The movement that brought Laquan’s killer to trial

September 5, 2018

Mass protests forced Chicago officials to put a killer cop on trial — but more will be needed to finally win justice for Laquan McDonald, write Todd St Hill and Brian Bean.

ON OCTOBER 20, 2014, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke executed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in a barrage of 16 bullets. Today, Van Dyke’s trial for murder finally begins.

In the intervening years, the Chicago Police Department and the city’s political establishment did everything they could to keep this trial from ever taking place. It is going forward for one reason and one reason only: because the people of Chicago refused to be silent.

Mass public pressure, protest and activism brought Laquan’s murder to light, compelled the city to release dash-cam video of the incident and stopped the authorities from sweeping another police murder under the rug.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of Laquan’s murder and the popular backlash against the failed cover-up by Chicago police and politicians.

Protesters demand justice for Laquan McDonald in Chicago
Protesters demand justice for Laquan McDonald in Chicago

The system is designed to shield police from accountability. Now, for the first time in 35 years, a Chicago police officer will face a first-degree murder charge for on-duty behavior.

On Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he wouldn’t run for re-election in the election to be held next February. Emanuel’s handling of the Laquan McDonald case and the subsequent federal civil rights investigation of the Chicago police were cited by the Chicago Tribune as central to his decision.

Finally, the trial comes at an inopportune time for the city’s political class, which is straining to contain the fallout from the horrific levels of gun violence that have again catapulted Chicago to the center of a national conversation.

This is the story of how a popular movement forced the city of Chicago to stop stonewalling justice and put a cop on trial. But it is also an appeal — for activists to seize this opportunity to win justice for Laquan, while shining a spotlight on the entire police department and the politicians who cover for their violence and brutality.


THE DATE was November 24, 2015 — two days before Thanksgiving.

The city of Chicago had spent the last year and more than $5 million fighting calls to release the dash-cam video of Laquan’s last moments. Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Mayor Emanuel worried that the video’s depiction of a cold-blooded murder would spark an outpouring of protest.

When a judge finally ordered the release of the video, they were proven right.

The protests began immediately. The city hoped that releasing the footage before Thanksgiving would mute protests, but they were wrong on that point.

On Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving — thousands of Chicagoans choked the sidewalks up and down the Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s high-end retail and tourist destination.

The demonstrations that took place after the video was release and went viral punctured the blue wall of silence in ways that years of previous organizing hadn’t. People took to the streets to demand justice with such frequency that radio traffic reports regularly included protest updates. Emanuel was heckled with cries of “16 shots” at every public appearance.

The Black Friday protest turned into the largest Black Lives Matter demonstration in Chicago to date, because organizers made a concerted effort to reach out to the broadest possible number of people. The numbers ballooned when notable figures like Jesse Jackson Sr. and Father Michael Pfleger, and unions like the Chicago Teachers Union, echoed the call to mobilize.

Thousands of people occupied the sidewalks along Michigan Avenue, essentially shutting down large sections of the shopping district — likely amounting to millions of dollars in lost sales on the biggest shopping day of the year.

The event demonstrated that the racist corruption within the Chicago Police Department (CPD) — as well as the hatred of Rahm — could unite labor unions, church congregations and Black radicals. It made the fight against racism a citywide issue.


THE PROTESTS in the fall and winter of 2015 caused a crisis in city politics.

First, there was a string of forced resignations of city and police officials, including Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy — who, in a darkly ironic turn, announced this past March, long before Emanuel’s decision not to run again, that he would campaign for mayor. McCarthy claimed farcically that he was running to “save Black lives.”

Next, the protests caused the dissolution of the toothless Independent Police Review Authority and the creation of a new, though still toothless, Police Accountability Task Force, led by Lori Lightfoot, who is also currently running for mayor.

Then there was the ouster of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez for failing to prosecute Van Dyke. An effective #ByeAnita campaign led to the election of Kim Foxx, who was considered a progressive alternative to Alvarez.

For a time, it even appeared that Emanuel might fall. His approval rating dipped to 18 percent. Calls for the resignation of the politically connected mayor of the nation’s third-largest city issued not just from social-justice activists, but also from many of Rahm’s supporters, including prominent Black religious figures.

