This article was a finalist for the 2018 “Best Political Reporting in a Non-Daily Newspaper or Magazine” Peter Lisagor Award from the Chicago Headline Club
The evening after the Van Dyke verdict came down, Trina Reynolds-Tyler took to Instagram to ask her followers a simple question: “What is justice for Laquan McDonald?” An organizer and abolitionist, Reynolds-Tyler has been involved with activism around the McDonald shooting since before it caught the public’s attention.
That night, through her Instagram story, she was able to serve as moderator of a conversation between her followers, posting people’s responses to one another without revealing their identities. “People were saying stuff like, ‘He should be raped, he should be in a cell, [McDonald’s] family should be able to torture him.’…. It [was] an anonymous debate. [So] people are not afraid of saying something and that thing being connected to them,” she said.
“Somebody said, ‘Lock up your everybody that was involved,’ and I was like, ‘Lock up your alderman, the mayor, all of the police? What do you think the world will look like if you incarcerate all those people?’ Somebody else responded, ‘That sound like a revolution!’ ”
“But the truth is,” she went on. “If we incarcerated them, someone would fill their shoes.”
It’s been just over four years since McDonald was shot, and, this November, three years since the city released video of the murder. It’s about two-and-a-half years since then–Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was voted out of office, her re-election campaign doomed in the face of fierce, implacable opposition from groups like BYP100 that claimed she had been involved in covering up release of the footage.
And now, it’s been almost three weeks since Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder. It’s tempting to see, in this slow-moving timeline, the deliberate and gradual workings of a system that functions as it should. Elected officials, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, lose elections or voluntarily leave office. The city pays millions in compensation to Laquan McDonald’s family. Jason Van Dyke is brought to justice and sent to prison, locked up for however long a judge deems appropriate.
But for abolitionists like Reynolds-Tyler — many of them connected to organizations that led the effort to bring wider public attention to the McDonald shooting — things are more complicated. Abolition is a complex concept; it means not just the sudden disappearance of prisons and police, but, in the words of Advancement Project lawyer and abolitionist Derecka Purnell, that “society decrease and eliminate its reliance on policing.” In Chicago, Assata’s Daughters and BYP100, as well as a number of arts-oriented collectives, have pushed this idea forward in recent years, often through the creation of separate infrastructure to solve problems that would traditionally be dealt with by police or courts.
These organizers think the conviction of Jason Van Dyke is promising, insofar as it shows a willingness by the local justice system to hold police accountable for violence against Black people. But they don’t believe the punishment of a single person solves the fundamental injustice: the existence of the prison-industrial complex, and the structural inequities that support it.
“No police officer in my lifetime has been sufficiently charged or convicted for such an act [until now]. That’s a point of reflection, that’s a result or product of movement,” said Damon Williams, a co-founder of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, a group of abolitionist artists and organizers. “Where it gets frustrating is the push to celebrate, or the individualization [of the case], because there is no justice. Justice means to make right. There is no making it right.”
So what does it mean to have an abolitionist perspective on the Van Dyke conviction? First, abolitionists urge people to change the way they think about the McDonald case, shifting their focus from Van Dyke to the victim’s family. As Williams put it: “In addition to the articles and energy going to only punish this one person, what resources could be had to directly benefit his family?”
That’s complicated, because McDonald’s family has supported the effort to prosecute Van Dyke; a relative said that McDonald’s mother reacted with “relief” and “tears of joy” to the verdict. Plenty of Black people have expressed satisfaction or joy at the guilty verdict. Abolitionists don’t necessarily share these judgments — the ones I spoke with all noted how complicated their thoughts and feelings on the verdict were — but they still want to leave space for other Black people to respond this way.
“It’s really important to emphasize that the best thing that can come out of this process is that Laquan McDonald’s family can receive some level of peace,” said Charlene Carruthers, the founding national director of BYP100. “Abolitionists are not saying, ‘You are wrong’—particularly [to] Black folks.”
This is an important point to understand: organizers repeatedly told me that the aim of abolition is to enact comprehensive systemic change, not dole out moral judgment in individual, fraught cases. By way of example, Carruthers pointed to the activist campaign against the city’s plan to build a police academy in West Garfield Park. “We shouldn’t be spending $95 million for another training academy,” she said. “[That] should be spent on real things that create community safety, housing, quality mental healthcare.”
