Bearing witness for Laquan at a Chicago court

September 13, 2018

Nicole Colson reports on the opening days of the murder trial of a Chicago cop — and on the efforts of activists to make sure the struggle for justice goes beyond this one case.

“SIXTEEN SHOTS and a cover-up!”

The now-familiar refrain of the movement that is fighting to win justice for Laquan McDonald rang out again and again on September 5 as activists gathered for the first day of the trial of Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke, who gunned down the 17-year-old African American teen in an on-duty shooting on October 20, 2014.

At its height, more than 200 protesters gathered outside of the Chicago criminal court building — penned in behind police barricades — as jury selection began in the trial. The protesters were determined to send a message to police and city officials: We are watching you, and we will hold you accountable for Laquan’s murder.

The protest was organized by the Justice 4 Laquan Coalition, which is vowing to turn out to the courthouse for protests and rallies throughout the course of the trial.

The multiracial crowd carried signs that called for justice for Laquan. One woman carried a sign that read, “Who do I call when a criminal has a badge?” Another declared, “Old white ladies support Black Lives Matter.”

Will Calloway speaks at a rally demanding justice for Laquan McDonald
Will Calloway speaks at a rally demanding justice for Laquan McDonald

Speaking in front of a banner reading “Justice for Laquan McDonald,” activists — including police brutality victims and their family members; members of the clergy; and activists from a number of groups, including Take on Hate, Black Lives Matter Chicago, International Socialist Organization, Pilsen Alliance, Arab American Action Network, Chicago Alliance Against Racial and Political Repression, Inner City Muslim Action Network, Democratic Socialists of America, Assata’s Daughters and many others — declared that they were prepared for a long fight.

Tiffany Boxley, the mother of Joshua Beal, who was murdered on November 5, 2016, by two off-duty Chicago cops while he served as a pallbearer during his cousin’s funeral, spoke about her fight for justice for her son — and for all police brutality victims.

“We need justice for Laquan, we need justice for Pierre Loury, we need justice for Ronnie Man [Ronald Johnson], we need justice for Joshua Beal, we need justice for Rekia Boyd,” she said. “We need justice for all our young brothers and sisters who were out here slain at the hands of the police, who are supposed to protect us.”

More than 22 months since her son’s killing, and the city still has not ruled on whether officers were justified in their shooting of Beal. “Hopefully, justice will be served for Laquan McDonald in the courtroom, and I will be standing here next receiving justice for my son,” Boxley said.

Amanda Shackelford, the mother of Gerald Reed, who has been incarcerated for 27 years after being convicted of homicide based on a “confession” tortured out of him by Chicago police under the authority of former Commander Jon Burge, is still fighting for her son’s release. Reed has a court date in October, and his mother hopes he may finally be released after 27 years.

“I want something done about [Van Dyke],” Shackelford told the crowd. “If he was in fear for his life, as he states, how come [Laquan] was walking away from him?...It was wrong. There is no way to justify what he did.”

“All of you all are fighting for justice,” she ended by telling the crowd. “Not just for Blacks — we’re fighting for everybody, because wrong is wrong.”

Burge torture victim and activist Mark Clements implored people not to give up the fight against police brutality as long as police “are killing our children with impunity.”

Community organizer William Calloway told the crowd that if Van Dyke isn’t convicted, “[w]e’re calling for the most massive demonstration and uprising that the city of Chicago has ever seen.”

AS THE trial got underway, there were signs that the struggle to win justice for Laquan would be an uphill battle — and that his family will have to fight every inch of the way just to have their voices heard and respected.

Multiple members of Laquan’s family who had requested seats in court on the first day of the trial found themselves turned away, despite the fact that their names had been provided to officials in advance. Family members and supporters who did make it into the court were seated in a back row, while Van Dyke’s family and supporters took up two full rows in the front of the courtroom.

“We feel betrayed,” Rev. Marvin Hunter, Laquan’s great-uncle, told the Chicago Tribune about the disrespectful treatment of Laquan’s family. “It’s very disappointing because we trusted these people.”

When one court spectator was later seen wearing a shirt that read “Jason Van Dyke? Murder,” Judge Vincent Gaughan had the woman escorted out of the courtroom. She was not allowed to return until she turned her shirt inside out and covered it. Gaughan also previously ruled that Laquan cannot be referred to as a “victim” by prosecutors during the course of the trial.

“Both sides have got to control what’s going on here because I’m not going to tolerate it,” said Gaughan, before threatening: “I’m going to start putting people in jail.”

Gaughan did tell at least one non-uniformed officer wearing a bullet proof vest to leave the courtroom so as to not prejudice potential jurors as jury selection got underway. But at the same time, Van Dyke has already abused the system — with barely a slap on the wrist.

The week before the trial was set to begin, he violated the terms of his bail, giving multiple interviews arranged by his attorneys and his “media consultant.” In them, Van Dyke asserted that he did his job as he was trained to by the Chicago Police Department, and that he was afraid for his life — and therefore justified in shooting McDonald 16 times.

Despite this violation of his bail conditions, Judge Gaughan only raised Van Dyke’s bail by $2,000 — meaning that he was quickly released the same day after paying just $200.

VAN DYKE’s defense team is using racist arguments to try to push for the trial to be moved outside of Cook County. They claim the cop won’t be able to receive a fair trial due to a potentially violent reaction from the “community” — meaning, of course, African American neighborhoods.

“It is abundantly clear that the community will riot if Van Dyke is not found guilty,” one recent defense filing said. “It is impossible that a juror will vote to acquit knowing that they must return to the neighborhoods which have promised violence in the event of a not guilty verdict.”

