Judge acquits three Chicago cops of covering up 17-year-old Laquan McDonald’s murder.
I was arrested the day the Iraq war started. I had gone straight to the protest from work and ended up spending the night in jail in my awkward office-casual outfit. I sat in a cell with a domestic violence survivor I had helped in court only two days before.
At the trial, the two arresting officers said that my friend and I had attacked them — their story became more and more fanciful as they spoke from the witness stand. They claimed my friend had jumped on one officer’s back, they thought he was going to grab their gun. The judge finally separated the two officers so that they could not hear each other’s testimony: Once she did, their stories ceased to match up.
None of these serious allegations had been documented in the police report they filed when they arrested us, nor had we been charged with any of the crimes they were alleging now. At some point in my peripheral vision, I could see that the prosecutor had dropped her forehead nearly to table in front of her, clearly giving up on her case. We were both found not guilty.
Months later, one of those two officers was working off-duty at an apartment complex and shot a man. He claimed that the man had tried to attack him. I contacted the defense attorney of the man who was shot explaining what we had experienced in court. The defense attorney never called me back. The story got a paragraph in the local paper. The man who was shot, I believe, went to jail.
Yesterday, in Chicago, three police officers who were caught lying to cover up Officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald were acquited in a bench trial. Not only were they found not guilty of conspiring to paint this child victim as an aggressor, but the judge spoke for nearly an hour about how it was wrong to second guess the police — giving their words and “interpretations” more credibility than the facts shown on the dashboard camera and the statements of non-police eyewitnesses. Apparently, the courtroom erupted into applause, and police officers smiled and shook hands and congratulated each other at the end of the day. I’m sure there were drinks all around.
Van Dyke, who has been found guilty of second-degree murder, will be sentenced today.
I remember the shock I felt when the officers in my trial began fabricating their story. I remember catching my co-defendants eye, scared, giving each other panicked glances across the room. I remember leaning over to my attorney, some big-wig who had offered to represent us both pro-bono, and whispering “That’s NOT true!” and him shrugging back, and patting me on the shoulder like I was a child. To me this incredibly immoral and dishonest corruption was being exposed and was colliding with my life — to everyone else in the room, it was just another day in the criminal justice system.
I don’t think everyone who becomes a police officer is a bad person, but I do know that it’s not a profession that makes you a better person. I think there are a lot of jobs and situations out there that can and do make good people even better — where we grow into our communities (and thus ourselves) instead of segregate ourselves out from them. But the distinction between these jobs (teaching, organizing, counseling) is that they don’t have a tremendous amount of power attached to them and they have not been put in place primarily to uphold institutions. Police officers, congresspeople, city council members: Once you are upholding an institution, you are no longer yourself. You are no longer part of the community from which you came. You have to become a part of the club. The truth of the institution is more powerful than what you actually know.
My situation in court all those years ago cannot even start to compare to that of what is happening in Chicago or across the United States; I was a young white girl with a pro-bono attorney and a courtroom full of friends and family as I faced minor misdemeanor charges. Shoot, I even had an office in the very courthouse where I was being tried and an officer I was friendly with had walked through my bail, gently chiding me as I was released. I was acquitted. I did not die.
But for so many other people and communities, this band of brothers, this club of power is a deadly force and it’s a deadly force not because it is an aggregate of terrible people or morally failed individuals. It’s deadly because the power takes on its own being. It can’t help itself.
I think we want to believe that the right people can change things from the inside. This is the easiest solution and it requires the least of us. I understand the impulse to want to vote in the good guys; to share the video of the kind cop playing basketball or rescuing ducklings; to want to find the right tools or platform or ballot or checks and balances to do a quick fix-it job. But nothing here is actually broken, nothing needs to be fixed: It is working as designed and cannot help itself. I understand the impulse to want to believe in what we already have. But the truth is that what we have is not all that could be.
Our imaginations are deeply failing us.