“We have to talk about the fact that every policy maker in Chicago [closed] schools and allowed mental health clinics [to shut down],” said Ruby Pinto, a member of For the People’s Artist Collective, another abolitionist group of artists and organizers. “Laquan was there because the city failed him relentlessly while he was born.”
Given these failings Pinto said that the response from many politicians after the verdict — often some variant on “justice was served” — rang hollow, particularly in light of the activism that’s been going on for years, with little input or support from the city’s elected officials. For the past three years, activists have prevented shoppers from entering stores on the Magnificent Mile during Black Friday; they’ve also staged die-ins and sit-ins across the city—all to protest police brutality and demand justice for McDonald. (By contrast, city leaders often seemed more concerned about keeping protests peaceful than making sure justice was served. In many cases, the city met protesters with aggressive police presence.)
“Over four years of rigorous direct action, there’s been so much risk taken by young people of color. A lot of them who don’t have finances to take direct risks,” said Pinto. “It enrages me to hear folks who would never have endorsed direct action who would claim that justice has been served….It’s absurd that anyone is pretending this has been some kind of justice that has been fought for by anyone in power.”
Williams, for his part, described the verdict as burdened by the “spectacle of history”: the frenzy of media attention and political opportunism that came with the case’s high profile. The city added to that spectacle in its own way, very visibly deploying thousands of extra policemen around Chicago ahead of the verdict, with little explanation beyond vague pronouncements about “a responsibility to keep the city safe.” As some commentators pointed out, this move suggests city leaders assumed that largely Black protesters would probably react violently if Van Dyke were found innocent.
It’s this paradigm— taking Black criminality as preordained and threatening violence as a legitimate response to Black protest — that abolition aims to overthrow.
This past week, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) released a video of off-duty police officer Khalil Muhammad shooting and wounding Ricky Hayes, a mentally disabled Black teenager, in Morgan Park. (Hayes ultimately recovered.) The shooting took place in August of 2017, and was referred to the office of the Cook County State’s Attorney by IPRA, then the agency in charge of investigating allegations of police misconduct (it was replaced by COPA in 2017). Kim Foxx, the state’s attorney who campaigned as a reformer on a (now-broken) promise to appoint special prosecutors for every police shooting, and defeated Anita Alvarez back in 2015, chose not to bring charges. Reporting for the Intercept, Invisible Institute executive director Jamie Kalven suggests, “There is a moment captured in the video when Hayes brings his hand close to his pocket. Given how difficult it is to successfully prosecute a police shooting case, this was, it appears, enough to deter the state’s attorney from bringing charges.”
Like the Van Dyke verdict, the shooting of Hayes shows that structural problems — in these cases, the blood-laden history that’s shared knowledge in any meeting between a Black teenager and a police officer — shape individual moments. (Kalven’s article also highlights how the Hayes shooting raises serious questions about COPA’s transparency and accountability procedures.)
For abolitionists, it’s important to bring those structural issues to the fore while remaining respectful of other people’s differing reactions to police brutality. “Now is the time to interrogate what we are seeking,” said Carruthers. “Some people do want revenge. I’d rather us have honest conversations about it than gloss over the human emotions that exist.”
It was this kind of honest conversation that Reynolds-Tyler tried to start on Instagram when she asked, “What is justice for Laquan McDonald?” After people said to her that Van Dyke should be locked away for life, or tortured, she responded with questions: She would ask people, “How does that impact other police officers doing this? How have things changed?…What about the other officers who were on the scene? Or the supervisor, or the city council? Should we burn them, put them in a room and torture them as well?”
“Jason Van Dyke was participating within a system that justifies this shooting,” she said. “And then people realized, well, you can’t kill everybody…Sometimes it didn’t work, but sometimes it did.”
Editors’ Note: Trina Reynolds-Tyler is a contributor to the Weekly and previously worked in administration for the Weekly. She is also a fellow at the Invisible Institute, an editorial partner of the Weekly.
Christian Belanger is an editor at the Weekly. He last interviewed urban archaeologist Rebecca Graff.