Remembering Laquan on his 21st birthday

September 25, 2018

In holding Chicago police accountable for his murder, we are also fighting the other injustices Laquan McDonald suffered in his too-short life, writes Schuyler Stallcup.

LAQUAN MCDONALD was 17 years old when Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke murdered him in a hail of 16 bullets.

Today, he would have turned 21.

This evening, Chicago activists will gather outside the Cook County Courthouse to remember and celebrate Laquan’s life — and to demand that Van Dyke, currently on trial for murder, be held accountable.

How should we remember the life of the person whose name has become a rallying cry against police violence and the Chicago machine that covers it up?

First, we must take stock of the unjust social and economic system that put immense obstacles in Laquan’s life from the very beginning — and that led to his death at such a young age.

Protesters demand justice for Laquan McDonald in downtown Chicago
Protesters demand justice for Laquan McDonald in downtown Chicago (niXerKG | flickr)

Laquan was born and raised on Chicago’s disenfranchised and impoverished West Side. Early on, he moved around from his young mother to his extended family, and was in and out of the foster-care system.

At age 5, Laquan was taken from his mother by the state after it was discovered that his mother’s boyfriend had beaten her and Laquan. That same year, after being taken from his great-grandmother and placed in a foster home, Laquan was abused and sexually assaulted. He was whipped with an extension cord and barely fed.

Laquan was returned to his great-grandmother, whom he loved and trusted, and remained in her care until her death in 2013.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Laquan’s mother “petitioned the court shortly after to try to regain custody. In the final year of her son’s life, she was regularly attending family therapy, had made ‘substantial progress’ in providing her children a stable home environment, and wanted ‘to do what [she] needs to do for her kids.’” Now, her son has been stolen away from her.

Not only was Laquan thrust into a child-welfare system that caused greater harm and trauma, but he grew up in a neighborhood occupied by abusive police, plagued by predatory landlords, and filled with underfunded schools and limited mental health services.

LAQUAN’S STORY isn’t unique. He was one of many young people struggling to find his place in a hostile world. But it was his second-class status as a Black teenager that left him crumpled in the middle of Pulaski Road, riddled with police bullets.

Other young people experience unstable home lives and other difficult life experiences. But those from middle-class, wealthy and mainly white households have different resources to help deal with such trauma — leading to a far different future than was in store for Laquan McDonald.

Rather than being executed at the hands of police, other young people get the help they need and go on to fulfill their potential. In fact, one such person is now presiding over the trial of Laquan’s murderer: Judge Vincent Gaughan.

Gaughan was a 28-year-old law student at DePaul University when he fired two shots from an M-1 rifle into his neighbors’ bedroom. When police arrived on the scene, he fired twice more into the dining room, narrowly missing two officers.

Gaughan had returned two years earlier from serving in the Vietnam War, and was in a car wreck the day before the shooting. He was likely experiencing some form of post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition that Laquan McDonald would be diagnosed with decades later. In Laquan’s case, his PTSD was caused not by imperialist war, but by America’s war on its own Black and poor citizens.

Police converged on the Gaughan home and found Vincent holed up in his bedroom. From inside his locked room, Gaughan asked to speak with a priest he knew. The police obliged and summoned the priest to the home.

Before the priest came up to the room, Gaughan called down once more, “Wait. I want a policeman to come, too. An Irish sergeant.”

This, according to the Chicago Tribune “broke the tension at the scene” as the officers got a kick out of the supposed “redundancy” of Vincent’s request. He was arrested without any further incident and rode to the police station, accompanied by the priest.

The Tribune goes on, “It’s unclear how the case was resolved, though, as the Cook County Circuit Court clerk’s office says it has no record of it being adjudicated.”

Vincent Gaughan was admitted to the Illinois bar two years later in 1972.

THE POINT is not that Gaughan should have faced the same deadly violence as Laquan McDonald, but rather that no one should.

Socialists are opposed to the institution of the police on principle — because we understand the historic role of police as protecting the interests of the ruling class through violence and racism.

It was no coincidence that armed agents of the state were the only response our society could muster for Laquan McDonald that night in October 2014. It was no coincidence that Van Dyke came trained and prepared to kill.

This is the job of police: to control; to maintain the appearance of order in a tumultuous society; to mitigate the social symptoms of racialized capitalism; to efficiently dispose of the human beings most afflicted by this cruel system.

There was more to Laquan McDonald than the injustices that burdened him. “Resilient” was one term commonly used to describe him throughout his interactions with the child welfare system.

By all accounts, despite the hardships, he found a way to laugh and make those around him laugh until they cried. He had an enduring love for his extended family, especially so for his younger sister.

There will never be another Laquan. His singular formation of atoms and gifts and dreams has been destroyed by a barbaric system. And yet, there will be more Laquans. He won’t be the last — he hasn’t been the last — young Black man gunned down by racist cops.

This is the painful reality. There is much work to do.

Activists who are fighting to hold Jason Van Dyke and the system that killed Laquan accountable are also struggling toward a future where we will see all of the Laquans live out their full potential in a world that not only provides for their needs, but supports their dreams and passions, and offers them compassion in moments of struggle.

Another world is necessary, and it is possible. But only if we come together — carrying with us the memories, pain and inspiration of those like Laquan who we’ve lost — to make it a reality.

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