CHICAGO — Seven years ago, police officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times on the Southwest Side. It was more than a year before footage of the teen’s death became a global flashpoint for police violence and nearly four years before Van Dyke was convicted for murdering him.
To mark the anniversary of McDonald’s murder Wednesday, organizers rallied Downtown to honor the slain teen and protest former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose administration tried to block the release of videos showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald.
Speakers from progressive and abolitionist movements spoke near a poster of McDonald’s high school graduation photo. Many said they’d woken up on the anniversary of his killing feeling unwell and disturbed.
Hours before their demonstration, Emanuel sat before senators in Washington, D.C., in hopes of being confirmed as the ambassador to Japan. If he’s confirmed, it will be Emanuel’s first major government role since he decided not to run for re-election as mayor in the wake of the McDonald scandal.
For some Chicagoans, the former mayor’s attempt to return to a high-profile role is hard to swallow — particularly as their fight against systemic racism and police violence continues. Organizers said Emanuel is being “white washed” by a Democratic White House.
“He failed our city. He covers up the murder of a 17-year-old,. He closed 50 schools on the South and West sides. He closed mental health clinics throughout the city of Chicago,” Calloway told the crowd. “You think that’s the best qualified candidate to represent the United States as an ambassador? Say that ain’t right.”
Given a chance to address how he handled the situation, Emanuel told senators McDonald’s murder “was a grave tragedy” he’s still grappling with.
“Seven years ago, a young man had his life taken on the street in the city of Chicago. He had all the promise ahead of him, and a police officer took his life, killed him,” Emanuel said. “I said then, ‘I’m the mayor and I’m responsible and accountable for fixing this so this never happens again.’ And to be honest, there is not a day or week that has gone by in the last seven years I haven’t thought about this and the what-ifs and the changes and what could have been.
“I thought I was addressing the issue, and I clearly missed the level of distrust and skepticism that existed. And that’s on me.”
Joined by local leaders like Fred Hampton Jr., Chicago organizers blasted federal officials for not bringing more charges in the shooting and for not holding accountable the Police Department for repeatedly missing deadlines for implementing federal consent decree reforms. They also criticized local officials for supporting Emanuel.
“As if eight hours of diversity training can wipe away thousands of years of racist police. That don’t make no damn sense,” said Jahmal Cole, founder of My Block, My Hood, My City, who is running for Congress. “The police officers never admit to any wrongdoing. The police never take accountability for their failed systems.”
Many speakers said Emanuel’s potential appointment — and especially the hearing coming on the anniversary of McDonald’s murder — is triggering and demoralizing.
“We are celebrating the life of Laquan McDonald. But it happens to be, coincidentally, the day they try to confirm Rahm Emanuel,” La’Shawn Littrice said. “We are standing here traumatized because we can’t believe the administration, manned by Joe Biden, would have the audacity and the gall to put up a nomination for Rahm Emanuel after he covered up the murder of Laquan McDonald.”
Others expressed frustration with the length of Van Dyke’s sentence. He’s eligible to be released from prison next year.
“Jason Van Dyke, caught on camera, killing a Black man who was walking away from him, emptied his gun in him, and he’s [going tp] get out next year,” activist Aleta “Englewood Barbie” Clark said. “He got a second chance at life after he took a life.”
Calloway, who fought for the release of the McDonald videos and helped organize the rally, said it was about “making sure that the city and the world doesn’t forget about what happened to [Laquan] seven years ago on this night.” He said Emanuel’s nomination shows the government is quick to neglect McDonald and forgive the powerful.
“It just shows that elitists like Rahm Emanuel, they think they don’t have to be held accountable to the same standards as the rest of us,” Calloway said.
Justin Blake, uncle of Jacob Blake, who was shot by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last summer, joined the demonstration. Blake said his nephew and people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others are part of a long line of victims of police violence since McDonald.
“He’s one of the first,” Blake said of McDonald. “He was one of the first, and we wanted to come here in honor of his family.”
Blake said Biden offered personal condolences to him after his nephew was shot and seriously wounded — but he cannot embrace a president that chooses to appoint a politician like Emanuel.
“It says that the systemic racism that’s going on in Kenosha that allowed our nephew to get shot seven times in the back … it shows how racist runs all the way up to the White House,” Blake said.
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