentence of 20 years to life, the penalty for second-degree murder is much more lenient: four to 10 years.

In addition to the murder conviction, Van Dyke was also found guilty of 16 counts of aggravated battery — one count for each of the shots he fired at Laquan McDonald. This will also be taken into consideration during sentencing, which is scheduled to happen on October 31.

Up until the second the verdict was announced, it was entirely unclear whether the jury would convict Van Dyke of any crime whatsoever.

Indeed, given the way cases like this are typically decided, there was good reason to fear that the jury would exonerate Van Dyke. That’s exactly what happened in countless similar cases: George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, Johannes Mehserle was let off for shooting Oscar Grant in the back while he was cuffed, Darren Wilson was not even charged with a crime for killing Mike Brown, and Eric Garner’s murderers walk free.

Sadly, we would need several more pages worth of space if we wanted a thorough accounting of the lives lost and the police killers let free by the system in the last five year alone.

With rare exceptions, police enjoy broad legal impunity when it comes to use of force — and when it comes to Black life, they often operate as if they’re judge, jury and executioner.

As James Baldwin once put it:

The police are simply the hired enemies of Black people. They are present to keep us in our place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. And since they know they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.

SEEN IN this light, the guilty verdict in the Van Dyke trial is a big deal. It marks a dramatic departure from standard operating procedure in Chicago and elsewhere, something that was not lost on the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, whose hysterical response to the verdict seethed with rage.

The verdict implicates scores of other police officers, city officials and politicians — most prominently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel — who lied for Van Dyke and helped try to cover up what he did. A key question in the wake of the guilty verdict is who will go down next for their role in this horrific crime.

As of October 7, Rahm Emanuel still hadn't said a word about the verdict. And that makes sense: what could he possibly say to defend himself, given that his administration spent millions of dollars in court trying to bury the dashcam video of McDonald’s murder?

There can be no doubt that this ugly truth — that Rahm has blood on his hands — spurred his sudden decision not to seek a third term as mayor.

And what about the City Council’s Aldermanic Black Caucus? The Black Caucus has come under increasing fire by community organizations, activists and neighborhood residents alike in recent years.

Not surprising. Many members of the Aldermanic Black Caucus have become infamous for their record of voting with Rahm Emanuel almost 100 percent of the time; for being in the pockets of city developers who are among the main drivers of the Black exodus from the city; and for not standing up for the demands, initiated by young people of color, to divest from the $95 million police academy.

In the days leading up to the verdict, the Black caucus played the racist hysteria that there would be riots and looted property if the verdict was “not guilty.”

STILL, THE question remains: Is this verdict a victory? Certainly Van Dyke should have been convicted of first-degree, not second-degree, murder.

Van Dyke’s defense attorney fought hard to leverage overtly racist tropes — especially the image of the “monstrous,” aggressive Black criminal — to try to put Laquan McDonald on trial for his own murder.

And though Van Dyke’s team didn’t succeed in fully convincing the jury, they did get his charge knocked down on the basis of alleged “mitigating circumstances” relating to Van Dyke’s (hard to believe) testimony that he feared for his life.

But even if Van Dyke had been found guilty of first-degree murder, nothing can change the fact that a teenager’s life was tragically cut short for no other reason than that he was Black in Chicago.

Moreover, a first-degree murder conviction for Van Dyke wouldn’t change the fact that the Chicago police officers have killed many more people in the years since McDonald was shot — and not a single one of those officers has been charged with a crime. Indeed, weeks before Van Dyke’s trial began, the CPD killed Harith “Snoop” Augustus on camera, provoking protest and outrage.

From a socialist point of view, these problems are not due to a “few bad apples” but to an unequal system built up by way of the enslavement of Africans, the expropriation of Native peoples, and the ruthless exploitation of immigrant workers. Police are the protectors of this system — their job is to bust up strikes, scatter protests and keep oppressed peoples “in their place.”

As socialists, we know that much deeper structural changes are needed to fully destroy racism, class inequality and oppression of all kinds. The protesters and organizers said as much.

Organizers of the rally following the verdict acknowledged the win, while maintaining the need for community control of the police, divestment for the Chicago Police Department budget, and stopping the profiling and surveillance of Black and Latinx communities.

When asked for their thoughts on Van Dyke’s conviction and the response to it, activists and community members seemed hopeful. Oluwaseyi Adeleke, who participated in a demonstration at City Hall on the day the verdict was announced, said of Van Dyke’s conviction: "I think it’s a start. I think he should’ve probably gotten first degree. If you look at some of the statements that were put out: on [Van Dyke’s] car ride there he was talking about already shooting Laquan before he got to the scene.”

As Adeleke went on to say, “[Van Dyke] has a really good lawyer because they developed the narrative that he shouldn’t be punished for doing his job when shooting people is not part of your job.”

We agree. Van Dyke should’ve been convicted of first-degree murder — he knew exactly what he was doing when he fired 16 shots at a defenseless Black teenager.

But whether or not one uses the language of victory to describe the verdict, this much is clear: What we do matters. Protest matters. Bottom-up, grassroots movement organizing matters.

When we mount a collective challenge to the power brokers that administer this racist system, we can force them to do things they would never do otherwise.

For this reason, we should celebrate this verdict as an opportunity to build the movement and push harder for even more ambitious changes.

Sam Peiffer contributed to this article.

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