A cold-blooded murder for all the world to see

November 27, 2015

brian bean and Rachel Cohen write from Chicago on the killing of Laquan McDonald.


That's the number of bullets from the gun of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke that ripped through the body of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald at 10 p.m. on October 20, 2014.

The truth about what happened that night was covered up by the police department and the city of Chicago. But the release of a chilling dash-cam video has exposed the barbarism of McDonald's murder--and the extent of the lying that took place to avoid admitting that.

Now the footage is sparking the shock and anger that city officials knew it would. Despite an unprecedented first-degree murder charge against Van Dyke, demonstrators took to the streets for protests in the two days before Thanksgiving--with more to come in the next days, starting with the biggest mobilization yet on the city's main commercial street Michigan Avenue during the Black Friday shopping day.

Police violence isn't new, of course. Across the U.S., police are on pace to murder 1,200 people this year, according to the Guardian's "Counted" feature, with Black and Brown victims making up a disproportionate number. In Chicago, the police are notorious for wanton misconduct.

Protesters face lines of police in Chicago after the release of dash-cam video of gruesome murder
Protesters face lines of police in Chicago after the release of dash-cam video of gruesome murder

Yet the story of Laquan McDonald is having a deeper effect in galvanizing the alarm, heartbreak and bitter anger at out-of-control police murder.

INITIALLY, POLICE claimed that there was only one shot, not 16.

The cops' account was that McDonald was allegedly "acting erratically" and "armed"--with what turned out to be a small pocketknife. Autopsy reports claim there was PCP in McDonald's bloodstream. The police insisted that McDonald "lunged" at them, and that Van Dyke fired in fear for his life.

However, a video recorded by the dash cam on a Chicago Police Department (CPD) cruiser captured what actually took place.

On Tuesday, that video footage was finally released. The city's website crashed from the number of people around the country who watched the grainy, silent images of an innocent Black teenage being murdered.

The footage shows McDonald walking down the center of Pulaski Road, pursued and surrounded by multiple police cruisers. Van Dyke appears at the edge of the frame, at least 10 feet away from McDonald, who continues to walk past Van Dyke and away from the cop cars.

Then, Laquan's body can be seen spinning around from the force of the first bullet that hits him. As he falls to the ground, you can still see splatters of blood leaving his body as Van Dyke continues to fire at his prone form.

The CPD purposefully suppressed the video. The City Council approved a $5 million payout to McDonald's family just six months after the shooting, before the family had even filed a civil suit. This was widely viewed as an effort to keep the details of the murder under wraps. To further obscure what happened, officers also erased an 86-minute portion of a security tape from a nearby fast-food restaurant with a view of the shooting.

McDONALD'S MURDER and the attempted police cover-up took place amid mobilizations around the country against the police murders of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City. Afraid of public outcry from a confident new movement against police brutality, the CPD decided to lie about what happened and erase the story about the cold-blooded murder.

Last week, when Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ruled that the city had to release the video, McDonald's mother publicly opposed the decision. Her wishes are understandable. But the city's reluctance to reveal the graphic violence of the shooting reflects its own interests in avoiding scrutiny.

Many other families whose loved ones were murdered by Chicago police have demanded dash cam videos be released to add public pressure for prosecution. Dorothy Holmes, the mother of 25-year-old Ronald Johnson, who was killed days before McDonald, is waiting for the courts to rule on her suit demanding that the video of her son's murder be made public.

Following Valderrama's ruling in the McDonald case, city officials immediately began seeding the local media with fearful claims about Ferguson-like unrest and potentially "violent" protests. Community leaders with connections to City Hall joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel in calling on protesters to be "peaceful"--though they made no such appeal to police.

Coverage in the Chicago Sun-Times emphasized that police, already on a war footing following the terrorist attacks in Paris, would maintain the same posture as the video footage was released--insinuating that Black Lives Matter protesters represent a comparable threat.

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy ominously warned that the CPD would maintain order by operating like it did during the 2012 NATO summit. Though McCarthy talks about the right to peacefully protest, the allusion to NATO underscores how CPD tactics during politically embarrassing demonstrations regularly combine assaults on protesters with entrapment of activists on trumped-up charges.

WITHOUT THE years of organizing against police violence in Chicago and the specter of urban rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore, this case might have been swept under the rug, too--as has happened to so many victims of police terror.

But with the video about to emerge and discontent with the police clear, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez decided to pursue first-degree murder charges against Van Dyke.

This is the first time a Chicago police officer has faced criminal charges for a murder committed while on duty in 35 years. But the fact that it happened 400 days after the murder occurred--and just hours before the video was to be revealed--demonstrates that the charge has nothing to do with trying to hold a violent cop accountable and everything to do with public pressure.

