Historic Verdict in Laquan McDonald Case Marks Victory in the Fight for Justice
By Kevin Rueda
The trial of Jason Van Dyke has sent shockwaves running throughout the nation. White police officer Van Dyke was accused of fatally shooting black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014 and was charged with first-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery, and one count of official misconduct. The incident gained national attention following the release of dash cam footage, which the City of Chicago had previously refused to release. The footage shows Van Dyke firing 16 shots into the teenager, who was walking away from officers and armed with only a small knife. The video’s release sparked days of national protests and elevated the tensions between the police force and minority communities.
For decades, there has been conflict over racial bias in police officers and how such bias impacts the treatment of different communities. The issue has been heavily contested since the 1991 beating of Rodney King and subsequent riots were the catalyst for the fight for justice. Over the past couple of years, black communities have erupted in outrage from the lack of justice for black men and women killed by white officers. The officers in the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Charleena Lyles, Rekia Boyd, and many more have all gone unpunished.
On Oct. 5, 2018, Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. The verdict meant justice for black communities, as Van Dyke became the first Chicago police officer to be convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting in 48 years. Following the verdict’s reveal, activists and residents took to the streets to celebrate the conviction in jubilance, emotion, and passion. Many schools, offices in Chicago’s Loop, and City Hall were closed and evacuated ahead of the verdict’s reading. The City of Chicago expected violence to erupt had the verdict gone the other way, and the police force was heavily staffed and working overtime in order to ensure safety and security in the city.
Chicago Public Schools prepared for the verdict ahead of time. CPS encouraged students and faculty members to reflect on the verdict in a meaningful manner but also emphasized the importance of safety procedures. CPS cancelled all after school athletic events and competitions in an attempt to protect students, and encouraged schools to take additional precautions. Northside College Prep cancelled all after school events and locked down the building by 3:30 in an effort to ensure the safety of all students.
Northside College Prep students generally reacted positively towards the trial’s verdict. Students expressed that the trial’s verdict was an important milestone and victory, but that the battle is far from over. Liam Godley, Adv. 901, said “I’m really glad that he was brought to justice. I feel like it’s the first spark of hope we’ve had in awhile.” Leslie Acebedo, Adv. 008, expressed a similar sentiment, stating, “I think the verdict was fair and is a good start.”
Despite being found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery, many students were quick to point out that a single conviction does not make up for decades of racial bias and prejudice. Chris Jackson, Adv. 000, said “One person was found guilty, but it doesn’t fix the system. It was good that someone finally faced justice, but we need change to follow up.” Co-leader of Black Student Union Ikenna Elue, Adv. 909, expressed a similar sentiment by saying, “Him [Van Dyke] being found guilty is obviously more favorable and fair than the alternative, but in the end, there’s still a huge problem. There needs to be action such that an event like this could never happen again”
The trial has had such a profound impact on the local community, but also on Northside students. Many students emphasized the importance of informing oneself on such topics. Acebedo said, “I think it’s very important for students to be aware of topics like this. People seem to forget that we are talking about a teenager [Laquan McDonald]. It’s important to express your voice and speak up for what you think is right.” Elue made a similar point saying “I believe it is vital that students involve themselves in topics like this because you have to remember that Laquan McDonald was only 17. Even if he wasn’t, you have to recognize the racial prejudice that brought about this event.” Many students agreed that participation in civic activities is critical for addressing social issues. Seth Karall, Adv. 007, said, “Civic engagement is extremely important. Students should use their voice to spark change in political and social issues.” Mikva Challenge representative Gina Jagminas, Adv. 003, said, “Even if issues aren’t affecting us directly, they’re affecting our communities and peers every day...These issues will also have major impact on our future, making it so important for students to be educated and involved in things they care about.”
Several teachers stopped class to allow for students to reflect on the verdict. Godley said, “My teacher, that I had when the verdict was announced, actually stopped class and let us have an open discussion. It was a very positive way for students to reflect and express themselves.” Mme. Crystal Schaldenbrand, World Language department, also stopped her Block 4 class Friday afternoon immediately following the release of the verdict to allow for students to reflect. Hussain Gilani, Adv. 000, said “Political talk, in my opinion, should be encouraged in class….Not everyone becomes an engineer or a doctor, but everyone is a part of our democracy.”
The verdict in the Van Dyke trial is a small victory and could mark a pivotal turning point in the fight against racial inequality; however, it is important for change to follow. Students should educate themselves on critical political and social issues, in order to become more civically engaged. Through various manners and media, students should advocate for what they believe. There are several platforms students can use to spark change. Jagminas said, “Social media is a great way for students to have their voices heard, as well as a valuable platform to interact with others and experience new viewpoints. Organizations and clubs, many at NCP, are super helpful in ensuring that students have the resources and opportunities to get involved. Contact your representatives, participate in demonstrations you are passionate about, vote if you can, and encourage your peers to do the same.” In the case of our democracy, there is always something to be done.