Chicago’s History of Police-Community Relations is Complex, Painful

Chicago has a long, complex and deeply painful history of race relations, and of the relationship between the city’s residents of color and the police and political leaders who are supposed to serve them. A look at that history can create the disorienting sense of reading the same sentence, over and over again.

For many Chicagoans, George Floyd’s killing by a police officer – captured on camera – was sadly reminiscent of dashcam footage showing the death of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African American murdered by a Chicago police officer who shot him 16 times. After a long delay, the city was forced to release that footage, and city streets were filled with demonstrators who cried: “16 shots and a cover up!”

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As video footage of Floyd’s death echos that of McDonald’s, the century-old death of another 17-year-old comes to mind. Eugene Williams was stoned after swimming too close to a whites-only beach and drowned. In the week of riots that followed, 38 people died and Chicago police were denounced for failing to protect African Americans and arrest white rioters.

The city’s treatment of its black and Latino residents was a persistent stain in the decades that followed, even as city leaders maintained plausible deniability.

“In the South, in Mississippi, racism was obvious, it was the water fountain,” recalled the late author and historian Lerone Bennett. “(In) Chicago … racism was sometimes hard to see here.”

Dr. Martin Luther King moved to Chicago in 1965 to highlight housing conditions for black residents of the city. He took a rock to the head during a march. In 1968, Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton took bullets: 99 of them, fired into an apartment by law enforcement.

“They were really fighting for the poor people … and speaking out against the ugly ills of this society,” Hampton’s brother Bill remembered.

One of Chicago’s ugliest ills remains the reign of terror of former police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who was accused of torturing suspects for decades.

“He’s the one put the plastic bag over my head and told me not to bite through it. He said, ‘… if you bite through this bag,’ he gonna beat me down,” said Burge victim Anthony Holmes when Burge was indicted in 2008. “He did me like that about six, seven times. About the last four times, I thought I was dead.”

Burge was fired by the department in 1993, but wasn’t convicted of a crime until 2010.

“Even me, I’m proud to be American for probably one of the very first times in history,” said Burge victim David Bates. “I’m proud to be American. I feel a part of the system. I feel a part of the justice right now.”

But many others in Chicago don’t. Despite many rounds of reforms, community policing programs and efforts to build bridges between cops and communities, the names of the men and women killed by Chicago police ring through the city’s streets, among them: Rekia BoydHarith AugustusBettie Jones and Quintonio LeGrier.

And many Chicagoans are angry not just with officers but with a legal system they think often doesn’t hold cops accountable. When announcing the indictment of Jason Van Dyke, the former officer who killed Laquan McDonald, then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said the release of the video showing McDonald’s death forced her hand – even though the investigation had been going on for a year.

Van Dyke was eventually found guilty of second-degree murder, and while his conviction was a victory for activists, it was also a reminder of work left unfinished.

“(We need an) all elected, all civilian, police accountability council,” said Frank Chapman of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression after Van Dyke’s conviction. “That means we get to say who polices our communities and how our communities are policed. Until we get that power, these injustices will continue to go on and creep back up.”

Note: This was presented as part of “Peace and Justice,” an hourlong special from “Chicago Tonight.” Watch the full special here.

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