The state of Illinois has announced that it will release Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago cop who was convicted of murdering Black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on February 3 — after only three years and three months in prison. This next-to-nothing punishment is more evidence that the U.S. “justice” system won’t simply reform itself.
Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder in October 2018 for shooting Laquan McDonald sixteen times in the middle of Pulaski Road in Chicago in October 2014. He remained free for four years after the murder; now, he’ll be released from prison after barely three.
The announcement of Van Dyke’s release comes on the heels of Biden’s appointment of Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor, as the new U.S. ambassador to Japan. Emanuel presided over the cover-up of the McDonald murder, and was a primary target of Chicago’s Black Lives Matter movement. In the same spirit, Biden has increased funding for police departments, promising that they will engage in “community policing.”
Eight cops in four cars pursued McDonald, acting on a 911 call from a truck stop owner who claimed McDonald had broken into parked trucks. McDonald fled on foot down an empty street holding a three inch pocket knife. One of the squad cars filmed Van Dyke and his partner drive around McDonald, park in front of him, and jump out, with no one else in the immediate area. Continuing down the street, McDonald stepped sideways, across an entire lane of traffic, away from Van Dyke, who continued to pursue him. As McDonald walked past and away from him, Van Dyke shot him from a distance of ten feet, then emptied the other sixteen bullets from his gun into McDonald as he lay wounded. Immediately afterward, three more police cars arrived.
Van Dyke and five other cops falsely reported that McDonald had moved toward him and physically threatened to attack him. The city government concealed the video of the shooting for thirteen months, until a judge ordered its release in November 2015. A man passing by with his adult son witnessed the shooting and reported that McDonald did not threaten the police, and had been moving away from them when Van Dyke opened fire. The witness told a journalist that police had “shooed” them away.
Although the Chicago Police Department (CPD) officially required cops to use squad car cameras and microphones during all pursuits, three of the four squad cars present did not record video, and none of them recorded audio. In 2015 the CPD admitted that 80 percent of its squad cars were not recording audio due to “operator error or in some cases intentional destruction.” Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired sitting police chief Gary McCarthy after the city was forced to show the McDonald video to the public. The only action taken by interim CPD chief John Escalante to address police damaging recording devices was to suspend a few cops for three days.
Shortly after McDonald was killed, top CPD commanders, including Deputy Chief Eddie Johnson, watched the dash camera video and agreed that Van Dyke’s actions were “justified”. In March 2016, facing enormous public outrage, Mayor Emanuel appointed Johnson, who is Black, as the new CPD chief, promising that he would lead appropriate police reform and “restore trust in the community.”
Five years after the shooting, the city’s Inspector General announced that the lieutenant who led CPD’s internal investigation made “false statements and misleading characterizations” to “exaggerate the threat McDonald posed,” rewrote notes taken by cops at the scene about what non-police witnesses said, and disposed of the originals.
Fraudulent reports are part of the “Blue Code of Silence.” In 2005, Van Dyke was the first cop to arrive after other CPD members fatally shot Emanuel Lopez 16 times. Van Dyke wrote that Lopez committed a hit-and-run, then struck a pursuing officer and pinned him under his car — and that the police shot him in self defense. The Lopez family’s lawyer later asked Van Dyke under oath how he arrived at this account, and he testified, “I didn’t recover any evidence. I didn’t interview any witnesses” but instead copied from a document handed to him by a detective without asking that cop’s name or where the information came from, then threw that document away. This incredible admission did not, of course, lead to his firing.
Van Dyke was tried in 2018 by a jury with only one Black member, even though Black people make up a third of Chicago’s population. Prosecutors charged him with first-degree murder with a gun — which carries a mandatory minimum 45-year sentence in Illinois. Judge Vincent Gaughin, however, instructed the jury on the first day of deliberations that they could consider second degree murder. The jury convicted Van Dyke of second degree murder, and of sixteen counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. Gaughin then sentenced Van Dyke to six years and nine months in prison. Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul petitioned the state Supreme Court to impose a longer sentence, but a majority of the judges refused.
Van Dyke remained suspended but not fired from the CPD until he resigned from prison, twelve months after his conviction. The police union has never wavered from bullishly supporting him. The day Van Dyke was convicted of murder, the president of the city police union said, “The Chicago Police Department is standing with an officer we think acted as an officer,” and called for the verdict to be overturned on appeal. City police union heads are directly elected by rank and file cops.
Biden’s Position Upholds Racist Police Departments
The Senate approved Biden’s appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Ambassador to Japan in December. Emanuel acted as Barack Obama’s Chief of staff from 2009 to 2010, before becoming mayor of Chicago from 2011 to 2019. He litigated for 13 months against demands by numerous journalists to release the video of MacDonald’s murder. Widespread protests called for Emanuel’s resignation; many observers suggested he wouldn’t have won his second term as mayor, garnering 56% in an April 2015 runoff election, if voters had seen the video. After huge protests began in Chicago over Thanksgiving weekend 2015, Emanuel’s approval rating fell to 18%.
