Buried Alive: The Story of Chicago Police State Racism

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

“I want my husband home. I need him to be safe.”

– Tiffany Van Dyke, wife of Jason Van Dyke, the murderer of Laquan McDonald

Among the many different forms taken by 21st century U.S.-American racism, one is the curious way in which white-owned corporate media and the criminal justice system racially differentiate worthy from unworthy victims.

Take the case of Jason Van Dyke, the white Chicago police officer who coldly executed the Black teenager Laquan McDonald on the evening of October 20th, 2014.  The dash-cam videotape of the execution has been viewed by many millions of people.

There’s a reason the city’s police, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, and then Cook County States Attorney Anita Alvarez tried to keep the Laquan McDonald kill tape under wraps.  The video didn’t lie. It displayed the senseless murder of a Black youth by a white cop. It showed Van Dyke blasting sixteen bullets into McDonald, who clearly posed no imminent threat to Van Dyke or anyone else. The fusillade continued as McDonald lay prone, smoke rising from his twitching body with each new shot.

This was no small political matter in the age of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and Black Lives Matter.

Scanning Chicago area television and during and since Van Dyke finally came to trial last fall, you’d almost think that Van Dyke and his family were the real victims.  Again and again, the city and metropolitan area’s residents have seen and heard seen the fallen officer’s tearful wife cry out against how her husband and family have been unjustly punished for something Van Dyke did “in the line of duty.”  This was the basic position advanced by Van Dyke’s lawyer, Daniel Herbert, himself a white ex-Chicago police officer who has killed in the line of duty. Herbert worked local television, radio and press with the notion that Van Dyke was just another scared first-responder hero trying to do his job.

When the trial occurred, the videotape evidence was too strong to prevent Van Dyke from being convicted of second-degree murder.   It wasn’t strong enough, however, to stop a white racist Cook County Circuit Court Judge, Vincent Gaughan, 77, from letting Van Dyke off with a pathetically minor sentence of “seven years,” certain to be whittled down to three or less with “time served” and other considerations.

Less than three years for a vicious and cold-blooded racist murder viewed by millions around the world.

After this revolting sentence was handed down last month. I heard Van Dyke’s audibly pleased lawyer talking to clearly sympathetic whites hosts on WGN radio about how traumatic the whole episode has been for “Jason” – and how wonderful it is that the killer would be “returned to his family” soon.

Herbert forget to add that Van Dyke will return alive and walking while Laquan was returned to his family in a box, his young body riddled with sixteen bullet holes.

Last week, Chicago corporate media broadcast Tiffany Van Dyke’s sobbing distress at learning that her husband had been roughed up a little in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.  Here is some reporting from Chicago’s CBS-affiliated television station:

“A day after learning former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was beaten in a federal prison in Connecticut, his wife demanded to know why he was transferred out of Illinois in the first place, and called on authorities to do a better job of protecting his safety as he serves a nearly 7-year sentence in the murder of Laquan McDonald….’I cannot and will not stand by somebody hurting my husband,’ Tiffany Van Dyke said Thursday morning, flanked by her husband’s attorneys. ‘We are done being hurt. I’m standing up for my husband right now because he can’t. He cannot stand up for himself and fight anymore. At the end of the day, I want my husband home. I need him to be safe,’ she added. ‘The next time this could happen, they could kill him. I cannot bury my husband.’ ….The Federal Bureau of Prisons confirms that Van Dyke was beaten, saying ‘minor injuries occurred.’ Van Dyke’s legal team said the former officer informed them of the attack on Tuesday, a week after he was transferred to Danbury Federal Correctional Institution, a low- to minimum-security facility. Van Dyke’s attorneys said they were not informed about the transfer until after it happened.”

CBS Chicago sought and gave no commentary from Laquan McDonald’s family, who no doubt would like him to have been “safe” on the evening of October 20tt, 2014.  Laquan’s survivors would like McDonald to be home.  The problem there is that Laquan was shot dead by Van Dyke, as can be seen on a video tape the Chicago police, mayor, and local states attorney tried to keep under wraps.  Laquan is “done being hurt,” but his family is not.

CBS Chicago offered no commentary on the dark irony of Mrs. Van Dyke’s statements that “they could kill him” and “I cannot bury my husband.”  Jason Van Dyke did kill Laquan.  McDonald’s injuries were not minor.  Laquan’s family did bury Laquan.

CBS Chicago also did not comment on the oddity of convicted murderer Jason Van Dyke being placed in a “low- to minimum-security facility.” (Do Black people convicted of murder get placed in such facilities? Try Death Row in maximum-security facilities.)

It is true that Van Dyke’s heinous crime was all too consistent with a longstanding pattern of excessive force and even murder on the part of the Chicago Police Department – a pattern that was documented in a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Justice.  But employment and training by a violent and racist institution does not acquit one of homicide when one commits a chilling homicide caught on tape.

