Freddie Gray died in custody. Now, months after the incident, an officer is on trial in the US city of Baltimore. But police violence is an issue in other parts of the US, too, as Miodrag Soric reports from Chicago.
After the election of the first black president of the United States, some Americans naively proclaimed an end to racism. Yet that’s hardly the case – especially in Chicago, Barack Obama’s political home.
“I am an American!” a woman shouted at several hundred demonstrators on North Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s upmarket shopping street. “I have the right to go shopping!” She was indignant. The protesters, most of whom were African-American, were blocking access to many of the shops. They were shouting. “Sixteen shots! Fourteen months!”
Almost everyone in Chicago is familiar with these numbers. In October 2014, police officer Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African-American who was carrying a knife, 16 times. The very first shot brought the teenager down, as is evident in a video finally released last week. Yet the officer still emptied his magazine. Even without sound, the images look like an execution.
Fourteen months is how long it took the justice system to charge the policeman with murder. Far too long. That’s what most people in Chicago believe – including the social worker David Bates, who spent 10 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The police arrested him on the basis of a false statement, and beat him until he was ready to admit to anything. Now, Bates, who is black, works to support young people in predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods. “Stopping the white population from shopping – especially on Black Friday weekend – is wrong,” Bates said. It just infuriates people instead of directing their attention at the real problems: racism in the police force, an ineffective and underfinanced justice system, and corruption.
Chicago not alone
This is the case across the United States. One thousand forty people have been killed by police in the country so far in 2015, the Guardian newspaper reports. And the Wall Street Journal reports that only 12 police officers have been charged after killing civilians. In Baltimore on Monday, the trial began against a policeman charged with involuntary manslaughter after the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American killed in April.
“We mustn’t make the mistake of tarring all American policemen with the same brush,” the social worker Bates said. There are plenty who are out on the streets with the intent to help people, he added. But protesters in Chicago weren’t listening to his pleas to let commerce continue as usual. They repeatedly blocked the entrances to shops – and even entire streets. They were supported by well-known speakers, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a prominent US human rights activist. Wrapped in a thick coat with a scarf around his neck on Friday, his hat pulled right down over his forehead, he called for the resignations of both Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Anita Alvarez, the state’s attorney for Cook County, who took over a year to bring charges against Van Dyke.
Jackson touched on a sore point when he asked about another video, which was said to show the moments before the police officer fired at the teenager. The camera belonged to a fast food restaurant, and the owner has accused the police of erasing the video. The police deny the accusation.
But such accusations exist across the United States. “There are instances where people think they couldn’t even look at a police officer without immediately being arrested or at least suspected of something,” said Michele Jawando, of the Center for American Progress, an advocacy group closely tied to Democrats. “That leads to mistrust in the community.” According to a Gallup poll, one in two Americans do not trust the police – the lowest level since 1993.
Though the killings of young black men and children have made most of the headlines over the past year, many Latinos have also expressed a fear of police. More recent immigrants talk about it less, but younger people, like the 19-year-old student Jasmin Nava and her 32-year-old friend Cindy Martinez, refuse to keep quiet. Both women grew up in Latino districts in southwest Chicago. Their fathers came to the US from Mexico decades ago.
Martinez, who is very involved in Latino politics, said Chicago police stopped and checked people far more often and far more rigorously in the predominantly Latino or African-American neighborhoods – “so they find more there, too.” Such checks can last 20 minutes or longer, and some people even lose their jobs for being late because of a frisk. “It’s pure harassment,” Martinez said. “That’s familiar to the majority of Latino families.”
During his campaign for mayor, Rahm Emanuel said he wanted to reform the police force. He was elected in 2011 partly because of his promise to do this, and was re-elected after a runoff in April. He hasn’t really had much success, especially as it comes to police, one of Chicago’s most poorly integrated institutions. “Compared to their percentage of the population,” Bates said, “African-Americans are underrepresented in the police force.”
Misconduct seldom has consequences for the police in Chicago. Twenty complaints had already been made about Officer Van Dyke, but the brass and the Fraternal Order of Police always backed him up. Until November, he had never faced any consequences for his actions as an officer. Many in Chicago believe that McDonald’s life might have been saved if Van Dyke had been disciplined earlier.