What It's Like to See Your City's Most Notorious Killer Cop Go Down
"Everyone just let out this huge sigh at once.”
Left Image: Laquan McDonald being shot in 2014. (Photo by Chicago Police Department via Getty Images) Right Image: Jason van Dyke 2015 mugshot. (Photo by Cook County State's Attorney's Office via Getty Images)
As Chicago awaited a decision in the murder trial of Police Officer Jason Van Dyke for the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald last week, the city’s school-kids were preparing for something they had never seen in their lives. Despite damning evidence against Van Dyke—most notably the notorious police dash-cam video showing him unloading 16 shots into McDonald, some after he was already crumpled on the ground—young Chicagoans had grown up in a town where killer cops just didn’t get convicted. The last time it happened here was 1970.
But on Friday afternoon, a jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and guilty on all 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm—one for each shot he fired at the slain teen.
In the hours and days after, VICE spoke to more than a dozen of the city’s black youth to reflect on the milestone. They painted a complex portrait of justice, hope and challenge. Some of the students seemed to have video of McDonald’s killing etched in their memory, having first seen it when they were as young as nine, in 2015. The intervening years, meanwhile, saw explosive growth in black and youth-focused organizing groups, and a landmark reparations agreement between the city and past victims of police torture (which included teaching the history of Chicago police outrages in public schools).
For some, the Van Dyke verdict was good, but not good enough—a second-degree murder conviction carries a shorter sentence than the first-degree charge he faced, and Van Dyke was still acquitted on one count of official misconduct. For others, the extraordinary circumstances around the case seemed like an impossibly high bar to reach in the any future instance of police-involved murder.
And there will be more. As Damayanti Wallace, a 17-year-old high school senior, pointed out, even if there’s consistency in guilty verdicts against police, more murder trials will mean “black kids [are still] dying.”
Looming over all of it, then, was the awareness that the larger criminal justice system remained on the same course as before. It hadn’t gotten more humane—it just finally ensnared a local cop, too.
“There was so much anxiety in everyone’s body,” Wallace told me. At her West Side school, she said, students were on break when the verdict was coming down: “600 students are trying to get on the same Wifi, refreshing their feeds," she recalled of the scene.
To steel themselves, Wallace said, her peers allowed themselves to say out loud that Van Dyke would be found guilty. “But even after we said that and calmed down, it felt like time was moving so slow. But then it came. And, I kid you not—everyone just let out this huge sigh at once.”
Since almost all Chicago Public Schools were still in session when the verdict came in early Friday afternoon, students described similar scenes: Clamoring around a cell phone to watch the live stream as the verdict was read, or surreptitiously sneaking glances at their phones or Twitter feeds while they and their peers pretended to pay attention in class.
“Relief” was the most consistent reaction among students, particularly the older ones with a more nuanced understanding of what was at stake. Some recalled cheers, but few came close to describing a sense of outright joy—after all, many noted, the guilty verdict didn’t bring McDonald back to life.
Sixteen-year-old Liza Booker attends school five miles south of where McDonald was killed in the Archer Heights neighborhood. She felt relief, but only some.
“It gives me a little bit of hope,” she told me.
Attention to McDonald’s 2014 death didn’t ramp up until the following year; Van Dyke’s official account was a neatly-presented instance of self-defense—McDonald was carrying a knife—that ended in tragedy. In cops' telling, McDonald looked “deranged” and served as the aggressor, prompting Van Dyke to fire. But once a protracted legal battle forced the dash cam video into public view, the footage told a completely different story.
“[Van Dyke] shot him 16 times,” Booker said. “It could have been instinct—that’s really presumptions—but it seems like black youth [are seen] as target practice.”
In just a six-year span, Chicago police shootings killed 92 people, according to a 2016 analysis by the Chicago Tribune. About four out of every five people shot by the cops were black men and boys.
Maya Barber, 19, who graduated from the same high school as Wallace and is now in college, said the conviction was important for upending the expectation that the best a victim’s family might hope for was a cash payout. (Chicago awarded McDonald’s family $5 million in a wrongful death settlement in 2015).
“A lot of these cases, people are paid off,” Barber said. “That’s not justice. That’s settling.”
“[It was] the recognition that yes, this was murder,” she added. “I also wish the minimum had been longer.”
Wallace, Booker, and Barber had all been involved in recent years in different forms of local organizing that encompassed a range of issues like LGBTQ rights, police accountability, climate change and gun violence. In the McDonald case, activism was largely driven by young people who led 2015’s “Black Friday” demonstration on the busiest shopping day of the year and the more recent shutdown of Lake Shore Drive, one of the city’s most crowded thoroughfares.
“As youth activists, we’re getting a lot of restorative training: Learning about healing, and taking people out of that prison industrial complex,” Wallace said. But when the dash-cam video was first released, she noted, everyone’s first reaction was, "Send him to jail! What’s holding this up?”
“The vibe is different, now more kids understand restorative practices than we did four years ago,” she continued. “And that’s where the conflicting feelings are coming in now. Everyone has to battle with those things, because if we don’t, we’ll be stuck with the same bad system.”
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