Seeking Justice for Laquan McDonald—Without Relying on Prisons

Locking up killer cop, Jason Van Dyke, won’t address the root cause of his violence.

Benji Hart September 7, 2018

Demonstrators protest outside of the Leighton Criminal Courts Building as jury selection begins in the murder trial for Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, September 5, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, the land­mark tri­al of offi­cer Jason Van Dyke began in Chica­go, rais­ing crit­i­cal ques­tions about what jus­tice for police killings can — and will — ulti­mate­ly look like.

How do we remain steadfast in resisting the police state, rather than relying on it to punish its own agents?

In Octo­ber 2014, Van Dyke lethal­ly shot 17-year-old Laquan McDon­ald 16 times, an act that was record­ed by the police department’s own dash cam. The city refused to release the tape for 400 days — long after may­or Rahm Emanuel’s reelec­tion — lead­ing to wide­spread protests and accu­sa­tions of a coverup. As a result of the scan­dal, police super­in­ten­dent Gary McCarthy — who is cur­rent­ly run­ning for may­or — was fired, and State’s Attor­ney Ani­ta Alvarez was vot­ed out, after a metic­u­lous­ly-led com­mu­ni­ty cam­paign known as #ByeAni­ta.

On Tues­day, the day before jury selec­tion for the tri­al, may­or Emanuel announced that he would not be seek­ing a third term — a shock to many of his polit­i­cal allies. What­ev­er heat is about to emerge as a result of the Van Dyke tri­al, Emanuel doesn’t want to be around to catch it.

Angela Davis, in a twit­ter video encour­ag­ing com­mu­ni­ty to show up to a demon­stra­tion held by grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions out­side the cour­t­house, not­ed that Van Dyke is one of the first offi­cers to be charged with first degree mur­der of a Black man in the his­to­ry of this coun­try.” She’s right. The killing of Black youth by law enforce­ment is incred­i­bly com­mon, yet for law enforce­ment to be con­vict­ed for those mur­ders is essen­tial­ly unprecedented.

The #Black­Lives­Mat­ter move­ment was birthed in response to the lack of account­abil­i­ty for police who steal the lives of Black peo­ple. One of the most press­ing ques­tions the move­ment has raised is: What role (if any) does the state play in hold­ing itself account­able? Indict, con­vict, send those killer cops to jail!” has been a ral­ly­ing cry since the movement’s incep­tion. Yet, so have calls for civil­ian over­sight of the police, as well as their demil­i­ta­riza­tion, defund­ing — and even their total disbanding.

The tri­al of Van Dyke is his­toric, but it is also a reck­on­ing. There are com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions, and fam­i­ly mem­bers who have lost loved ones to police killings, call­ing vehe­ment­ly for the officer’s con­vic­tion. It would be a mis­take to ignore these voic­es and the heal­ing they seek. Yet will jus­tice for Laquan, for all lives lost to state vio­lence, ever come in the form of a con­vic­tion? Will lock­ing up a killer cop work to curb state vio­lence, or to reestab­lish faith in the very sys­tems — pris­ons, courts, police — that are its source?

Such moments are a test of our com­mit­ment to abo­li­tion—the belief that inher­ent­ly racist struc­tures like the police sys­tem must be per­ma­nent­ly dis­man­tled — not as a the­o­ry, but a prac­tice. Calls for a con­vic­tion are clear­ly root­ed in love for Laquan and a desire to see his killer held respon­si­ble for the pain he’s caused. But even if Van Dyke is impris­oned for the rest of his life, he will be locked away with thou­sands of Black and Brown peo­ple who them­selves deserve free­dom. The hood in which he mur­dered Laquan will remain with­out ade­quate schools, men­tal health facil­i­ties, green space and qual­i­ty hous­ing. Police will con­tin­ue to kill Black youth, and the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of them will nev­er be held to account.

How do we remain stead­fast in resist­ing the police state, rather than rely­ing on it to pun­ish its own agents? How do we dream big­ger than con­vic­tions, rec­og­niz­ing that the lion’s share of con­vic­tions in this coun­try tar­get Black peo­ple, immi­grants and the poor — and do not pro­tect them? What mod­els for police account­abil­i­ty exist that teach us to shrink the state’s purview, not expand it?

The scathing report released by the Depart­ment of Jus­tice after Laquan’s mur­der con­demned overt­ly racist prac­tices at every lev­el of the Chica­go Police Depart­ment (CPD), but also notes that train­ing facil­i­ties are in dis­re­pair.” The Emanuel admin­is­tra­tion used con­cerns about train­ing inad­e­qua­cies” to slate the con­struc­tion of a $95 mil­lion police acad­e­my in West Garfield Park, even after the city closed pub­lic schools and health clin­ics across the South and West Sides. The admin­is­tra­tion relied on the mur­der of Laquan to up spend­ing on the same vio­lent insti­tu­tion that took Laquan’s life.

Though this deci­sion was an insult to Black com­mu­ni­ties, it also embold­ened a new cam­paign, #NoCo­pAcad­e­my. Orga­niz­ers (full dis­clo­sure: I’m one of them) opposed to fur­ther spend­ing on the CPD — which already receives 40 per­cent of the city’s gen­er­al fund — can­vased over 500 res­i­dents of Garfield Park, and released their own report, detail­ing the myr­i­ad sug­ges­tions com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers had for spend­ing on resources oth­er than the police.

The cam­paign #EraseThe­Data­base, led by immi­grant orga­niz­ers, demands the dis­man­tling of the CPD’s gang data­base — a ros­ter con­tain­ing the names of up to 195,000 Chicagoans who police sus­pect to be gang mem­bers. The cam­paign calls not for legal action against those who over­see the data­base, but for the destruc­tion of the tool itself, which is reg­u­lar­ly used to jus­ti­fy the depor­ta­tion of undoc­u­ment­ed residents.

A com­mit­ment to abo­li­tion — and a focus on the vic­tims of state vio­lence rather than its per­pe­tra­tors — requires we shift our atten­tion from pun­ish­ment to restora­tion. It demands we look beyond the lim­it­ed options for account­abil­i­ty offered us by the state to seek solu­tions that put pow­er and resources back in the hands of oppressed communities.

Ben­ji Hart is a Black, queer, femme artist and edu­ca­tor cur­rent­ly liv­ing in Chica­go. They are the writer behind the blog Rad­i­cal Fag­got, and have essays fea­tured at Black Youth Project, Truthout, and oth­er fem­i­nist and abo­li­tion­ist media.
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