‘This Is Historic’: Why the Van Dyke Guilty Verdict Is a Victory For the Movement For Black Lives

In an interview, Black Lives Matter organizer Aislinn Pulley explains why she sees the verdict as a step toward dismantling the systems of racist policing and economic inequality that have defined Chicago for decades.

Miles Kampf-Lassin October 5, 2018

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of 2nd-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Chica­go has long been a city on the brink. Decades of racial strat­i­fi­ca­tion, dis­in­vest­ment, seg­re­ga­tion and endem­ic pover­ty have left large swaths of the pop­u­la­tion strug­gling to sur­vive, while new devel­op­ment has dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly favored wealth­i­er residents.

"We are far from done. This is the beginning and we should use this momentum to keep going forward."

The com­mu­ni­ties left behind by this process are large­ly Black and Brown, while the ben­e­fi­cia­ries are pri­mar­i­ly white. Such a sys­tem of racial inequity is upheld by a police force that has long been known for both its bru­tal­i­ty and racism.

Today, that sys­tem of polic­ing was put on tri­al. Chica­go Police Depart­ment (CPD) offi­cer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of sec­ond-degree mur­der and 16 counts of aggra­vat­ed bat­tery for killing Black teenag­er Laquan McDon­ald in 2014. Fol­low­ing a 3‑week tri­al, the jury announced its deci­sion on Fri­day, cap­tur­ing the rapt atten­tion of Chicagoans across the city.

The killing of McDon­ald cat­a­pult­ed into nation­al head­lines after the release of a video show­ing Van Dyke unload­ing 16 gun­shots into the 17-year-old on a South­west Side street. After May­or Rahm Emanuel’s reelec­tion in 2015, alle­ga­tions sur­faced that the video had been sup­pressed ahead of that year’s may­oral con­test, and Emanuel, along with the CPD, was accused by racial jus­tice orga­niz­ers of over­see­ing a cover-up.

In the after­math of the video’s release, activists staged mas­sive protests across the city, shut­ting down major busi­ness dis­tricts and thor­ough­fares. Soon after, then-Police Chief Gar­ry McCarthy was fired by May­or Emanuel. And lat­er, States’ Attor­ney Ani­ta Alvarez lost a high-pro­file elec­tion to reformer Kim Foxx. Last month, Emanuel announced that he will not be seek­ing re-elec­tion for a third term, mean­ing that the three most promi­nent offi­cials asso­ci­at­ed with the alleged cov­er-up will soon no longer sit in their pre­vi­ous posi­tions of power. 

Now that Van Dyke has been found guilty, many orga­niz­ers in the city are tak­ing the ver­dict as a call to action — and an oppor­tu­ni­ty to show their oppo­si­tion to a polic­ing orga­ni­za­tion that sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly deval­ues the lives of Black and Brown residents.

I spoke with Ais­linn Pul­ley, an orga­niz­er with Black Lives Mat­ter Chica­go, about why she sees the ver­dict as a vic­to­ry, how she thinks the move­ment will respond, what it says about Chicago’s polic­ing sys­tem and more. 

What’s your reac­tion to the verdict?

AP: This is his­toric. This is a his­toric moment for the city. It’s a his­toric moment for this coun­try. And this is the cul­mi­na­tion of orga­niz­ing by thou­sands and thou­sands of peo­ple, includ­ing fam­i­lies who have been at the front lines, demand­ing jus­tice for their chil­dren, their fam­i­ly mem­bers and their loved ones who have been killed by police that have received zero accountability.

So, this is the first step in revers­ing and putting a stop to the con­tin­ued sys­temic impuni­ty that has reigned supreme in this city and in this country.

Are you sat­is­fied with how the jury ruled?

AP: It should have been first-degree mur­der, so I’m not going to say I’m sat­is­fied 100 per­cent. But this is a win. This is def­i­nite­ly a win.

What does the tri­al itself says about our jus­tice sys­tem and how black youth are treat­ed ver­sus police officers?

AP: The tri­al was a per­fect snap­shot of the dehu­man­iza­tion that is stan­dard in polic­ing of urban poor black youth. Laquan McDon­ald was born into the sys­tem — he was a fos­ter kid. He had to exist with­in a city that has divest­ed from black chil­dren, from the clos­ing of 50 Chica­go pub­lic schools — at the time the largest school clos­ing in U.S. his­to­ry — to the clos­ing of half of the city’s men­tal health cen­ters, to the clos­ing of afford­able hous­ing. These are the con­di­tions that McDon­ald lived under, with the CPD func­tion­ing as an occu­py­ing force.

Jason Van Dyke’s nar­ra­tive of Laquan McDon­ald as need­ing to be caged; his defense attorney’s ref­er­ence to Laquan as a mon­ster”; Van Dyke’s claim that McDonald’s eyes were bug­ging out — it’s the same super­hu­man, ani­mal­is­tic nar­ra­tive that Dar­ren Wil­son in Fer­gu­son gave of Mike Brown. That is how the police oper­ate — as if they’re hav­ing to herd ani­mals in a zoo. They do not see our human­i­ty. And so the tri­al exposed that. It exposed what we have lived with as nor­mal for all of our lives here in Chicago.

