My daddy died in January 2013, and one of the last things we talked about was the Chicago police. He was an optimistic man with a fierce passion for social justice, but after a protracted debate with an ultra-idealistic me, he shouted, "Marilyn, don't you know that the police is the biggest gang in the city?"
The conviction in his eyes let me to know that he meant it.
My daddy was born and raised near Money, Mississippi, and was a teenager himself in that tiny town the night 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped and murdered by white racists. My dad grew up black in a social structure steeped in white supremacy, yet his encounters with the Chicago Police Department convinced him that cops here were worse than any Jim Crow-loving, Negro-hating, Southern vigilante he'd ever seen.
All this was nonsense to me. I thought my dad was crazy. Of course there are bad cops, I told him, but most police officers are good.
Now I'm finally understanding why a man who said nothing about his colon cancer until it was too late spent his last lucid moments with his second-youngest baby girl warning her not to trust the police.
Two years later, on my way to a teacher prayer meeting, I was pulled over, surrounded by three patrol cars, handcuffed, placed into the back of a squad car, and chained to a bench in a holding cell.
My crime? My driver's license was 22 days expired.
Shortly thereafter, I started paying attention to cell phone and dashboard camera footage of police behaving badly and reading the obituaries of their victims: Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Rekia Boyd. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Samuel DuBose. Jonathan Ferrell. Corey Jones.
And now Laquan McDonald.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called a special City Council meeting Wednesday to apologize to the city, to denounce the blue wall of silence that keeps police officers from snitching on one another, and to demand a change in a police department that too often treats black residents "like second-class citizens."
The public response to the speech was swift and unequivocal: Thousands took to the street to demand Mayor Emanuel's resignation, and I have to agree. His words came too little, too late.
A police dashcam video from last October clearly showed the African-American teenager walking away from police when Officer Jason Van Dyke unloaded his gun, striking Laquan 16 times—mostly while he lay helpless on the ground.
Who would shoot a dog 16 times?
A Teacher's Take on This Tragedy
Laquan's story has kept me up at night. I've taught my share of Laquans in the classroom, kids who are wards of the state and have bounced from foster home to foster home. I, like many urban teachers of poor children, often juggled dual roles: educator and surrogate mother to the motherless, father to the fatherless.
In the past 12 years, I've engaged with dozens of black boys like Laquan, whose life trajectory points them to prison or the grave. These kids redefine what some educators like to call "grit," for they keep going despite having felt five lifetimes worth of sorrow by the time they turn 6.
According to published reports, the state first removed Laquan from his mother for neglect when he was 3, then he was returned to her and taken away again at age 5 after receiving a severe beating by his mother's boyfriend. He bounced around a great deal and was reportedly sexually molested while living in two separate foster homes.
It's not hard to understand why Laquan might have self-medicated on PCP that fateful night he roamed down Pulaski Road carrying a three-inch knife.
What, then, should teachers tell the Laquans in their classrooms? Tell them that the school system will help them? The last CEO of Chicago Public Schools just pled guilty to taking millions in kickbacks and in just two months, 5,000 CPS teachers may lose their jobs because politicians have robbed their pension funds for decades.
Should teachers still encourage students of color to believe the promise of justice for all and the virtues of democracy? Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council decided to give Laquan's unfit mother $5 million to keep her from revealing the video that showed her child being executed by a city cop the month before a heated election. City leaders weighed Laquan's tragic death in dollars and cents instead of doing what was right—placing it on the blind scales of justice.
Give me a reason why black male students like Laquan should feel safe cooperating with police when cops manage their misconduct using the same "no-snitch rule" on the streets? The police ask the community to step forward when criminal activity occurs, but they don't do the same when one of their own commits a misdeed.
After all, it was the police who drafted a false news release about Laquan lunging at Van Dyke with a knife; the police allegedly drove eyewitnesses away from the murder scene, and a Burger King manager told reporters that the police confiscated the restaurant's surveillance video and erased 86 of its incriminating minutes.
If the merciless killing of a child didn't inspire the six to eight cops who were on the scene and witnessed the shooting to "snitch," then what would it take? A police serial rapist? A police suicide bomber? A police officer who targets only other police officers?
The blue wall of silence is virtually impenetrable, and it's the reason why in the past decade Chicago has paid out more than half a billion dollars in police brutality settlements, not including the $5 million in hush money given to Laquan's mother who, ironically, also mistreated him.
Had it not been for freelance journalist Brandon Smith and activist William Calloway who sued the city under the Freedom of Information Act for the release of the dashcam video, it's doubtful that Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez would have ever filed first-degree murder charges against Van Dyke, who for more than a year after the shooting wasn't indicted and remained on the CPD payroll. Alvarez needs to resign, too.
Let's Redefine Some Terms
Instead of being in their 30s, the age I was when I first heard my dad denounce the police, kids who are 7-, 8- and 9-years-old are watching YouTube videos that whisper the same thing: Don't trust the police. They can murder you and get away with it.
The deaths of Laquan and other victims of police brutality are forcing us to redefine the conventional meanings of the terms "thugs," "snitches," "gang activity" and "organized crime."
When the most vulnerable of children, wards of the state, can't find protection from badge-slinging cops and elected officials who are supposed to protect them, we have become a nation of cannibals.
I desperately want my daddy to be wrong, but the only way for me to still believe that the Chicago police force is mostly good would be for the "good cops" to step from behind their thick blue wall and stand up for the victims of police brutality, starting with Laquan McDonald.