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Chicago Activists Demand Candidates For Mayor Back Civilian Police Accountability

Editor’s Note

This is Part 2 of Aaron Cynic’s series on the issues that Chicago’s mayoral candidates need to address, which amplifies the perspectives of grassroots activists.

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The chant “16 shots and a cover-up” is one that has echoed through the streets of Chicago for several years. It refers to the killing of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager killed by a white Chicago police officer. McDonald’s death came less than three months after Michael Brown, another black teenager, was shot dead in St. Louis by a white police officer and sparked national protests.

The grim details of McDonald’s death laid buried for more than a year. But as they emerged, details amplified an already deafening call for police accountability both in Chicago and America, one which shaped elections and shook seats of power.

“There are 34 sitting alderman that are worried about their reelection. I’m here to let them know that we don’t give a fuck about your reelection,” declared Tanya Watkins of Southsiders Organizing for Unity and Liberation during a demonstration outside Chicago City Hall in October.

Watkins was with hundreds who gathered for the verdict in the trial of former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was later sentenced to a little more than six years in prison on second-degree murder charges for killing McDonald.

“We hope this will reverberate through this police department,” said Watkins. “We hope that they will understand that we won’t stop until we win.”

“But we cannot be done,” Watkins added. “To the city councilmen, to the judges, this verdict confirms that you are co-conspirators to murder, and you must be held accountable.”

McDonald was 17 years-old when Van Dyke, an officer with a history of complaints and lawsuits, shot him.

Officers were responding calls that McDonald allegedly broke into vehicles in a neighborhood on the south side. McDonald was carrying a 3-inch knife and refused orders to drop the weapon and instead walked away from officers already on the scene. Six seconds after exiting his car, Van Dyke opened fire on McDonald. No other officers drew their weapons to shoot.

Dashcam footage of the shooting was concealed for more than a year, with the city of Chicago denying some 15 requests for it. Once it was finally released, the footage showed inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the official police narrative. The community was outraged. Thousands took to the streets in the months and years that followed to demand the resignations of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

Alvarez was unseated in the 2016 general election. Her defeat was fueled by a campaign that local activist groups dubbed, “Bye Anita.” It sought to unseat Alvarez while not making a direct endorsement of her challengers

Emanuel fired McCarthy, who is now running for mayor, and he ignored calls for his resignation. However, he ultimately chose not to seek another term as mayor in 2018.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department under President Barack Obama launched an investigation, which found “reasonable cause to believe that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) engages in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.”

The investigation led to an agreement between the city and Justice Department, known as a consent decree, which sought to address the deficiencies they found in CPD. The decree mandates a host of changes in training, supervision, and discipline of officers over a period of five years.

Van Dyke was the first Chicago police officer in half a century to be found guilty of murder charges for an on-duty shooting. Three other officers also faced charges for the alleged cover-up, but they were not found guilty.

At present, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and the special prosecutor in the case, Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon, have filed a petition to have Van Dyke re-sentenced, arguing that Van Dyke was improperly sentenced. The petition argues Van Dyke should face a minimum of 18 years in prison.

McDonald’s death was one of many in a long line of people of color killed by Chicago police that stretches back decades. In fact, CPD has a long history of alleged abuses and misconduct, which has cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars. Between 2004 and 2016, Chicago paid out more than $662 million in settlements related to misconduct and has paid tens of millions of dollars more in subsequent years.

The shooting served as a lightning rod for activists and movements in Chicago fighting for more community control and police accountability.


“The killings of Rekia Boyd, Flint Farmer, Ronnieman Johnson – there’s a long list of people who’ve been killed by police,” said Ted Pearson of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR).

“The reason the Laquan McDonald case took on a life of its own was, first of all, the video was so clear,” Pearson added. “You couldn’t watch that video and come to any other conclusion except that he was… basically executed on the street. There were videos in some of the other cases, but the State’s Attorney chose to do nothing about them even though people did see them. So they weren’t able to gain the same kind of momentum that the Van Dyke murder of McDonald had.”

Police oversight agencies in Chicago have faced criticism for decades for sluggish investigations, failure to punish wrongdoing, and putting high burdens on complainants to prove their cases. Issues started with the Office of Professional Standards (OPS) created in 1974.

In 2007, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) replaced OPS, which continued to have a long history of failure. In 2016, the Police Accountability Task Force, a body created after the release of the McDonald video, concluded IPRA was “badly broken” and recommended scrapping the agency.

A report from the task force said, “The community’s lack of trust in CPD is justified.” Shortly after the recommendation, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) replaced IPRA, but that has come under criticism from long-time accountability activists as well.

“The Mayor is trying to hoodwink the people with a newly appointed police oversight body that continues to be unaccountable to the people,” CAARPR wrote in a 2016 statement.

Pearson and the organization he co-chairs have advocated for victims of police abuse since 1973, and they have fought for an elected, civilian-controlled police accountability council for the past six years.

