Van Dyke’s Guilty Verdict Was Made Possible By Decades of Activism Against Racist Policing

The murder conviction of Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke didn’t happen in a vacuum—it was the result of years of community outrage over police violence.

Flint Taylor October 17, 2018

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of 2nd degree murder for killing teenager Laquan McDonald. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

On Octo­ber 5, 2018, a Cook Coun­ty jury com­prised of one Black woman, three Lati­na women, an Asian man, and sev­en whites returned a ver­dict of guilty of sec­ond-degree mur­der against Chica­go police offi­cer Jason Van Dyke. The jury also found Van Dyke guilty of 16 counts of aggra­vat­ed bat­tery — one for each of the 16 shots that Van Dyke fired into Laquan McDonald’s body over a 14-sec­ond peri­od, all but two while he was writhing on the ground. The jury found that Van Dyke believed that he had the right to kill Laquan but that this belief was not rea­son­able, there­by con­vict­ing him on a charge of sec­ond-degree mur­der. The con­vic­tion car­ries a 4‑to-20-year sen­tence with pro­ba­tion as an option. Mean­while, each aggra­vat­ed bat­tery count — clas­si­fied as aggriev­ed because the bat­ter­ies were com­mit­ted with a weapon — car­ries a 6‑to-20-year non-pro­ba­tion­able sen­tence. Hence, accord­ing to crim­i­nal defense experts, the most like­ly min­i­mum sen­tence for Van Dyke would be 12 years, with a very unlike­ly max­i­mum of 90 years.

In both the Jon Burge and Jason Van Dyke cases we see the power of public outrage, community activism and Black-led multiracial movements.

The con­vic­tions were a vic­to­ry for activists who waged the Jus­tice for Laquan” cam­paign in the streets and at the cour­t­house for near­ly three years after the shock­ing video of police mur­der came to pub­lic light. Indeed, many Chicagoans applaud­ed the ver­dict as just. How­ev­er, the Illi­nois Fra­ter­nal Order of Police (FOP), true to its racist his­to­ry, called the tri­al a sham” and a dis­gust­ing cha­rade,” and the ver­dict shame­ful,” say­ing the jury was duped into sav­ing the ass­es of self-serv­ing politi­cians at the expense of a ded­i­cat­ed pub­lic ser­vant.” In the South­west Side Mount Green­wood neigh­bor­hood, where many of Chicago’s white offi­cers live, blue rib­bons sup­port­ing the police were tied to almost every tree and light pole, and accord­ing to the Chica­go Sun-Times, one res­i­dent went so far as to call Van Dyke a polit­i­cal prisoner.”

The ver­dict was front-page news over the week­end, and the Chica­go Sun-Times pub­lished an arti­cle claim­ing that Van Dyke’s tri­al is now des­tined to be list­ed along­side oth­er key Chica­go police con­tro­ver­sies, includ­ing the face-off with demon­stra­tors out­side the 1968 Demo­c­ra­t­ic Demon­stra­tion, the 1969 police shoot­ing of Black Pan­ther leader Fred Hamp­ton, and decades of alleged tor­ture com­mit­ted by the so-called mid­night crew over­seen by Chica­go police Cmdr. Jon Burge — who died dur­ing the first week of Van Dyke’s trial.”

I came to Chica­go in the sum­mer of 1968, a week after what the Kern­er Com­mis­sion called a police riot,” and have been involved in the legal strug­gles that arose from the noto­ri­ous events ref­er­enced by the Sun Times ever since. From that per­spec­tive, a deep­er look into Chicago’s racist police his­to­ry and its con­nec­tion to the Laquan McDon­ald case is warranted.

The Mur­der of Fred Hamp­ton and Mark Clark

On Decem­ber 4, 1969, 14 heav­i­ly armed Chica­go police offi­cers assigned to the office of Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney Edward Han­ra­han, con­duct­ed a mur­der­ous predawn raid on a West Side apart­ment where numer­ous Black Pan­ther Par­ty (BPP) mem­bers were stay­ing. Fir­ing more than 90 shots from shot­guns, machine guns and pis­tols, the raiders mur­dered the 21-year-old chair­man of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty, Fred Hamp­ton, as he slept in his bed. They also killed Peo­ria BPP leader Mark Clark, and wound­ed sev­er­al oth­er Pan­thers. A mas­sive police cov­er-up fol­lowed, as did out­rage in the African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty. The cov­er-up fea­tured bla­tant­ly false police reports, per­jured tes­ti­mo­ny, fab­ri­cat­ed bal­lis­tics reports, and a slan­der­ous offi­cial pub­lic­i­ty cam­paign. Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s Jus­tice Depart­ment, led by John Mitchell of Water­gate infamy, inves­ti­gat­ed but refused to indict any of the police raiders or the pros­e­cu­tors who planned and approved the raid, but renewed protests led to the appoint­ment of a Cook Coun­ty spe­cial prosecutor.

