“Ignorance is the parent of fear,” writes Melville in his epic novel.
I’m pretty sure Officer Van Dyke was afraid—probably even “feared for his life,” as his defense attorney argued—when he emptied his gun at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in the Archer Heights neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side in October 2014. Born and raised in Hinsdale, a rich, white suburb, Van Dyke, a few years shy of 40, was utterly petrified when he showed up that night at 41st and Pulaski to assist officers attempting to subdue a knife-wielding black teenager. He must’ve been, because as Laquan was walking away from Van Dyke and the other officers, the boy gestured slightly, causing Van Dyke to fire 16 shots at him in a span of 15 seconds, even shooting Laquan as he lay writhing on the ground.
So say former Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo, Sr., and former F.O.P. spokesman Pat Camden in the documentary 16 Shots, which aired on Showtime last weekend. It’s the old excuse, one we’ve heard thousands of times, and will undoubtedly hear at least a thousand times more: the officer—every officer, apparently, everywhere—feared for his life (almost always his life, not hers). Never mind that Officer Van Dyke had been with the force for 13 years, which makes you wonder how terrified he must have been throughout the first ten.
Fear is a hard thing to shake, especially when you remain ignorant of the object of that fear. After 13 years patrolling Chicago’s streets (and making over $75,000 a year), Jason Van Dyke was still afraid of black teenagers. He was scared enough that a black boy walking away from him with a three-inch blade in his hand was, in Van Dyke’s mind, an immediate threat to his life. And so, like the pair of man-eating lions on permanent display at the Field Museum, Laquan McDonald needed to be put down.
Ignorance breeds fear, and racism breeds ignorance. Among its other effects, racism makes it so white people know next to nothing about the lives of black people. Add capitalism into the mix, and a well-to-do white man and a poor black teenager might as well be from different planets—though, because ours is a rich white man’s world, a poor black teenager knows a lot more about the rich and white worlds than they do about his. The slaves out in the field know all about the master, his life, his house, and his family. They’ve watched him all their lives. Their fear of him is specific—they know when he’s happy, when he’s upset, and when he’s looking to send a message—while his fear of them is much more generalized. He fears them en masse. He sees them as animals, his “beasts of burden,” and animals are unpredictable in their savagery. His fear is the fear of the unknown: he’s afraid of what he doesn’t know about them.
There is little doubt in my mind that Jason Van Dyke feared for his life when he aimed his 9 mm semi-automatic handgun at Laquan McDonald on that chilly October night in Chicago. I’ve never been big-game hunting, but I imagine even an experienced hunter holding an elephant gun sees his life flash before his eyes the moment he spots something massive swaggering through the brush. Were I that hunter, whether the animal was moving toward me or away would make no difference: my heart would be pounding against my breastbone, the rifle rattling in my hands.
Laquan McDonald wasn’t some wild animal, but Officer Van Dyke didn’t seem to know that. The first officer to respond to the call that night, Officer McElligott, did know Laquan wasn’t an animal, as he told the court during last year’s trial that he and his partner had been waiting for Taser backup when Van Dyke arrived. “[Laquan] didn’t make any direct movement at me, and I felt like my partner was protected for the most part inside the vehicle. … We were just trying to be patient.” There was a total of 10 officers at the scene, yet all 16 bullets came from Officer Van Dyke’s handgun, as many as it could hold. Van Dyke’s defense lawyer told the jury Laquan had been on a “wild rampage” that day, making him sound less like a 17-year-old boy and more like Tyke the African elephant, who killed her trainer and stormed through the streets of Honolulu in 1994, injuring 13 people before she was shot down by police officers.
“His face had no expression,” Van Dyke said when took the stand. “His eyes were just buggin’ out of his head. He had just these huge, white eyes, starin’ right through me.”
Strangely enough—and, as a youngish black man myself, more than a little unnerving—the police officers who shoot black men never seem to realize the very real fear felt by the people they kill. I understand cops fear for their lives whenever they so much as pull over a car filled with black people—I also understand most of that fear stems from racism and classism: the cultural fear of poor and dark people—but white cops seem incapable of understanding the fear felt by a black man being stopped by police. They can’t understand why a black man would appear nervous (“suspicious”) or try to get away (“resisting arrest”). My only guess is that police officers see themselves as all-good and always in the right, and so their thinking is that a black man who starts to sweat in their presence is either hiding something or about to attack.
Racism causes and fuels this mutual fear between the races, ensuring they never come together in anything like community or mutual understanding. And if and when they do come together for any reason, institutionalized racism makes it so the white person has the upper hand. Each one fears for his life, but the system only allows the white man to defend himself at all costs, even at the cost of so many black lives, two or three of which don’t matter as much as a single white life.
Black people know this—and they know a lot of officers only pretend to not know this—which is why they’re afraid all the time.
Featured image: Still from ’16 Shots’/Showtime