30 Seconds, 16 Shots, 400 Days: The Murder of Laquan McDonald

ColumnNovember 25, 2015

On the night of Oct. 20, 2014, Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African-American teenager in Chicago, was walking down the street when two police cruisers sped up to him. Officers jumped out, and at least one of them, Jason Van Dyke, began firing. Laquan fell to the ground, his final, painful moments caught on the dashboard video camera of a third police vehicle that had arrived just seconds before. Laquan spun as he was shot. Two bullets hit him in the back. As the video clearly shows, the bullets were pumped into him, evidenced by clouds of dust exploding off the pavement. This week, on the day the video was released to the public by court order, Officer Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder — 400 days after he killed Laquan McDonald.

The official scenario that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) offered sounded like so many others: The teen was armed with a knife and lunged at Officer Van Dyke and his partner. Van Dyke, the official story holds, fired on the youth only to protect himself and his partner from a potentially lethal attack.

Independent media took that scenario and turned it on its head. Jamie Kalven is the founder of the Invisible Institute and a freelance journalist in Chicago. He uncovered the autopsy report showing that Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times and first reported on the existence of the video of the shooting. Many prominent news outlets sought the dashboard video footage through Illinois’s Freedom of Information Act laws, but were denied.

Brandon Smith is an award-winning independent reporter, based, as his biography on his blog states, “wherever my suitcase sits.” Smith challenged the CPD’s denial of the FOIA requests in Cook County Court. Judge Franklin Valderrama heard the case, and ordered the city to release the footage by Nov. 25.

The footage clearly debunks the official story. Just one day before the deadline to release it, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced that Officer Van Dyke was being charged with first-degree murder. Within hours, the video was released.

Citizens have filed between 17 and 20 complaints against Van Dyke over the course of his 14 years with the CPD, for issues ranging from excessive force to improper use of a weapon to racial slurs. He was never disciplined. After the killing of Laquan McDonald, Officer Van Dyke was not indicted. Rather, he continued to be paid while assigned to desk duty until his arrest.

It also has been widely reported that additional video footage may have been destroyed. Police entered a nearby Burger King restaurant shortly after the shooting, asking for the password to their surveillance video system. They left after three hours. Eighty-six minutes of surveillance video had been deleted, it was later noticed, encompassing the time during which the shooting occurred. Burger King district manager Jay Darshane told NBC: “We had no idea they were going to sit there and delete the files. I mean, we were just trying to help the police.”

Activists have been especially critical of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has urged calm in the wake of the video’s release. Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100, told me on the Democracy Now! news hour: “The city has very specific interests around what happened. And they’re very concerned with the city remaining peaceful. But unfortunately, the community, the target that is being told to remain peaceful, is not the Chicago Police Department.”

The shooting occurred just two weeks before Rahm Emanuel was facing a tight re-election race. Several months after he won re-election over a progressive challenger, Chicago offered a $5 million settlement to Laquan McDonald’s family, without them even filing suit.

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, outrage over yet another police killing of a young, unarmed African-American male has led to a public occupation outside a police precinct. Hundreds have maintained a peaceful vigil demanding accountability and justice for the victim, Jamar Clark. The police have responded with a show of paramilitary force clearly intended to intimidate. Last Wednesday, an officer was photographed dressed in military fatigues, pointing his rifle at a protester with his hands in the air. The protester happens to be the son of Minneapolis Congressman Keith Ellison, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the first Muslim member of Congress in history.

Then, in a shocking escalation, several masked white men came to the protest Monday, and shot and injured five Black Lives Matter activists in what is being investigated as a hate crime. In response, close to 1,000 people marched in Minneapolis Tuesday night, the same night that hundreds marched in Chicago against police violence.

Despite the difficult circumstances, proud father and Congressman Keith Ellison is hopeful: “There is a surge going on across this country among diverse populations craving justice, demanding fair treatment. ... We have to have a more just society.”

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