February 6, 2017

Laquan: The Almost E-Book


I wrote the contents of this post on January 17 and 18, 2016, in the months following the release of the video showing the assassination of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police, as the script for segments of an episode of Chicago Independent Television. My original plan was to revise the script as an ebook, complete with hyperlinks and references, and then publish it on Amazon Prime. However, I admit, I never got around to doing that. When I was finally motivated in 2017 to work on the book with intent for publishing it, I realized that the moment had passed -- too much of the political landscape had shifted, and the necessary revisions, particularly in Part Three, would require more effort than I had hoped, too much effort for too little gain. I didn't want the content to simply sit fallow, so at the very least I decided to post the script as is (or as was) on my website as a single lengthy post, which I do so below.


Most people might sympathize, even agree, with the cause of political activists who strive to make the world a better place, to fight the unbeatable foe, to right the unrightable wrong. But a great many of those same people might deem activism just a big waste of time, thinking that the status quo and the Powers That Be are just too big, too strong, to sway or stop, never mind any hope of winning substantial change. And yet, power -- while sometimes daunting -- is also fragile, and those who seem invincible today can be weak tomorrow. You are more powerful than you know. And it's important to understand that persistent activism, done smartly, can pay off in profound ways, and accelerate into larger change faster than anyone expects.

One profound example of is that of the sudden but well-deserved fall of Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago (for the moment at least). The fall, as nearly everyone knows, was spurred on by the release of a police video. On October 20, 2014, at 41st and Pulaski, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times at point-blank range. That shooting was recorded by the police car's dash-cam and withheld from public view for more than a year. On November 24, 2015, the video was finally released by court order, to immediate worldwide coverage and outrage. The video shook the core of the Chicago political establishment, garnered national and international attention, and triggered frequent and widespread protests.

That much is known and widely so. But what's far less well known is the detailed story of how that video came to be released. It was the result of the combined and dogged efforts of a handful of people: a whistleblower, a law professor, a police victims' activist, two independent journalists, and a civil rights attorney working for free.

Shortly after the video of Laquan McDonald's shooting was recorded, a still-anonymous whistleblower from inside the Chicago government leaked knowledge of the video's existence to the attention of two people: University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman and independent Chicago journalist Jamie Kalven. Futterman and Kalven investigated the lead, and discovered discrepancies that didn't match the police's public pronouncements of Laquan McDonald's death.

The police said that a teenager armed with a knife punctured a car tire and damaged a police car windshield, then approached police with knife in hand. The police responded by shooting in self-defense. However, as Jamie Kalven wrote: "The site where [Laquan McDonald] was killed is a mostly vacant area closed off by a metal construction fence. Laquan posed no immediate threat to anyone. And there was nowhere for him to run... According to a witness whose car was stopped on Pulaski by the unfolding drama, several officers got out of their squad cars. With no apparent provocation – [Laquan] was shying away rather than lunging toward them -- a white male officer shot Laquan, who fell to the ground."

Kalven concluded his report by saying: "Demonstrators are not yet raising their voices on behalf of Laquan McDonald. Perhaps they should."

That post, as well as another post by Kalven on the online news site Slate, brought the issue to the attention of Chicago journalists. No fewer than fourteen Chicago media outlets requested a copy of the video; all fourteen were told "no" on the grounds that the release of the video would risk the integrity of an ongoing investigation. Those other media outlets didn't follow up on that claim. But there was one journalist – just one journalist – who did. His name was Brandon Smith.

Brandon Smith entered the fray, inspired by the words of William Calloway, an activist who works with the families of victims of police violence. Calloway said that Smith should "pry the video loose where a bunch of news organizations...had refused." Smith indeed followed up, got the assistance of a civil rights law firm, Loevy & Loevy, and specifically a single attorney – Matt Topic – who worked for Smith for free. Brandon Smith sued the city of Chicago in court in May 2015. By then, Rahm Emanuel had faced a general election and a runoff, and won both to claim a second term as Chicago mayor. In the middle of the campaign, the Chicago City Council paid Laquan McDonald's family five million dollars in a settlement.

