Cook County Jail Is on Lockdown Over Van Dyke Verdict—And Activists Are Furious

“These people are being punished because a cop is going to jail? It doesn’t make sense,” says activist Hesna Bokoum.

Sarah Lazare

Demonstrators protest in Chicago as jury selection begins in the murder trial for police officer Jason Van Dyke on September 5. (Photo by Joshua Lott / AFP)

Cook Coun­ty Jail, one of the largest in the coun­try, con­firmed to In These Times that it has placed all of its divi­sions on lock­down in response to the ver­dict in the tri­al of Chica­go police offi­cer Jason Van Dyke. On Fri­day after­noon, Van Dyke was found guilty of sec­ond-degree mur­der for killing black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

“The fight for justice for Laquan is not just about putting Van Dyke in jail—it’s about setting free people held in jail."

Dur­ing lock­downs, peo­ple are large­ly con­fined to their cells and denied basic pro­grams, from out­door recre­ation to vis­its from loved ones. Author­i­ties claimed, with­out pre­sent­ing evi­dence, that the crack­down on the rough­ly 6,000 peo­ple incar­cer­at­ed in the jail was nec­es­sary to make the jail sta­ble.” But this jus­ti­fi­ca­tion was blast­ed by local activists, who say peo­ple already incar­cer­at­ed should not be fur­ther pun­ished because a police offi­cer is going to jail. This is a vio­la­tion of human rights — it’s tar­get­ing, retal­ia­to­ry and shows the frus­tra­tion of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that’s not used to being held account­able,” Maria Her­nan­dez, an orga­niz­er with Black Lives Mat­ter-Chica­go, tells In These Times, adding: This is about them see­ing our peo­ple as animals.”

Hes­na Bok­oum, an orga­niz­er with SOUL — South­siders Orga­nized for Uni­ty and Lib­er­a­tion, was sim­i­lar­ly incred­u­lous. These peo­ple are being pun­ished because a cop is going to jail?” she told In These Times. It doesn’t make sense.”

Cara Smith, chief pol­i­cy offi­cer for Cook Coun­ty Sher­iff Thomas Dart, tells In These Times, The lock­down was planned to com­mence with the ver­dict, and will like­ly be lift­ed tomor­row morning.”

There is no pro­gram­ming, we are try­ing to keep the com­pound as sta­ble as pos­si­ble,” she says. There will be noth­ing oth­er than emer­gency movement.”

But Alan Mills, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Uptown People’s Law Cen­ter, which rep­re­sents peo­ple incar­cer­at­ed all over Illi­nois, reject­ed Smith’s ratio­nale for the lockdown.

This is part of the demo­niza­tion of any­one who’s charged with com­mit­ting a crime,” he con­tin­ues. These peo­ple haven’t been convicted.”

Mills stress­es the bru­tal­i­ty and iso­la­tion of lock­down: Every­thing is lim­it­ed,” he says. Fam­i­ly vis­its don’t hap­pen, lawyers aren’t allowed to vis­it, no move­ment for coun­sel­ing, med­ical, out­side for out of cell time. You just sit inside of tiny cells star­ing at the wall all day long.”

Accord­ing to a new report from the Chica­go Com­mu­ni­ty Bond Fund, at least 2,700 peo­ple are cur­rent­ly incar­cer­at­ed in Cook Coun­ty jail because they are too poor to post bond. (Full dis­clo­sure: This writer vol­un­teers with the Bond Fund.) The study also found that 74 per­cent of peo­ple locked up are Black, even though just 24 per­cent of Cook Coun­ty res­i­dents are Black.

The lock­down on this dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black pop­u­la­tion coin­cides with an explo­sive ver­dict that has thrown racial injus­tice in Chica­go into sharp relief. In 2014, Van Dyke killed McDon­ald with 16 gun­shots as the teenag­er walked away from him. The Chica­go Police Depart­ment (CPD), along with the admin­is­tra­tion of May­or Rahm Emanuel, face numer­ous accu­sa­tions of a cov­er up for with­hold­ing a dash­cam video of the shoot­ing for 13 months. Pub­lic out­rage prompt­ed Obama’s Depart­ment of Jus­tice to inves­ti­gate the CPD — and to con­clude that the depart­ment has a pat­tern of unrea­son­able killings” and racist harassment.

Accord­ing to Her­nan­dez, The fight for jus­tice for Laquan is not just about putting Van Dyke in jail — it’s about set­ting free peo­ple held in jail, peo­ple who are pris­on­ers in their own com­mu­ni­ty, peo­ple who are wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed, peo­ple held with­out bail before the tri­al. This is about end­ing crim­i­nal­iza­tion of our people.”

This is the dawn of a new Chica­go,” Her­nan­dez adds, where we have reclaimed our dig­ni­ty and our human­i­ty and we expect noth­ing less for any of us.”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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