Letter: Laquan McDonald’s Death and the Rhetoric of Police

A reader weighs in on the Chicago Police Department’s culture of intimidation, and describes her own experience processing the shooting of the 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Elyse Blennerhassett / Elizabeth Robillard Brimhall

The Chicago Culture That Created Jason Van Dyke

On October 5, a jury found a Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, guilty of second-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, who was 17. Following the verdict, Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve wrote about the context for Van Dyke’s actions. “The city convicted one cop,” she wrote, “but the cop culture that created Van Dyke and others like him is still very much extant. Unless Chicago gets serious about reform, there will be more Laquan McDonalds because there are still Jason Van Dykes.”

Laquan McDonald’s death continues to haunt me. As a child, I never believed in monsters, and as monstrous as the act of shooting a teenage boy 16 times is, I don’t want to start believing in monsters now. I am not reassured that locking Van Dyke up will change the conditions and culture that led to Laquan McDonald’s death.

Van Cleve writes that “Laquan McDonald’s shooting was supposed to be buried in the courts, one of those unnamed cases that was nothing special.” I agree with this, but I also think it’s important to note that the shooting was actually buried much earlier; Laquan’s personality and life were entirely dismissed the moment Pat Camden, the former spokesman for the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, started speaking about what happened. When I heard about the shooting, I turned on the news and saw Pat Camden giving his typical spiel to the media. One: Sensationalize “the threat.” Two: Justify the officer’s use of force. Three: Dehumanize the victim. Four: Deflect. Repeat. This is the rhetoric we become numb to. Today, we all know that the statement Camden gave to the media was falsified (Laquan did not lunge at Van Dyke with a knife), but there was something else Camden said right after that, which was never contested. He stated:

The officers are responding to somebody with a knife in a crazed condition, who stabs out tires on a vehicle and tires on a squad car. You obviously aren’t going to sit down and have a cup of coffee with them. He is a very serious threat to the officers, and he leaves them no choice at that point but to defend themselves.

When Camden so confidently said that Laquan McDonald, a teenage boy, was someone that nobody would even consider to be worthy of having a cup of coffee with, I was in disbelief. His words were like another bullet to the whole community. To me, Camden was essentially saying that Laquan was not even worth knowing or caring about. His rhetoric was strategic. By trivializing Laquan’s integrity and life, he discouraged anyone from even asking why this happened in the first place. Why ask questions about someone who supposedly never mattered or belonged?

At the time, in trying to make sense of Camden’s words—of how we could erase this boy’s existence so thoughtlessly—I collaborated with my dear friend Lizzie Robillard, a Chicago-based illustrator. I didn’t get it: How have we become so comfortable with such racist language?

Instead of challenging Camden’s statement, the media just gave him a platform on which he encouraged people to look the other way. It wasn’t until the release of the autopsy report and video (thanks to the independent journalists Jamie Kalven and Brandon Smith and the community organizer William Calloway) that Camden’s narrative about what happened that night was even questioned. Luckily, following the Invisible Institute’s release of the Citizens Police Data Project, we now have the information and tools to hold the police accountable and to challenge what goes unquestioned.

Anyway, I just wanted to share why I appreciate that you highlighted that this is a cultural problem. We are broken, at every level, if we allow claims that insinuate that a black boy is not even worth knowing, and that immediately justify the police’s use of force, to go unchallenged so easily. How can anyone thrive in a world that both criminalizes them and dismisses them—that renders them both hyper-visible and invisible? How can black youth feel like citizens in a world that takes no interest in knowing them, and that automatically judges them? How do we change a culture that denies us our humanity? What a lack of imagination, curiosity, and heart. What is justice without imagination?

Elyse Blennerhassett
Brooklyn, N.Y.