On November 19, 2015, Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ruled that the police couldnr't hide behind the it's-for-an-investigation defense because investigations of police misconduct aren't handled by the police, they’re handled by another organizational body, the so-called Independent Police Review Authority. As a result, the city was finally ordered by the judge to release the video of McDonald's killing no later than November 25th. And though the city could have appealed the ruling, for whatever reason, it chose not to. On Tuesday, November 24th, to widespread anticipation and worldwide outrage, the Chicago police released the video.

Calls for reform reached all the way up to the mayor's office, which the mayor couldn't bear or tap-dance around or simply wait out.

Rahm Emanuel was bulletproof. He withstood protest after protest by Occupy Chicago, by the Chicago Teachers Union, by various forces assembled against NATO in 2012, by the mental health movement, and on and on. He weathered them all, winning a second term in office in a city job which has no recall procedure nor any term limits. And yet, it was a single dash-cam and the efforts of maybe six people to release that to the world which dealt him a political blow from which he may never recover, no matter what else may happen, no matter how long his political career may last.

It bears repeating: You are more powerful than you know. And persistent activism, done smartly and in concert with others, can pay off in profound ways, and accelerate into larger change faster than anyone expects. Just ask Rahm Emanuel.


A handful of individuals doggedly worked to win the release of the video of the police killing of Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald. After more than a year of work, the victory was complete: a Cook County judge sided against the police and the city, and ordered the release the video of McDonald's killing no later than Wednesday, November 25, 2015.

In the days leading up to the deadline, Chicago's officialdom and the media – in Chicago and nationwide – were anticipating formidable protests against police brutality in the wake of the release of the video. After all, protests involved with the Black Lives Matter movement swept city after city in the United States, from Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City, to Baltimore, to Cleveland, and now – it would appear – to Chicago. Activists and protest organizers had announced emergency protest actions, vowing to take to the streets when the video would be released.

The city and the mayor attempted to deflate impending protests, even going so far as to hold meetings with various Chicago black youth organizations urging them to stand down. One of those groups, the Black Youth Project 100, declined to meet with Rahm Emanuel. In the words of the group’s national director, Charlene Carruthers, "For us, it was important not to take a meeting with the mayor where it was clear to us that this series of meetings was about how are we going to quell our fears — being the mayor’s office’s fears — about what young, black people are going to do once this video is released. They’re very concerned with the city remaining peaceful, but unfortunately, the community, or the target, that is being told to remain peaceful is not the Chicago Police Department."

Supposedly, the video was prematurely leaked; that’s the reason that the police released the video of Laquan’s killing one day before the deadline, on Tuesday, November 24th, 2015. On that day, in a dramatic turnaround, the embattled Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who previously supported the status quo and protected police, now announced that Laquan McDonald’s killer would face murder charges and was taken into custody.

The police didn’t make it easy to get the video of Laquan’s killing; the digital file of the video comprised a single web link that was made available solely to the media for only one hour. Those who tried to download the file complained of slow download times. But once the video was finally downloaded and made public, it very quickly enveloped the world’s news and social media.

And as expected, thousands took to the streets in protest, heeding a call to protest launched on Facebook by the Black Youth Project 100, along with Assata’s Daughters, and We Charge Genocide. The protest march began at the intersection of Roosevelt and Halsted in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, and enveloped across downtown Chicago with wide and sympathetic media coverage. Five people were arrested in the first day of protests. One arrestee, Chicago poet and college student Malcolm London, faced dubious felony charges of punching a police officer. But activists disputed the charges and rallied fiercely to his defense with the whole world watching; in a day’s time, London was released and the charges dropped.

