Video of the execution of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer was released on Tuesday, and it has widened the aperture on the meaning of access to justice. This young man, in possession of a small knife but threatening no one, was walking away from the scene when an officer arrived, exited his vehicle and began shooting. The officer fired 16 shots, 14 while Laquan lay mortally wounded on the ground. His fellow officer asked him to stop shooting as he reloaded his weapon. Police intimidated and dispersed witnesses, then viewed and destroyed a nearby restaurant’s video recording of the incident. The dash cam video of the shooting was concealed for more than a year.
This crime was committed in the presence of several other officers. Why did none of them use force to stop the barrage of shots fired? Why was the shooter not arrested on the scene? Why did police tell the public Laquan lunged at them and was shot only once, and in self-defense? Why did it take a court order (enforcing the Freedom of Information Act) to release the video? Why did it take a freelance journalist to file that FOIA request? Why did it take 400 days — until the very day the video was released — to fire and arrest the murderer?
The answer is that a widespread conspiracy of silence and coverup by everyone from the cops on the scene to the police chief to the prosecutor and possibly the mayor worked to deny Laquan McDonald’s most fundamental rights.
Martin Luther King famously proclaimed, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” While the city hastened to settle a pending lawsuit by the boy’s family — to the tune of $5 million — there can never be justice for Laquan McDonald at this late date. A stiff prison sentence for the man who stole his life doesn’t begin to correct the city’s errors. The eight other officers on the scene should be charged as accessories after the fact, as should the four or five officers who destroyed the restaurant’s film. The mayor should fire the police chief and then resign himself. The prosecutor should be disbarred and summarily ejected from office. A special prosecutor must be appointed by the governor. Ultimately, this must be recognized as a national problem, and federal or international remedies sought to fix it.
If there was ever a case proving the need for a Black Lives Matter movement, this is it. Laquan McDonald’s life did not matter to Chicago law enforcement officials, the people responsible for punishing the theft of his life. A year after Tamir Rice’s life was stolen by Cleveland police, city officials’ continued refusal to charge his killer proves his life did not matter to them. Trayvon Martin’s life did not matter to Sanford, Florida officials. Rekia Boyd’s life did not matter in Chicago. Michael Brown’s life did not matter in Ferguson. Sandra Bland’s life did not matter in that Houston suburb. Eric Garner’s life did not matter in New York City. John Crawford’s life did not matter in Dayton, Ohio. Natasha McKenna’s life did not matter in Fairfax, Virginia. The list goes on and on.
But we live in strange times. A leading presidential contender is rightly being compared to Adolf Hitler. Calling them drug dealers and rapists, he has promised to round up and deport millions of undocumented immigrants. He has dismissed physical attacks on supposed immigrants as the “passionate” acts of his followers. In a reminder of the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, he has proposed shutting down mosques and requiring Muslims to register in a national database for tracking purposes. (Hats off to Richard Zorza for suggesting that every American should register as Muslim.) He has threatened to beat Black Lives Matter protestors and urged a crowd to do just that when a protestor appeared at a recent rally. He has mocked a disabled reporter, used demeaning and offensive language toward women, and normalized the most thuggish aspects of public discourse.
We often limit our “access to justice” conversations to matters of legal representation or the fairness of procedures for petitioning government, but these limited notions of justice mean little when people are being marginalized in this way.
This isn’t the post I wanted to write this week, but given the frequency and impunity of police murders, it’s imperative that we widen and refocus our “access to justice” lens. To be honest, discussing the mechanics of civil litigation in this environment seems dismissive and disrespectful of the larger context. Arguably, the key mandate of a civilization is to deliver justice to its members, and we are failing miserably.
So when we talk about access to justice, we really have to start at a more radical place than litigation. We have to start with routine violations of fundamental human rights. We owe ourselves a better country than this.