CHICAGO – The family of a black teenager shot 16 times by a white Chicago police officer joined the call Friday for change in local leadership and policing in the city and nationwide, weeks after a video of the 2014 killing set off days of protests.
Laquan McDonald was shot in October 2014 by police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is charged with first-degree murder. Squad-car footage was released late last month upon a judge’s order, and protests have taken place almost daily since. Protesters allege a cover-up and have called for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.
The Rev. Marvin Hunter, who is McDonald’s great uncle, said at a news conference Friday that “what we’re feeling in Chicago is the real feeling of America itself, and that’s injustice against people of color.” He also said there are “thousands of Laquan McDonalds.”
The family has stayed largely out of the spotlight since the video was released Nov. 24, but about a dozen of them stood behind Hunter. A few activists with them wore T-shirts that read “Rahm Failed Us.”
One notable absence was McDonald’s mother, whom Hunter said is “hurting and traumatized by the constant reminder of the senseless death of her son.”
Since the video’s release, McDonald’s death became another example in the debate over gun violence and the treatment of African-Americans by the police. Protesters have turned the shooting into a rallying cry, their chants of “16 shots and a cover-up” taking its place alongside the “I can’t breathe” refrain that followed the video that showed Eric Garner being taken down by a New York police officer in a fatal chokehold.
The city agreed to a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family earlier this year without a lawsuit being filed. Hunter downplayed that Friday, saying the money that really matters should come in the form of government resources to foster economic development and keep such deaths from happening. And he said he is calling for a national summit to be held in his community - one of the most dangerous in Chicago - and hoped that President Barack Obama would dispatch someone from the White House to attend.
Chicago officials fought the release of the video, arguing that it could interfere with any resulting court case. Acting on a judge’s order, the city released it just hours after Alvarez announced charges against the officer.
Attorneys for McDonald’s family said days ago that McDonald’s mother did not want the video made public because she was still grieving. But on Friday, one of their attorneys, Jeffrey Neslund, said the city understood that if Van Dyke was not charged that he and attorney Michael Robbins would release the video that they had obtained as part of their legal work for the family.
“The agreement says … we would not release the video unless the officer was not criminally charged,” he said.
Neslund also wondered why Alvarez, who ultimately charged Van Dyke more than a year after McDonald’s death, has been criticized while federal prosecutors have largely avoided reproach.
Alvarez has defended the delay in bringing charges against Van Dyke, calling it a complex investigation. Emanuel apologized this week that the incident occurred under his administration. He fired the police chief and named a new head of the agency that investigates police conduct. But protests have continued.
Hunter called on Alvarez to resign but declined to demand, as other protesters have, that Emanuel step down as well. “I hold Anita Alvarez accountable,” he said when asked about Emanuel’s role in the McDonald investigation.
Hunter said McDonald was raised by his great-grandmother and, despite a tough life, was gentle, loving and fond of telling jokes.
“When he saw you he greeted you with a hug,” Hunter said. “He tried to make you laugh. He was a jokester.”
For most of his life, McDonald was a ward of the state. Records show he was taken from his house at age 3 because the state’s Department of Children and Family Services determined his mother didn’t provide proper supervision.
Citing juvenile delinquency records, other documents and interviews, the Chicago Tribune reported Friday that McDonald’s mother was 14 when she became pregnant, that he had three psychiatric hospitalizations by the time he was 13, and that he had several arrests, many of them for possessing small amounts of drugs. In one court record, his great-grandmother said he would “normally get arrested 2-3 times a week.”
After he was returned to his mother a couple of years ago, the state again took him out of the house, citing physical abuse by the mother’s then-boyfriend.
McDonald was placed on probation, sometimes with electronic monitoring, given community service, drug treatment and in-home therapy and in May 2014 he appeared in court where prosecutors asked that he be incarcerated in state juvenile facilities. But the judge allowed him to remain free, though she ordered him to remain on probation, abide by tough curfew rules and have mandatory counseling. On Oct. 20, 2014, when his mother was making efforts to regain custody of him, he died on a street in Chicago.
Earlier this week, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Department of Justice would investigate whether the Chicago Police Department’s practices violate federal and constitutional law.