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Why Chicago Didn't Riot After Laquan McDonald Video Release

City officials braced for chaos after releasing a video of a white police officer shooting a black teen. Hear young black activists explain why the protests were peaceful—and aren’t over yet.

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In the moments before the city released the video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting 17-year old Laquan McDonald, Mayor Rahm Emanuel urged residents to stay calm.

“It is fine to be passionate but it is essential that it remain peaceful. We have a collective responsibility in the city of Chicago to ensure that this time of healing happens,” Emanuel said at a press conference.

Given the fever pitch nationally about police brutality and previous rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore, Chicago officials braced for an uprising in response to the video. They held closed-door meetings on how to handle protesters.

Young black activists did take to the streets Tuesday night — to honor McDonald and protest police brutality. But the march downtown didn’t result in property damage or anything resembling a riot.

As the Associated Press reported, the protests that began Tuesday evening were largely peaceful.

Malcolm London, 22, was among five people who were arrested on charges that included weapons possession and resisting arrest. He was charged with hitting an officer. On Wednesday, Cook County Judge Peggy Chiampas dismissed the charge said the state’s attorney’s office recommended that the charge be dropped. and told London he was free to go. London, wearing a T-shirt with the phrase “Unapologetically black” on it, walked outside the courthouse to loud cheers. A crowd of supporters chanted, “We’re going to be all right” and “Set our people free.” Prosecutors did not explain why their office recommended dropping the charge.

Veronica Morris-Moore participated in the protests Tuesday night. She didn’t expect chaos, and says the reason others did is because black youth are stereotyped as violent.

“I think people expected Chicago to burst in flames because the dominate narrative out there is that black people are reckless and we don’t care about our communities or neighborhoods,” Morris-Moore said.

She’s part of a coalition that includes groups such as Fearless Leading by the Youth, We Charge Genocide and Assata’s Daughters — just to name a few.

“At the end of the day what our movement is doing is exposing these contradictions, exposing these stereotypes, exposing this anti-black culture,” Morris-Moore said.

University of Chicago political scientist Cathy Cohen agrees that a spontaneous riot shouldn’t have been the default expectation.

“There is a way in which these young activists have a very deep understanding of who they need to target and where those targets are situated,” Cohen said. “They’re not going to burn down black communities.”

No matter how chilling, the dashcam video’s content was no surprise. And activism among these young people didn’t start with McDonald’s death.

“They understand that this is an issue not about one police officer but the system of policing and accountability and power,” Cohen said.

The groups have protested several police shootings and pushed for the firing of Dante Servin, the officer who killed Rekia Boyd. Just this week, Chicago’s top cop recommended Servin be fired.

Activists also lobbied for an expansive trauma center on the South Side, which is partly coming to fruition.

And Chicago is the only city in the country giving reparations to police torture victims — a direct result of years of activism.

From Fred Hampton in the 1960s, to the Black Radical Congress of the 1990s, to waves of progressive and feminist organizations, black activism in Chicago has a strong legacy.

The Black Youth Project’s Charlene Carruthers says activists will continue that legacy by demanding justice and investment in black communities.

“What I expect is for more people to continue to join the ongoing organizing that’s been happening in the city of Chicago for the past several years that’s led by young black organizers,” Carruthers said.

Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s South Side Bureau reporter. Follow Natalie on Google+ and Twitter.

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