Listening to a jury spokeswoman on a local news livestream read out today’s verdict on Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke earlier today, the first shock came when she announced that Van Dyke was guilty of second-degree murder.
Then came the next charges — sixteen of them, each for aggravated battery, read one by one; “guilty,” sixteen more times. This was a different kind of shock, borne less of surprise than constant repetition. Everyone listening was agonizingly reminded that this police officer had unloaded sixteen bullets into a black teenager named Laquan McDonald on a Chicago street. Sixteen. The number boggles the mind.
Police shootings are common in America. But police convictions for wrongdoing aren’t. Not Van Dyke, though — he’s going to prison, likely for a long time.
Police largely do as they please in America. They’re the racist guardians of an order of austerity, the most overtly violent enforcers of a system rife with economic violence. Stopping more cops like Van Dyke will also require taking on the larger system they’re a part of.
Sixteen Shots and a Cover-Up
The shooting took place on the night of October 20, 2014, on a busy street on Chicago’s southwest side. McDonald, who was seventeen, had allegedly broken into cars in the area when police were called on him. Several squad cars arrived. The released police dash cam footage shows McDonald walking down the middle of the street with a small knife in his hand. As he veered away from them, Van Dyke exited his cruiser.
Within six seconds, he fired sixteen shots into McDonald. From the moment Van Dyke fired those shots, the cover-up began.
First were his fellow officers on the scene, whose written police reports somehow vindicated Van Dyke’s actions despite clearly contradicting the dashcam footage from one of the police cars on the scene. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn recently wrote that “these accounts [are] not just lies, but evidence of a culture of concealment.” Then the CPD’s top brass corroborated these officers’ accounts, despite clear evidence in the video to the contrary.
The rest of the city’s power brokers also came to Van Dyke’s defense. Despite his record of twenty excessive force complaints and a past $350,000 settlement for an alleged assault at a traffic stop, the mayor’s office engineered a $5 million settlement to keep the McDonald family quiet and avoid releasing the video during Emanuel’s 2015 reelection campaign.
The CPD and city hall promoted a narrative that McDonald lunged at Van Dyke with a knife. This was completely disproven by the footage. That footage, however, would not be released to the public for thirteen months.
The shooting came in the middle of Rahm Emanuel’s reelection campaign for mayor. Emanuel already stood accused as “Mayor 1 Percent,” overseeing privatization, disinvestment, and austerity everywhere from the city’s public schools to mental health clinics while happily courting the city’s elites. The narrative that he was punishing the city’s working-class people of color was widespread; a horrific video of a black teenager shot sixteen times would only cement that narrative.
Because of pressure from journalists and activists, the city was eventually forced to release the footage — more than a year later. Van Dyke was not charged with murder until just a few hours before the tape’s release.
A Conviction Delivered by a Movement
It’s impossible to believe that those charges and Van Dyke’s conviction today would have come without the nationwide movement against police brutality that has developed over the past few years. That pressure had also built in Chicago, where the police department has long operated with impunity and brutality.
Chicago police commander Jon Burge tortured black men for nearly two decades; the CPD has recently been accused of operating the local equivalent of a CIA black site in Homan Square; massive CPD corruption cases are common; police killings of black people, like the 2012 shooting of twenty-year-old Rekia Boyd by off-duty officer Dante Servin, are common; the city spent $371 million on police misconduct cases from 2011 to 2016.
But all of those examples of police brutality and racism have sparked a formidable anti-police brutality movement in the city — a movement that was ready when the dashcam video was finally released in November 2015. Massive protests followed. Thousands of protesters marched through downtown and Millennium Park, and shut down the Magnificent Mile on Black Friday. Groups like the Black Youth Project (BYP) 100, Assata’s Daughters, and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression coupled their demand for a conviction with broader demands like disinvestment from law enforcement and prison abolition.
The McDonald cover-up also produced a historic investigation by the Justice Department (DOJ). Never before had the DOJ taken on such a large police department. The DOJ report found evidence of “widespread constitutional violations” and “unaddressed abusive and racially discriminatory conduct” that fall “heaviest on the predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West sides of Chicago. ”
The city ultimately agreed to a consent decree, a legally binding remedy ordered by Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan. While consent decrees have drawbacks — typically accompanied by calls for more resources and funding to law enforcement — it still a symbolic concession that acknowledges the city’s long history of horrific police misconduct.
Beyond condemnations of Chicago police, Van Dyke’s shooting has caused massive upheaval in Chicago politics. The first city official to fall after the tape’s release was police chief Garry McCarthy, who Emanuel quickly sacked. (McCarthy objected to the firing and has announced his candidacy for mayor in 2019.) State’s attorney Anita Alvarez, whose office is tasked with prosecuting police misconduct, was trounced in her reelection bid by Kim Foxx, who ran as a criminal justice reformer and strong critic of Alvarez’s handling of the McDonald case.
And then Rahm Emanuel saw the writing on the wall. He was already vulnerable: he won reelection but was surprisingly forced into a runoff in 2015 (before the McDonald tape was released) because of the dogged efforts of a broad anti-austerity movement anchored by the Chicago Teachers Union. Not long after winning, it became clear that his office engaged in a cover-up of the McDonald tape, suppressing its release until after the election. It’s hard to imagine Emanuel would have survived another reelection bid in 2019.
The murder of Laquan McDonald was particularly brutal. Perhaps the conviction was rooted more in Van Dyke’s gratuitousness than the mere act of the killing itself. One wonders if Van Dyke might have avoided any consequences if he had only squeezed off a few rounds rather than his entire clip. But he was convicted today, and this conviction is a major victory. That victory has to translate into more convictions like this one.
But McDonald’s murder and cover-up were never just about police violence. His killing and acts of police brutality like it are also about the everyday economic violence visited upon poor and working-class people. Emanuel’s administration didn’t just cover up McDonald’s murder. It also closed fifty public schools and half a dozen public mental health clinics; privatized public goods and attacked public workers; disinvested from working-class neighborhoods and feted major corporations and hedge fund owners.
The story in Chicago isn’t so different from the rest of the country. In lieu of a welfare state, America has a police force that surveils, controls, and brutalizes poor and working-class people. Behind every police shooting in this country are a thousand acts of petty intimidation, racial profiling, illegally planted evidence, unnecessary and life-destroying prison sentences, and much worse. Police rarely face any consequences for these actions. In this case, for once, one did.
Maybe it was a one-off. Or maybe it indicates a willingness to finally hold other officers accountable for their crimes. Those crimes go far beyond the officers like Van Dyke who pull the trigger.