The Van Dyke sob story and soap opera will no doubt continue in Chicago corporate incarceration –state media, whose racially mixed news teams run a regular scary “urban nightmare” mug-shot show from the city’s Black South and West Sides.

Meanwhile, another local criminal justice story can be expected to be sent down George Orwell’s memory hole after a brief appearance on the margins of the news.  Since Anita Alvarez was voted out and replaced by the Black female Kim Foxx as Cook County States’ Attorney thanks largely to Alvarez’s role in covering up the McDonald kill tape, 63 Black Chicagoans have been exonerated because they were falsely convicted of drug crimes by a Chicago police unit that planted heroin and cocaine on people in and around a South Side Chicago public housing facility – the now torn-down Ida B. Wells Projects – in the opening years of this century. More exonerations are likely in the works.

Many of the victims have served considerably longer sentences in maximum-security state prisons on nonviolent drug charges than Van Dyke (currently in a low-security lockup) will serve for murder. They have lost time, relationships, earnings, work experience, and educational opportunities they can never get back for crimes they never committed.

Planting evidence to boost arrest and conviction rates is a longstanding Chicago and U.S. police practice that helps fill the state’s giant prison system with Black and Latino inmates.  Illinois’ “downstate” mass incarceration facilities are full of Black and Latinx people with stories of police who used violence to elicit forced confessions and who planted evidence to compel plea bargains on poor and defenseless arrestees.

The two police officers in charge of the Ida B. Wells drug-planting operation were convicted for shaking down federal drug informants in 2012.  Both served short terms in minimum security federal prisons. More than a dozen of the officers who participated in the criminal drug-planting operation under these officers’ command were reassigned to desk duty.  They still work for the city and have together drawn millions of dollars in salary from Chicago taxpayers.

In a non-racist media-politics culture, this would be a top story for many days.  It would be front and center as the Chicago mayoral election heads towards a likely run-off between a Black female candidate (Toni Preckwinkle) who claims to have helped force the release of the Laquan McDonald tape and a white deep-pockets and corporate-globalist candidate (Bill Daley, the son and the brother of two previous and legendary racist white Chicago mayors) walking in the same basic neoliberal grooves as the two-termer Rahm Emmanuel (who decided not to run for a third-term after he Laquan McDonald take came out.)

But media is much more interested in the saga of the poor and put-upon Van Dykes.  It also now heavily focused on reports that a local and national Black and gay media celebrity, Jesse Smollett, orchestrated a fake racist and homophobic “hate-crime” attack on himself. If Smollett did that, he should be run out of show business and convicted of making false allegations.  Still, Smollett’s possible transgression remains minor compared both to the murder of Laquan and the ruination inflicted on the lives of many dozens (if not hundreds) of inner-city residents by a police unit that planted “War on Drugs” on them.

But the Smollett story is a ratings winner, nationally as well locally.  That’s because Smollett is a media celebrity and the Smollett story feels good to the nation’s white-supremacist viewing majority, which loves to hear that charges of racism are overblown. Expect the manufactured Smollett saga to continue getting  significant local and national media attention while the terrible true story of 63 (and more) Black people sent to jail and prison for drug crimes they didn’t commit to be chillingly forgotten – maybe the better word is buried.

A personal aside. I worked in Black Chicago, not far from the Ida B. Wells Homes, for five years during the time when the local police’s drug-planting game was played.  I can recall being stopped twice in my car by CPD dragnets around 6 O’clock in the evening. Waiting for officers to approach my car, I beheld numerous vehicles being searched by police with drug-sniffing German Shepherds. Being white and wearing a suit, I was not a target.  The first time, I got away with a warning for driving without a seat-belt. The second time, a white officer apologized profusely for stopping me and explained that it was a normal operation not meant for people like me.  Looking back on those episodes, I wonder now if these weren’t worse than just pretext stops and were actually drug-plant stops.

Meanwhile, in other brief ad fleeting news, a white Chicago police officer has recently fatally gunned down Michael Elam, 17, a Black teenager after a car chase on the West Side of Chicago. Questions are being raised about the police department’s claim that the teenager was aiming a gun at his killer.

The very brief and cursory CBS Chicago report on this killing is titled “17-Year Old During Officer-Involved Shooting on West Side.”  How about that for the use of the passive voice?  Try this instead: “Chicago Police Gun-Down Another Black Teenager in the West Side Ghetto.”

Michael Elam will be buried soon.  The deeper story of metropolitan and criminal justice racism continues its long media burial in Chicago andthe nation at large.

Please help Street keep writing here.

This essay originally appeared on Black Agenda Report.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).