How did the role of eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty play into this case, and in gen­er­al to polic­ing in Chicago?

AP: Cap­i­tal­ism set the con­di­tions for every­thing that hap­pened. In Chica­go, instead of fund­ing schools, instead of fund­ing health­care, instead of fund­ing the things that we need to sur­vive, and become a thriv­ing and healthy com­mu­ni­ty, we have been divest­ed from. And that’s part of the neolib­er­al project that has been hege­mon­ic since the 1970s.

The War on Drugs and mass incar­cer­a­tion involved mil­i­ta­riz­ing police forces. The results are dis­as­trous. It’s human rights vio­la­tion after human rights vio­la­tion. It’s cre­at­ing an envi­ron­ment of extreme hos­til­i­ty and ter­ror. John Burge tor­tured over 100 Black and Lati­no men, women and chil­dren. But he is only one person.

We know that there are oth­er Burges. We know that Glenn Evans right now has two pend­ing cas­es against him regard­ing exces­sive force and tor­ture. We know that Homan Square still exists right now where 7,000 peo­ple were dis­ap­peared. These con­di­tions exist as a result of cap­i­tal­ism, as a result of the refusal to invest in the peo­ple and as a result of pri­or­i­tiz­ing busi­ness at the expense of our lives.

How do you think the killing of Laquan McDon­ald fits into the broad­er sys­tem of insti­tu­tion­al racism?

AP: We know that Laquan was in a men­tal health cri­sis. And instead of liv­ing in a city where he could have received the treat­ment that he need­ed, those men­tal health clin­ics were closed, the schools where there could have been a coun­selor who could have inter­vened and helped him were closed. He was in a men­tal health cri­sis and doing what peo­ple do when they don’t have resources. He’s self-med­icat­ing. And instead of a men­tal health cri­sis pro­fes­sion­al being called, which is what we need, the police were called.

And what is an armed indi­vid­ual going to do when a per­son is in a men­tal health cri­sis? That absolute­ly is anath­e­ma to giv­ing him the care that they need. So instead of there being an inter­ven­tion and pro­vid­ing him with the health­care that he need­ed, he was seen as a threat to soci­ety and was murdered.

How do you expect move­ment orga­niz­ers to respond to this verdict? 

AP: We have to move for­ward. This is not over. There has to be full account­abil­i­ty. Rahm Emanuel hid the video. He should be held account­able for that. The for­mer super­in­ten­dent of police, Gar­ry McCarthy, was com­plic­it in that hid­ing. Every sin­gle alder­per­son who vot­ed to approve that pay­out and cov­er-up is com­plic­it and needs to be held account­able. We have an alder­man­ic elec­tion com­ing up, they need to be vot­ed out.

We know that although this is one offi­cer that has been charged, we still have Homan Square, we still have Glenn Evans, we still have the count­less unnamed Burges that exist. We still have a city bud­get that pri­or­i­tizes polic­ing over every­thing else, where 40 per­cent of the bud­get is allo­cat­ed to polic­ing. So we are far from done. This is the begin­ning and we should use this momen­tum to keep going forward.

What do you think would bring jus­tice for Laquan McDon­ald and all the vic­tims of police bru­tal­i­ty in Chicago?

Real jus­tice is hav­ing zero police killings. That’s jus­tice. Real jus­tice is no more Laquan McDon­alds, no more Mike Browns, no more Rekia Boyds.

Do you see the move­ment for com­mu­ni­ty con­trol of the police fit­ting into that vision?

AP: Yes. CPAC (Civil­ian Police Account­abil­i­ty Coun­cil) requires extreme divest­ment in polic­ing and a redis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er. It requires the empow­er­ment of the peo­ple and of the com­mu­ni­ty to take con­trol over who is allowed to patrol our neigh­bor­hoods — and how. And it empow­ers us to be the ulti­mate arbiters of deter­min­ing what kind of police force we want and we need. If we can turn what we cur­rent­ly have into some­thing that could actu­al­ly help peo­ple in cri­sis, then that’s what we should do. CPAC enables the com­mu­ni­ty, it enables the peo­ple to have that power.

Are you hope­ful for the future of see­ing real racial jus­tice in Chicago?

AP: I’m always hope­ful. I think as fight­ers, as orga­niz­ers, that’s why you’re orga­niz­ing, that’s why you’re fight­ing. You believe that there is an alter­na­tive. So, yes I’m always hopeful.

What mes­sage do you want young orga­niz­ers to take from this verdict?

AP: I want them to take this as evi­dence that when you fight and you orga­nize, you win. And that this is one small step towards police and prison abo­li­tion and one small step toward erad­i­cat­ing the sys­tem of police impuni­ty that we have. And in order to achieve what we real­ly want, which is no more Laquans, we have to keep fighting. 

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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