After a period of heightened anxiety in the hours and days leading up to a verdict in the trial of former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, many people on the West Side and across the city are breathing easier — even as longstanding tensions between the police and black residents continue to simmer.
On Friday, a jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm — four years after fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was holding a knife while walking away from the officer in a street on the city’s Southwest Side.
Van Dyke, who was also found not guilty of official misconduct, is currently being held without bond. He is the first Chicago police officer in roughly a half-century to be charged with murder for an on-duty shooting.
As the verdict was being announced, a crowd of local protesters — including West Side activist Mark Carter, Chicago mayoral candidate Ja’Mal Green, and community activist Jedidiah Brown — huddled near the steps of the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building.
Seconds after it was announced that Van Dyke would be taken immediately into custody, the crowd erupted into chants of “Justice for Laquan!”
A slow buildup
Just a day earlier, Carter was seething during a community meeting convened by the Westside Black Elected Officials at Malcolm X College, where, in front of a bevy of local TV news cameras, and black politicians, anticipating the fallout from a possible not-guilty verdict, urged residents to remain calm regardless of the case’s outcome.
“We want to make sure we create unity and that we don’t destroy our communities,” said state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th), chairwoman of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, “and that we find a way to bring calm and peace, and instruct our young people to utilize their voice in a different way instead of violence, crime or retaliation.”
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), chairwoman of the Westside Black Elected Officials, said the group of leaders was “asking for a deep breath,” before urging residents to “talk it out.”
“One devastation doesn’t require us to create another devastation,” Mitts said.
Congressman Danny K. Davis (7th) said that while he understood the anxiety and anger many black Chicagoans were feeling (“there is no calm inside of me”), he urged them to channel that anger and frustration into organized activity, such as voting and grassroots activism.
“I want black people not to feel that our judicial and law enforcement systems have underserved them … but I don’t want to see Madison Street go up in flames again as I saw in 1968,” he said. “I don’t want to see Roosevelt Road burn down again — although there’s not much to burn.”
But some at Thursday’s meeting, Carter among them, felt the elected officials’ calls for calm and order among residents on the West and South sides glossed over the structural injustices that were really to blame for the collective anxiety.
They also emphasized that there were peacekeeping efforts in the neighborhoods well before the days leading to the verdict.
“Most of us have been doing work all summer long to keep peace in the neighborhoods,” said Karl Brinson, president of the Chicago Branch Westside NAACP. “We’ve been doing this for years to [address] lack of jobs and lack of opportunities. We’ve been working on peace in Chicago for years.
“So how did we get to this point right now of having a sense of urgency over a verdict? The verdict’s been cast down on us a long time ago,” he said. “Now we have a sense of urgency. The same urgency we did not take when we tried to get a consent decree. The same urgency we did not take when we tried to change IPRA into COPA.”
Brinson then asked what “will other people do to make sure we have equal opportunity and are equally served? When is that going to occur? You’re asking a lot of a community that’s been oppressed and that’s gone through so much. How much can we bear?”
Maurice Robinson, a West Side native and community activist, referenced the death of 15-year-old Steven Rosenthal, who was fatally shot in August after being chased by Chicago police in Lawndale. Rosenthal’s family members have questioned the authorities’ ruling.
“We marched for 19 days straight since the day he died and not one media outlet [covered the protest],” Robinson said. “We had hundreds of people coming out every day marching because this kid was murdered by the police and they ruled it a suicide. People are still trying to figure out how you shoot yourself in the back of the head.”
Robinson said there are police officers “who are going to celebrate Laquan’s murder [if a not-guilty verdict comes back] and you’re asking us to be calm? Even though y’all say y’all need us, we’re the ones out here dying. [While marching after Rosenthal’s death], I’m watching officers pull guns out on kids in the middle of a march.”
Robinson also pointed out that he was among only a handful of people under 40 years old in the room. Far from calm, what was needed, Carter said, was radical action.
“I hope they find [Van Dyke] not guilty so we can have a real uprising,” Carter said.
