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Activists commemorate Laquan McDonald on what would have been his 23rd birthday

While pointing to some progress, activists stress many issues of police reform still need to be addressed.

Children get ready for a balloon release on Friday during a commemoration of what would have been Laquan McDonald’s 23rd birthday and a teach-in regarding the Fraternal Order of Police contract.
Children get ready for a balloon release on Friday during a commemoration of what would have been Laquan McDonald’s 23rd birthday and a teach-in regarding the Fraternal Order of Police contract.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

On what would have been Laquan McDonald’s 23rd birthday, a crowd gathered and counted to 16 — one for every police shot fired into McDonald — before releasing 400 teal-and-white balloons, signifying the number of days activists fought to get the police video of the teenager’s 2014 killing released.

Chicago residents and activists, including Will Calloway and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, gathered Friday in the South Shore neighborhood to pay tribute to McDonald, reflect on his legacy and discuss what more needs to be done to reform the Chicago police.

Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times, killing him in October 2014. Five years later, Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. Van Dyke was sentenced in January 2019 to six years and nine months in prison.

Jeffery Phillips and Jawanda Hairston of Woodlawn attended Friday’s event, accompanied by their 17-year-old son, Zimmie. Phillips said it was important to bring people with different perspectives together and noted his own son was the same age as McDonald when he was killed.

“It could have been him very easily,” Phillips said.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks to a crowd that gathered on Friday to remember what would have been Laquan McDonald’s 23rd birthday.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks to a crowd that gathered on Friday to remember what would have been Laquan McDonald’s 23rd birthday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In a summer of civil unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha and the recent decision in Louisville not to charge officers for the slaying of Breonna Taylor, McDonald’s case remains one of the few where a police officer was charged and found guilty.

Calloway said many things have changed for the better in Chicago since McDonald’s shooting, pointing to the mandate that all officers wear body cameras, the 2015 firing of Supt. Garry McCarthy, the 2016 defeat of former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term.

Tio Hardiman, executive director for Violence Interrupters, also pointed to progress but added that police training has to be revamped around the country.

“Police officers have been trained to put you down, to kill you, if you’re in a difficult situation. A lot of them know when they go too far, but they figure nobody ever got convicted — until Van Dyke,” Hardiman said.

Calloway said despite the gains in Chicago, there is still a lot of work to do. He cited several missed deadlines by police related to the 2019 federal consent decree but said his immediate focus is to demand changes to the police union contract to create positive change and to continue to honor McDonald.

Activist William Calloway goes over the Chicago police rules and regulations on Friday during a teach-in about the Fraternal Order of Police contract.
Activist William Calloway goes over the Chicago police rules and regulations on Friday during a teach-in about the Fraternal Order of Police contract.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Before the balloon release, Calloway led an hour-long “teach-in,” where he outlined his goals, standing in front of a video board on a truck parked on Chappel Avenue at 79th Street that displayed Powerpoint slides.

Calloway started by pointing out several officers who are still working, detailing the number of complaints against them and the money paid out by the city in civil suits against them.

“Chicago is broke. But Chicago needs to look at who they’re paying and what they’re paying,” Calloway shouted to the crowd.

The Chicago Police have been working without a contract since 2017, but Calloway said it’s a “horrible agreement that needs to be completely revamped.”

Calloway outlined several demands for the new contract, including the elimination of sworn affidavits by citizens to investigate police misconduct; the end to the 24-hour delay for officer statements in shooting investigations; the elimination of an officer’s right to review and amend statements made to investigators; and the end of a bylaw that prohibits CPD from releasing a photo of an officer under investigation.

John Catanzara, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, which represents Chicago Police rank-and-file officers, did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, the Chicago Police Department said Supt. David Brown has been holding weekly meetings with command staff since July regarding the police consent decree, including how to catch up on missed deadlines and increase accountability within the department.

As for Calloway, he is calling for 10% of the CPD’s $1.6 billion budget to be reallocated to communities like South Shore, Englewood and Austin, to spur economic opportunities and increase mental health services.

“We have to reimagine what that would look like, and bring the bread back to the neighborhood,” he said.

A crowd releases 400 balloons on Friday night to commemorate what would have been Laquan McDonald’s 23rd birthday.
A crowd releases 400 balloons on Friday night to commemorate what would have been Laquan McDonald’s 23rd birthday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times