Ham­pered by the chief judge of Cook Coun­ty and a rigged grand jury, the spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor was not able to obtain mur­der or attempt­ed mur­der indict­ments, but rather only indict­ments for obstruc­tion of jus­tice against the raiders and State’s Attor­ney Han­ra­han, who was run­ning for re-elec­tion as May­or Richard J. Daley and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic machine’s cho­sen can­di­date. The case was assigned to a Demo­c­ra­t­ic machine judge, and the raiders waived the jury and pro­ceed­ed to tri­al before the judge. The spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor rest­ed his case the week before the 1972 elec­tion, and the judge duti­ful­ly grant­ed a ver­dict for the defen­dants, there­by giv­ing Han­ra­han a clean record before the vot­ers went to the polls. As was the case with the bru­tal police offi­cers who vic­tim­ized demon­stra­tors and reporters at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, none of the per­pe­tra­tors of the dead­ly vio­lence went to jail. This rein­forced the racist real­i­ty that Chica­go police offi­cers — act­ing with Cook Coun­ty pros­e­cu­tors, unblink­ing­ly backed by the Police Union, and pro­tect­ed by Cook Coun­ty judges and the police code of silence — could act with absolute impuni­ty when it came to polic­ing Chica­go com­mu­ni­ties of color.

How­ev­er, the mass move­ment in the African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty that had formed around the mur­ders of Hamp­ton and Clark returned its own ver­dict, vot­ing Han­ra­han out of office. Ten years lat­er, this move­ment was large­ly respon­si­ble for elect­ing Chicago’s first Black may­or, Harold Washington.

Jon Burge and Chica­go Police Torture

Also, in 1972, Chica­go police detec­tive Jon Burge and his mid­night crew of ass­kick­ers” began a 20-year reign of ter­ror in Chicago’s African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, tor­tur­ing more than 125 peo­ple of col­or with elec­tric shock, suf­fo­ca­tion, mock exe­cu­tions, and oth­er forms of racist bru­tal­i­ty dur­ing inter­ro­ga­tions. Pros­e­cu­tors par­tic­i­pat­ed in the inter­ro­ga­tions, false­ly denied knowl­edge of the bru­tal­i­ty, and used the con­fes­sions obtained to send the vic­tims to prison and, in some cas­es, to death row. Ten years lat­er, in 1982, the state’s attor­ney of Cook Coun­ty, Richard M. Daley, who was Richard J. Daley’s son, was offi­cial­ly informed about the tor­ture but chose to ignore it, lead­ing to a sec­ond decade of tor­ture and wrong­ful con­vic­tions. For their part, Cook Coun­ty Judges uni­form­ly reject­ed the mount­ing evi­dence of tor­ture pre­sent­ed in their courtrooms.

In 1989, the cov­er-up was pierced, thanks in large part to a fed­er­al civ­il rights tri­al, an anony­mous police source, and an inves­tiga­tive reporter. Activists led protests that com­pelled Burge’s fir­ing in 1993, but no pros­e­cu­tors, fed­er­al or Cook Coun­ty, sought to pros­e­cute Burge or his crew, and the police depart­ment and then May­or Richard M. Daley sup­pressed, then reject­ed, an inter­nal report that con­demned the tor­ture as sys­tem­at­ic.” Unde­terred, the Fra­ter­nal Order of Police con­tin­ued to defend Burge and his men and held them up as heroes.

The bat­tle to expose the tor­ture scan­dal and to seek jus­tice for the vic­tims con­tin­ued, and near­ly a decade lat­er, in 2002, a Cook Coun­ty spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor was appoint­ed, but he had close ties to the Daley machine. After a four-year inves­ti­ga­tion that cost Cook Coun­ty tax­pay­ers more than $7 mil­lion, the spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor returned no indict­ments, instead releas­ing what was wide­ly con­sid­ered to be a white­washed report.

