Chicago, Illinois – Activists and their supporters marched to the door of Chicago’s Cook County Courthouse on Tuesday night to mark what would have been the 21st birthday of Laquan McDonald, the black teen shot dead in 2014 by white police officer Jason Van Dyke, who is now on trial for first-degree murder.
Chanting “Slave catchers, KKK, killer cops of today”, and singing a mournful rendition of “Happy Birthday”, the two dozen protesters called for Van Dyke’s conviction, and warned an acquittal could roil a city struggling to cope with deep racial divides and a long history of police brutality.
“Our statement today is that [McDonald’s] life matters,” Reverend Marshall Hatch, who helped lead the vigil, told Al Jazeera. “If his life doesn’t matter, anybody’s life does not matter.”
Van Dyke, who pleaded not guilty, shot McDonald 16 times on the night of October 20, 2014, as the then-17-year-old appeared to walk away from the officer, carrying a small knife. The incident became a flashpoint in Chicago, exposing deep mistrust of police by the city’s large black community at a time when police killings of young black men are at the fore of US national conversation, and as city authorities struggle to rein in historic levels of gang-related gun violence.
Van Dyke’s trial is in its second week, with the defence currently calling witnesses. At issue is whether he was justified in using lethal force against McDonald, who was accused of breaking into cars and going on a “wild rampage” earlier in the evening. The Chicago police officer remains suspended without pay pending a verdict in the trial.
At Tuesday’s vigil, Hatch and other clergy pressed their palms against the rain-soaked court doors and held their clenched fists in the air as they prayed for McDonald. “His life has been meaningful,” Hatch said.
But the gathering was also a forum for anger and outrage at police and city authorities. Some protesters listed names of additional young black people who have died at the hands of police.
The anger over the McDonald case stems not just from the killing itself, but also from the police and city’s handling of the aftermath.
Officers at the scene initially claimed that McDonald raised the knife at Van Dyke. But dashboard camera footage of the incident, released more than a year after the shooting following a Freedom of Information Act request, contradicted those accounts.
The release of the footage prompted massive street protests, accusations of a cover-up, and murder charges for Van Dyke. The city’s top cop was fired and voters voted out the State’s Attorney for Cook County.
The release of the video further led the Federal Department of Justice to investigate the Chicago Police Department, resulting in a 2017 report that described that a pattern of “unreasonable” use of force by police and a lack of accountability for wayward officers. The report said such “systematic deficiencies” disproportionately affected people of colour in the city.
“It really assaults you at your fibre of your being,” said Niko Jones, a black 26-year-old from the South Side at the vigil who said he has suffered police harassment. “Going about your day in society, you can get blown away, or your friends can get blown away by the police … You go into stores and people follow you around. It’s wrapped up in all of this, this white supremacy.”
In August, Van Dyke told the Chicago Tribune he is not a racist.
Despite coming under heavy criticism since McDonald’s death, Chicago police have also been tasked with curtailing some of the worst gang and gun violence in the United States. Chicago had over 700 homicides in 2016 and 650 last year. Thirteen people were killed in one weekend this August.
The 2017 Department of Justice Report noted that Chicago police officers “feel abandoned by the public” and “generally feel that they are insufficiently trained and supported to do their work effectively”.
The malaise is widespread. Despite the fervent demands for a guilty verdict at the birthday vigil, those gathered expressed mixed expectations for the trial’s outcome. Hatch predicted a hung jury. Others were less confident things would go their way.
“We personally don’t expect justice, the young people that I’ve been working with and speaking to,” youth activist and hip-hop artist Jessica Disu told reporters. “This courthouse has not shown us justice.”
An acquittal could raise tensions again in Chicago. Police announced they would expand officers’ hours and cancel days off to increase security around the time of the verdict, the Tribune reported Monday. The defence could wrap up its case next week.
Tyshondra Barnes, a writer at the vigil clutching a black and white notebook containing a new poem dedicated to Laquan, predicted “chaos” if Van Dyke walks free.
“He was wrong for what he did, and he needs to pay,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that she would not join in protests.
Hatch warned the city is a “tinderbox” of disaffected, unemployed black youth.
“There are parts of the community that are in very desperate straits, and the smallest trigger can really just ignite something that none of us wants to see,” he said.