A community meeting on Chicago’s West Side meant to encourage peace and calm in response to the upcoming verdict in the Jason Van Dyke murder trial turned heated Thursday.
Black elected officials who represent the area where 17-year-old Laquan McDonald grew up met with residents and local leaders, urging a calm, non-violent reaction to the verdict in the murder trial of the the white police officer who fatally shot McDonald four years ago.
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis reminded people how Chicago’s West Side burned — and never recovered — from the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
“I don’t want to see Madison street go up in flames again as I saw in 1968,” Davis told the group of about 50 people gathered at Malcolm X College Thursday afternoon, soon after the jury in the Van Dyke case began deliberating.
“I don’t want to see Roosevelt Road burn down again, although there’s not much there to burn. I don’t want to see the neighborhoods and communities where we live and work try to survive as our only reaction,” Davis said.
But when the microphone was handed over to the audience, there was push back from the few younger people there, revealing a generational divide in how black communities believe they should respond to a possible acquittal of Van Dyke.
“I respect what y’all do,” said Maurice Robinson, who grew up in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. “But to tell us to keep calm when we’re dying — it’s not a game, we’re dying — it’s in bad taste and [it] let’s me know y’all are culturally clueless.”
The meeting got especially tense when activist Mark Carter interrupted Barbara McGowan, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner from the West Side, as she tried to diffuse the situation.
“We’re not here to blame anyone,” McGowan said. But Carter jumped in and disagreed. “Stick to doing y’alls job,” he said as other elected officials tried to calm him down. “We’re going to do the job on the street.”
Some community leaders, like Anthony Lowery from the Safer Foundation, tried to bring the meeting back to the immediate: how to react to the verdict.
“So, do we destroy ourselves?” asked Lowery, whose foundation helps people with criminal records re-enter the workforce. “No! We got to have some type of plan to come out of here with this momentum that includes intentional economic development and opportunity for our young men.”
One person at the event called for an organized rallying spot to safely vent about the verdict. Others said the West Side needs more mental health supports and job training in the long term.
Outside the meeting, NAACP Westside Branch president Karl Brinson said he understands where the younger people are coming from. He says it’s hard for them to keep the peace when they’ve been systematically ignored.
“The older folks have not delivered on what we [were] supposed to deliver on to make sure the people are better off than we were — we haven’t been able to deliver on that,” Brinson said, repeating what he told lawmakers inside. “So now, young folks can’t really hear you when you trying to tell them to be calm, be peaceful and keep waiting.”
Brinson says asking people to stay calm ignores structural racism affecting much of the West Side.
“This ain’t all about Laquan,” he said. “This is about history, what we’ve been deprived of. Today ain’t gonna solve nothing if you ain’t taking no action … Everybody’s so wrapped up on the damn verdict. The verdict was issued a long time ago when you didn’t give us the resources we need.”
Congressman Danny Davis tried to end the meeting on a unifying note.
“We ain’t got time to be fighting with each other. We got to fight the enemy,” David said as people in the crowd murmured and nodded their heads in agreement.
He told the crowd he knows one thing for sure: “One weekend of reaction is not going to get rid of 400 years of racism.”
But as the meeting wrapped up, and with the verdict still unknown, it’s unclear if everyone will listen.