Protests continued throughout the week. It so happened that the week that the Laquan McDonald video was released was Thanksgiving week 2015, and the Friday of that week marked one of the busiest shopping days on the year. The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, along with Rainbow PUSH and many others, called for downtown protest on that Friday. And so, Black Lives Matter met Black Friday when massive protests swarmed the Chicago shopping district on Michigan Avenue. Protesters blocked holiday shoppers from being able to shop, garnering yet another round of local and national media attention. As if that wasn’t bad enough for the powers that be, store after store on Michigan Avenue reported considerably slowed business, reporting anywhere from twenty-five to fifty-percent downturns on a day that retailers and capitalists counted on.

You can bet your bottom dollar that those retailers gave an earful to Rahm.

It’s not just that the protests were formidable because of their size, or because they’re hitting the powerful where they hurt, in the pocketbooks of the powerful, and in the realm of public opinion, in Chicago, and nationwide. They’re formidable because of their moral authority and their simplicity, with a single, overarching crystal-clear demand: Stop killing black people.

Rahm Emanuel, in the face of such growing opposition, simply entrenched himself, declaring that he would not resign, and in fact announced that he would run again for a third term as Chicago mayor when the next election rolled around in the year 2019. To little surprise, the protests continued unabated:

  • Protests on December 6th against enveloped downtown Chicago, from City Hall to the Thompson Center
  • Activists staged a resignation party in Daley Plaza on December 9th, the same week that the city released an additional two videos of police killing persons of color.
  • December 15th: Sixteen activists blocked a downtown intersection and were arrested, calling for the resignations of Rahm Emanuel and Anita Alvarez.
  • December 16th: At a high school rally attended by Rahm Emanuel, students start chanting "sixteen shots", an allusion to the number of shots fired at Laquan McDonald
  • December 18th: Protesters convene yet another walk-out protest at Daley Plaza.
  • December 24th, Christmas Eve: Protesters convene a Black Christmas march on Michigan Avenue, another major shopping day for retailers and businesses.
  • December 31st, activists stage a New Year’s Eve protest against Rahm at City Hall, the same week that Chicago police shoot to death two more unarmed black Chicagoans, a community activist and a teenager suffering from mental health issues.
  • There have been at least six protests directly at Rahm Emanuel's house on Chicago’s north side.
  • Among the protests during Martin Luther King Weekend 2016: A shutdown of the Fraternal Order of Police Bank, a blockade of the communal breakfast held by Rahm Emanuel at the Chicago Regency Hyatt Hotel.

And that’s what has happened in the first two months. There are signs that neither side will surrender, and may well escalate. What might the future hold? What are the possible endgame scenarios? And what can the forces for justice do to prevail? We’ll try to answer those questions in the next segment.


Black Lives Matter protests have taken Chicago by storm since the November release of the police killing of Laquan McDonald. And since that video’s release and ensuing nonstop protests, there have been a number of changes.

Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired. Scott Ando, the head of the so-called Independent Police Review Authority, which oversees police misconduct cases, resigned. The Justice Department announced a "far reaching investigation into the patterns and practices of the Chicago Police Department." The mayor’s office announced that more than one thousand body cameras would be distributed to police in 2016. More videos of police killings of citizens have been released. State’s attorney Anita Alvarez has refused to step down for her role in not prosecuting rogue police. But Alvarez’s days may soon be numbered; she is up for primary election in March 2016, and her key rival, Kim Foxx, won a key endorsement by the Democratic Party of Cook County.

Many activists have raised the concern that the change of key leaders won’t change the system of corruption on the whole. For example, the new chief of Chicago police, John Escalante, approved fake evidence supporting the police in the killing of Laquan McDonald. Changing personnel won’t necessarily mean that injustice will end.

