Op-Ed: Laquan McDonald Pawn in Chicago Blame Game

The murder of Laquan McDonald has all the hallmarks of a perfect political scandal: Savage police killing? Check. Black teen who escaped a painful childhood just to be robbed of a promising future? Check. Cover-up that could go as high as the mayor? Check and check.

And everyone’s smelled blood in the water. Laquan’s death is being divvied up for political ammunition in a series of disturbing events that began with white police officer Jason Van Dyke emptying his entire cartridge—16 shots—into the boy’s body and has culminated in Chicagoans calling for the mayor’s and Cook County State’s Attorney’s heads, among others, on a stick.


Everything about the case reeks—terribly. The hasty $5 million settlement during the mayoral election that included a deal to keep the video buried, the city’s fight to suppress it based on a bogus claim that its release would harm a federal investigation, the sacrifice of Garry McCarthy and the oh-so-timely indictment of Laquan’s killer.

But Laquan McDonald is an anomaly. Most police killings aren’t prosecuted. Van Dyke, in fact, was the first on-duty CPD officer in decades to be charged with murder, a deviation from the script that usually dictates such happenings.

And yet, even the more household names of #BlackLivesMatter have not gotten such a shot at justice, even though their stories, cynically, comparatively, provide better pickings for the media: Laquan was almost 18; Tamir Rice was 12. Laquan was holding a knife; Michael Brown died unarmed. Laquan’s death was captured in silent dash-cam footage; Eric Garner’s was filmed unflinchingly by a friend in visceral detail, his last words “I can’t breathe” echoing 11 times as an officer sealed off his windpipe and wiped his face with the sidewalk.

Consider how mechanically many civilians, mostly black or Latino, are charged for murder and locked away, only for the city to titter a shameless “Oops, silly me” when the evidence turns out to be utter bull. The typical case is “solved” – when at all, given Chicago’s low homicide clearance rate – within a couple of days if not hours. And that can happen with the flimsiest of evidence.

This case is just the opposite: Hard, irrefutable evidence of a cop slaughtering a kid seared into the dash-cams and retinas of the officers at the scene that night–while other evidence was allegedly tampered with, including surveillance video from a nearby Burger King literally 86’d just hours after Laquan died. Newly released police reports provide a surreal, alternate universe retelling of Laquan’s murder. And recently turned over emails reveal the city’s Law Department had asked to see the video last November, as had Anita Alvarez.

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And yet, there was nothing for 400 days, until Cook County judge Franklin Valderrama ruled in favor of a freelance journalist’s lawsuit to unleash the video. It went viral and Van Dyke was charged with murder—almost in triumphant, Ride of the Valkyries-blaring celebration, as if law enforcement had done something worthy of applause.

Then again, how many other cases had a high-profile politician sticking his fingers in the cow pie? And during election season, no less. Or maybe our mayor is just dense and stubborn enough to get caught.

Laquan McDonald is only receiving this posthumous shot at justice to save hides and bail out careers. Everyone looks guilty as hell, even if they’re not: The Mayor, McCarthy, the Cook County State’s Attorney, the City Council members who unanimously approved the settlement in 36 seconds, the (not-so?) Independent Police Review Authority, the city’s Law Department and every single cop at the scene.

So let’s be blunt: Emanuel screwed up. And he screwed up bad. So did Alvarez. So did the City Council. So did the cops who penned a best-selling fantasy series in the police reports to protect the swarm.

Political commentators say Emanuel would have lost to mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia had he allowed for the video’s release, so he made the fatal decision to sit on it. But the likelier story seems the scenario played out by Chicago Reader reporter Ben Jovrasky, in which he could have released the video and been hailed as a hero, making his stifling of the video a “politically stupid move.”

Which makes his firing of McCarthy and Alvarez’s indictment of Van Dyke Band-Aids on an acid burn, as a Facebook event called “rahm emanuel and anita alvarez’s resignation party” gets 1.8k people “interested” and 1.1k planning to attend.

“there will be fun party games like ‘pin the jail cell around these criminal politicos’ and someone said they’d bring guac!” the event—set for noon on December 9th—deadpanned in an earlier version, when only 1.6k people were interested.

“someone invite rahm and anita! i’m not connected to them on Facebook.”

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Emanuel can’t actually be impeached. But he’s pledged to run in 2019 and Alvarez is up for re-election. And calls for their resignations are ringing out from bigger fish than just a few thousand Facebook snarkers, more like sharks, reallyBernie Sanders, The New York Times and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Republicans are gleefully painting him as a loose cannon and political liability for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And although most Democrats have been unusually silent, with the upcoming presidential election it’s likely not long before they turn on the mayor, too. With Clinton, who is running to succeed Obama, whispering sweet nothings in the ears of civil rights voters, one more screw-up can earn Emanuel his head.

And yet he continues to dig his own grave through political blunders and empty, lazy rhetoric: he said no to Clinton’s proposal of a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights probe into the CPD, and then backpedaled real fast. During a cringe-inducing press conference, he went through the smoke and mirrors of naming a taskforce full of police talking heads and proposing an early warning system for bad police that has actually been here since 1997.

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But even the federal probe, whose massive bandwagon also includes Madigan, Alvarez and Governor Bruce Rauner, could be no more than a meaningless ritual. A Washington Post and Frontline joint investigation found Justice Department-forced reforms cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years, with not much to show besides shiny new equipment, more #Millenial-friendly policies and improved training.

As for his promise of “New faces, new leadership,” a peek into the taskforce members’ background reveals all sorts of coziness with the police, including a former deputy superintendent of the CPD and the head of the defunct Office of Professional Standards who formerly represented officers in a police brutality case. A familiar issue, as IPRA has gotten the reputation of “an agency designed to cover up police misconduct.” Not to mention the obvious glitch in the Matrix: Chicago keeps getting fed this particular re-run of a re-run, The One with the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force.

We journalists are culpable too. A long time passed between the killing and any real media outrage. Sure, many outlets submitted FOIAs and took the moral high ground in thinkpiece after thinkpiece, all the while discussing excitedly the alchemy of turning 16 bullets and a dead teenager into a million clicks. But if it weren’t for the Invisible Institute’s whistleblowing and freelance journalist Brandon Smith’s lawsuit, we likely all would have swallowed the police’s Kool-Aid as the union spokesman put it out there the day Laquan was cut down. We reap the profits because the Institute and Smith actually did their jobs.

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How many Laquans are out there? We know of at least two—Ronald Johnson, the 25-year-old shot eight days before Laquan whose death video has already been transformed into political leverage for Rahm (who now plans to release it) and 19-year-old Calvin Cross, who had a century-old gun planted on him and whose killers were never disciplined.

But how many more hundreds are ignored and discarded, at the mercy of a fickle press with the attention span of a binge-drinking toddler in such a rapid-fire marketplace, the truths of their murders swallowed by the ghosts of FOIAs-never-filed because they didn’t have the foresight to get killed and conspired about in an election cycle?

The city and the media have sent a clear message: Black lives matter, but only when political careers do.

Who will be the next poster child for police brutality? Ronald Johnson? Calvin Cross? Someone else’s baby, brother, son, father who will be murdered a month from now, or a year? Whoever it is, pray that a politician finds him important enough to personally cover up. Because that might be the only way he gets justice.

-Cover photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

About Evelyn Wang

Evelyn Wang is the Managing Editor of The Youth Project, and a current student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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