My heart aches tonight, an ache borne of a fear as deep as my bones. I ache for Laquan – for the loss of his potential, for his chance to become an adult, to have children – to have a life. I ache for another young black person killed in the streets of Chicago.
But what I fear most is a continued lack of empathy that is the fuel for inaction.
I understand, rationally, and from my experiences, that the majority of police officers go to work every day, perform an incredible service under incredibly difficult circumstances, work hard to build relationships and trust, and long only to return home to their loving families.
But I know from American history, that all too often, extralegal violence has been used by paramilitary organizations, racist vigilantes, and yes, sometimes the police, to maintain control over the black community.
I know a truth that many Black Americans also know – that there are very few circumstances where I can count on my humanity to trump my blackness. And in this country, in too many circumstances, to be black is to be misunderstood, vulnerable, and threatening. And when you say the names – Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Laquan McDonald, Tyshawn Lee, Hadiya Pendleton, Blair Holt – a list that goes on too long, you must understand how rational that fear is. It’s a fear that you can do everything the right way, and still be killed. That black lives are and remain surrounded by violence.
There have been calls for calm tonight, and I support those calls. Violence is never acceptable – it only begets violence, and we have had enough of that. But righteous anger is the rational response to injustice. And let us be clear – there is injustice here.
But that anger ought to be directed to having a mature and difficult conversation about the nature of policing in this city and this country, and the intersections between authority, poverty, history, and segregation. It is the reason others and I pushed so hard for police reform in Springfield – including independent investigations of police involved shootings. It is necessary for building the type of cross-community trust that will heal our city.
That anger ought to be directed toward forcing law enforcement to have a difficult conversation about the blue wall of silence. Police deserve working protections like everyone else, and deserve our thanks and heartfelt gratitude for the tremendous sacrifice that they make to serve every day. But we also afford them a sacred trust – the discretion to make a call, in the blink of an eye, about whether a fellow citizen lives or dies. When that authority is abused, to the end of an ultimate and irrevocable consequence, the investigation should be transparent and expedient.
The punishment must be swift. Because justice delayed is truly justice denied.
But the thing I fear most is that folks outside the black community, in different parts of the city, or state, or nation, will continue to feel that this is not their problem – that perhaps, in fact, folks should complain less about police violence and more about the black on black crime we see in too many communities. Make no mistake – offenders of any color must be held accountable. But understand two things.
First – the belief in the black community, backed by years of “not guilty” verdicts, of declined prosecutions, of lynchings and segregated housing, of restrictive covenants and redlining, of disinvestment and misunderstanding, is that justice is not colorblind. That while perpetrators of intra-racial violence must and will be brought to justice, perpetrators of violence or crime under the aegis of authority must also be held to account.
Second – this is not a Black American problem: it is an American problem. This is about the very future of our cities, our states, our country, about who we are and who we can be. This is about whether or not the rights afforded to each one of us by our Constitution will be widely shared, about whether or not the social contract that gives each citizen a right to protection, the pursuit of happiness, and basic human dignity will be truly for everyone, or dependent on the color or your skin, the God you do or don’t fear, or your country of origin. This is about whether or not the greatness of Chicago, Illinois, and America can survive a confrontation with the specters of the past that still haunt our present and future. Because the challenges that confront our city and our state and our nation – of poverty and underfunded schools, war and peace, life and death, require an understanding that we’re all in this together.
I believe we can achieve that unity. But that means first being honest with each other, seeing beyond the walls of our own, limited experience, and having to assume the humanity in others we don’t fully understand. And it means taking concrete steps to assure that we continue to improve relations between the police and the community. It means requiring the collection of data on traffic stops by police departments across the state. It means ensuring broader use of body cameras, so that vital footage like that involved here is available in every questionable case. It means stronger gun control laws so that it’s harder for criminals to get access to the types of guns used in the murders of Tyshawn Lee, and Hadiya Pendleton, and Blair Holt. It requires the police to do more to train their officers on how to deescalate difficult situations. And it requires the police and community to interact with each other, engage each other, and eventually, trust each other.
If there is any good to come from the tragedy of Laquan McDonald, I hope it is that we seize these opportunities.
With profound sadness and abiding hope,