By Alex Kotlowitz, The New Yorker
There’s deep concern that if Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who killed Laquan McDonald, is acquitted of murder, already aggrieved parts of Chicago could erupt in anger.
The Reverend Ira Acree, like so many in Chicago, remembers clearly the moment he watched the video of a police officer shooting the seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald sixteen times. It was late November of 2015, and he was in his office, on the second floor of his church, which happens to sit in the neighborhood where McDonald once lived. “Man, I was devastated,” he told me. “I just kept playing it over and over and over. I got so angry.” Acree’s six-hundred-member congregation is mostly working-class and includes a number of police officers. He conceded, “I’m embarrassed to say I was naïve, that I believed in government.”
The video had been kept under wraps for more than a year when a judge ordered its release, a few days before Thanksgiving. The footage is disturbing, to say the least. McDonald, who was black and a ward of the state, had been acting erratically, attempting to break into vehicles, and was drifting down the middle of a commercial strip on the city’s South Side, wielding a three-inch knife, when police cars arrived. At one point, not caught on camera, McDonald allegedly slashes a tire on a squad car, but the police maintain their poise and continue to follow him, calling for an officer with a Taser. Finally, officers corral McDonald near a fence, away from residents, when another patrol car pulls up. An officer, Jason Van Dyke, who is white, emerges with his gun drawn and suddenly begins firing. There’s no sound on the video, which oddly makes it more haunting. The first shot spins McDonald around, then he crumples to the ground. The shots continue, and puffs of smoke appear to emerge from McDonald’s body, though it could be the bullets kicking up debris. After the sixteenth shot, another officer kicks the knife out of McDonald’s hand—an action that at that point seems unnecessary.
Van Dyke, who has since been suspended from the department, is on trial this week for murder. In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, he gave a preview of his defense, telling a reporter that he had never fired his gun on duty, even while working mostly nights in high-crime neighborhoods. “Nobody wants to shoot their gun,” he said. “I never would have fired my gun if I didn’t think my life was in jeopardy or another citizen’s was. It’s something you have to live with forever.”
Last week, I spent part of a day with Acree. We met in his office, at Greater St. John Bible Church, which he has helmed for twenty-eight years. Acree, who is fifty-three, was dressed in a lime-green polo shirt, black pants, and comfortable walking shoes. Although he’s long been engaged with his community, McDonald’s death so stirred him that he has taken on a more public role as an activist. Most recently, he helped lead a march that shut down a section of Lakeshore Drive, decrying what he sees as the lack of attention to the stubborn, persistent violence in parts of the city. No one wants to say it aloud, but there’s deep concern that if Van Dyke is acquitted an already aggrieved portion of the city could erupt in anger. Indeed, tensions are palpable. In July, in the hours after a police officer shot and killed a thirty-seven-year-old man who was armed, protesters threw rocks and bottles of urine at the police. At the courthouse, as jury selection began, deputy sheriffs patrolled the corridors and the perimeter in military garb, and Van Dyke arrived wearing a bulletproof vest under his suit jacket. “I believe Van Dyke is going to walk,” Acree told me. “When was the last time a cop was punished for murder in the city? I don’t know what happens next.”
When the video was released, in 2015, it wrought a succession of significant changes in the city. The police department had crafted a narrative that said McDonald had raised his knife and lunged at the officer, but there’s no evidence of that in the dash-cam footage; in fact, McDonald appears to be retreating. Protesters shut down Michigan Avenue’s high-end shopping district on Black Friday; marchers, chanting “Sixteen shots, sixteen shots,” accused Mayor Rahm Emanuel of withholding the video during his 2015 reëlection campaign, a charge that he denied. (It did come out that the city had agreed, in a settlement, to pay five million dollars to McDonald’s family, even though they hadn’t filed a lawsuit; in exchange, the family agreed not to release the video until any criminal charges were resolved.) Hours before the video’s release, the county prosecutor, Anita Alvarez, brought first-degree-murder charges against Van Dyke, the first time an on-duty officer in Chicago had been charged with murder in more than thirty-five years, according to the Tribune. Many, though, questioned the timing of Alvarez’s decision. The following March, she lost in the primary to a reform candidate, who ran a campaign ad that said, “A teen murdered. Shot 16 times. But for 400 days, Anita Alvarez did nothing.” The week following the release of the McDonald video, Emanuel fired the police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, declaring that “the public trust in the leadership of the department has been shaken and eroded.” The Department of Justice launched an investigation of the police department, leading to a scathing report that concluded that Chicago’s police had long engaged in a pattern of using excessive force, especially against minorities. Just a couple of months ago, the city announced a consent decree, agreeing to reforms in the police department.
