December 6, 2015

Laquan McDonald: Same Old, Same Old

Cook County Coroner's illustration of Laquan McDonald's wounds
 -- courtesy of the New Republic
When I began this blog, I was enthusiastic about the forum and set aside the energy and time to write. As the months passed, I have found it increasingly difficult to talk about the intersecting issues of civil rights, politics, and law enforcement. That is to say, it feels as though we are watching history repeat itself in increasingly short cycles with little change in state behavior or it's response to the evidence of misconduct. When the aggrieved communities express their anger and concern, the media responds by questioning whether these protests are only making it harder to effectively police crime and suggesting that these incidents are the outliers, always the outliers. By the time I have begun to wrap my head around an event, we are already on to the next, markedly similar travesty. Writing posts discussing police violence and the blue wall of silence that supports it often has a pointless feel to it, given the police shooting and cover up that is inevitably right around the corner.


On May 17, shortly after another young black man died at the hands of the police, I wrote:
The murder of Freddie Gray is a fresh, raw wound. It's one that will either scab over and heal or be gouged wide open by the upcoming criminal prosecution of the officers. Over the past week or two, Gray's death, and the reaction in Baltimore and around the country, felt like it would dominate the news for the months to come.  It likely will not. Some other distracting event will occur, and we will lurch forward, leaving Gray and Baltimore behind. We will do so without any meaningful attempts to acknowledge, much less resolve the underlying issues that caused the officers in question to abuse and kill Freddie Gray, or to grasp and address the deep anger and frustration that comes rushing to the surface in the public demonstrations that follow these deaths. As these events unfold, I am struck by a certain sameness.
The police shooting du jour is the October 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald by Jason Van Dyke of the Chicago Police Department, which we heard of now only because the damning video evidence was just released. Sadly, the casual use of lethal force by law enforcement is a ho-hum event. Whether it's the choking out of Eric Garner, the shooting of 12 year-old Tamir Rice, or, in a shooting should have drawn far more attention, the cold-blooded murder of Daniel Saenz (see here for the disturbing video), that police officers are scarily comfortable using deadly force is yesterday's news.

The video of McDonald's murder is more of the same: a young man walks past and veers away from CPD officers. He's not an immediate threat or a menace to any of the officers. Still, they open fire, sending McDonald to the ground, while they continue to pump bullet after bullet into his body. Make no mistake, there's nothing ambiguous about Van Dyke shooting McDonald: it's homicide.




What is there to say about officers who are so quick to kill, who can fire without meaningful provocation, and do so without any apparent sense of guilt or contrition? Personally, I am at a loss to explain what I cannot understand. What does deserve discussion, however, is the policing culture that nurtures and protects these officers, that tells them this level of violence is appropriate, that defends them when they are caught, that attacks those that protest, assigning blame for all future rises in crime to those who seek to hold law enforcement responsible for their own criminality.

Chicago is no different. City Hall had access to the video and knew then, more than a year ago, that their officer killed a man without any justification. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel's duty, as that of CPD Superintendent McCarthy, was to turn it over to prosecutors, to recommend, no, make that demand, Van Dyke's arrest and prosecution. But they did nothing of the sort. Rather, they tried to bury the video as deep as possible, fighting desperately in court to keep it sealed, damn the costs. They released a statement defending the officers and remained silent as the CPD's supporters went even further.

That commitment to the cover up is the most reprehensible aspect of this tired story of morally bankrupt political cynicism. Van Dyke is being charged with murder -- not because DA Anita Alvarez has any political backbone, but rather despite its absence. He should have been charged a year ago and is being prosecuted now as a matter of necessity and because it's the only play left for an administration with no other cards to play. Alvarez was duty bound to prosecute based on the video evidence known to her two weeks after the shooting. She, like Emmanuel and company, bet on the cover up. They put out a falsified version that backed Van Dyke and stuck with it, pretending all the while that they were not aware of that which they most certainly knew.

Which takes us the charges that are missing against his colleagues. Van Dyke's partner and fellow officers on the scene joined in his fabricated version of events. They swore at the time that McDonald was threatening Van Dyke, waving his knife while coming towards the officer in a threatening manner. They painted a picture of McDonald as a dangerous man who left Van Dyke no choice but to fire. It was a lie, of course, a fiction deliberately crafted by the officers to cover up Van Dyke's shooting. The powers that be knew this too but didn't care. That their officers violated the law as well as their oaths and duties was an inconvenient truth; the only important thing was to figure a way out. Once the courts ordered the video's release, there was little choice left but to suddenly seize the moral high ground. Figuring the best defense was a good offense, Emmanuel fired McCarthy and Van Dyke was charged. Craven politicking at its worst.

The end of this sordid story is far from written. It is not clear yet what will become of the others, of the officers who lied through their words or by their silence, or their supervisors who knew but remained quiet? It seems inevitable that more heads will roll; McCarthy had to go if only to keep the wolves from the Mayor's door. Van Dyke had to be charged if only to keep up the pretense that DA Alvarez has a passing interest in justice. More bodies will be needed and those who most blatantly lied will be next. But it will not be nearly enough.

Reflexive acceptance and support for police brutality, even when deliberately fatal,  has long been a City Hall staple. Accountability up the chain is critical if there is to be any real hope for meaningful change, if these killings are to become the rare departure from the norm that ought to be. The federal government will investigate, just as it always promises to do when local police commit crimes under the approving eye of the local government. The investigations drag on until public interest has waned completely and there is nobody left to notice that nothing will be done. Yes, Rahm Emmanuel was a national player, but if we are serious about addressing this pattern of police violence, the federal government must act swiftly to delegitimize the post hoc political conduct. Holding senior officials responsible for the cover up, as well as the officers involved, is essential. 

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