Defense attorney Dan Herbert added in the filing that protesters outside the courthouse — who were penned in by metal barricades — were menacing to potential jurors.

“The barricades were undoubtedly seen as a way to protect the jurors from the violence and threats by the protesters,” he wrote. “These jurors understand that when they return home after a verdict, there will not be barricades in front of their homes. There will not be dozens of armed law enforcement officers present. They will be alone, vulnerable and no doubt terrified.”

The defense filing, as one legal expert told the Chicago Tribune, is nothing more than “absolutely unnecessary hysteria.”

It’s also incredibly racist — a desperate bid to play to prejudices against a supposedly out-of-control Black population.

But if Van Dyke is acquitted, any protest or revolt that does take place would be entirely justified, a consequence of the incredible racism of a system that lets Chicago cops — and police nationally — get away with murder.

So far, Gaughan has refused to grant the request to move the trial — though he can still do so until the point that the trial begins. And until all of the jurors are sworn in, Van Dyke’s defense team can still request a bench trial, instead of a jury trial if they think Van Dyke would stand a better chance of getting an acquittal from the judge, instead of a jury of Chicagoans.

Of the five jurors already seated as this article was being written, none were African Americans — despite the fact that Chicago is approximately 30 percent Black.

THE DEFENSE lawyer Herbert failed to say exactly which protesters outside the courthouse he thought showed the potential for “violence and threats.”

Maybe he meant Rebecca Wolfram, a long-time Chicago resident who came to the courthouse carrying homemade sign that read: “Old white ladies support Black Lives Matter”?

Recounting how she had protested during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, when police went on a violent rampage against antiwar protesters, Wolfram said she turned out to “make her presence known as this trial starts, to make it known that people are watching.”

Like in 1968, she said today’s wider movements, including the fight against police brutality, are in an uphill battle. But, she said, they are opening up the possibility of larger changes in society: “I believe he should be convicted, and it will be really shocking to me if he’s not...I’m glad that people are active and maybe things are going to be changing.”

Another protester named Rashida — who lives in the South Shore neighborhood where Harith Augustus was shot in the back and killed by police in July — said:

I came because the Laquan McDonald case has taken on the kind of seriousness that every citizen needs to be concerned about...Racism is really on trial, and we need to convict racism...

A lot of times we don’t recognize systemic racism. We see racism as an individual white guy or female...or somebody with a hood on. We don’t recognize racism as systemic and institutional, and that’s what we’ve got to change.

By trying to invoke fears of Chicago’s Black population rebelling against a potential “not guilty” verdict, Van Dyke’s lawyers are not only being blatantly racist themselves, but they are directing attention away from the long history of Chicago cops getting away with brutalizing and killing Black and Latino residents.

Van Dyke should be convicted. But even if he is, the racist system that produced him and attempted to cover up his crime for well over a year — the politicians and fellow cops who tried to sweep his murder under the carpet, and the department that continues to operate with near impunity — will continue exist.

“I have a son who’s 24 years old, and there’s been a couple of times he’s been roughed up by police,” said Shantonia Jackson, explaining why she felt compelled to come out to protest. “We just want to make sure we get justice for Laquan McDonald, who was one of my son’s dearest friends.”

Jackson was hopeful for a conviction because of how anger and organizing has kept the case in the public eye. And there was another reason for hope and celebration: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced on the eve of the trial that he would not seek another term in office.

EMANUEL’S SURPRISE announcement added to the mood of defiant protest outside the courtroom.

“They covered it up for so long,” Jackson said, referring to city officials’ refusal to release the video of Laquan’s killing for a full year. “Us in the Black community, we already knew what had happened — it was just a matter of time before the media got a hold of it.”

When a court order finally compelled the release of the video, there was an eruption of furious protest in Chicago, with daily demonstrations lasting for weeks. It was the low point for Emanuel in a mayoral career full of them.

And no wonder why officials tried to keep it out of view. The video showed Van Dyke opening fire on Laquan, who was walking away from him, within seconds of getting out of his squad car. Officers initially claimed that Laquan had threatened the officers with a knife he had apparently used to slash a car’s tires — until the video proved they had lied.

While anyone who cares about justice will be glad to see the back of Emanuel as he slithers out of office, whoever replaces him will likely follow similar policies of refusing to put needed social resources into the most exploited communities in the city, and instead relying on trigger-happy cops to police them.

And, as Maria Hernandez of Black Lives Matter Chicago told the crowd, Emanuel will likely continue to do damage on his way out the door, with “goodbye policies” that will continue to keep “protecting the rich over us."

Noting the fact that a conviction for Van Dyke would be the first time in the city’s history that a white police officer would be found guilty for murdering a Black person, Hernandez added that the activist pressure on the Chicago police can help ensure that Van Dyke’s “will be the first conviction, [but] it’s not going to be the last.”

Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa — a member of Democratic Socialists of America and one of the only City Council members to vote against Rahm’s multimillion-dollar new cop academy to be built in majority Black and impoverished West Garfield Park — echoed the same themes:

Let’s be clear, this fight goes so far beyond one court case. It goes so far beyond one police officer. This fight is about changing the system...We know you can change the skin of the judge, you can change the look of the police officer, you could get a new mayor, but you can still have a racist system.

As jury selection began in earnest on September 10, another vigil organized by the Community Renewal Society and a Black Lives Matter Chicago event also took place. Other actions are planned for later in the month, including a proposed national walkout.

As activists made clear, the fight for justice for Laquan McDonald is part of a much larger struggle that touches on the systemic racism that permeates Chicago, from the mayor’s office on down through city institutions, especially the police, and it will take a much bigger struggle to defeat it.

We have to keep the pressure on for justice for Laquan — and all the other victims of Chicago police.

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