Police murder of Laquan McDonald underlines the need to radically reconstruct the whole criminal justice system

Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago police officer who shot Laquan McDonald on a city street more than a year ago, was finally charged last week with first-degree murder. Twenty-four hours after his arraignment, the police finally released the video of the incident that they’d had in their possession all along. In it, Van Dyke is seen executing the 17-year-old, firing 16 shots, 13 while McDonald lay on the street.

All of which begs two questions: why did it take a year before charges were brought against Van Dyke and why did it take a judge’s order to release the video to the public?

The answer to both questions is the same. It was an attempt by the Police Department and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to take themselves out of the line of public criticism as well as give Van Dyke either a free pass, or a slap on the wrist, or a reduced punishment for his criminal action. But thanks to the vigilance of community leaders and activists a first step has now been taken, to hold Van Dyke accountable and unearth his accomplices in the police department and City Hall.

Of course, everyone pressing for justice in this case understands that turning this first step into a conviction of Van Dyke and appropriate actions against obstructionist public officials will require sustained public oversight and engagement every step of the way. It will also take a major campaign to reach new supporters and influence public opinion.

Beyond righting this particular and terrible wrong (to the degree possible, because Laquan McDonald was robbed of his young life and his family’s grief will never disappear), it is increasingly apparent that something more must be done.

In other words, responding to specific injustices is absolutely necessary; it is the ground on which people must continue to fight to rein in racist police practices and crimes. But at the same time, the almost daily stream of vigilante and state-sanctioned violence against young people of color – especially young men, though women are victims too – demonstrates the necessity of building a multi-racial people’s coalition that has the vision, moral authority, and political acumen to radically reconstruct the entire system of criminal justice.

Such an undertaking begins with the complete undoing of an interconnected set of institutions, police, judicial, and political enforcers, laws, rules and procedures, and prisons that systematically ensnare, incarcerate, and cripple the life chances of – too often kill – young people of color, and especially African American young men.

But it can’t stop here. No less important is a frontal and wide-ranging challenge to the powerful ideological apparatus that gives legitimacy to the current judicial system and its racist practices. This apparatus promotes the notion in subtle and not so subtle ways and on multiple platforms (media, educational institutions, courtroom, pulpit, right wing think tanks, etc.) that young people of color are themselves the problem, that Black lives don’t matter. In this iteration of racist ideology, the consequences of racist exploitation and oppression become the causes, while a rigged and racist system of justice that overwhelmingly stacks the deck against young people of color – not to mention deep social and economic inequality in the larger society – becomes invisible. As New York Times columnist Charles Blow put it, “People try to pitch this … as an issue of blacks against the police or vice versa, but that is simply an evasion, a way of refusing societal blame for a societal defect: We view crime and punishment with an ethnocentric sensibility that has a distinct and endemic anti-black bias.”

Thus, while racial ideology dating back to slavery and colonial expansion is sunk in the notion of inferiority and practice of inferiority that forces people of color into a subordinate and dependent status, its rationalizing arguments, code words, symbols, and images adapt to changing conditions of racist exploitation and oppression and anti-racist struggle.

There is no doubt that uprooting this ideology and the institutions, political coalitions, and outrages that it sustains will take a movement of enormous strength and reach – something on the scale of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s that was led by the incomparable Martin Luther King. And while this is a tremendous challenge to be sure, both necessity and the emerging social movements, including but not limited to the Black Lives Matter movement, make it possible.

Thankful for Thanksgiving

Guest writer: Elena Mora

While I don’t care much about Columbus Day (except that there’s no school, which when my kids were younger was a pain in the ass…), I do like Thanksgiving. As do most people in our country, who gather every year in all kinds of different arrangements and combinations, for an overdose of the four Fs: food, family, friends, football.

I mention these two holidays because they are among the most maligned by some on the left end of the political spectrum (along with the 4th of July), because of their connection to the European colonization of the Americas.

Make no mistake, the arrival of the Europeans, for which Columbus is ostensibly celebrated in October, was disastrous for the millions of Native American people living here.

It was, indeed, genocide, both intended and unintended. In his book, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” Charles C. Mann argues that the impact of the Europeans was even more catastrophic than previously thought, and that there had existed large, thriving civilizations. He points to new archeological work that hints at how developed and widespread were the accomplishments of the people whose societies were destroyed.

I highly recommend the book — it’s a thought-provoking read.

But does anyone celebrate Thanksgiving because it symbolizes European colonial triumph? Don’t millions of Americans celebrate the holiday – simply because it’s a day to relax, (over)eat and enjoy the company of others?

And if the Thanksgiving “story” is oversimplified to the point of ridiculousness (Pilgrims are rescued by Indians, and share a meal together), doesn’t it also have things to recommend it? The paired images of collective suffering and human solidarity; the celebration of fall, the harvest, nature’s bounty; expressing appreciation for comfort and company.

