What It Will Take To Bring Real Justice for Laquan McDonald

Organizers don’t just want Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke indicted, they want community control of the police.

David North September 12, 2018

Chicago organizers are demanding police be held accountable to the public. (JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)

Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel once framed the fatal shoot­ing of 17-year-old Laquan McDon­ald by the hands of white Chica­go police offi­cer Jason Van Dyke as a case of one bad cop who deserved to be pun­ished, stat­ing One indi­vid­ual needs to be held account­able. [He] needs to be held account­able for what [he’s] done.” But the over 100 peo­ple who gath­ered out­side the Cook Coun­ty Crim­i­nal Cour­t­house for a ral­ly mark­ing the start of Van Dyke’s tri­al last week — almost three years since the release of dash­cam footage which cap­tured 16 shots unloaded into a flee­ing McDon­ald — dis­agree. To them, jus­tice for Laquan McDon­ald doesn’t end with con­vict­ing Van Dyke. Instead, it means mak­ing the whole sys­tem accountable.

“Had CPAC been in place, Laquan McDonald may very well be alive today.”

Orga­niz­ers for the Civil­ian Police Account­abil­i­ty Coun­cil (CPAC), one of the lead groups behind the cour­t­house demon­stra­tion, has a plan to do just that. CPAC orga­niz­ers are demand­ing the imple­men­ta­tion of a com­mit­tee made up of elect­ed indi­vid­u­als that would replace the cur­rent police board and han­dle its dis­ci­pline poli­cies, civil­ian com­plaint inves­ti­ga­tions, the department’s bud­get and more.

[The coun­cil] would change the role that the police are play­ing on the streets,” says Kit Bren­nen, an orga­niz­er for CPAC. Right now, their whole job is designed to pro­tect white peo­ple and pri­vate prop­er­ty and to repress and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly ter­ror­ize poor peo­ple and black peo­ple and brown peo­ple. We need to reori­ent the whole police sys­tem in Chica­go. The only way to do that is to give com­mu­ni­ties con­trol over the police.”

And the cam­paign for CPAC is pick­ing up speed, accord­ing to Frank Chap­man, a lead orga­niz­er in the move­ment. He points to the elec­toral defeat of for­mer State’s Attor­ney Ani­ta Alvarez, the ter­mi­na­tion of Police Super­in­ten­dent Gar­ry McCarthy, and even Rahm Emanuel’s sur­prise deci­sion not to seek reelec­tion, as results of their organizing.

The day before this tri­al, the may­or decides not to run for reelec­tion,” says Chap­man, you think that doesn’t have any­thing to with the mur­der of Laquan McDon­ald? If you don’t, then think again, because it does.”

This is the same may­or who, along­side the city’s lawyers, fought for 13 months to sup­press the video used to indict Van Dyke on first-degree mur­der charges before a Cook Coun­ty judge final­ly ordered the tapes to be released. That release result­ed in a $5 mil­lion set­tle­ment between the city and McDonald’s fam­i­ly, despite them nev­er hav­ing even filed a lawsuit.

The time of the set­tle­ment, April 2015, is when Emanuel claims to have been ful­ly briefed on the case. How­ev­er, offi­cial city cal­en­dars and emails between the mayor’s clos­est aides show that top staffers were aware of key details, such as fal­si­fied police blot­ters that report Van Dyke fired a sin­gle shot when the autop­sy indi­cat­ed 15 more. Many have claimed these fal­si­fied reports are a part of a cov­er-up designed to pro­tect offend­ing offi­cers, as is alleged in a July law­suit brought against three offi­cers involved with fil­ing the reports, which could expand to include city offi­cials accused of mis­lead­ing the public.

Not only was May­or Emanuel involved in cov­er­ing up this hideous crime for 400 days,” says Chap­man, but many oth­er lev­els of gov­ern­ment were involved. The city’s law depart­ment, indi­vid­ual police offi­cers who wrote false reports, the fra­ter­nal order of police shel­tered [Van Dyke] and gave him paid desk work, and the City Coun­cil signed off on the $5 mil­lion set­tle­ment pro­vid­ed that Laquan’s fam­i­ly kept quiet.”

