Chicago Racist Police-State Blues: Sixteen Shots for Laquan, Three Years for Van Dyke
Street activism led to an historic murder conviction of a killer cop, but then a racist judge let him off with a light sentence.
“There is one law for the police and another law for those on the wrong side of the racial and socioeconomic oppression structures the police serve and protect.”
“If Laquan McDonald had murdered this policeman, filling his body with 16 shots, he would have gotten a life sentence, no doubt. He would have received the death penalty if the state hadn't abolished it because the press uncovered how many innocent people had been executed. The entire city of Chicago, including every political figure, would have come out in massive and well-publicized mourning. And the cop would have been christened a hero.” -- Terry Thomas
Leftists in big cities know that you don’t have to reside in “red” Republican territory to live in immediate local proximity to racist and corporate totalitarianism.
Take Chicago, my home city. Four days ago, a white Cook County judge gave the killer Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke what amounted to a slap on the wrist for the cold-blooded murder of a Black teenager in the fall of 2014.
Van Dyke is the white Chicago policeman who senselessly, criminally, and fatally shot the Black youth Laquan McDonald sixteen times — sixteen times— in October of 2014. Van Dyke somehow pleaded Not Guilty to this grotesque crime, which is view-able online. Millions have seen the tape, which shows Laquan walking away from his murderer. You can see Laquan’s body lying on the ground, jolted again and again as the cold-blooded killer Van Dyke pumps one bullet after another into the prone 17-year old. You can see smoke rising out of Laquan’s dying body as Van Dyke blasts away.
“Protesting Crowds Led by Black Youth”
The human and civil rights struggle to expose this murder and to bring its perpetrator and those who covered it up to justice involved mass protests in Chicago in the fall and winter of 2015. It brought down a Cook County States Attorney (Anita Alvarez), a Chicago Police Superintendents (Garry McCarthy, who is now absurdly running for Chicago mayor), and, arguably, Chicago’s arch-corporatist “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emmanuel, whose decision not to run for a third term was certainly influenced by Black Chicagoans’ outrage over his efforts to keep the tape under wraps and to silence Black protest. (By the middle of his second term, Emmanuel couldn’t even visit one of his inner-city charter schools without hearing Black students chant “sixteen shots and a cover-up!”) It was no small or brief struggle. As veteran Chicago activist Andy Thayer wrote on Counterpunchlast fall:
“The millions who viewed the video now knew that police brass and the highest echelons of city government had sat on the video for over a year, covering up for murder so that …Emanuel could win re-election. ‘16 shots and a cover-up’ became the chant that Emanuel couldn’t avoid in even the most sequestered of audiences. Protesting crowds led by black youth flooded downtown streets for months afterwards with no regard for the city’s notorious ‘sit down and shut up’ anti-public assembly ordinances that Emanuel had enacted to silence dissent…Then came the ‘Bye Anita’ campaign, organized primarily by young women of color incensed at the elected Cook County State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez. Alvarez, who…failed to charge any of the cops until a few days after the video was released.”
The public pressure and popular anger – and the simple and undeniable video-taped evidence that activist journalists and organizers fought to make public – was too powerful for Van Dyke to escape conviction for second-degree murder last fall. To emphasize the heinousness of his crime, a Cook County jury convicted Van Dyke on sixteen separate murder counts, one for each bullet.
A White-Supremacist Slap on the Wrist: The Racist Double Standard
Then came the sentencing last Thursday – a racist slap in the face of Black Chicago and Laquan McDonald’s family. As the 76-year-old Black Chicago activist Frank Chapman commented, “A tyrannical, pompous, racist Judge named Vincent Gaughan allowed the killer of a 17-year old child to get sentenced to three months less than seven years contrary to the decision of the jury to charge Jason Van Dyke with 16 separate counts of murder.”
Van Dyke will walk in slightly more than three years. His second-degree murder conviction requires 50 percent of a sentence to be served. He will get credit for time served awaiting sentencing.
Three years for a savage, racist murder viewed by millions – an egregious homicide that roiled the nation’s third largest city, itself one-third Black? Absurd and disgraceful.
