Is There Anywhere a Black Youth Can Be Counted as a Real Person?

Last night I did something I promised myself I would not do. I watched the tragic dashcam video in which a Chicago Police Officer fires 16 bullets into a 17-year-old kid with a switchblade in his hand.

It was a hard experience. Much more difficult than I thought it would be. But, when it was over I was certain of one thing: Young, black lives have to matter to somebody.

Most of the shots from Officer Jason Van Dyke’s weapon were fired into LaQuan McDonald’s skinny, black frame as it lay in the street, motionless save for the twitching brought on by the relentless barrage of gunfire.

It made me cry.

But my emotions—probably somewhat hardened as a result of growing up in a world where violent deaths on screen are usually entertainment—were not overcome as Officer Van Dyke fires the initial shots into the youth, spinning him around and knocking him to the ground. My tears didn’t even come as a man sworn to serve and protect that Southwest Side community emptied his clip into a black teenager laying in the street.

But, when the second officer approaches the body and kicks the knife away; that’s when I cried.

That is the image that I can’t get out of my head. I guess I wasn’t expecting it. But, that visual symbolizes for me the greater tragedy. You see, the officer who kicks the knife didn’t shoot LaQuan. But he demonstrated a similar disrespect for the boy’s humanness. As LaQuan’s body lay bleeding out in the middle of Pulaski Road, none of the multiple officers seen in the dashcam video come to check on him; to see if perhaps his precious life might be saved. That’s because his life was not precious to them at all. Dare I say that, to them, his life did not matter?

But, the kicking of the knife doesn’t just symbolize the failure of the police on that October night in 2014. It expresses the sentiment that can be interpreted from the actions of the Chicago Police Department, the Mayor’s Office, the City Council and every other individual and institution that rushed to cover up this tragedy—to make it go away as quietly and as quickly as possible.

Regardless of all the rhetoric that we are hearing, now that a court has demanded that the video be released, it is clear from 400 days of inaction that no one really had plans for public accountability for the public servant who shot a kid 16 times. LaQuan’s life just wasn’t worth the trouble.

And I wonder, is there any public institution that could count a black youth as a real person?

Maybe it’s the schools?

Maybe that’s the place where black students can count as people. Educators and others in the school community know our young people. We understand something about their challenges and talents, their joys and their pain. Maybe we have to speak for them.

Nobody in our urban schools needs another responsibility laid at their feet. But, somebody has to try. And judging from the LaQuan McDonald case, who else is it going to be?

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.

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