Chicago police have been under increased scrutiny over the bungling of the case against Dante Servin, the cop responsible for the murder of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd in 2012 when he fired wildly into a crowd of unarmed youth. But it was a sign of the pressure McCarthy and the police are under that the same day Van Dyke was finally charged with McDonald's murder, McCarthy said he would recommend that Servin be fired.

This was a brazen about-face--after Servin was acquitted of criminal charges, McCarthy said he didn't believe Servin should have been charged in the first place.

McCarthy's U-turn came after months of protests at monthly police hearings. Adding to the pressure from below, the CPD has faced a string of federal investigations this year, over McDonald's death, alleged sex trafficking of a 14-year-old girl, corruption among drug enforcement officers, and unauthorized spying on protesters, especially those opposing police conduct.

Plus, state lawmakers have called for federal investigation into the CPD's operations at the "Homan Square" black site where, independent journalists recently uncovered, hundreds of people have been detained without charge or record.

With the release of the video ordered by a judge, Emanuel did his best to defuse protests, asking for a closed-door meeting of Black politicians, faith leaders and activists. But a number of the groups, including Black Youth Project 100, We Charge Genocide, Fearless Leading by the Youth and others, refused to meet with the mayor. In a press conference on November 23, the groups explained why:

The people of this city deserve more transparency in meetings with the mayor's office. We will decline any invite to meet with the mayor's office privately...

CPD has spent more than $500 million over the past 10 years in settlements for police misconduct. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has fundamentally bankrupted public education to bankroll militarized police occupation and terrorism. As Black teachers are losing their jobs and more schools in poor communities are closing, police presence is increasing. Yet there has been no positive change against community violence while state violence continues to persist as well--both claiming the lives of more young people each year."

ONE HOUR after the video of McDonald's murder was released, Rahm Emanuel was smiling and waving from the podium at the city's annual tree-lighting ceremony.

Meanwhile, opponents of police violence took to the streets on Tuesday night. Chants of "16 shots" rang out, as protesters marched downtown at rush hour, blocking traffic on several busy downtown streets. But the only people who acted violently were police. When the march veered toward Lake Shore Drive, officers charged the crowd, arresting three activists.

Though at first small and Black-only, the numbers of protesters swelled to close to 400 as the call went out for more people to come downtown to resist the repression. CPD officers repeatedly broke through their own lines to physically assault protesters.

A fourth prominent activist, well-known movement leader Malcolm London, was snatched up at this point and arrested on felony charges of assaulting an officer. But marchers describe London's arrest as an "abduction." Trish Kahle reported via social media, "Police used a smoke bomb to target a protest leader for arrest then tried to whisk him off in a car, so we tried to surround the car to prevent it from leaving until they released him. In response, the police attacked."

A wide array of people who London organized with leapt to his defense, including teachers and students opposed to school closures and budget cuts, members of Young Chicago Authors, where London performed and coached other poets, and those involved in the struggle to stop police crimes.

Gathered for a bail hearing the following day, hundreds of supporters assembled outside the Cook County Courthouse literally jumped for joy when the news spread that the charges against London had been dismissed and he was being freed. Chanting "I believe that we will win!" the group began a march toward the Southwest Side intersection where McDonald was killed.

Protesters took to the streets again Wednesday night as a couple hundred marchers snaked their way through the Chicago downtown. More mobilization are to come, starting with plans for the largest protests yet on the Friday following Thanksgiving, on the Michigan Avenue shopping district.

CLEARLY THE city is reeling from the events of the past week. It is time to demand McCarthy's firing. The City Council's Black Caucus has called for this, saying they feel they were misled into voting to approve the $5 million payment to McDonald's family. It is also time that Anita Alvarez--who sabotaged the case against Dante Servin--step down. She can't be trusted to prosecute Van Dyke.

Alvarez faces a contested primary in her bid for a third term. But her challengers are unlikely to offer genuine opposition to police murder and brutality. The narrowness of discussion within the mainstream of Chicago politics must be replaced with real solutions. We must realize that the indictment of one officer alone does not change the policies of a racist institution.

Last spring, mayoral candidates issued competing calls to add more police and broaden "community policing" programs. Activists have documented how these programs do to nothing to temper police brutality. Instead, the 40 percent of the city budget currently devoted to the CPD must be reinvested in city services that actually improve the lives of working people. Additionally, an elected civilian police review board would be a positive step to muzzle killer cops. And we know that the CPD still has other dash-cam videos of police murders that they still have yet to release--airing them would be another step forward.

Down with McCarthy, down with Alvarez, down with Emanuel. Fund our schools, our clinics, our libraries and our transit, not police!

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