If the cops involved with McDonald’s case are con­vict­ed of crim­i­nal con­spir­a­cy, it wouldn’t be the first time the Chica­go Police Depart­ment con­spired to pro­tect one of their own. In June, a jury award­ed Jacques Rivera $17 mil­lion and an exon­er­a­tion after hav­ing been kept in prison for 21 years. The jury found that Rivera was framed by police detec­tive Rey­nal­do Gue­vara for a mur­der he didn’t com­mit in 1988 and that Rivera’s con­sti­tu­tion­al rights had been denied when the CPD with­held doc­u­ments from his defense attor­ney. Gue­vara is respon­si­ble for near­ly 20 wrong­ful con­vic­tion cas­es, a num­ber that con­tin­ues to grow as more and more peo­ple move to have their cas­es reheard. Esther Her­nan­dez, the moth­er of two men cap­tured by Gue­vara in 1997, spoke out against Van Dyke at CPAC’s ral­ly out­side the cour­t­house on Sep­tem­ber 5.

In front of the chant­i­ng crowd, Her­nan­dez said, “[The police] cov­er up the truth. They stick up for each oth­er. Inno­cent peo­ple are in jail for crimes they didn’t com­mit, while the killers are out here!”

We have to fight for our demo­c­ra­t­ic right to say who polices our com­mu­ni­ties and how our com­mu­ni­ties are policed,” says Chap­man, And that has to be an uncom­pro­mis­ing fight to the fin­ish. There will be more Laquan McDon­alds and more Jason Van Dykes if we don’t get con­trol of the situation.”

Van Dyke isn’t the only Chica­go police offi­cer in recent mem­o­ry to shoot 16 times at a flee­ing vic­tim. Last year, Mar­co Proano was sen­tenced to five years in fed­er­al prison for unload­ing his weapon into a car full of teenagers when the dri­ver backed up after their stolen car was stopped for speed­ing. Proano’s attor­ney, Daniel Her­bert, him­self a for­mer cop, is also rep­re­sent­ing Van Dyke.

Van Dyke had nev­er fired his gun on duty before killing McDon­ald, but it wasn’t his first case of police mis­con­duct. In fact, the num­ber of civil­ian com­plaints brought against Van Dyke from 2002 to 2014 place him in the top three per­cent of cops. This includes a case of police bru­tal­i­ty that cost the city $500,000 in a civ­il set­tle­ment. He nev­er received any dis­ci­pli­nary pun­ish­ment for these complaints.

Had CPAC been in place, Laquan McDon­ald may very well be alive today,” said Bren­nen. If Van Dyke was already under scruti­ny [from civil­ian com­plaints], he would be under inves­ti­ga­tion by peo­ple who answer direct­ly to the com­mu­ni­ty, which is not how it works right now. [Instead], cas­es are han­dled by the same peo­ple who knew he was dan­ger­ous and there­fore have an incen­tive to cov­er it up.”

The fall­out from McDoanld’s death prompt­ed a review of the Chica­go Police Depart­ment by the Depart­ment of Jus­tice (DOJ) which found that few­er than two per­cent of police mis­con­duct com­plaints were sus­tained, and 98 per­cent of com­plaints went with­out dis­ci­pli­nary action. The DOJ con­clud­ed that the city does not inves­ti­gate cas­es it is required by law to inves­ti­gate, the few inves­ti­ga­tions that occur are seri­ous­ly flawed, and there exists a code of silence among offi­cers which extends to lying and con­ceal­ing evi­dence that obstructs efforts to make cops account­able for mis­con­duct. Among their rec­om­men­da­tions to the city is reform­ing the Police Board, the same struc­ture which CPAC would replace.

Con­vict­ing Van Dyke would pun­ish an offi­cer for the crime he com­mit­ted, but how would that bring jus­tice for Laquan McDon­ald? CPAC orga­niz­ers argue that it won’t.

What makes Chica­go the epi­cen­ter of the fight against police vio­lence isn’t just the mur­der of Laquan,” says Chap­man. There’s noth­ing excep­tion­al or extra­or­di­nary about police killing black peo­ple. What hap­pened in this one case was the expo­sure of the entire sys­tem. We’re not say­ing that this mur­der is unique. They were doing what they nor­mal­ly do, but this time they got caught.”

Across the coun­try, police reform activists are close­ly fol­low­ing the Van Dyke tri­al. They’re also watch­ing CPAC, which orga­nized with over ten cities from New York to Saint Louis in sol­i­dar­i­ty with their cam­paign, which they hope will serve as a mod­el through­out the Unit­ed States. Whether it be ral­lies in Tam­pa, march­es in New York City, state­ments of sol­i­dar­i­ty from the NAACP in Hous­ton, or a ban­ner drop in San Fran­cis­co, peo­ple across the coun­try are show­ing up to sup­port this movement’s mes­sage. Accord­ing to orga­niz­ers, that move­ment doesn’t end with a Van Dyke con­vic­tion — it ends with com­mu­ni­ty con­trol of the police. 

David North is a sum­mer 2018 In These Times intern.
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