Friday, November 27, 2015

Our Turn

Add Laquan McDonald to the tragic list of young men whose violent deaths over the past year have caused a public outcry over police brutality and the perception that men of color are targeted by law enforcement authorities in cities all over the United States. Beyond the race of the decedents and the occupation of their killers, there are few similarities in the number of deaths at the hands of the police, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, a suburb of St. Louis, Eric Garner in New York City, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Jamar Clark in Minneapolis and now McDonald in Chicago. All were involved in petty criminal activity at the time of their deaths, all resisted arrest during confrontations with the police, and all but McDonald were un-armed.

Of all the cases, the one of McDonald, a 17 year old who was killed on the southwest side of Chicago in October of 2014, stands out in starkest contrast. For starters, his story did not become a full blown media event until last week, more than a year after his death. The attention came after a lawsuit was filed that forced the City of Chicago and the Chicago  Police Department to release a video made from a camera mounted aboard a police vehicle which recorded the shooting of the teenager.

It's understandable why the CPD and the city didn't want that video released. In the soundless video, we see McDonald surrounded by police vehicles. He walks away from the camera in the direction of the two cops pointing their guns at him but veering away from them to the right. At no time is he any closer than 15 feet from the officers. Then he suddenly drops to the ground and you can see puffs of gun smoke as the young man twists and turns on the pavement. You then see an officer kick an object (the knife) away from the motionless form of McDonald.

In the end, CPD officer Jason Van Dyke emptied his gun into McDonald, shooting him 16 times, most the the shots striking him after he was on the ground. When Van Dyke went to reload his gun with another cartridge, his partner, the cop who kicked the knife away from McDonald, apparently told him to hold his fire.

But that's only the beginning...

Shortly after the shooting, officers entered a Burger King that was close to the scene and asked to view surveillance video shot by a number of cameras mounted in and around the restaurant. The manager obliged and the officers spent about three hours alone with the video equipment. The next day when investigators returned to inspect the video, they found that about an hour of footage from the evening of the shooting had been deleted. Ironically what did survive were images of the cops inspecting and presumably, erasing video.

The police department continues to claim there is no "credible" evidence to prove that members of the CPD intentionally deleted the files that contained video that may have been pertinent to the death of Laquan McDonald, yet offer no plausible explanation for the missing video.

Furthermore, according to Craig Futterman, founder of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago and one of the plaintiffs responsible for the lawsuit forcing the release of the video, an eyewitness who screamed at the officer to stop shooting at McDonald after he had fallen to the ground, refused to leave the scene despite the insistence of police. She was taken into custody for a brief period of time and claims to have been "intimidated" and told that she "did not see what she saw."

This past Tuesday on the eve of the public release of the video, Officer Van Dyke was indicted on first degree murder charges in the death of Laquan McDonald. Why it took so long to press charges against the officer and release the video is complicated and the cause of much anguish about town in the wake of the events of this week.

The case of the death of Laquan McDonald could have fallen through the cracks and been forgotten had it not been for a confidential tip from an insider in the police department that brought Futterman's attention to the the police dashcam video which showed that the officer's contention that his life was threatened by McDonald was nonsense. On April 13, the Corporation Council of the City of Chicago, Stephen Patton announced to a panel of aldermen that an FBI probe, (joined by the Independent Police Review Authority and the States Attorney's office), on the shooting was underway. Given the severity of the case and the public climate relating to police vis a vis the African American Community, Patton recommended that the city settle out of court with McDonald's family to the tune of five million dollars. The city's finance committee and the full City Council agreed to the settlement.  Still, Mayor Emanuel and police commissioner Garry McCarthy objected to the public release of the video on the grounds of the FBI investigation into the case was still underway. In can also be assumed that part of their logic was to avoid the unrest that occurred in other cities around the US. For the record, Laquan's family also objected to the public release of the video of the murder of their loved one.

The public's response to the video was swift and predictable; the rage, understandable.

McDonald was behaving erratically, having been high on PCP at the time of his death. The young man threatened a person with his knife, which prompted the original 911 call to the police. He allegedly attempted to break into several parked vehicles and took police on a half mile journey through streets and alleys before Van Dyke shot him. Up until that point the police strategy was to corral McDonald using their vehicles to prevent him from coming in contact with passersby, while waiting for other cops to arrive with tasers which could have non-lethally subdued him. The video shows the police to have McDonald cornered when Van Dyke and his partner got out of their vehicle, guns drawn. Within seconds, Van Dyke opened fire.

While some police officers contend that the dashcam video does not tell the complete story of the tragic event, it is clear that it was unnecessary for Van Dyke to shoot McDonald once, let alone 16 times.

Since the release of the video there have been numerous peaceful demonstrations in the city. At this writing, the day after Thanksgiving, marchers are organizing on north Michigan Avenue, Chicago's prominent shopping district, on this, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. Clearly this is an attempt to gain as much visibility as possible, drawing attention to an abominable injustice that took place and arguably continues. That is the inalienable right of free people in a free society.

How it all plays out is anybody's guess; hopefully the demonstrations will be peaceful, and the police will to keep their cool. The best thing that can happen out of all this is reform and a real dialog between the police and the communities they have been entrusted to protect. I think the last thing anybody wants, with the exception of some people who might hope to gain personal advantage from the situation, is to bring back the turmoil of the disastrous events of  Chicago, 1968.

Once again, the whole world is watching.

POST SCRIPT: The March up Michigan Avenue protesting the death of Laquan McDonald took place on (Black) Friday, November 27th. It came off without much incident from either side, the demonstrators or the police, and life has returned pretty much to normal on the Magnificent Mile. The protesters did manage to prevent shoppers from entering the stores on that street for much of the day which no doubt cost businesses a great deal in lost revenue on their busiest day of the year. The Reverend Michael Pfleger, one of the leaders of the march stated that shutting down the economy was the one thing that would get the attention of the powers that be. That may be true but one of the things overlooked by the good reverend and the marchers was the fact that the folks who were hurt most by the store closings were not the business owners who have plenty of resources to keep them going, but store workers, restaurant staffs and other working stiffs who depend on commissions and tips for their livelihoods. If poverty is indeed one of the core causes for much of the trouble experienced in our cities today, the shutting down of one of this city's biggest economic engines on its most important day seems to me at least, foolish and self-defeating.

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