While there have been several proposals for community oversight boards over the past decade, CPAC is arguably the most radical. The body would not only replace the current police oversight committee (COPA), but also the Police Board, which is composed of mayoral appointees who decide police accountability issues.

In addition, CPAC would be in charge of hiring a police superintendent and investigating and prosecuting misconduct and shootings.

Putting McDonald’s murder in the context of historical abuses is important, said Kofi Ademola, a community organizer based in Chicago, who pointed to an interactive historical timeline put together by the group, We Charge Genocide.

Ademola noted the timeline shows a continuation of abuse at the hands of CPD, no matter what reforms are adopted.

”I always look at the complicity between the state, the city, and the federal government in the murder of Fred Hampton,” Ademola added. “Daley Sr. order[ed] the shooting on sight of demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Jon Burge torture survivors—that’s what I think about when we think about policing as a system.”

In 2015, Emanuel agreed to a package deal of reparations for survivors of torture at the hands of Burge, a CPD commander, and his “midnight crew,” which allegedly extracted false confessions via electro-shock, Russian roulette, mock executions, beatings and more. Burge was never charged directly in any of the cases, but he was fired in 1993 and later convicted of lying to authorities about his conduct.

The package included a $5.5 million fund for Burge victims, free attendance to City Colleges for them and their immediate families, specialized counseling, a formal apology from City Council, a memorial, and more.

The Chicago Torture Justice Center put out a list of questions for mayoral candidates focused on continuing what they see as a very stalled implementation of the provisions of the ordinance as well as furthering their mission of working with survivors to heal.

“Our work with survivors of police torture has shown us that the city has far to go in truly making reparations to those who suffered at the hands of Burge,” the group wrote in a statement. “We also see that the city must invest in wider services and funding for reparations, more long-term funding to our Center, and survivor-led changes to policing in order to meet the needs of survivors of police violence and torture.”

“We’d love to make sure the implementation of the ordinance is fully done,” said Cindy Eigler, co-executive director at the Center. “There’s a lot that was kind of vague in terms of funding particularly and there’s hoops that need to be worked through as far as hoops that can access city colleges, etc. We’d love to see whoever takes over the next administration to make sure that the promises that were in the ordinance actually continue on and are fulfilled.”

Merely making sure the ordinance is implemented is only the first step, added Eigler. She contended the city must get past the notion that torture was the result of a few bad apples.

“It hasn’t been placed in context that these kinds of things are continuing to go on and that state violence, police violence, is very much an everyday occurrence for communities of color in particular,” Eigler argued “We’d love to see the next administration expand these kinds of reparations and redress for survivors of police violence and for family members who have lost individuals to police violence.”

About 40 percent of the city’s operational budget goes towards policing, which amounts to about $4 million a day. Violence prevention programs, however, are grossly underfunded, receiving only $42 million in Emanuel’s 2018 budget.

The city has been wracked by decades of inequality when it comes to resources in marginalized communities, which are often hit the hardest by police misconduct.

Massive tax subsidies are also doled out to big business and corporations for megaprojects, often at the expense of these communities. While grappling with police abuses, they also confront the shutdown of schools, mental health clinics, and other vital social services.

“These are all issues and conversations that have been pushed on a community level, and that’s the direction we’re going to have to continue to push,” Ademola said. “Is it gonna be lobbyists and special interest groups that are going to have the power to decide where TIF money is gonna go if there’s going to be TIF funding still?”

“As long as we as organizers continue to base build and build up power, block by block, so that politicians are beholden to the people’s agenda—that’s going to be the true testament that Chicago and other cities like it are going to go.”

“It first starts with thinking about how we operate in these oppressive systems to reduce harm to our people. [Then] how do we push for the sort of non-reformist reform, meaning reform that isn’t just superficially going after low hanging fruit but pushing policy that’s putting agency and power back into the hands of the people. Putting resources—land, housing, decision-making over education and development—in the hands of the people,” Ademola suggested.

Ademola pointed out that politicians are echoing points promoted by organizers.

“The fact that they have to answer questions around No Cop Academy, supporting a community benefits agreement for the Obama Center, rent control, how TIF money is not going towards the south and west sides but going towards downtown development, real police accountability, CPAC, the consent decree—they wouldn’t be having these conversations if people hadn’t been out in the streets and the community all these years,” Ademola contended.

Pearson also said sustained organizing in the community has pushed the discussion for police accountability, as well as a civilian police accountability council, to the front of the election.

“It’s the people who make history, not just leaders and big ideas,” said Pearson. The people behind these big ideas will be the change.

Aaron Cynic

Aaron Cynic

Aaron Cynic is an independent journalist and photographer based in Chicago. He is a co-founder of the website Visu.News, co-host of its podcast, and editor of Third Coast Today. His work has also appeared in Time, Chicago Magazine, Progress Illinois, In Justice Today, Alternet, Truthout, In These Times, Nation of Change, The Daily Line, Third Coast Review, Huffington Post, Shareable, Forces of Geek, and more.