The release of the video of Laquan McDonald’s death, and the murder charges against the Chicago police officer who killed him, show how much has changed since Ferguson, and how much still needs to change.
This week, something happened that Chicago officials spent a year trying to prevent. The world saw with its own eyes what happened the night that police encountered 17-year-old black teenager Laquan McDonald. City officials spent one year and $5 million trying to prevent the dash-cam video of McDonald’s death from seeing the light of day. But for the work of journalists Jamie Kalven and Brandon Smith, and attorney Craig Futterman, they might have succeeded.
On October 20, 2014, Chicago police responding to a call about someone with a knife who threatened one person and tried to break into the car of another encountered 17-year-old Laquan McDonald carrying a 3-inch knife. Police said they saw McDonald stabbing at a car’s tires. When they ordered McDonald to drop the knife, he ignored them and walked away.
Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden said they were waiting for other officers to arrive with stun guns when McDonald lunged at officers with the knife, prompting them to open fire. An officer shot McDonald in the chest, and he was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital where he was pronounced dead later that night. Chicago press followed the police department’s lead, and reported the shooting as a “clear-cut case of self-defense.”
The police version of events began to unravel almost immediately. Reporter Jamie Kalven tracked down several witnesses who said the shooting was unnecessary, because several officers were present and had the situation under control. McDonald was boxed in by police cars and a construction fence. One witness said McDonald was moving away from police, not toward them, when a white police office shot him. McDonald fell to the ground, and after a short pause, the officer fired again and again.
Klaven obtained copy of the autopsy report on McDonald’s death. It revealed that McDonald was shot 16 times.
Chicago Police Department policy requires officers to activate their dash cameras when in pursuit. Kalven and Futterman issued a statement revealing the existence of the dash-cam video and demanding its release. Attorneys for McDonald’s family obtained the video, and said it showed McDonald walking away from police, contradicting the police story that he “lunged” at officers. One month later, the City Council quickly approved a $5 million settlement with the family, without a lawsuit even filed, including a provision keeping the video confidential.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune reported that 14-year-veteran officer Jason Van Dyke shot McDonald. Van Dyke had a history of brutality complaints, including one that cost the city $500,000 in a civil lawsuit. Yet, none of these incidents led to disciplinary action against Van Dyke. Another report surfaced that police deleted a video of the shooting from a security camera at a nearby Burger King, just hours after the shooting.
That would have been the end of it, except that independent reporter Brandon Smith filed a lawsuit requesting the release of the video under the Freedom of Information Act. Smith won his lawsuit last week, and a judge ordered the video released before Thanksgiving. The video release almost certainly influenced the decision to charge Van Dyke with first-degree murder, announced just ahead of the video’s release.
With an almost palpable dread, Chicago city officials started issuing calls for calm. They’d known for a year how bad the video was, and tried to cover it up. In a way, it was almost to be expected. The McDonald shooting couldn’t have happened at a worse time politically, one month out from an election in which mayor Rahm Emanuel faced a challenger strong enough to force him into a runoff. Black voters had grown disillusioned with Emanuel’s leadership. In a city still grappling with decades-long legacy of police corruption and violence against African Americans, the truth about McDonald’s death could exacerbate that relationship further.
Now, we have the video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting. There’s no audio, even though Chicago police dash-cams automatically record video. So we can’t hear what happened, but we can see it.
We can see his execution by officer Van Dyke unfold second-by-second. We can see McDonald walking away from police, looking anything but threatening. We can see Van Dyke’s patrol car arrive. We can see McDonald fall to the ground six seconds later, when Van Dyke’s first shot hits him, and we can see McDonald’s body jerking on the ground for the 13 seconds Van Dyke continue to fire bullets into him. We can see the pause when Van Dyke stops to reload.
Laquan McDonald’s execution has now become the latest of what could be classified as a modern-day “snuff film.” Today, anyone with an Internet connection and a smartphone can watch the police executions of African-Americans like Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and John Crawford.
The ubiquity of smartphone technology and social media put the tools of the media in the hands of everyday people. Activists and movements like #BlackLivesMatter have used those tools to amplify these stories, which would otherwise have remained local, and forced the problems they represent into our national conscience and political discourse.
These things are important. These videos are important. They tell the truth African-Americans have lived with for decades. They prove, as President Obama said, that people aren’t “making this stuff up.” There’s a Laquan McDonald in countless cities across American. Technology allows activists and ordinary citizens to amplify them, and finally demand that these stories be told. That, too is vitally important. It may even facilitate justice, in some cases. Without the video of McDonald’s death, Van Dyke wouldn’t be facing charges.
As important as they are, neither the videos nor the technology that allows them to be recorded and shared around the world are a solution. The story Laquan McDonald’s death, and the attempt to cover it up, are symptoms of structural racism so deeply embedded in our institutions that we fear that addressing it may destroy those institutions.
Eradicating the national sickness that produces police executions like McDonald’s means making policy changes that eliminate structural like those recommended by those proposed by #BlackLivesMatter. Until we have the political will to make the kinds of changes that prove black lives like Laquan McDonald’s truly matter, we will see more Laquan McDonalds and more videos like the one many of us have seen today.