Laquan McDonald and black Chicagoans had to prove their humanity throughout the Jason Van Dyke trial.
The slain black teenager experienced trouble in his short life, details an attorney for the white police officer used in his defense. None of that should’ve mattered in those moments Van Dyke fatally shot the boy 16 times in 2014. When Van Dyke took the stand at the Cook County criminal courthouse, he recounted McDonald’s “eyes were just bugging out of his head.” The officer’s testimony of a menacing and mindless McDonald was reminiscent of degrading caricatures of African Americans in popular culture dating back more than a century. Did he imagine a slice of watermelon in his hand to complete the coon racist trope?
Then, during closing arguments defense attorney Dan Herbert pulled some last tricks out of his hat to dehumanize a defenseless McDonald. If he wore a boy scout uniform, perhaps the killing would’ve been unjustified, he argued. I listened with my mouth agape as Herbert likened McDonald to a monster and painted the tragedy as a horror movie with scary music and his client as the victim. McDonald now twice a victim, in life and in death.
Nonetheless, the jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and relied on a dash cam video as proof of what went down: McDonald walking away and Van Dyke relentlessly pumping bullets. Van Dyke said that his fear of McDonald was so intense that he feared for his life and thus deadly force was required. However, in rendering a second-degree murder conviction, the jury declared that Van Dyke’s fear was unreasonable.
We live in a society in which black people have to fight for dignity. McDonald’s was questioned throughout the three-week trial, in which his character was challenged as much as it was for the man who killed him. Black folks are burdened with the perception of perfection. Only a perfect victim deserves justice. Flawlessness as a quality is the only way to prove one is worthy of a racism-free life.
The humanity of black Chicagoans was also questioned as the city anticipated the impending verdict. The city of Chicago mightily tried to block release of the dash cam video back in 2015. When a judge ruled otherwise, black Chicagoans endured lectures in how to respond. Uprisings over police killings of black males in Ferguson and Baltimore spooked elected officials who told residents here to stay calm and not to riot. That was never the vocalized plan in Chicago; activists peacefully took the streets and continued the drumbeat of calling for police accountability. Protesting is a spoke in the wheel of organizing.
Again, those same “don’t riot” messages rang out before last week’s verdict. Tension swept all corners of this vast city as officials considered ramifications of a not guilty verdict. Chicago Public Schools canceled games and homecomings. Chicago police officers waited on alert in various neighborhoods. Downtown businesses sent people home early on Friday, as if Armageddon loomed inside the rainy clouds. Friends shared fearful messages employers sent them, including some in the suburbs. Curiously, so-called pleas for peace never addressed police accountability or demands from activists. There’s a difference between caution and fear mongering. And just as the jury determined that Van Dyke’s fear of McDonald was unreasonable, perhaps the same was true of those who feared catastrophic black rage in response to an acquittal. At no point did activist groups threaten to riot or any other form of upheaval.
In fact, in anticipation of the verdict, the Westside Justice Center announced it would open its doors in a community healing space. On the South Side, the Let Us Breathe Collective promoted in advance a “We Love Laquan” event in which people could drop by for healing, or to share expressions of grief and rage. Those who craved strategy and community support could receive that, too.
A guilty verdict didn’t result in dancing in the streets. The focus remained on the long view of justice.
Brian Ragsdale, a psychologist, is with the Chicago Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression. He said activists in this city are resilient against harm in their communities and the low expectations placed upon them. Thinking that black people would burn their city down under the guise of fear is nothing more than racial coding. Another layer of trauma.
“It was taunting to the community that was unfair — that black people are uncontrollable,” Ragsdale said. “What I heard was from blacks and Latinos was the need for accountability.” He points out that his group had no less than 10 peaceful rallies over the last year with thousands of protesters.
An assumption of chaos ignores the consistent organizing in Chicago and historical roots of progressive and feminist activism. Not to mention that the last time a riot erupted over racial injustice took place 50 years ago after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Chicago has weathered the trauma of police commander torturer Jon Burge — organizing that led to an unprecedented reparations package for torture survivors; the law enforcement killing of Fred Hampton; millions of dollars spent yearly in settling police misconduct cases.
Today’s young people are part of groups like the aforementioned ones as well as Black Youth Project 100, We Charge Genocide, Assata’s Daughters, Fearless Leading by the Youth, A Long Walk Home and Black Lives Matter. After the release of the dash cam video capturing McDonald’s death, young people campaigned to get Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez out of office and pressured for the firing of police chief Garry McCarthy. And they weakened Mayor Rahm Emanuel. They fought for Rekia Boyd, who was killed by a police officer. They identified systems of power that lock black communities out of investment. Their critiques didn’t exist in a vacuum. A U.S. Department of Justice report on the CPD acknowledged racial profiling and a Chicago Police Accountability Task Force detailed community and anger and officer misconduct.
Ideas for reform aren’t monolithic — they span from police abolition to demand for civilian control of the police board.
Activism never centered on burning down black communities and the work didn’t start with McDonald. It won’t end there either.
In the name of preserving justice and humanity, some of that work should focus on the fears we hold of African Americans as individuals and as a collective. Those fears cost us all dearly. For Van Dyke, those fears robbed McDonald of his future, and it robbed Van Dyke of his own. For the rest of us, the fears of black people may cost us the ability to see them as full human beings—imperfect like anyone else but still human—and thus rob us of our own humanity.