In the end, it wasn’t the city’s most powerful politicians or the celebrated movers and shakers in the black community who won justice for Laquan McDonald.
It was the persistence of a small band of young activists that ultimately led to Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke being ushered out of a courtroom on Friday with his hands behind his back.
“It was only because of God almighty that we got justice,” proclaimed William Calloway, a police reform activist who was in the courtroom throughout the three-week trial.
On most days, only a couple dozen protesters showed up outside of the Leighton Criminal Court Building at 26th and California.
When the verdict of second-degree murder was announced just before 2 p.m. Friday, the police presence on foot and on bicycles outnumbered the protesters nearly three to one.
Ursula Phoenix, who described herself as a mother and advocate, said she was in Los Angeles in 1992 when four police officers were acquitted in the Rodney King beating that was caught on videotape.
“Now we’ve got a better outcome — second-degree. As a black mother, I feel my child and all our children will be safer because there are consequences. This is about consequences,” she said.
For Calloway, a passionate voice for police reform, the moment unleashed emotions that had him fighting back tears.
“We pray and we hope that this gives some inspiration and encouragement not only to the City of Chicago but all cities across America, to let them know that excessive force and unlawful and unjustified and unreasonable use of force by police officers will not be tolerated,” he said.
Four years ago, it didn’t seem possible that their activism over the police-involved shooting — one of many across the country involving a white police officer and a young black male — would result in the police officer being convicted of a crime.
But their voices were heard — not only in Chicago but across the nation.
Because of them, Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one count for every bullet that struck the 17-year-old teen.
For a half-century, no on-duty police officer in Chicago had been convicted of killing a civilian.
Mark Carter, founder of the Voice Of The Ex-Offender or “VOTE,” said the next move is political.
“Now is time to come after the entire City Council who were part of the cover-up. Nothing could have happened without them,” he said.
In what could be described as a David vs. Goliath matchup, the young activists have scored a victory against established political and community leadership without throwing a single stone.
“We did a lot of praying. We did a lot of work. We were peaceful when we didn’t want to be peaceful. It was so many police shootings that happened after Laquan McDonald, and we remained peaceful,” Calloway told a crush of media during a news conference after Friday’s verdict.
The grass-root activists hammered then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, accusing her of failing to bring charges against Van Dyke even though there was a video that showed the officer shooting McDonald 16 times.
Alvarez ended up losing her re-election bid to Kim Foxx, a political newcomer.
On Friday, the activists put police officers who were accused of wrongdoing in the McDonald shooting and ranking black aldermen on notice.
“Those officers that lied, they still haven’t been prosecuted. We still need to hold them accountable,” Calloway said.
“And the City Council that voted for the settlements have to be removed … Today justice was delivered for Laquan McDonald, but it doesn’t stop there. Rahm has to go. These other aldermen have to go,” Calloway continued.
“No black alderman showed up for this … No black elected official showed up for us. It was just us. Our generation showed up,” he said.
They started out with small voices.
They ended with a roar.