In the end, Emanuel held on, but his announcement that he wouldn’t run for a third term when Chicago voters head to the polls in February is partly a delayed consequence of the 2015 protests and the many forms that resistance to Emanuel’s pro-cop agenda have taken since then.

A number of factors led to the politically disruptive impact of the winter 2015 protests.

Chicago’s long and visible problem with abusive policing, killer cops and even police torture of Black residents on the city’s South Side has been well documented.

When demonstrations erupted in response to the police murders of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in July and August 2014, an anti-racist movement was born: Black Lives Matter.

The nationwide mobilizations that followed frightened Emanuel and the CPD, leading them to cover up the horror of Van Dyke’s shooting of McDonald captured on video. In the months to come, the protests continued nationally, most notably when Baltimore rose against the police murder of Freddie Gray.

The pot was already boiling when a judge finally ordered the city to release the video of Laquan’s murder — and that’s when the lid came off.


THOUGH VAN Dyke is the one in the defendant’s chair, this case put the entire CPD on trial — and there’s a lot to answer for.

Just in the past few weeks, the CPD has been in the news for murdering another fleeing Black man, attempting to entrap poor Black residents with a “bait truck” full of Nikes, the mysterious death of 15-year-old Steven Rosenthal, the release of the terms of the federal consent decree surrounding the CPD’s long history of biased policing, and a damning new report by investigative journalists on racial disparity and the use of force by the CPD.

On top of that, Emanuel and other politicians have responded to the summer surge of gun violence with supposed solutions that will only add to the problem of police terror directed against Chicago’s communities of color.

Van Dyke’s trial also underscores the systematic failure of multiple Cook County state’s attorneys to hold killer cops accountable.

Anita Alvarez, the state’s attorney who initially dragged her feet in bringing charges against Van Dyke, also allowed the officer who killed Rekia Boyd to go free after charging him with manslaughter instead of first-degree murder.

Driven by justifiable outrage, many people active in the Black Lives Matter movement in Chicago organized to vote out Alvarez and replace her with the supposedly progressive Kim Foxx, who campaigned on a promise to use special prosecutors in all police shooting cases.

But Foxx quickly backpedaled on that pledge, rejecting the call for a special prosecutor in the trial of Robert Rialmo, the cop who killed Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones in the weeks following the McDonald protest. Rialmo ultimately avoided any accountability — despite the fact the police review board found the shooting “unjustified.”

This is just the most recent example of the bitter fruit borne of activists’ efforts to elect Foxx as a means to address the rot at the heart of Chicago’s police and criminal justice system. Sadly, this turn to electoral organizing took place in the midst of the protests against McDonald’s murder, and with calls for the resignation of Rahm coming from all corners of the city.

Today, many movement activists still consider Foxx’s election a victory — yet the court system and the state’s attorney office have all been complicit in allowing Chicago police to dodge accountability.

Instead, the task of imposing even a shred of accountability on police has fallen time and time again on victims’ families, activists, students and community organizations fighting in the streets for justice.


AS VAN Dyke’s trial gets underway, a number of organizations have joined together to launch a campaign for justice for Laquan, beginning with a protest on the first day of the trial.

Black Lives Matter-Chicago, Black Youth Project 100, Good Kids Mad City, Organized Communities Against Deportation, the International Socialist Organization and the Chicago Alliance Against Racism and Police Repression are just a few of the groups involved.

Winning a conviction of Van Dyke would be a major victory. If other cops think they might also go on trial and even end up in prison for killing a Black man, they might think twice before pulling the trigger. Until we have the power and level of organization necessary to dismantle the prison system, police who kill Black people should be locked in those prisons.

Grassroots mobilizations for justice are essential — in the short term to win justice for Laquan, but also in the longer term to build organizations and the kind of power that can challenge the racism of city institutions and advance toward abolish prisons, ICE and the police in general.

The protests of 2014 and after provide a glimpse of that power — and how it shook the city establishment. We need to shake the city again.

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