Moreover, Rahm Emanuel is still Mayor of Chicago...for the moment. He has declined repeated and growing calls to resign. And note that Chicago elected officials have no impeachment procedure. The only way an elected Chicago official can be forced out of office is if an official is convicted of a crime while in office. That might not be outside the realm of possibility, depending on how the aforementioned federal probe into Chicago police and Chicago politics proceeds. But that’s not the kind of thing that should be relied upon in order to remove Rahm from office.

Emails of the Mayor's staff have shown that his staff knew about the Laquan shooting during Rahm’s reelection campaign in 2015. That hints at the strong possibility that Rahm himself, a notorious micromanager, knew about the video and the shooting and the possible impact on his electoral chances.

Efforts at the city level to allow impeachment of officials are for the moment non-starters, given the fact that Rahm Emanuel won’t approve a change in Chicago law leading to his own impeachment. A more promising effort, however, has been launched at the state level: Illinois state representative La Shawn Ford has drawn up a bill that would grant Chicagoans the power to impeach the mayor. If the bill is approved, it would grant mayoral impeachment given the following: the approval of two city aldermen, more than eighty-eight thousand signatures, and at least 50 signatures from each of Chicago's fifty wards. The bill has some momentum to advance, and Illinois governor Bruce Rauner has announced that he would not veto the bill if it comes to his desk.

Rahm Emanuel may well think he could stall any efforts at reform, wait for the Black Lives Matter protests to diminish, and then rebuild his tattered reputation in time for the next mayoral election in 2019. But Rahm may well cop out to an opponent he can’t defeat: the corporate and financial elite of Chicago.

This was the focus of a report by Paul Street, a researcher and scholar, in the website of the newsletter Counterpunch. The article by Street called Emanuel "a sacrificial Rahm", and quoted a report in Crain's Chicago Business saying how Chicago's One Percent is concerned about Rahm’s inability to quell what has been referred to as a "volcano" of protests by Black Chicagoans. As Paul Street wrote: "Untold thousands of young Black and other Chicago resident[s] are now in militant motion like no time in recent memory. Good corporate mayors are supposed to keep ghetto residents pacified. Emanuel is failing at the task."

Protests are poised to continue, which may well be galvanized further by an impending 2016 strike by the Chicago Teachers Union. The calls from Chicago's One Percent for a change of mayor may go from subtle to overt. If Rahm were smart or if Rahm were less stubborn, he would be preparing an exit strategy -- to leave office to take some job at Goldman Sachs or at Bank of America or someplace, and put some suitable functionary as mayor in order to reduce street protests. But if there's anything to be said about Rahm Emanuel, it's that he's a bully through and through, and the ability to say "no", even when it's in his best interest to do so, is not in his DNA.

It may be perverse to say, but if that’s so, then it may be the best situation for the public for Rahm to stay as Mayor of Chicago for as long as possible. His departure would almost certainly deflate the size and strength of the protests that hold the best hope for substantive change in Chicago. Those protests, however, are poison to Chicago’s One Percent and if they continue and escalate, we could see an activist’s dream: Mayor One Percent against Chicago’s One Percent. It's audacious to say, but it's not outside the realm of possibility for Rahm to be stuck in an impossible bind: stay mayor at the same time he tries to get protesters off the streets. In order to fend off the protests, he may well offer additional concessions -- reduce taxes, accede to the demands of Chicago teachers, reform and make transparent the widely-reviled Tax Increment Financing Program, the list can go on.

This struggle, indeed all political struggles, can be summarized in a single four-word phrase: "Unite Friends, Divide Enemies". Signs are that Rahm's so-called friends are aligning against him. Meanwhile, the ninety-nine percent are unifying in protest for justice, for police accountability and beyond.

What can the forces for justice do to prevail? Continue the protests, which have helped change the rules of the game. Continue the investigations, which can discover scandals yet to be told and which can plant the seed of future protests. May it continue for as long as possible.

We're in a rare opportunity to win some genuinely substantive changes, besides just the proverbial swapping of bums in government. We can, with delicious irony, use the advice that Rahm Emanuel himself gave: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."