The cover of a Thanksgiving feast and Black Friday sales won’t block the perception that Chicago’s mayor and city council, and Cook County’s State’s Attorney are complicit in covering up the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014.
That big-city officials armed with data, access and 20/20 vision would try a cover up in this age of #Blacklivesmatter protests and action reveals contempt for the communities they were elected to serve, unbridled ambition to stay in office at all costs and cultural tone-deafness. Laquan’s story is bigger than him. It’s about Rekia Boyd; it’s about Freddie Gray; it’s about Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the whole point of raising the issue of police/community relations in the first place.
On Tuesday we saw one side of Emanuel’s two faces as he stood at a press conference acting as if his office had no involvement or stake in what has occurred: “Police officers are entrusted to uphold the law, and to provide safety to our residents,” he said. “In this case unfortunately, it appears an officer violated that trust at every level.”
Trust has been violated not only by former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, from what is shown on the video, it has been violated by city officials who blocked freelance writer Brandon’s Smith’s efforts to obtain a copy of the video, as he is allowed under the Freedom of Information Act.
How is it that the mayor and City Council quietly signed off on a $5 million payout to Laquan’s family for this horrific act? Isn’t this the same city so desperate for cash that it dots the landscape with red-light cameras to raise money in a punishing cycle of fines that disproportionally affect Black and Brown people? Isn’t this the same city that can’t make its pension payments as promised to the likes of police, firefighters and city workers who help make the Second City world-class?
Trust has been violated by the 5th Floor, which, as Chicagoans know, is where the mayor sits. Trust has been violated by State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez who refused to prosecute Van Dyke until forced, last week, by a judge. Van Dyke has been collecting a paycheck working on desk duty while the executive, legislative and judicial branches stonewalled. What were they trying to figure out for 400 days since the shooting?
Now, a judge’s order has everyone scrambling like children who forgot to clean their room.
Yes, Van Dyke must be held accountable. But political damage control is not a problem-solving strategy; it’s a stopgap tactic. What they’ve done is a classic community containment maneuver typically used to manage the poor instead of investing in solutions and real answers.
One can’t help but wonder if the 5th floor and the state’s attorney colluded to cover up this crime. Certainly, Chicago’s mayoral election this spring might have taken a different turn if the video was released when first requested — as is the law. Maybe that was the point.
Poor communities of color, riddled with crime and devoid of resource investment are often subjected to a hypocritical critique of no-snitch culture, while city officials have proven to be the biggest upholders of a culture of silence anywhere.
Moreover, Alvarez has proven a colossal disappointment who first campaigned as a veteran prosecutor just far enough outside of the inner circle so as not to be tainted by previous wrongdoings. Yet, she has fallen into a pattern of protecting the institution over the people who elected her. For example, she defended her office when “60 Minutes” in 2012 highlighted false confessions at the State’s Attorney’s office. In the case of the Dixmoor 5, young African-American men were falsely convicted of raping and murdering their 14-year-old classmate in 1991. Alvarez has maintained it’s possible the wrongfully convicted men who committed the crime even though there was a complete dearth of evidence.
And now, more than 400 days later, she’s a part of a system that refused to do the obvious: Follow through on investigating the crime so clearly shown on the police dash camera showing Jason Van Dyke executing Laquan.
On Wednesday, Chicago commemorated the 28th anniversary of the death of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor who epitomized government transparency, racial harmony and economic inclusion. Whereas Washington busted opened the budgeting and procurement process, for example, Emanuel and the city council, with the aid of Alvarez, have put blinders on the legal process.
The massive cover-up of Laquan’s death dishonors Washington’s legacy and the current work of individuals across the country to promote trust and openness between the people and the police. An apology from the mayor acknowledging these mistakes is the first step to creating a climate of accountability because it’s the right thing to do, not just politically expedient.
Kanu Iheukumere is chief policy and research officer at Bethel New Life, dedicated to eradicating poverty and providing a pathway to jobs for Chicago’s West Side residents.