It has been 1,464 days since seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald was murdered by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. On October 20, 2014, Van Dyke shot McDonald sixteen times, killing him almost instantly. Over a year later, on November 24, 2015, the city released the police dash cam video showing Van Dyke killing McDonald. That same day, Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder. Over two years later, on September 13 of this year, twelve jurors were selected for the trial of Van Dyke. And finally, on September 17, the long-awaited trial began.
Anticipating community unrest should the resulting verdict favor Van Dyke, the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration held a panel discussion to explore questions regarding the trial and its impact on the city of Chicago.
Due to strong interest in the discussion, the panel was held at the Logan Center’s performance hall. Nearly every seat was filled. Though there was a large student presence, there were also many community members who attended the event.
The Interim Dean of the SSA, Deborah Gorman Smith, explained that the purpose of the discussion was to review the circumstances surrounding the case so that the event’s participants might better understand the strained history of policing in Chicago, and think deeply about the potential impact of the trial on the city.
The panel included UChicago Law Professor, Craig Futterman, Historian Dr. Timuel Black, Assistant Professor at SSA, Dr. Rueben Miller, and BYP 100 Co-Director Janaé Bonsu. It was moderated by WBEZ host Jenn White.
The event began by exploring the sequence of events leading up to the trial and highlighted the controversy over the release of the dash cam video showing the gruesome footage of McDonald’s murder. Futterman played an important role in pressuring the city to release the footage. For Futterman, his involvement in the case began with a phone call.
"Someone within CPD confidentially asked for help,” Futterman explained. “They told me it looked like an execution. They said [Van Dyke] shot that boy like he was a dog in the street. They were worried that a cover up was happening. They said ‘please help me to do something to keep this from going the wrong way.’"
The panel also explored why this shooting in particular provoked so much public attention, and what distinguished it from the more than four hundred police killings that have occurred in Chicago in the past seven years.
For Bonsu, it was not the shooting alone that sparked protests from the black community.
“What makes this case different is not only the presence of the video, but that the release of the video was the tip of the iceberg in the larger contemporary movement supporting the equal treatment of black lives,” Bonsu said.
“This shooting shocks the conscious of anyone who has a conscious,” Fetterman said. "It is not every day that a police officer trains his gun at a boy lying on the ground. It is even more remarkable that it was caught on video. If a police officer is not held criminally accountable, what message does that send about officer impunity? What message does that send to folks in the community about the value of black lives?”
Bonsu also spoke to the larger theme behind police brutality: "What I draw attention to is the difference between prejudice and racism. Prejudice is individual. Racism is sanctioned and legitimized by larger institutional structures. What is racist is when the court system legitimizes officers’ actions and makes the institution of policing racist. You can have officers who are not prejudiced or are prejudiced. It is the larger structures which support racism. Whatever the verdict is, if he is acquitted, then it signals to everyone that if you are white...it doesn't matter what you do, the system that you work for will sanction it. They will legitimize it. That is racism."
On October 5, the highly publicized trial came to a close when the Jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated assault. They found him not guilty of official misconduct. Prior to the verdict announcement, schools and offices downtown were let out early and buses of police were shuttled downtown in anticipation of protests following a not-guilty verdict.
The University made similar preparations in case of a not-guilty verdict. That Friday, Eric Heath, Associate Vice President for Safety & Security, and Michele Rasmussen, Dean of Students in the University, sent an email to members of the University of Chicago community with the subject line titled, “Steps in advance of trial verdict.” They wrote, “While we have no indication at this point that responses to the trial might pose a safety issue on or near our campus, the University is committed to maintaining the safety of our campus and neighboring communities. We will work to ensure that people can continue to express themselves peacefully concerning the trial and other important issues, recognizing that the values of free expression and open discourse have stood as a foundation of this University since its inception.”
On October 10, a second panel was held at the School of Social Service Administration to a much smaller audience. This time, the panel considered the impact of the trial’s verdict. The panel included the previous speakers, Futterman, Black, Miller, and Bonsu, with the addition of Marion Malcolme MSW, LCSW, who provided a mental health perspective. The panel was moderated by award-winning journalist Sylvia Ewing.
Futterman explained what made this verdict historic: “This is the first time that an on duty police officer was held accountable for killing a black man, woman, or child. This has never happened before in history and that is despite the reality that Chicago police officers have killed hundreds of black folks in my lifetime.”
Fetterman also explained that this trial verdict did not end any of the larger problems surrounding the issue of police brutality in the United States. He explained that just two hours before the panel, President Trump announced that the federal government would oppose any consent decree in Chicago to address ongoing civil rights violations. Moreover, his administration plans to file a demand in federal court that the Chicago Police Department continue to be allowed to “violate black folks’ rights.”
Bonsu expressed similar feelings regarding the impact that the verdict has had, and in particular, what Van Dyke being found not guilty of official misconduct signifies. “No verdict will bring Laquan back, but he is gone and we still have this whole institution with which to contend. The fact that Van Dyke was found not guilty of official misconduct I think is very reflective of the nature of policing that he was in the realm of his job but just exerted this unreasonable use of force: for that not to be official misconduct I don't even know what to say about a policeman's job.”
Mental-Health Researcher Marion Malcolme explained the confluence of emotions that the Chicago community, particularly people of color, felt after the verdict was announced: "From a mental health perspective, people likely have felt a range of emotions. Most people feel joy and relief, but many others feel angry, frustrated, confused and fearful.”
For ninety-nine-year-old Black, the verdict was a victory. "That verdict for me and others like me was a victory for the people,” Black said. “It proves to me that in unity there is strength."
While the trial verdict came after a more than four year fight for justice, for community organizers like Bonsu, the work for racial justice and police accountability is far from over.
“We still have this entire institution with which to contend,” Bonsu explained. “We are going to continue efforts to close FOP's contract with CPD. The work is never done. Instead, we need to take advantage of this opportunity and ride this wave of change. We are going to keep moving."
Photo is courtesy of the author.