Illinois’ prisons are full of young Black Chicagoans imprisoned for much longer than that for non-violent crimes.
“If Laquan McDonald had murdered this policeman he would have gotten a life sentence.”
The left historian and journalist Terry Thomas taught Black prison inmates from Chicago for years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. As he wrote me after Vincent Gahghan’s wrist-slap came down:
“If Laquan McDonald had murdered this policeman, filling his body with 16 shots, he would have gotten a life sentence, no doubt. He would have received the death penalty if the state hadn't abolished it because the press uncovered how many innocent people had been executed. The entire city of Chicago, including every political figure, would have come out in massive and well-publicized mourning. And the cop would have been christened a hero.”
There is one law for the police and another law for those on the wrong side of the racial and socioeconomic oppression structures the police serve and protect.
As if the Van Dyke verdict wasn’t bad enough, just two days before, a different Cook County judge exonerated three white Chicago cops who helped cover up Van Dyke’s crime.
It’s nothing new for Black people who have lived in Chicago for a long time. “We are angry,” says Chapman, “but we are neither surprised or shocked by this blatant and arrogant denial of justice for the Laquan McDonald family, for Black people and all who suffer injustice by hands of these agents of state violence. In my 76 years of living from youth to my senior years I have personally witnessed and experienced many horrors of genocide perpetrated against my people.”
Sympathy for the Devil
Blacks are on the wrong side of the local media-politics culture as well as the criminal justice state. The nightly news runs a constant mug shot-filled narrative of Black criminality devoid of any context regarding the miserable conditions imposed on Black neighborhoods by American race-class tyranny and apartheid. Chicago area news coverage is aimed as much at the heavily white and disproportionately affluent suburbs as it is at the one-third Black and one-third Latinx city. The television and radio news and commentary has been full of sympathy for Van Dyke and his family. I’ve repeatedly seen and heard his lawyer, himself an ex-police officer, treated with creepy approval by white reporters and talk-show hosts as he depicts Van Dyke and his family as the real victims in the Laquan McDonald story.
Corporate Democrats for “the Little Guy”
The little white-supremacist slap on the wrist given to Van Dyke and the exoneration of three white cops who helped cover up his despicable crime are just some of the latest reminders that you don't need Republicans in power to have a fascist-racist police state. Like all the nation's big cities, Chicago is bright “blue” in a double sense: permeated by racist police and run by Democrats.
…Democrats who pretend to be for “the people” but really work for big corporate financial and real estate interests. Chicago’s airwaves are currently loaded with campaign commercials leading up to the city’s February 26th mayoral election. These slick marketing productions portray corporatized and financialized Democrats linked to the city’s downtown real estate and financial power centers as champions of the city’s working- and lower-class neighborhoods – as rugged plebian heroes who will stand up for “the little guy” against the rich and powerful and their political machine.
“You don't need Republicans in power to have a fascist-racist police state.”
The most brazenly audacious best of these disingenuous commercials try to sell Bill Daley, who is bidding (without much success, so far) to become the third Daley (after his legendary racist father Richard J. Daley and his brother Richard M. Daley) to reign over City Hall. “While fancy buildings rise inside the Loop [Chicago’s downtown],” runs of one Daley’s ads, “families are being driven out of our neighborhoods. Bill Daley has spent his whole life in Chicago,” the ad continues. “It’s in his blood. He knows Chicago only thrives when all of its seventy-seven neighborhoods thrive.” The spot shows Daley out on city streets, mixing with regular folks of different colors in a coffee shop, on a street corner, and in a warehouse.
How absurd. The oldest son of a super-powerful political family, Bill Daley was Bill Clinton's NAFTA Czar and later Clinton's Secretary of Commerce and arch-neoliberal president Barak Obama's Chief of Staff. He’s had a lucrative private-sector career working with and for precisely the kind of financial and corporate interests he claims he’ll fight against in City Hall. Along with years practicing at the prestigious corporate law firm Mayer, Brown & Platt, Daley was president and chief operating officer of Amalgamated Bank of Chicago, President of SBC Communications, and Midwest Chairman of JPMorgan Chase. He sits on corporate boards at Boeing, Merck & Co., and Boston Properties. “As a managing partner of Argentiere Capital, a Swiss hedge fund,” Chicago Magazinereports, “Daley earned $2.5 million in 2017.”