This is what most people would say is the meaning of Thanksgiving. (Although many of us are probably preoccupied with other questions: Pumpkin or pecan, or both? Where can I get some folding chairs? Should I go back my diet on Friday or Monday?)

Besides, Thanksgiving, like all of the other holidays celebrated in our multicultural, multiracial country, has been transformed over time, and like the country itself, has expanded and embraced new cultures and traditions. Hence the interesting ways to prepare the bird, like jerked turkey. Or that for some people, Thanksgiving isn’t complete without macaroni and cheese, for which I’m pretty sure neither Indians nor Pilgrims had the recipe.

And here’s another good thing about Thanksgiving: despite the best efforts of marketing and retail companies, it is still relatively un-commercial. You don’t have to buy anything (except the food) and you don’t have to decorate (ok, maybe some corn on the door, plus housecleaning if you’re hosting). And that’s a good thing for struggling families. Thanksgiving is an opportunity – in fact, practically an obligation – to get together and enjoy a day off. And for a lot of people, it’s a 4-day weekend.

So I say to those who only see the “glass-half-empty” of Thanksgiving and other American traditions: if we can’t point to what’s positive in our history and culture, people won’t hear us when we talk about what’s negative.

And if we can’t share the pride that working people have in those things, we won’t be effective participants in the social movements that have expanded democracy and rewritten our country’s history and traditions, and will do so going forward.

Restraint and cooperation not violence

The slaughter of innocent people in France last week has rightly earned worldwide condemnation.

Such immoral actions have no place in this world. Everyone agrees that a response to the carnage in Paris is imperative.

But beyond bringing the executioners of this grisly massacre to justice, the overarching question is: what else should be done? Here is what I think.

The sweeping curtailment of democratic and privacy rights, the racist stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims, xenophobia, closing borders to refugees, and putting boots on the ground won’t end terrorist attacks. In fact, such a response, if experience is a guide, will likely set in train a new round of violence and counter violence that will further fray the fragile bonds that bind humanity together. It will bring neither peace nor stability nor safety.

Only a turn to restraint, diplomacy, cooperation, justice, anti-racism, and the language and practice of non-violence stands a chance of eliminating terrorist attacks and defeating terrorist organizations, like ISIS. In this effort, Russia has to be a full and equal partner. Diplomatic engagement with the Iranian government, building on recent successes, is necessary too, as is the full participation of other Muslim led governments. The international community must ramp up the pressure, on Saudi Arabia to end its funding of extremist groups, and on the Netanyahu government, whose actions in the West Bank and Gaza fuel rage across the Middle East and into the Muslim/Arab diaspora. New political initiatives to resolve divisions between Shia and Sunni in Iraq and Syria are crucial as well to weakening terrorism in general and ISIS in particular.

Another dimension of this effort should be a 21st century global “New Deal,” at the core of which is a special and sustained focus on the countries of the global South and communities of immigrants in the global North. Even though poverty, unemployment, economic inequality, and scarce opportunities aren’t the organizing rationale behind terrorist actions, it seems indisputable that these conditions make it easier for extremist movements to offer rootless, angry, and racially profiled individuals a sense of self-worth, of belonging to something bigger, with the promise of a redemptive and glorious future.

Another crucial element in any international effort to end terrorism is welcoming immigrants with open arms and appreciating the material and cultural contributions that they make in their new homes.

Finally, the United Nations should play a commanding role in this undertaking, including in situations that require military responses, as is probably the case with ISIS and Boko Haram.

Of course, war hawks, right-wing and misguided politicians, and the military-industrial-energy complex will resist such an approach. They thrive in an environment of fear, hatred, suspicion, and threats. It conceals their global economic and political ambitions and becomes a rationale to build up military capacity and presence around the world. It also amplifies the voices of the right wing in the U.S. and elsewhere, and positions them to win complete control of the levers of political power.

We shouldn’t allow them to use the horror and tragedy of terrorist attacks for these ends. It’s time for restraint, cooperation, inclusiveness, economic, racial, and gender justice, peace, and a heightened appreciation of the preciousness of life.


The Good, the Ugly, and the Uglier

The Good: Washington State governor, Jay Inslee, who urged open doors for Syrian refugees. He cited the Japanese-American interment camps in WW II as a dangerous precedent. “We regret that … We regret that we succumbed to fear.”

The Ugly: GOP presidential candidates and governors (30+) are saying that they would allow only Christian refugees from Syria into the country in reaction to the terrorist attack in France.

The Uglier: GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s call to register Muslims in the U.S.

Bernie Sanders, socialism, and the 2016 elections

Little surprises me these days — I don’t know if it’s age, or what. But the long quote below from a recent post in Jacobin has me shaking my head.

“We need to understand this point well if we want to make the most of the opportunities presented by the Sanders campaign, especially if Bernie follows through on his plans to give a “major speech” about socialism. [This] will be a great occasion for the Left to debate our own meanings of socialism — but only if we silence our inner Anderson Coopers and discuss Bernie’s ideas on their own terms without worrying about how they impact his electability.”