What my 10-year-old son will learn about justice from Laquan McDonald's murder

I thought I wouldn’t watch the Laquan McDonald video.  But I had to.  At my kitchen counter, I asked my 10-year-old son to get me my headphones.  I plugged them into my computer to silence the violence I knew I would witness inside of my own home.  I turned the screen so he would not see.

Today, according to the Chicago Tribune, the shooting death of Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, “marks the first time a Chicago police officer has been charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty fatality in nearly 35 years.”  If convicted, the officer faces a minimum of a 20-year jail sentence for first-degree murder.

At 4:30 p.m. today, the city released the almost seven-minute dashcam video that ends with Van Dyke shooting and killing the 17-year-old African American teen.

Some reports say McDonald was seen breaking into parked trucks near I-55.

The dashcam video starts a block over from the Southwest side Chicago public high school where I teach; it heads westbound on 55th Street at Pulaski Road. The cop car is just around the corner from the Burger King where I worked when I was fifteen.

From the beginning, the dashcam video is surreal.  The chirps and squeaks sound like some video game, something pre-programmed.  The stoplight turns green, and the police car creeps forward—as if approaching prey.  The white truck in front picks up speed: fight or flight.  I understand.

Even at 42, when a cop car is behind me, I make unnecessary turns and stops to get out of its way.  Even without the blue lights and the sirens on, I do not want to be pursued.

At 9:53 p.m. in the video, the cop car swoops right past my high school’s neon sign.  Right before Keeler Avenue, the blue lights soak the screen.  The pursuit begins.  The cop car picks up speed.  It disregards the lane markings, forcing the other cars out of its way.  A bully on the quiet road.

The park, then Koster Avenue—the stoplights are green and all the cars are motionless, except the cop’s.  It turns, almost tilting like a bird of prey in flight.

The white spotlight scans the street—looking for something, for someone.  It’s mind, it seems, already convinced.

The car passes stop sign after stop sign—civilian law negated.

The cop car turns onto Archer Avenue.  I know the route.  I drive it with my son and daughter every morning on the way to school.

In the dashcam video, Archer at almost 10 p.m. is empty.  Each crosswalk’s lines come at the viewer like a video game’s missiles.

At Pulaski, the cop car confronts a swarm of headlights unmoved in their path.  The streetlight turns on the left-turn arrow as if on cue, almost automatic like the speed cameras our mayor decided to install.

Northbound on Pulaski at high speed, the cop car—in the middle of the almost empty street—flies past boundary lines: 49th, 47th, 44th, the Target.  By 42nd and Pulaski, the other cop car’s blue lights ignite. The cop car, like we're in some video game, follows.

Another turn.  Then a three-point turn. So many turns in the video almost as if the car were guided somewhere where it didn’t need to be. Or maybe guided to where it exactly needed to go.

Then the moment we all did not want to see but like moths pulled into the glow, we watch the silhouette running slow, the way we run in dreams, into the light on the street swarmed by cop cars and blue lights.

At 5:30 in the video, Laquan McDonald’s right arm appears stiff, brandishing, possibly, the 3-inch knife the cops said he carried.

The moment Laquan McDonald crosses the dotted line—he collapses, like a deer hunt down, his legs crossing among themselves, his arms folding around each other in an empty embrace.  With each gunshot, dust seems to rise from his toppled torso—the way dust rises when breath blows over some long forgotten object.

The police officer kicks the knife from the defeated teen’s weak hand.  Our eyesight focuses more on the blue light reflecting on the fence than on the breathless body the cops thought would likely be forgotten.

Another cop car arrives—blaring lights.  And with the well-known patience of a cop, the two figures in the SUV exit and wander past the body as if it did not exist.

So how do I explain this to my 10-year-old son?

I need my son to recognize that while not all cops are bad, he must be careful around them.  While I have never been arrested, most of my experiences with cops have not been good.

When I was twenty, two female cops pulled my buddy and me over one night as we drove to get tacos.  They drew their guns.  They never told us why.

How do I protect my son from the world I want him to change?

My son needs to grow up knowing that when—not if—he faces cops, he needs to watch his words, he needs to memorize names and badges, he needs to watch himself.

I will not show my son the video. He's still a kid.

Before I know it, my son will be a man of color in Chicago--a man of color who knows our law enforcement and our justice system do not always deal with people equally.

He also needs to know that social justice is not always justly served.  After the murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee in November, a person of interest posted bail for a seven-figure bond and is free.  No protests ensued.

In 2012, a six-year-old little girl died from a gang shooting in Little Village.  Where are the protests in her name?  A name most people probably forgot.

Like so many of us watching the video we did not want to see, my son will, sadly, have to see the complexities of a justice system that sometimes works and sometimes fails.  This I do want him to see.

So as my little boy grows to be a man of color in Chicago, I hope, he grows to be a man of courage who speaks up when he sees justice work--and who speaks up louder when it fails.

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