As one black minister told me, “A little orphan boy, Laquan McDonald, did all that. That’s divine justice.”
Here we are, three years later, and, to quote Yogi Berra, it feels like déjà vu all over again. Last week, on the eve of the Van Dyke trial, Emanuel unexpectedly announced that he would not seek a third term as mayor. Though he denies that the decision had anything to do with the case, it had become clear that, whatever the outcome of the trial, he would have spent much of his campaign answering questions about the city’s handling of the video. Some black leaders, including Acree, had been calling for his resignation. Last Thursday, Dahleen Glanton, a columnist for the Tribune, wrote, “No one expected the mayor to step out of the ring with so much unfinished business still on his agenda. Perhaps that is because no one understood the depth of African-American grief over Laquan McDonald’s death.” Two of the current candidates in the mayoral race came into the public eye in the aftermath of McDonald’s shooting. Lori Lightfoot, the former head of the Police Board, was deeply troubled by the video and its delayed release. For the city, she told me, “it was this galvanizing moment.” McCarthy, the former police superintendent, is also running. When he announced his candidacy, reporters wanted to know if he was exacting revenge on the man who fired him. He denied it.
In narrow terms, this trial is about whether the police will be held accountable for their actions. For people of color, Chicago has offered up a long string of bitter encounters with law enforcement: the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton; Mayor Richard J. Daley’s “shoot to kill” order during the disturbances following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the serial tortures conducted by the police commander Jon Burge. The revelations about Burge placed such a stain on the city that the City Council issued reparations to many of his victims and mandated that Burge’s legacy become a part of the public-school curriculum. For younger blacks in the city, many of whom had themselves felt victimized by law enforcement, McDonald’s shooting marked a moment of “See, we told you so.” Acree told me of a young man who would regularly complain to him that police officers were manhandling him and his friends and that they were planting drugs on them. “I just dismissed him,” Acree told me, shaking his head in regret.
But, ultimately, this trial—regardless of the outcome—underscores a narrative that is central to life in Chicago today, and in most American cities: the broadening gap between those who have and those who have not. Acree has taken to calling Chicago “a tale of two cities,” a shorthand description that has become so prevalent when people talk about the city’s trajectory that the mayor pointedly dismissed the characterization this summer.
But here are the facts: the city’s downtown and many of its North Side neighborhoods are thriving, while the predominantly black neighborhoods of the city’s South and West sides are still reeling from the 2008 housing crisis. In many of those communities, one out of every six homes is vacant, according to research by the Woodstock Institute, a research-and-policy nonprofit.
Based on data from the most recent U.S. Census, when Emanuel closed fifty schools, in 2013, forty-four were in predominantly black or Latino communities. The violence, which mostly occurs in neighborhoods mired in poverty, has been persistent, but in 2016 it reached numbers not seen in twenty years. It particularly galls Acree that, although murder rates are up, the ability of the police department to solve these cases has declined. Last year, the police cleared only seventeen per cent of all homicides. And, in what Acree and others have referred to as “a strategic gentrification,” between 2000 and 2010, a hundred and eighty-one thousand black residents left Chicago. There’s a general feeling among members of the black community that the city doesn’t want them. “People on the West and South sides must be treated fairly,” Acree told me.