Once again, the fail­ure to indict occa­sioned out­rage and dis­gust, so the Chica­go City Coun­cil and the Cook Coun­ty Board of Com­mis­sion­ers held high­ly pub­li­cized pub­lic hear­ings and issued res­o­lu­tions call­ing for a fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tion, a call that was under­scored by sim­i­lar find­ings made by the Unit­ed Nations Com­mit­tee Against Tor­ture. This time the US Attor­neys’ Office took heed, but the statute of lim­i­ta­tions had long since expired on the tor­ture itself. As a result, in Octo­ber of 2008, the Feds indict­ed Burge for lying, under oath, about the tor­ture that he had mas­ter­mind­ed, and for obstruc­tion of justice.

In front of a fair and impar­tial fed­er­al judge, Burge and his lawyers, who were paid hand­some­ly by the Fra­ter­nal Order of Police, were forced to take their chances with a pre­dom­i­nant­ly white fed­er­al jury. Five Black tor­ture sur­vivors pow­er­ful­ly told their sto­ries, and were sub­ject­ed to a trans­par­ent­ly racist grilling by Burge’s lawyers. A Burge asso­ciate, tes­ti­fy­ing under a grant of immu­ni­ty, demon­strat­ed the pow­er of the police code of silence by back­ing off from his pri­or grand jury tes­ti­mo­ny, in which he had admit­ted to wit­ness­ing Burge tor­tur­ing one of his vic­tims. Burge, some­times tear­ful, denied every­thing from the stand.

Nonethe­less, swayed by the enor­mi­ty of the under­ly­ing tor­ture, the jury con­vict­ed Burge of per­jury and obstruc­tion of jus­tice in June of 2010. The fol­low­ing Jan­u­ary, the judge, while con­demn­ing the police depart­ment, the state’s attor­neys’ office, and the Cook Coun­ty judi­cia­ry, sen­tenced Burge to four and a half years in the fed­er­al pen­i­ten­tiary. None of Burge’s con­fed­er­ates were ever pros­e­cut­ed for their crimes.

Mean­while, the strug­gle against tor­ture con­tin­ued. An inter­gen­er­a­tional and inter­ra­cial move­ment formed, and, large­ly as a result of its activism, the City of Chica­go grant­ed a his­toric pack­age of repa­ra­tions to the survivors.

Par­al­lels to the McDon­ald Case

When we view the McDon­ald case through the lens of Chica­go his­to­ry, we can iden­ti­fy many par­al­lels. We see out­ra­geous and overt­ly racist police vio­lence; a cov­er-up that is exposed despite the best efforts of the police involved; and the com­plic­i­ty of police super­in­ten­dents, may­ors, pros­e­cu­tors and oth­er high-rank­ing offi­cials in the cov­er-up. We see the police code of silence reach­ing into the Burge and Van Dyke tri­als, with police part­ners and asso­ciates defy­ing the pros­e­cu­tors who grant­ed them immu­ni­ty in an attempt to aid their fel­low offi­cers. We see racism as the ele­phant in those court rooms, unspo­ken by the pros­e­cu­tors, but fanned at every oppor­tu­ni­ty by the defense, which depict­ed the vic­tims at every oppor­tu­ni­ty as sub­hu­man mon­sters. We see a pow­er­ful and racist police union that has defend­ed the inde­fen­si­ble for the past 50 years, exalt­ing Burge and Van Dyke, pay­ing for their defens­es, and intim­i­dat­ing police wit­ness­es in the court­room when they are sum­moned to tes­ti­fy against their fel­low officers.

But we also see that even a pre­dom­i­nant­ly white jury can sum­mon the courage to do the right thing, at least when the police crime is so enor­mous and the proof so clear as it is in the Burge and Van Dyke cas­es. Most impor­tant­ly, we also see the pow­er of pub­lic out­rage, com­mu­ni­ty activism and Black-led mul­tira­cial move­ments that march, demon­strate, dis­rupt and demand a seat at the table. These forces must con­tin­ue to march for­ward, so long as the fun­da­men­tal­ly racist crim­i­nal injus­tice sys­tem repress­es and incar­cer­ates com­mu­ni­ties of color.

This sto­ry first appeared at Truthout.

Flint Tay­lor is a found­ing part­ner of the People’s Law Office in Chica­go. He is one of the lawyers for the fam­i­lies of slain Black Pan­ther lead­ers Fred Hamp­ton and Mark Clark, and togeth­er with his law part­ner Jef­frey Haas was tri­al coun­sel in the marathon 1976 civ­il tri­al. He has also rep­re­sent­ed many sur­vivors of Chica­go police tor­ture, was involved in the strug­gle for repa­ra­tions, and has done bat­tle with the Chica­go Police Depart­ment — and the Fra­ter­nal Order of Police — on numer­ous occa­sions over his 45 year career as a people’s lawyer
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