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Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who was convicted of murdering Laquan McDonald is set to be released on Feb. 3rd. The former Chicago police officer spent just over three years in prison for the 2014 murder that shook the nation. The verdict in the trial was a watershed moment in Chicago and the nation. Some viewed it as evidence of American justice finally coming to fruition for a traditionally marginalized group. Others saw it as a sad day for police officers, setting the precedent for their criminal prosecution.
Still, others thought the jury, which convicted Officer Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery, failed to go far enough. The trial and its aftermath have exposed the deep divisions in this city and nation. His early release, after only serving half of his allotted 81-month sentence, will further intensify these divisions.
McDonald was a ward of the state. He had no wealth, no powerful connections, nor was he considered a model young man by any accounts. His short life reflected the kind of deviance that makes demonizing him relatively simple. In most circles, he could be easily ignored or seen as a threat. However, this is why his story is so tragic. McDonald is exactly the kind of person that deeply required society’s justice in life and now even more in death.
By definition, the concept of justice means “acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright and good, conforming to a standard of correctness, or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” Providing justice for the poor and disenfranchised is a priority because, by nature, this group tends to be overlooked.
Universally, humans have always heaped respect and admiration on the rich and powerful. They are consistently deemed worthy of the highest levels of veneration. America, through its celebrity obsession and skewed public policies that benefit the well-off, is as guilty of this as any group.
The life of a teenage, African-American, poor, orphaned, drug-user is easily devalued in most circles. For this reason, it might not be difficult for Van Dyke to shoot repeatedly perhaps because he subconsciously recognized McDonald’s societal lack of worth. It may never have occurred to him that this young man had any value.
Imagine the potentially different reaction if McDonald was an ostensibly wealthy and drugged-out bar-hopper in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. Jason Van Dyke’s actions, unfortunately, say as much about society as they do about him. Collectively by accepting the massive disparities that plague Black communities like healthcare, crime, education, incarceration, and housing, the lives of the millions of Laquan McDonalds have been devalued.
Race and class are an intractable part of the American identity. The infamous videotape, which clearly displayed an excessive use of force, was perceived differently based on who was watching. Those who could empathize with McDonald and his identity had a drastically different reaction than those that related to Van Dyke.
However, justice is not about tribal divisions and class-informed perceptions. It is about impartially upholding what is right and fair, particularly for the powerless among us. Has justice been served in this case? Has Van Dyke paid his debt to society? By most objective accounts, the answer is clearly no.
The precedent that the crime of murder deserves much more is well established. Therefore, Americans have done McDonald and themselves a disservice. If a government cannot mete out punishments in an equal manner across the board, how can people trust this institution on which they so heavily rely? The system failed to get it right in this case.
Recent similar cases have resulted in more accountability and therefore have provided some hope. Maybe one day Americans can achieve the justice that has eluded this broken nation for so long.
The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. Prov. 29:7 NIV
Contributed by Ted Williams III
Featured and Top Courtesy of SHYCITYNikon’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image Courtesy of Alek S.’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License