16 bullets: Why Laquan McDonald’s life will always matter

by David A. Love

Laquan McDonald was a human being.

But in the video footage of his murder, Officer Jason Van Dyke treated Laquan as less than human — an object — and used the 17-year-old for target practice.

The city of Chicago released the video on Tuesday evening, over a year after the killing. And as the father of a black son, I don’t want to see another video such as this ever again. And neither should you.

On the night of October 20, 2014, McDonald, 17, was shot to death by Officer James Van Dyke. According to the police, the young man was walking down a street on the Southwest side of Chicago, carrying a 4-inch knife and behaving erratically. The officer reportedly told McDonald to drop the knife, but the teen did not comply. Van Dyke purportedly shot McDonald for fear of his life, claiming the teen lunged at him.

But the video tells a different story from police accounts. The video shows Laquan walking away from police, carrying a small knife. As the teen spins around, Van Dyke proceeds to shoot Laquan, who falls at the 5:34 mark.  For the next 13 to 15 seconds, the officer pumps the fallen boy full of bullets from a distance of about 10 feet. At the 5:52 mark, an officer kicks something out of Laquan’s hand.

All the while, as Laquan is riddled with 16 bullets, smoke is rising from his black body, as if his spirit itself is rising and leaving his body.

An autopsy report found that Laquan had suffered wounds to his chest, neck, back, arms and right leg. According to the Chicago Tribune, McDonald was a “ward of the state” under the temporary custody of his uncle. And while media reports focused on the presence of PCP in his system, little has been said of the childhood hardships he had faced, the allegations of sexual abuse he reportedly suffered from his mother’s boyfriend and in the foster care system. And he was enrolled in an alternative school for troubled youth, was getting good grades, and had a job.

The city had already reached a $5 million settlement with the McDonald family, but a freelance journalistsued for the release of the dashcam video. The city of Chicago had fought for months to keep the video from the public eye, on the grounds that doing so would hinder ongoing investigations. A more plausible explanation is that Mayor Rahm Emanuel was in a tough re-election battle and could not afford the bad publicity. However, last Thursday, a Chicago judge ordered the city to release the videoof the shooting.

And on Tuesday, the officer was charged with first degree murder. Believe it or not, this marks the first time an on-duty Chicago police officer has been charged as such in 35 years. Since 2006, Van Dyke received no fewer than 17 citizen complaints, including racial remarks and three excessive force-related complaints over four years.

Throughout the debate over whether or not to release the video, the city seemed concerned over how the community would react, that the video is so shocking that the black Chicagoans — as if somestereotype of themselves — would erupt in violence.

The boy is dead, which was the worst that could happen.

Should we not care more about the execution of an unarmed black teen — that it happened at all — than how people will react to the video of said execution? Should we not care that city officials and the police lied about the course of events, that the city leaders covered up the video, perhaps, to help Mayor Emanuel’s re-election runoff? Should we not ask why one officer did all the shooting when eight cops were on the scene? And why did it take a year to secure a murder charge?

The video of the murder of Laquan McDonald was as bad as we possibly could have imagined. And we have seen other videos of black men gunned down by police, and have been told not to believe our lying eyes. For African-Americans, much of our history has been made living under constant threat of imminent death, in a nation that denigrates and devalues black life. From the days of the slave patrols, the police always had the power of life or death over black bodies.

Over the years, so many black men — and women and children — were brutally killed by the cops, but rarely were these homicides captured on video. And so, we were left to believe what the officer reported, that he feared for his life, that the suspect had a weapon. And the narrative of white bravery and heroism in the face of black criminality prevailed.

This is how our children are treated, and to those who would condemn the movement, this is why we are angry. Laquan McDonald was a human being, killed by a two-legged police dog — a gang member with a badge and a blue uniform. But for the video, Officer Van Dyke would be walking the streets today. Meanwhile, had he killed someone’s pet dog on October 20, 2014, he would have been arrested and charged by October 21.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter @davidalove   

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David A. Love
David A. Love is the executive director of Philadelphia-based Witness to Innocence, a national organisation of exonerated former death row prisoners and their families in the US. He is also executive editor of BlackCommentator.com, and a contributor to the Huffington Post and the NBC News site, theGrio. Follow David on Twitter @davidalove

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