Reflections on racial inequalities and the meaning of the conviction of police officer Jason Van Dyke.
16 shots and a cover up!
So goes the chant that most everyone who has attended a Chicago protest in recent years has heard. The 16 shots refer to the number of bullets that white police officer Jason Van Dyke put through the body of the Black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The cover up refers to the extended period of time that the city of Chicago tried to white wash the violent crime. On October 5th, 2018, a guilty verdict for second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm was handed down against Jason Van Dyke. From October 20th, 2014—when the shooting took place—until the present day, this murder has shaken Chicago, influencing the fall of powerful figures in the city. While these stories and the courtroom drama of the trial have received coverage in the mainstream press, the deeper implications for Chicago’s justice movements remain largely unvoiced.
Immediately following the incident, the Chicago Police Department, (CPD) claimed that McDonald lunged at officers with a knife. This directly contradicted what eyewitnesses Jose and Xavier Torres witnessed that night. They came forward to give information that helped push the investigation deeper. Finally, 13 months later, a police dash cam video was released corroborating the Torres’s account: it showed Jason Van Dyke shooting down McDonald with no lunge from McDonald. The video was explosive, and the cover up that had delayed its released was a toxic stain on the CPD and city government. In 2016, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alverez was ousted from her office, largely due to a coalition of activists determined to hold her to account, not only in relation to Laquan but for a history of detrimental sentencing practices. While Rahm Emmanuel won his reelection campaign in 2015, the police murder and cover up was particularly sordid episode in his fraught tenure as Mayor 1%. The incident had to have played a part in his decision to not run in the upcoming Mayoral elections.
But what tipped the scales in the favor of justice in this case? Was it the innovation of police dash cams? The panache of the prosecutors? Any analysis of this event needs to take into account the constant fever pitch of organizing against police brutality. “16 shots and a cover up” was a prevalent chant at rallies because it gave voice to dignified rage that people feel in their bones against the long histories of injustice. Jason Van Dyke is not a bad apple, nor symptom of a police force failing in its purpose. This murder represented the perfect functioning of a structure whose purpose has always been to discipline the working class, protect propertied interests, and maintain techno-apartheid through the policing of communities of color. This was the function of the CPD during the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 and one year later when they hanged the martyrs of the workers’ movement. It was the function of the force when they teamed up with the FBI to murder Black Panther Fred Hampton in cold blood while he slept.
Even critical reporting in the mainstream press misses the historical function of police. But organizers in Chicago don’t forget; and their tireless agitation is the driver of progressive changes we’ve seen in recent years. For example, the For the People Artists Collective in early 2018 hosted an exhibition called “Do Not Resist? 100 Years of Chicago Police Violence” which traced out episodes of our erased history through artwork which infused them with new meaning. One of the stories told was of CPD commander Jon Burge who used the torture techniques he learned in Vietnam and Korea to gain false confessions from Chicago residents. Charlene Carruthers, the outgoing director of Black Youth Project 100 argues that the reparations payments and ordinances resulting from the Burge case are, in fact, abolitionist (abolition is a contemporary movement that references back to abolition of slavery as a basis for a future without prisons or police.)
As progressive movements organize toward a new society founded on concrete experiences of justice, equality, and solidarity, what relationship does our vision of the future have with contemporary, more limited, expressions of legal justice? Surely, legal convictions for murder carried out by police officers are preferable to the impunity that is so tragically commonplace in much of our world. We are currently living under an administration which has clear ambitions to roll back these gains. The conviction of Jason Van Dyke is an important moment in which some modicum of justice was served, pointing in turn to the distance yet to travel. Progress toward a better world will occur neither through techno fixes nor conciliatory gestures but through the movement of organized peoples. May Laquan rest in power and may his spirit cultivate within us the strength to move toward our collective liberation.