From the summer of 2020 to a recent speech to U.S. mayors, Biden has argued, “We shouldn’t be cutting funding for police departments. I proposed increasing funding.” While major police forces continue to get away with the murder of Black people, Biden sugar-coats increased funding by saying that an unspecified portion of it will go towards hiring “psychologists and social workers” to work in tandem with cops, and to fund police “partner[ships] with trusted community leaders.”
Biden announced that state and city governments can take money from the $350 billion they received in his American Rescue Plan Act for pandemic relief and use it to fund their police departments. This is the same shell game as when Chicago’s current mayor, Lori Lightfoot, took $281.5 million from the 2020 CARES Act intended for COVID-related public health and economic assistance, and instead put it into cops’ paychecks.
In his 2022 Budget, Biden requested that federal funding for the COPS Hiring Program, be more than doubled, from $157 million to $388 million. “COPS”, which stands for “Community Oriented Policing Services,” gives state and local governments money to hire more police. Created under the 1994 Crime Bill authored by then-senator Joe Biden, this DOJ program funded the hiring of 100,000 more local cops, and helped to double the U.S. prison population. Biden’s overall request for federal funding to state and local police for 2022 totalled $4 billion, continuing the steady increases under Trump.
The slogan of “community policing,” now with “social workers” as a garnish, is a public relations veneer to launder increased funding for an oppressive force. Biden preaches that police funding keeps people safe, while Illinois releases one of the very few cops convicted after being exposed for murder — just halfway through an already light sentence. The same year Van Dyke was put behind bars, three Illinois prison guards brutally murdered Larry Earvin, a 65-year-old mentally ill Black man. Earvin was serving a six-year sentence for stealing cheap watches — about equal on paper to Officer Van Dyke’s murder sentence.
Police Reform Has Been Shockingly Dishonest
When Lori Lightfoot succeeded Emanuel as mayor in 2019, political calls to punish police for racist crimes and “Blue Wall” conspiracies to protect violent cops were diverted by her promise to create a Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability. Lightfoot is a former prosecutor, and the former director, 2002 to 2004, of the failed CPD “Office of Professional Standards,” an earlier “oversight” institution. The energy unleashed in the 2020 anti-police uprisings was diverted yet again into a new police “oversight” board. This “Community Commission” was finally created by the City Council in July 2021, with a law brokered between left-leaning City Council members (including DSA council members), moderate advocates of police reform, and Mayor Lightfoot.
The law sets up an unspeakably indirect, undemocratic, and toothless system for selecting seven Commission members to oversee the police department. Rather than having voters elect Commissioners directly, it merely allows voters in each of 22 sub-districts of the city to elect three sub-representatives, among whom the mayor can choose in appointing the seven “Community Commission” members. The “Community Commissioners” will then name a list of nominees for the seats on the Police Board, from which the mayor will select appointees. Or, the mayor can simply refuse, and demand a new list of nominees from the “Community Commission.” The mayor has the power to veto any police department policies created by the “Community Commission.” The first election of sub-district council members for this “community” institution was scheduled for 2023. This hardly seems like progress from the old Police Board system, under which the nine member, mayor-appointed board oversaw the Laquan McDonald case, and allowed Jason Van Dyke to stay on the force after admitting to falsifying records.
The Community Commission will have the authority to appoint the head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) — unless the City Council does not agree with its choice. COPA was created in 2017 to investigate possible police crimes. It can make reports and statements, but has no power to fire or punish cops. It replaced the previous Independent Review Board, which in turn replaced the CPD Office of Professional Standards once headed by Mayor Lightfoot. The Community Commission can call for the removal of a CPD Chief, but this will have no effect unless the City Council and the Mayor agree. One of the most prominent of the five DSA members of the Chicago City Council, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, originally pushed in 2018 for a new police review committee, directly elected by voters. However, when the Community Commission law passed, Ramirez-Rosa signaled his approval, saying “These are very unique powers.”
We need politically independent self-organization against oppression to overcome the hypocritical strategies of the ruling class to re-legitimize their system.
Protest on February 3
A group of Black community activists denounced the miniscule prison time given to Van Dyke and called for Chicago’s unionized public transit workers to strike for 16 days against his release. Activists have demanded federal prosecutors charge Van Dyke with civil rights violations — citing the precedent of the charges filed against Derek Chauvin, who murdered George Floyd, and the three other cops who abetted him. McDonald’s grandmother, Tracy Hunter, has denounced the early release, saying, “This man is going to walk. If tables turned, my grandson would have never seen the light of day.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson joined local activists in a press conference, where he called for a protest on the day of Van Dyke’s release. Jackson echoed protesters’ demand for federal civil rights charges, but so far U.S. Attorney John Lausch, a Trump appointee, has given no indication of intervening. Rev. Jackson also called for city transit workers to strike for one day, on February 3.
If you live in or near Chicago, join the protest at Federal Plaza, February 3 at 5 p.m. to demand further charges against Officer Van Dyke. For those outside of the Chicago area; agitate with people where you live, and organize against the system that hid the murder of a Black teenager, and that says his murder is worth only three years in prison.