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Issue #1713      December 2, 2015

Protests after video release of shooting

CHICAGO: The investigation into the death of Laquan McDonald rages on in Chicago, as authorities released the dashboard footage of the shooting to the public. Laquan McDonald, a young African-American man, was walking down a Chicago street on the night of October 20, 2014, when he was fatally shot 16 times by a white officer. It was reported by police that McDonald was carrying a four-inch knife and behaving erratically.

According to a spokesperson for the police union an officer told the 17-year-old to drop the knife. When McDonald reportedly didn’t comply, the officer opened fire on the teenager. McDonald died on the scene. Van Dyke, the 37-year-old police officer who killed McDonald, has been on paid desk duty since the incident.

It has taken over a year for the footage to be released to the public, but on November 19, a Cook County judge ruled that the Chicago Police Department should make the dashboard video public no later than November 25. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose office sought to keep the video hidden from the public for over a year, announced he would not seek to have the judge’s decision overturned on appeal.

The mayor’s office released a statement saying, “Police officers are entrusted to uphold the law, and to provide safety to our residents. In this case unfortunately, it appears an officer violated that trust at every level.” At a later press conference on the issue Mayor Emanuel said, “This officer didn’t uphold the law. In my view, he took the law into his own hands. He didn’t build the trust we want to see. And he wasn’t about providing safety and security. So at every point, he violated what we entrust.” At the press conference Emanuel urged Chicago residents to keep their protests peaceful.

Many who seek justice in the McDonald case criticised the city and the mayor’s, initial decision to keep the video from the public. Reverend Jesse Jackson was quoted as saying, “He [McDonald] was shot 16 times 13 months ago and the tape was delayed and the officer was not arrested, not fired, not charged. ... The decision was made that this video was too provocative and they should lock it into a legal process,” Jackson said. “This is a public camera. It belongs to us.”

The video, being described as intensely graphic, shows McDonald being repeatedly shot while lying on the ground. The video also shows McDonald’s body convulsing quickly several times, consistent with the striking shots. Many say the video might never have been released had it not been for the work of freelance journalist Brandon Smith, who successfully filed, under the Freedom of Information Act, to get it released.

Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald, turned himself in to authorities. The Chicago Sun-Times first reported that Van Dyke will be charged with first-degree murder in connection to the shooting death. This case would mark the first time in 35 years that a Chicago police officer has been charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty fatality. Van Dyke could face a minimum of 20 years in prison if convicted.

Many in the city are preparing for inevitable protests and outrage as the footage is viewed. The mayor’s office reportedly met with many church and community leaders in order to urge calm in their respective communities. The Reverend Ira Acree, pastor of the Greater St John Bible Church in Chicago’s West side Austin neighbourhood, who attended the meeting with the mayor, is quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying, “Many in my community feel betrayed, many are so very angry and protests are imminent, and from the meeting today it’s very clear Mayor Emanuel knows that. He put a lot of pressure on us to use our influence to make sure these protests or demonstrations are peaceful ... Of course, we did respond to the mayor that there are so many people so angry and so disappointed in how they’ve been played by the city, the Police Department and the state’s attorney. There is a group that is not listening to him and not listening to us either, but nevertheless we are hoping these protests and demonstrations will be peaceful. But we know they are coming, because if there was no protest that would mean we’ve become immune to this madness.”

Since April, the investigation into McDonald’s death has been handled jointly by federal and state authorities, spearheaded by the Chicago branch of the FBI. The city had already reached a settlement with McDonald’s family, voting unanimously back in April to pay US$5 million even before the family filed a lawsuit.

Although the lawyer for the family states that McDonald’s mother would rather not have had the video released, it was explained that the family still believes that what is “important is that the community be told the truth about what happened, about how he was shot. The fact that there was a narrative put out there by the Chicago police, by the union initially, that a police officer had to shoot [McDonald] in self defence, that he was approaching a police officer and lunged at a police officer with a knife, is not true. He was shot while he was walking away.”

Just hours after the release of the video protestors took to the streets of Roosevelt and State to block traffic, while chanting “16 shots”, referring to the number of times McDonald was reportedly struck by Van Dyke’s bullets.

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