CHICAGO, IL - When a Chicago police officer was caught in a lie after a video surfaced of him shooting and killing an unarmed black teen, he could not have fathomed the chain of events that would follow. The officer eventually was charged with murder, the city’s police chief was asked to resign and the Department of Justice opened an investigation into what activists now routinely call a citywide, decades-long cover-up of police-sanctioned torture and murder of black civilians.
The video in question involves the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was walking down the street when he was shot in the back by a white police officer, Jason Van Dyke. Reports by officers at the scene differ tremendously from the visuals recorded by the dash cam video. Officers reported, for example, that McDonald damaged a car and attacked them. But the video clearly shows McDonald was walking away from Van Dyke, who had literally just arrived on the scene. Prior to the release of the video, the city quietly settled with McDonald’s family, giving them 5 million dollars just before the last mayoral election in February 2015. At that time, local politicians who had approved the settlement said they never knew that the officers lied in their police reports. The damning video surfaced last fall.
Since then, all eyes have been on Chicago, the city of big shoulders and proven corruption. One only need look to the leadership of Commander Jon Burge who oversaw the torture of black men in the 1980s-90s by police to understand the city’s police culture. During Burge’s tenure, many black men and women were forced to confess to crimes they didn’t commit—while only some of the victims are only now being given restitution.
The latest chapter in the Chicago policing saga centers on Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez who is up for reelection on March 15 and who is desperately trying to save her own job—while activists, as well as both of her opponents, point to the delayed release of the police shooting of McDonald to condemn her. The outcome of the upcoming election could significantly affect how future police shootings are reviewed.
“I think that video shined a light on [Alvarez’s] ethics and how she is not here for us, for the people,” said Brigitt Manson, 52, a registered nurse who is volunteering with a group called Reclaim Chicago, which is throwing its weight behind Alvarez’s opponent, Kim Foxx. “It seems like [Alvarez] was protecting the [police] department more, so that was very disturbing to me.”
According to activists and attorneys, additional videos of police-civilian interactions have since surfaced that show an inappropriate use of force by police against women and people of color. Many of these videos, like the one of the McDonald shooting, have no sound, leading many to question the point of dash cams if cops can turn off the sound whenever they wish.
Issues of police trustworthiness and brutality disproportionately affects the city’s black population. Between 2010 and 2014, 66 percent of people killed by cops in Chicago were black. During that same time period, African Americans comprised only one-third of the city’s population.
When complaints were made to the city’s Police Review Board, less than 2 percent of the 28,000 narratives resulted in discipline. Most of those complaints were made by black people.
And this leads us back to state’s attorney Alvarez, who chose not to charge Officer Van Dyke with murder until after a judge forced the release of the dash cam video.
Alvarez has repeatedly defended her actions, saying that she is not part of a cover-up and that it takes considerable time to complete an investigation. Just last Friday, during a candidate’s forum, she addressed the issue again. “Police shootings are a complicated matter to investigate,” she said. “As soon as I saw the video I reached out the U.S. Attorney and the FBI to be my investigative partners on this matter, which was the best thing to do. You need more than probable cause to bring charges. You have to develop evidence because justice is not served by [simply] arresting someone.”
She also reiterated that it wasn’t her fault that the video was held from the public: the city made the decision not to release the video until the last hour, not her office, she said The city of Chicago now says it is considering releasing all videos within a certain time frame going forward.
But a vocal portion of the public is not buying it, leading to the creation of the hashtag #ByeAnita, which started trending on Twitter last week.
Locals are pushing for high voter turnout in the hopes that Alvarez, the first Latina to hold the state’s attorney position here, is ousted by candidate Kim Foxx, who is black and a former aid to the county’s board president. A third candidate, Donna More, is a white former federal prosecutor who has also been highly critical of Alvarez’s handling of the McDonald shooting.
Few are openly discussing the race of each of the candidates but given the racially-polarizing tension between law enforcement and people of color, race does come up at the water cooler. Alvarez is Mexican, but very few of the city’s Latino population are supporting her. Foxx has the tacit support of the #blacklivesmatter movement, plus she is backed by powerhouse politician and Cook County board president, Toni Preckwinkle, who is also black and a woman. What’s also left unsaid is the tacit understanding that the state’s attorney cannot routinely condemn police if she is expected to use police testimony to put away the bad guys. Meanwhile, the city’s legendary political machine — which includes the Democratic party and the Sierra Club – is squarely behind Foxx.
‘The issues related to police-involved shootings aren’t just here in Cook County,’ Foxx said during the forum. She supports the public cry to bring in an independent prosecutor for cases such as McDonald’s.
As the campaigns kick into high gear, activists continue to march on the city’s business districts and to disrupt police task force meetings and Alvarez fundraisers in the hopes of keeping their message front and center as the election draws near.
“For us, the Department of Justice investigation don’t signal a change in our strategy,” said Charlene Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project (BYP), one of several groups that openly disrupted an Alvarez fundraiser last week at Maggiano’s Little Italy in downtown Chicago. Other groups opposing Alvarez include Assata’s Daughters and Black Lives Matter-Chicago. “We still have to organize young black folks on the ground. This investigation would not have happened or be in progress were it not for the agitation and actions happening on the ground that is primarily made by young black people in this city.”
BYP just last week called for the dissolution of the mayoral-appointed police task force tasked with finding ways to improve how the agency polices itself. The task force includes Lori Lightfoot, who also led the Chicago Police Board (CPB) — a board that routinely dismissed opportunities to discipline rogue cops.
It is unclear if the Chicago Police Board, which normally finds in favor of its own police, will also be investigated by the DOJ.
“Democratic police accountability does not look like Lori Lightfoot continuing to disrespect the families of people lost to police terrorism,” according to a BYP press release. The group refers to the CPB’s repeated refusal under Lightfoot’s leadership to fire officers with long histories of complaints. In some cases, the police superintendent recommended the firing of an officer, but the CPB didn’t agree. “Democratic police accountability means taking away power and tax dollars from CPB and instead investing in public institutions that make our communities safe and sustainable.”
Earlier this week, activist William Calloway, who is part of the team who filed a request for a judge to release the McDonald video tape, corralled some 400 teens to travel downtown and “early vote.” Calloway is one of many who are working overtime to show the city administration that the city’s black youth – who are disproportionately affected by crime – can, and will, vote.
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs is a Chicago-based journalist. Follow her @adriennewrites.