For the first time in this city’s notorious history of violent policing, an on-duty officer finally has been found guilty of the murder. That the killer cop, Jason Van Dyke, was white, and his victim, Laquan McDonald, a troubled black youth, made the victory even more momentous.
It was the hardest-fought victory won in this city in recent decades and required the joint efforts of dedicated community organizers, independent journalists, “street heat” by thousands of ordinary Chicagoans, and attorneys working the state’s freedom of information law to pull it off.
First domino to fall was the bull-headed Police Superintendent, Garry McCarthy, notorious from his hyping of “terrorism” threats during Chicago’s hosting of the 2012 NATO conference. Days after a long journalistic and legal battle forced the release of a police dashcam video showing the murder of Laquan McDonald, McCarthy was the first sacrificial lamb to be fired.
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 our notorious Rahm “Mayor 1%” 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 in the run-up to the NATO conference.
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 had inherited the office from her equally dubious white predecessor, had failed to charge any of the cops until a few days after the video was released.
In the next election, many in the Cook County Democratic machine, always clever at playing the identity politics game, endorsed Kim Foxx, a black woman, as Alvarez’s competitor. But the “Bye Anita” campaign didn’t fall for it. It wisely made no endorsements and kept hammering Alvarez not just over her failure to prosecute Van Dyke, but also for her reinforcement of racialized policing, including her non-prosecutions of police in other shooting cases, and her intentional flubbing of the few cop prosecutions she did undertake.
Meanwhile, Chicagoans were treated to a never-ending barrage of mayoral press releases, as well as choreographed media events, touting new “accomplishments” showing how much Emanuel cared about education, housing and equal opportunity for the poor. These were worth little more than the paper on the press releases. In normal elections, Emanuel’s huge campaign war chest, amply stoked by businesses getting contracts and other favors, would have scared off all comers. Instead, sensing he was vulnerable, more than a dozen candidates announced against Emanuel.
Then a few weeks ago, apparently knowing from the polls how despised he is, Emanuel announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election. An even larger scramble of opportunists seeking to succeed him ensued.
Finally came last Friday’s second degree murder jury verdict against Officer Jason Van Dyke. The demonstrations around police brutality issues have been much smaller over the past year, but they were amplified by a steady drumbeat of news of other police scandals. They combined to stoke a deep hatred by many Chicagoans of the city’s racialized policing.
Even among the city’s establishment, few would argue that if left to its own devices, that the system would have worked. Practically everyone knows that it was only because of the actions of the many outside of the formal systems of police and political accountability that Jason Van Dyke was charged with murder, let alone vigorously prosecuted and convicted.
Chicago’s reputation for police brutality and misconduct is well deserved. A few years ago dubbed “the false confession capital,” it’s expressed in the tens millions of dollarsassessed by courts and settlements against it each year. The core fault for this lies with political leaders and top police brass who for decades have refused to discipline brutal officers unless forced to by political embarrassment and the courts.
And criminally prosecuting individual police sociopaths is only the first and arguably the lesser step needed to win a measure of justice for police brutality victims. As with the perjury prosecution of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge – the notorious torturer of over 100 black men – only one sacrificial police lamb has been cut loose. Do not forget that Van Dyke worked 400 days for the department after the shooting. All the “good cops” and police brass who covered for this murderous sociopath with a badge still await justice.
Will the City reinforce the Blue Code of Silence by giving these enablers a pass? If so, it will be saying that “good cops” can not only get away with covering-up for murder by their fellow officers (not to mention lesser crimes) committed by their fellow officers, but be rewarded for it. Jon Burge and his closest colleagues accused of torture were fast tracked in their careers with a series of promotions. As now-former police superintendent Matt Rodriguez once said about promotions of so-called “repeater beaters” – cops accused of multiple acts of brutality – “they show a lot of enthusiasm for the job.”
Those few who do follow the chain of command and report wrong-doing by their fellow officers, inevitably fall victim to a relentless campaign of victimization by their peers and top police brass. Is it any wonder that the apparent police tipsters who helped break open both the Jason Van Dyke and Jon Burge scandals did so anonymously? Unless there are strenuous penalties for the police who covered up McDonald’s murder, then the Blue Code of Silence will be reinforced, not weakened by this episode.
In the wake of Friday’s murder verdict, the state Fraternal Order of Police whined that “What cop would still want to be proactive fighting crime after this disgusting charade” of the trial? But Chicago already has a crime problem despite having the third highest number of police per capita of the 650 U.S. cities with more than 50,000 people, according to figures from the FBI’s uniform crime statistics report. While several other U.S. cities have worse per capita murder rates, in 2016, 2017 and 2018 to date we’ve had more murders per year than New York and LA combined, despite having less a quarter of their combined population.
Thanks to decades of unaddressed police corruption, frame-ups and brutality, many Chicagoans distrust the police, with the result that despite the huge number of cops, Chicago has a “clear up” (i.e., crimes solved) rate for murders that is more than twice as bad as the national average. It’s one of the big “push” factors driving black people out of the city.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the huge number of cops has had the effect of making civilian-on-civilian crime much worse than it would otherwise be, as resources spent on cops – 40% of the city’s operational budget goes to the police – means that schools, mental health clinics, libraries and affordable housing that stabilize poorer neighborhoods, are starved of resources.
Making matters worse, Rahm Emanuel’s neo-liberal diktats mean that huge subsidies are directed to already wealthy businesses, in the form of privatized social services that replace union workers, as well as tax breaks tooffice developments and luxury residential hi-rises. Other parts of the Chicago Democratic machine have orchestrated under-taxation of wealthy properties versus poor ones, fueling the foreclosure crisis for working class blacks, and leading in recent years to the largest exodus of black residents from the city of any metropolitan area in the country.
Chicago’s cover-up of murder by police, and its antagonism towards working class people, especially of those color, carry lessons not just for the city, but for the nation.
This is the bluest of blue cities. For the “Trump is a fascist” crowd (which amounts to “Democrats are our only option”), what could be more “fascist” than a City government being an accessory to the murder of a black man? For those looking to the 2018 and 2020 elections to relieve them of the nightmare of the Trump years, it bears remembering that Trump didn’t get to the White House all be himself. He got there in part due to the failures of the Democratic Party to address people’s real material needs. Is there a better poster child for failure than the Democratic Party in Chicago?
Many thanks to Roger Fraser for his assistance in writing this article.