- doing poorly in the polls. But that doesn’t mean the city is about to elect an actual people’s mayor – someone like the great progressive Harold Washington. The most likely victors are either the 71-year-old Black woman Toni Preckwinkle or the 65-year-old white male Paul Vallas. Preckwinkle is a “onetime Hyde Park independent [who] has shown an unseemly willingness to play the Machine game when it advances her career.” She endorsed a Cook County Assessor who has regressively taxed local properties, shifting the burden from affluent owners and developers to ordinary working-class homeowners and small businesses. She let the legendarily corrupt white Chicago machine alderman and virulent Harold Washington enemy Ed Burke throw a fundraiser in his home for her (Burke has a date of his own with prison thanks to his recent conviction for shaking down campaign donors). She has aggressively challenged the petitions of other Black candidates, seeking to remove them from the ballot. Most objectionably of all, she’s been running a high-profile commercial in which she takes excessive credit for making public the Laquan video. As the Black candidate Lori Lightfoot has reflected: “Toni Preckwinkle’s attempt to erase the tireless organizing of thousands of activists, young people, lawyers, investigative journalists, and everyday Chicagoans who rose up to demand justice is deeply concerning.”
Vallas is a former Philadelphia and Chicago public schools CEO notorious for advancing the corporate privatization of public education. He’s an arch- neoliberal, budgetarily obsessed policy wonk who can be counted on to serve the city’s corporate and financial powers-that-be beneath the guise of professional class expertise and bureaucratic wizardry, all sold as “practical” and “pragmatic” policy. Since he is untouched by Ed Burke (unlike other and lesser candidates including the next strongest contender Susana Mendoza), he has could well become the city’s next “Mayor 1%.”
The closest thing to a genuinely progressive voice in the race is Amara Enyia. Chicago Magazinereports that she’s “running a progressive campaign that believes the key to solving the city’s problems is investing from the bottom up — in education, in mental health services, in neighborhoods.” Imagine that! This has earned her an endorsement from local Berniecrats. She also received a rather un-Bernie like $400,000 contribution from Chance the Rapper.
Enyia doesn’t have a chance in corporate Chicago, but I’ll probably throw a vote her way, which will take about two minutes.
That’s right- two minutes. Let us always remember the sage counsel of the radical American historian Howard Zinn, writing about the “Election Madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society, including ‘the left,’ in the spring of 2008:
“I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth. … But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice. … Let’s remember that even when there is a “better” candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House [or City Hall] will find it dangerous to ignore. … Yes, two minutes. Before that, and after that, we should be taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“We are Not Tired of Protesting, We are Tired of Being Oppressed”
The worst thing I heard said in the wake of the Van Dyke sentencing came, sadly, from the mouth of a young Black activist named William Calloway. “Don’t protest,” said Calloway: “Don’t take to the streets…take to the polls.” Urging supporters to vote instead of march, Calloway, who said he was "devastated" by the Van Dyke sentence, said "we're going to transcend from protests to politics."
It’s not often you hear an “activist” articulate the basic underlying message of conservative, bourgeois fake-representative electoral politics so openly and explicitly: don’t protest, don’t take to the streets – vote!
That’s abysmally bad advice, completely on the wrong side of how progressive change takes place. Frank Chapman, at seventy-six, is wiser and (to quote Bob Dylan) “younger than that now.” He posted this after Van Dyke got off so whitely and lightly last week:
“Now, right now I appeal to our people young and old alike to rise up tomorrow (Jan. 21st) at noon in the heart of the Black South side at 51st and King Drive, the killing site of Ronnieman Johnson, another one of our Black youth murdered by a CPD officer. Rise Up! Join us in the streets! I have noear or sympathy for those misguided souls who admonish us not to protest. We will protest because the oppressed progress by protest. The struggle for justice is our lives. We are not tired of protesting. The struggle for justice is our lives. We are not tired of protesting. We are tired of being oppressed. In these troubled times fight back is our watch word.”
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (2014).
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