Martinez: Van Dyke verdict is the first step of a long journey

Marissa Martinez, Opinion Editor

Jason Van Dyke was put on trial last month, along with the Chicago police system, in a way. While he was convicted, marginalized communities are still at a net loss. Our city still hurts.

Jason Van Dyke is a former Chicago police officer who shot and killed teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014. As McDonald turned away from officers, Van Dyke shot him 16 times — hitting him several times in the back. Multiple witnesses say there was no need for this act of violence: according to testimony and video, McDonald — even though he was carrying a knife — was not a true threat to Van Dyke’s life at that moment in time. Yet the officer, who was on the scene for less than a minute, shot him with every bullet in his gun. None of the other officers on the scene felt the need to do this.

The dashcam videos and reports were not released by the city for over a year. Many people outside Chicago didn’t even know what happened. After journalists and protestors demanded the city release the documents, the public finally saw the truth.

The fact that Van Dyke was even brought to trial was shocking. Time after time, police brutality is considered a given. It just happens. It’s part of the job. “Bad apple” officers maybe get indicted but rarely go to jail or receive anything close to a murder charge — they just fade quietly into the background until the next shooting happens.

So yes, in many ways, Van Dyke being found guilty of one count of second-degree murder and 16 intentional counts of aggravated battery is an achievement. (Although it was an option, he was not convicted of first-degree murder because there was a “mitigating factor.”) No matter how this verdict actually affects him, it feels like a little justice has been served.

This moment is a small drop in the bucket of the many ways Chicagoans have been failed by our government leaders. In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics, affecting tens of thousands of residents. This may not have had a direct effect on McDonald, who had been diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD and oppositional defiance disorder, and had been hospitalized for these conditions before, according to the Chicago Tribune. But there are so many other people with mental illness (due to many factors) who have also died at the hands of the police.

In 2013, Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools closed dozens of schools, many of which were in low-income, black and brown neighborhoods. Again, this may not have impacted McDonald specifically, but is yet another sign of the city not caring about marginalized groups that make up a large portion of the city. These problems, and many others, still plague the city and show a blatant disregard for Chicago residents. Emanuel’s decision not to run for a third term is important, but it’s up to the city to elect someone who can undo the structural damage he did.

This verdict is a step in the right direction for Chicago. Rightfully, Van Dyke was charged, and this case will hopefully set a precedent for future offenders. But him personally getting punished says almost nothing for the dozens of police officers who will never receive a guilty verdict — or even make it to a courthouse in the first place.

Last week, the jury handed out the first guilty charge for a Chicago Police Department officer accused of similar crimes in more than 50 years. Over the past five decades, dozens of innocent people were murdered with no justice waiting on the other side. CPD has a long history with corruption: last year, the Department of Justice uncovered widespread corruption and dozens of unjustified shootings, as well as insufficient training of police officers and low levels of accountability from higher powers. The report, which was prompted by McDonald’s murder, reaffirmed what many Chicagoans already knew. It’s clear that police do not intend to learn from this conviction: The Fraternal Order of Police said in a statement that they are standing by Van Dyke’s decision to shoot.

While we should celebrate Van Dyke receiving a semblance of a conviction, there are a few things to keep in mind as we move forward. For instance, voting isn’t the end-all-be-all solution to Chicago-wide or nationwide problems. Saying, “all you have to do is vote” is catchy and easy, but simultaneously erases the hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have the means to vote. They might not be able to take time off of work, live and work far from a polling station, can’t access ballots in their native language, are lawfully unable to vote, or are scared that something will happen to them if they do cast a ballot. This is an unfortunate reality, and until we thoroughly fix the system to make voting accessible to as many people as possible, we will not have a truly representative democracy.

In the same vein, we need to stop pretending that protesting is somehow less valid than voting. I’ve seen many people on social media post things like “stop whining, just vote” or “voting is the only way to make change.” McDonald’s tape and records were released because of journalists and protestors who fought for our right to see public city documents and hold Chicago’s government responsible for their actions. Protests go hand-in-hand with voting, and can affect real change.

Finally, the city needs to be more aware of their response to protests. Last week, some Chicago schools canceled their after-school programming or planned lockdown drills in “anticipation” of riots after the decision came down at 1:45 p.m. The Chicago Police Department put officers on 12-hour shifts to prepare for the awaiting protestors. A school in Lombard, a DuPage County village that is geographically and demographically far from Chicago, canceled a game against an Oak Park school because of presumed disruptive riots that didn’t even happen. The expectation that black people will erupt in reckless behavior and endanger their communities “irrationally” is an insult to young protestors who have been dealing with unfavorable rulings their whole lives. No one wants to trash their own home. Protestors just want to fix it.

The court and law systems have been designed to work in favor of officers like Jason Van Dyke. I am glad he was found guilty. But I am still scared of the police. And that needs to change.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated a police organization’s name. The organization is called the Fraternal Order of Police. The Daily regrets the error.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.