I don't know what I expected to see when I watched the video of Chicago police killing 17-year old Laquan McDonald, but nothing could prepare me for what I saw. In some of the videos of police killing suspects, the visuals can leave at least a little room for questions about context, perceptions of threat, and reasonable uses of force. But there is a moment in that dashcam video where the questions give way to silencing shock.
That moment is a single frame in which a puff of smoke, presumably from a bullet striking the pavement, billows up near Laquan's prone but still-twitching body as he lay in the middle of the street. Whatever threat he may have posed with the knife he wielded moments before is gone, yet the shots keep coming. And coming. And coming.
The day the video was finally released, Tuesday November 24, the Cook County state's attorney charged Officer Jason Van Dyke with first-degree murder, more than a year after the teenager was killed. "Why so long?" is certainly one question that needs answering. But that puff of smoke raises its own incredulous question for me: "What the hell?!"
That question is echoing throughout my city of Chicago and the nation, as it should be, as more information emerges about Laquan's death and other similar homicides. What the hell inspires a police officer to empty a clip into a twitching body? What the hell took so long for charges to be filed?
Raising the question draws one into one of the most invidious and asinine debates about the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers in recent years. There is this sense that raising critical questions - sometimes with loud voices and disruptive action - is necessarily antagonistic toward police, as if we have a simplistic choice between supporting the slain and supporting police. "Black lives matter," for far too many of my fellow whites, is equivalent to professing hatred of police or for not "appreciating" the difficult situations they face. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The choice between support for police and support for Black Lives Matter is a false choice. The critical questions the movement raises are questions that must be addressed in the interest of us all. They are questions that must be asked, too, in the interest of the "good cops" trotted out in response to news reports about the bad ones. Law enforcement officers do have difficult jobs, but they aren't made any easier when there is a general lack of trust in police and courts to do what they are supposed to do: keep us all safe, indiscriminately.
Those police officers who have spent their careers serving their communities, building relationships with neighbors, and risking their lives for others deserve trust and respect. But they will never get it as long as the system they represent continues to devalue the lives it claims to protect. Their jobs become much more difficult when the community collectively expresses a lack of confidence in the system that employs them.
This is not a case of one bad cop among thousands of good ones. It is a case of a system that defends the death-dealing choices of people in power, even in the face of clear evidence of guilt. It is a system in which a police officer who pumps sixteen rounds into the body of a dying man can claim he was in fear for his life and thus avoid prosecution for over a year. As long as this system exists, no one is safe.
Better training, more surveillance of police, more extensive reviews - these are long-term responses and perhaps will help. Maybe firing Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy might bring about changes (though I doubt it.) I can't speak for the Black Lives Matter movement, but for me as a white Chicagoan, the most helpful statement police and prosecutors can make is, "What the hell?!" The protests currently disrupting Chicago - and rightfully so, they should be disruptive - present the best chance we have at changing a broken system.
To join the protests is not necessarily to proclaim oneself "anti-cop" (though there may be some for whom this is true.) Rather, there is an opportunity now for us to reshape a system that will allow for trust and confidence in people in power. And there is an opportunity for law enforcement to become what it is supposed to be - a symbol of responsible use of power in service of all.
Perhaps there are some police and prosecutors watching the videos of Laquan McDonald and others with the same grief and incredulity expressed in protest. In fact, I am sure of it. But until we can hear them joining in the conversation with their own angry shouts of "What the hell?!" and "No more!" their silence will only appear as complicity and continue to mire us in the false distinction between protesting a broken system and supporting police.