‘This is just the beginning’ – Chicagoans fighting for police accountability react to verdict in trial of officer Jason Van Dyke

"Today, Chicago has taken one small step in bringing justice to Laquan McDonald's family and our communities.”

Image Credit: Aaron Cynic

On Friday, Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago Police Officer, was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery for the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, a 17 year-old African American teenager who Van Dyke shot 16 times, killing him.

Van Dyke, who was also found not guilty of first-degree murder, is the first Chicago Police Officer to face murder charges for an on-duty shooting in more than three decades.

Chicagoans gather in front of City Hall to watch the verdict in the trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke. Image Credit: Aaron Cynic

On Friday afternoon, a few hundred Chicagoans – many of them community activists who’ve spent four years organizing and campaigning for justice for Laquan McDonald and police accountability since the shooting occurred in 2014 – gathered in front of City Hall to watch the verdict.

As the trial began to come to a close, City officials, law enforcement, and press both local and national sounded alarm bells, in some cases describing Chicago as a powder keg waiting to go off. Some businesses, many in black and brown neighborhoods were instructed to close while many located in the glistening skyscrapers in the Loop sent employees home early Friday afternoon. Building management companies throughout the city sent warnings to their residents regarding potential protests. Government buildings closed early. Schools in areas far away from the city center cancelled or moved sports games and sent students home early. Riot police massed in several locations, and police were out in force on every corner of the Loop.

Chicago Police set up a blockade of bicycles along State Street in the Loop during demonstrations in the wake of the verdict in the trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke. Image Credit: Aaron Cynic

The air in front of City Hall was thick with emotion as groups crowded around cell phones broadcasting the reading of the verdict. Despite the fact that hundreds of people were gathered together the street was noticeably silent, save for the clicking of camera shutters and the noise of passing cars.

Once the verdict was read cries and cheers that were filled with, joy, sorrow, and relief went up from the group. People hugged, cried, and held each other.

“We’ve got something to celebrate,” said Frank Chapman of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. “This is a great day for the movement, but it’s not the last day. This is the beginning of the changes that we’ve needed in this city for a long, long time.”

Friday’s verdict was the latest development in a case that stretches back four years, one which had political and social impacts both local and nationwide, which will likely continue to unfold.

In October 2014, Chicago Police were responding to calls of a man allegedly slashing tires on the city’s Southwest Side. When officers first confronted McDonald, the teen ignored orders to drop a small 3-inch knife he was carrying and was walking away when Van Dyke showed up on the scene. Despite more than 8 other officers on scene who did not use their weapons, Van Dyke fired 16 shots at McDonald in less than 30 seconds after he arrived.

Initial reports from police, along with testimony from Van Dyke, alleged that McDonald, who appeared “crazed,” lunged at the officer. After a 13-month battle initiated by community activists and journalists, police dashcam footage was released which showed McDonald walking away as Van Dyke unloaded a full clip into the teen.

The release of the video footage sparked local and national outrage. Community members accused the Chicago Police, along with its then Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and then Cook County State’s Attorney of attempting a coverup. In the three years that followed, McCarthy would be fired, Alvarez would lose an election, and Emanuel would eventually decide not to run for a third term as mayor. A separate court case that implicates several officers in an alleged conspiracy to protect Van Dyke and keep him out of trouble is beginning to unfold.

The saga helped to galvanize Chicagoans who for years had already been organizing and fighting for police accountability.

In the countless demonstrations for justice for McDonald, the chant that could be continually heard in the streets went “16 shots and a cover up!” On Friday, as Chicagoans marched through the Loop after the verdict was read, they chanted the same, adding one more word – “guilty!”

Community members, activists, and McDonald’s family say the verdict in Van Dyke’s trial is the next step in potentially creating major changes in policing and politics in Chicago.

“I’m thanking God for our family,” Rev. Marvin Hunter, the great uncle of Laquan McDonald, told reporters in an afternoon press conference at a church that took place as demonstrations continued downtown. “This is not just a victory for the Hunter family. This is a victory for families all across the country.”

While Hunter said not all police officers were bad, efforts needed to be made to remove the bad ones, along with other powerful people in the city that aided them.

“We must do what we can to get rid of those people,” he said. “We have an entire city council and mayor up for re-election. We need to make voting decisions to make sure no more black girls and boys die on behalf of police officers.”

Chicagoans demanding more civilian police oversight shut down the streets in the Loop on the day of the verdict in the trial of officer Jason Van Dyke. Image Credit: Aaron Cynic

There are several movements in Chicago for civilian police oversight boards which would give more control in varied degrees over the police department to citizens. Chapman said that the verdict and events that lead up to it are why Chicago needs CPAC – a Civilian Police Accountability Council that he and other groups have been fighting to enact for years, which would create an all elected council that would be in charge of hiring a police superintendent and investigating and prosecuting misconduct and shootings.

Another group, the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, which is fighting for its own version of an oversight board, also heralded the verdict as the next step in obtaining more oversight.

“Today, Chicago has taken one small step in bringing justice to Laquan McDonald’s family and our communities,” said GAPA in a statement emailed to press. “The next step is to ensure systemic change in the Chicago Police Department. It was only through community pressure from across the city that this trial even happened; the video of the shooting was made public; and the focus turned to the policies, culture and practices that brought us a broken system.”

Community activists also had a message for elected officials – that their seats as representatives will not be safe come election day in November.

“We hope this will reverberate through this police department,” said Tanya Watkins of Southsiders Organizing for Unity and Liberation. “We hope that they will understand that we won’t stop until we win….But we cannot be done. To the City Councilmen, to the judges, this verdict confirms that you are co-conspirators to murder and you must be held accountable. Black bodies cannot be traded for political favor. There are 34 sitting alderman that are worried about their reelection. I’m here to let them know that we don’t give a fuck about your reelection. You should worry about your reelection every time you’re on city council, every time you allow police to run rampant in our communities.”


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