CHICAGO — Cheers and tears flowed outside the Leighton Criminal Courthouse and City Hall Friday afternoon after Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm in the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald.
As soon as the verdict was read, the crowd gathered outside the courthouse erupted in tears and chanted: “We finally got justice!”
Shetara Sawyer, 27, of Austin came to the courthouse Friday to hear the verdict. She’s been following the developments since 2015.
“We need to be one Chicago, not two,” Sawyer said. “We have a long way to go but this is a step in the right direction.”
Activist Kofi Ademola echoed Sawyer’s sentiment, saying that the guilty verdict is meaningless unless the city and police department enact real reforms.
Ademola is pushing for civilian oversight of the police department.
“It’s not enough unless we have a CPAC [Civilian Police Accountability Council] and a community-driven consent decree in place,” he said.
At City Hall, crowds of protesters flowed in before the verdict was read. Afterward, a feeling of relief took over much of those in attendance.
“To be honest by the time the verdict was announced it was just a mass of us in front of City Hall hugging each other and crying because we’ve been through so much,” said Black Lives Matter activist Maria Hernandez.
“We watched our loved ones go through so much,” she added. “There’ve been so many murders since Laquan that it’s difficult to keep track of the names and trauma … We are fighting for so many more people than Laquan, but this shows that our power is real and it shows we can get justice and get control of the police.”
Takela Foster also came to City Hall to be with other activists during the verdict.
“I am so grateful to God they finally found him guilty,” Foster said. “I am a mother of two black sons and one black grandson and it’s time for Chicago CPD to stop killing our kids. We love our family and want them to come home just like everyone else goes home at night.”
Though she was relieved by the decision, she said she was praying for Officer Van Dyke’s family.
“I am grateful that he is a convicted murderer, and I pray for his family and his wife and his children because they are the ones that are going to suffer the most from this – besides what we’ve already suffered – but for his choices they are going to suffer.”
The crowd swelled as a march began on Michigan Avenue Friday afternoon, chanting “What do we want? CPAC? When do we want it? Now!”
The Van Dyke case hit Mayor Rahm Emanuel hard, and activists say it’s the reason why he’s not running for reelection. In a statement that neither celebrated or condemned the verdict, Emanuel said “the effort to drive lasting reform and rebuild bonds of trust between residents and police must carry on with vigor.”
Eric Russell, president of the Tree of Life Justice League of Illinois said the verdict does not provide justice because it “doesn’t take the target off our kids’ backs.”
“We still have cops coming into our neighborhoods and acting as judge, jury and executioner,” he said.
Kevin Graham, president of the Chicago Police union, said at a news conference that he disagreed with the verdict and promised “there will be an appeal.”
“The Fraternal Order of Police is standing with the officer who, we believe, acted as a police officer and did the best he could,” Graham said. “It is a shame that the equipment and the manpower were not there when he needed it….”
The statewide branch of the union issued a statement criticizing the verdict, saying the 12 jurors had been “duped into saving the asses of self-serving politicians at the expense of a dedicated public servant.” The Illinois Fraternal Order of Police called the trial a “sham.”
Ald. John Arena (45th) criticized the FOP’s reaction, and said the guilty verdict sent a strong message.
“The jury came back with a verdict that said there will be accountability, regardless of what your station is in life,” Arena said.
Arena added the guilty verdict is just one step on the long journey Chicago has to build trust between its officers and the communities that have felt oppressed by the police department for decades. One thing that won’t build trust? The FOP, he said.
“And having listened to the FOP’s rhetoric for some time now under its current administration, they have no credibility right now,” Arena said. “They’re not looking for fairness and accountability to represent their members. I don’t think the FOP represents the heart and soul of the average beat cop on the job who wants to do good in the community.”
Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church, who was going to lead a citywide boycott if Van Dyke was acquitted, said the fight is far from over – but this verdict was a win.
“Today we had justice for Laquan McDonald, and a score for justice in Chicago, we thank God for the victory!” he said. “We are praying for the family, for the conscious of the jury, and for all those that marched, protested, and fought for this victory. Let us celebrate today. We need a win, because tomorrow the fight continues.”