Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder today, but in an overwhelming number of cases in America, if a cop shoots someone because he’s angry he’s considered a murderer, while if he shoots someone because he’s scared, he’s innocent.
We don’t really know what was going on inside of the head of Jason Van Dyke when he shot LaQuan McDonald. It’s possible that he was legitimately fearful when he shot the teen 16 times, as he and Laurence Miller—a Florida-based clinical psychologist—testified in the former police officer’s defense.
But an officer can be frightened and still act unjustly. It’s worth interrogating that fear and deciding whether it’s enough to justify murder, and if so whether it provides enough to base a system of justice upon.
Chris Hayes’s 2017 book A Colony in a Nation does a masterful job of explaining how our, country once founded on principles of justice for all, now looks a lot like a police state.
He attributes a lot of the problem to a generalized sense of fear—particularly white people’s racial fear of nonwhites. “We obsess over order, fear trumps civil rights,” Hayes writes. Fear of crime waves, of terrorist attacks, gets converted into and becomes the justification for the war on the drugs, the war on terror, mass incarceration, and on a more elemental level the police killings of young black men.
Today, the fear of what could happen if the Van Dyke verdict went the other way, and protesters—largely African-American—took to the streets in a rage caused all sorts of overreactions in Chicago.
The Chicago Police Department deployed 4,000 additional officers to the downtown area in anticipation of unrest. Many corporate offices in the city either told their employees to stay home or told them to leave early as soon as a verdict was reached. High schools across the city canceled sporting events. DePaul evacuated its entire Loop campus.
The entire Loop campus is being evacuated, including The DePaulia staff from our offices in the DePaul Center
We will still publish our new issue on Monday as scheduled.
— The DePaulia (@TheDePaulia) October 5, 2018
All of this was deemed necessary even though, as WBEZ’s Natalie Moore noted on Twitter, there hasn’t been a full-fledged riot in Chicago in 50 years, and while plenty of activists took to the streets after the 2015 release of the video showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald, the marches were overwhelmingly peaceful.
The case of Van Dyke isn’t just a story about one man’s exaggerated fear in the face of a 17-year-old who wielded a three-inch blade. It’s the story of the strange contradiction at hand in Chicago and in America as a whole: the more safety we experience, the more we fear the loss of it and the more irrationally we act.