DOWNTOWN — Dozens of organizers demonstrated at Federal Plaza Thursday to protest the early release of Jason Van Dyke, the former Chicago police officer who murdered 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014.
McDonald’s relatives were flanked by Rev. Jesse Jackson, Father Michael Pfleger and organizers led by the Chicago Alliance Against Racism and Political Oppression to demand that the U.S. Department of Justice to file federal charges against Van Dyke.
Van Dyke, who shot McDonald 16 times, was convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated battery and sentenced to 81 months in prison in 2018. The Tribune reported he was released from state prison around midnight Thursday, after serving about three years.
Organizers and supporters chanted and marched throughout the area. Several people, including McDonald’s grandmother, Tracie Hunter, were detained after demonstrating inside Dirksen Federal Building.
“Today, understand that enough is enough,” said Ralph Edwards, an organizer with Ex-Cons For Community & Social Change. “Three years for a murder and a cover-up — 16 shots? That’s not right. We have every right to be here, to stand up for what believes in. We are here to represent for him and we want them to hold everybody accountable.”
Justin Blake, the brother of Jacob Blake who was shot several times by an officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2020, also joined the demonstration.
“We don’t value our young African American men,” Blake said. “And because the people in so-called power don’t, they take liberties to take our lies at any and every corner.”
McDonald’s family members have expressed different views on the case, with some saying the focus should be on reforming the Police Department overall while others want more consequences for Van Dyke.
“He gets to go home to his family and see his kids,” Hunter said at a press conference this week. “I can’t do all that because my grandson is gone.”
The feds were investigating Van Dyke as far back as 2014, before even video of the fatal shooting became public, but no charges ever came to fruition.
Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth recently wrote a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking for an update on the federal investigation into Van Dyke, according to WTTW’s Matt Masterson.
Rep. Bobby Rush, who represents part of the South Side, also told CNN’s Omar Jimenez he does not think justice has been served in the case.
“And so there’s no comfort, there’s no relaxing. There’s no sense of, ‘Well, let’s move on,’ because we can’t move on,” Rush said. “I can’t rest comfortably until I know have exhausted all the means.”
Noting that the push for federal charges gained little traction under President Donald Trump’s administration, Pfleger said he expected more under President Joe Biden and Garland.
“He was slapped on the wrist when he first got his sentence,” Pfleger said of Van Dyke. “Justice is on trial right now. … This is a different administration, we want to see different kinds of actions taking place. We want some results. … We all know: If Laquan McDonald was white and Jason Van Dyke was Black, we wouldn’t be standing here today.”
A representative for the Justice Department told the Tribune they office received the appeals for a federal indictment, but would not comment further.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Van Dyke’s early release is “disappointing” and highlights issues that sow distrust in the criminal justice system.
“… While the jury reached the correct guilty verdict, the judge’s decision to sentence Van Dyke to only 81 months was and remains a supreme disappointment,” Lightfoot said in an emailed statement Thursday morning. “I understand why this continues to feel like a miscarriage of justice, especially when many Black and brown men get sentenced to so much more prison time for having committed far lesser crimes. It’s these distortions in the criminal justice system, historically, that have made it so hard to build trust.
“While I know this moment is disappointing, it should not prevent us from seeing the significant progress Van Dyke’s prosecution and conviction represent.”
Lightfoot said Van Dyke’s prosecution led to Chicago’s Police Department being put under a consent decree and making “historic reforms.” But the Police Department has repeatedly missed deadlines for enacting reforms under the consent decree.
McDonald was killed Oct. 20, 2014, but it initially did not garner widespread attention.
The video showed McDonald — who officers said had been behaving erratically that night and was carrying a knife — walking outside while other police officers and cars were around him. Van Dyke arrived at the scene and, within seconds of getting out of his car, fired 16 shots at the teenager as McDonald appeared to be walking away from him.
Van Dyke was the first Chicago police officer to be charged with murder for an on-duty shooting.
“While Van Dyke being convicted at all was a step in the right direction, his short sentence is at odds with the thousands of Black and Brown people behind bars for nonviolent offenses,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a statement. “And in the years following Laquan’s murder, we have lost more young Black and Brown men at the hands of police.
“I pray for peace for the McDonald family today and remain resolved to creating a criminal justice system that is truly fair and just.”
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