As Thursday darkened and it became clearer that a verdict would not be reached before Friday, the collective anxiety swelled.
Small phalanxes of police officers converged strategically at corners along Madison Street in Austin. Ald. Chris Taliaferro (37th), a former police officer, said every officer “able to be on the street will be on the street.” All days off had been cancelled and officers were working 12-hour shifts.
“The primary goal is to make sure there are adequate officers in the districts, as well as if they’re needed elsewhere to be in other areas that may need more attention than others,” the alderman said.
Chicago Public Schools officials, bracing for protests, cancelled athletic events and planned lockdown drills and early dismissals, among other measures.
Around 5:30 p.m., Jeffrey Baker, a street peddler, sat shivering in a vacant lot on Madison Street, amid a sprawl of old paintings, chairs and other used wares for sale.
If Van Dyke was found guilty, Baker said, “It’s going to be some s—t. It’s going to be some s—t in the city. I don’t like it! It’s wrong! He could have shot that boy one time in the leg or something. He didn’t have to kill him!”
Baker’s partner, who requested anonymity, begged to differ.
“It ain’t going to be no s—t,” the man said. “They [the police] do it all the time.”
Roughly an hour later, inside of St. Michael’s Missionary Baptist Church, 4106 W. Monroe, a small crowd of around 20 community members gathered to voice their discontent.
Mitts and Davis were in attendance, as well as Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and state Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin (10th), along with representatives from various community organizations, such as Habilitative Systems Inc.
“The Civil Rights Movement started in a church just like this,” said Vance Henry, a deputy chief of staff to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and an ordained minister. “People got together and they strategized and they talked about what they could do to impact the quality of life in Montgomery at the time. I trust today that this will be the beginning of a movement.”
Not long before Henry had started to talk, a group of about seven Chicago police officers — most of them black women — walked into the church.
“I want to celebrate these police officers here tonight. As I look at them, so many of them who are patrolling our streets look like us, so we can’t see them as the enemy,” Henry said. “I thank God that they’re here tonight.”
After the verdict
Natalie Watson, 30, a security guard at the Austin Branch Library, 5615 W. Race Ave., stood on the library steps and contemplated the jury’s verdict roughly an hour after it was announced.
“Clearly he wasn’t a threat if he was skipping — not walking, skipping — the other way,” said Watson. “If everyone else is following him, you don’t just come out your car shooting. And if you felt he was a threat or whatever, shoot him in the leg.”
Nearby on Race, Ronald Martin, John White and Givenchy Williams had been talking about another subject entirely when the Van Dyke verdict was broached.
“I would have been disappointed in the whole justice system if he wasn’t guilty,” White, 38, said. “I don’t even see why they needed a trial. Everything was clear. Sixteen times?”
“I feel great right now,” Williams said. “If he wasn’t found guilty, I would’ve been mad as hell. The same way I am about how they treated Obama. Mad as hell.”
“This is a historic day in Chicago and the United States of America,” said state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (8th) during a press conference at Loretto Hospital, 645 S. Central Ave.
“I’m happy that Laquan McDonald can rest a little easier knowing that Chicago is starting a new chapter and that Chicago can lead the way in justice,” he said.
But Ford insisted that community leaders keep the pressure on, calling for a stronger contract with the Fraternal Order of Police “that not only protects the citizens of Chicago, but also the police.”
He also urged Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to investigate the Chicago Police Department and even former Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy, who is now running for mayor.
Ford said McCarthy “was the leader of the pack” during attempts by the police department to obscure what happened on the night of McDonald’s murder.
Three other officers — Detective David March, the lead investigator assigned to the 2014 shooting, and officers Thomas Gaffney and Joseph Walsh — are currently on trial for charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and official misconduct related to the McDonald killing.
Davis said that, while these three trials are also important, he hoped the Van Dyke verdict “shows we are indeed making progress. I hope this verdict can say to young African-American teenagers that there can be some justice under the law.”
Martin, 54, was less optimistic.
“Chicago is based on money and politics,” he said. “This game been like this in Chicago since forever.”