By now, millions of people have witnessed the violent end of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald’s brief, troubled life.
Through dark, grainy video, they watched him twist and writhe and crumble to the ground beneath a wave of police bullets. They watched him jerk with each shot – 16 in all – that tore into his head, neck, chest, back and every limb of his black body. Most of those bullets struck him as he lay prone on the pavement.
The footage, released by the city of Chicago on Tuesday night, was captured by police dashcam video more than a year ago. But it is, no doubt, as chilling and disturbing as if it happened just yesterday.
For 13 months, citing an ongoing criminal investigation, the city refused to release the video, which shows McDonald’s killer, Officer Jason Van Dyke, unloading his clip into the teen. (Investigators say that off-camera, Van Dyke was attempting to reload his weapon and would have kept shooting before being stopped by other officers). For 13 months, while the investigation into his conduct was underway, Van Dyke worked desk duty and collected a pay check.
For more than 400 days, the city put up a wall of silence around McDonald’s killing, even though what was captured on the video prompted the city to settle with the teen’s family for $5 million. It’s reasonable to assume that in the year since the shooting, not a single frame of that terrible video has changed; and it shows the frightening last moments of McDonald’s life.
What’s evident in the video is how the early police narrative of the shooting contradicts what viewers can see with their own eyes. It seems clear that McDonald never lunged at officers with the 3-inch knife he had in his hand, as police initially claimed. If anything, it appears that McDonald was trying to get away from police, not engage them. This is precisely why so many people, particularly in black and beleaguered communities, do not trust the police or the many tentacles of law enforcement.
It wasn’t until a judge’s order last week, via a lawsuit filed by a journalist whose Freedom of Information Act Request was denied by the city, that the city finally agreed to make the video public. On the day of the release, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez all stepped forward to condemn Van Dyke’s actions -- or at least they hedged their words, given the video's heinous optics and the outrage it would surely spark.
Hours before the video’s release, in a rare and historic move, Alvarez charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder. Emanuel and McCarthy asked for calm in the city and said that Van Dyke’s fate is now in the hands of the courts, that he’ll be held accountable and that his actions the night of McDonald’s killing do not reflect on the good men and women of the Chicago Police Department.
“I’ve been a prosecutor for nearly 30 years,” Alvarez said in announcing the charges. “I have personally investigated and prosecuted numerous cases of police misconduct and public corruption, I’ve been involved in hundreds of murder investigations and trials, and I’ve seen some of the most violent and graphic evidence and crime scene photos that you can only imagine. To watch a 17-year-old young man die in such a violent manner is simply disturbing and I have absolutely no doubt that this video will tear at the hearts of all Chicagoans.”
Van Dyke was on the scene less than 30 seconds before he started shooting, just six seconds after he exited his vehicle.
Despite the charges – or maybe because of them -- the first calls for Alvarez to be replaced with a special prosecutor have begun. On Wednesday, Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin said Alvarez should be removed and replaced immediately.
“Given Chicago's track record of protecting even the most egregious wrongdoers in its police department, the most effective and appropriate vehicle to get to the truth in this matter is a special prosecutor,” Boykin wrote in a statement. “After 13 months of delay, the video showing the shooting of Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was finally released yesterday. The effect of the video's release has been to turn what was a brutal and illegal police murder of an African-American teenager into a high-tech execution that continues to be broadcast on television screens throughout the country.”
Over the last 10 years, Boykin said, the city of Chicago has spent more than $500 million in taxpayer dollars to settle police misconduct cases. In fact, the city’s $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family was decided at the same time as another settlement, that one for $5.5 million to establish a reparations fund for the victims of notorious former police Commander Jon Burge. For decades, Burge ran a torture ring that used electric shock, burning and beatings on more than 100 black men on the city’s South Side.
Alvarez said she rushed to charge Van Dyke because of the judge’s order to release the video before Thanksgiving and out of public safety concerns. The police said Van Dyke was kept on the payroll during the investigation because of policy and contract obligations. The city said it wanted to hold the video out of concern it might taint the investigation. Yet, in the 11th hour came the first rumblings of “justice.” “Justice” is funny that way. So often it appears, at least to the aggrieved, as public performance and political posturing -- promise of the intangible gift that never quite gets to healing.
The charges against Van Dyke, believed to be the first time a Chicago cop has been charged with murder for an on-duty killing, has been welcomed by many who have called for the officer to be held accountable. On Tuesday, Van Dyke lost his paycheck and, for now at least, his freedom. Overnight, protesters took to the streets of Chicago. Activists and organizers are planning their next steps.
Yet for many, the arrest and charges only matter if a conviction follows. And even then this case, and what many believe has the smell of an attempted cover-up including unsubstantiated rumors that police erased evidence captured by a surveillance video from a nearby fast-food restaurant, may just be the tip of the iceberg in a system that routinely allows officers to get away with abusing citizens.
RELATED: What took so long to charge Van Dyke
Prior to Oct. 20, 2014 when Van Dyke shot and killed McDonald, citizens had filed at least 18 complaints against him. The complaints include the alleged use of racial epithets, excessive force, choking and the unnecessary drawing of his gun. But none of those complaints were sustained, according to reports. In fact, Chicago, like many other police departments across the country, rarely ever penalizes its officers for complaints.
The calls from Chicago for justice and structural changes to the way law enforcement police communities of color have added to a chorus of complaints, protests and outrage that have jolted the country since the killing of Michael Brown Jr. by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the litany of other African-Americans killed by cops in cities since then including Baltimore, New York, North Charleston, and Cleveland.
In something of a twist, the release of the McDonald video came exactly a year after a grand jury in Missouri declined to indict former officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death. The non-indictment sparked protests but also rioting, looting and arson, ending what had been months of mostly peaceful dissent.
And the night before the release of the video in Chicago, five African-American men were shot and wounded during protests in Minneapolis over the recent killing of Jamar Clark, 24, by a police officer there. Three white men are currently in custody for their involvement in the shooting. Witnesses say Clark had his hands behind his back when he was shot during a struggle with police. Protests there have remained largely peaceful, but activists say that a number of people they described as “white supremacists” have threatened them.
These incidents are just the latest in what has been more than a year of tumult and unrest in America. In Chicago, Van Dyke will make his way through the prosecution of his case. McDonald’s family and supporters will undoubtedly mourn and push for justice, whatever that may look like.
And with each loop of the video in which Van Dyke’s and McDonald’s lives collided so violently, Americans will have to make a choice: Do we shield our eyes along with those of our children? Or do we open them wide to what seems an insatiable thirst for black blood in this country? Millions have already made that decision.