On February 03, 2022, I was arrested for protesting the death of a young Black American in the Midwest at the hands of the police.
You might think I’m talking about Amir Locke, the 22-year-old who was shot and killed by a Minneapolis SWAT officer just hours before my hands were cuffed and my feet were shackled at the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago. And in a way, I am. But I didn’t know it — or Amir’s story — at the time.
What I knew then was that a Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, had just been released from prison. What I knew then was that he’d killed Laquan Mcdonald, a 17-year-old Black boy, seven years ago — and that he’d done it in cold blood, shooting Laquan 16 times before reloading his gun. What I knew then was that Van Dyke had been convicted of second-degree murder *and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm — one for each bullet — and yet was sentenced to just 81 months in prison.
And I knew that Jason Van Dyke’s release, after serving less than half that time, amounted to him getting away with murder.
Van Dyke’s original sentence was a slap on the wrist for a man who killed a child with impunity.
We organized and protested — peacefully but forcefully — to show the world that Black lives matter. And that Black life is sacred. Laquan’s life was sacred. Sandra Bland’s life was sacred. Amir Locke’s life was sacred. Their deaths were tragedies that should not have occurred and must not be repeated.
At that federal courthouse, we made our voices loud and clear. We called on our leaders to bring federal charges against Van Dyke for violating Laquan’s civil rights — the same charges that Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd, pleaded guilty to in December. When our leaders ignored our calls, we hand-delivered a letter to the U.S. Attorney with our demands. And when we refused to leave the building, we were arrested — handcuffed and feet shackled — and taken to a holding cell.
When I stood in front of the judge last month, they told me I wasn’t being penalized for my viewpoints, but for my actions — for my protest. So then it begs the question: What is the right way for Black people in America to dissent when our humanity is disregarded?
Rosa Parks sat on a bus — and she was arrested.
John Lewis crossed a bridge — and he was beaten.
Colin Kaepernick kneeled — and he lost his job.
When we try to run for office and claim some power, like I am right now, our own party — the party that claims Black women are its core — tries to hold us back.
And we clearly can’t peacefully protest — not in the streets, not in the federal buildings that our taxes support. At the Dirksen Federal Building, there was not one mark or scuff left behind, not one broken window. Still, we were arrested and faced federal charges.
There’s an absurd irony to the fact that I faced federal charges protesting Laquan’s murder before the man who actually killed him.
Our system is broken. The truth is, it failed Laquan McDonald long before Jason Van Dyke pulled the trigger. And it’s failed countless other Black people since.
Why? Because this country responds to the outrage, sorrow and demands for justice by Black people with performative distractions instead of tangible action. And rather than address our concerns, leaders at every level of government try to repress them.
Had Van Dyke been given a punishment that fit his crime — and had he been forced to actually serve his sentence — he would have set a precedent for accountability. He would have been a warning to other officers that there are consequences for taking Black lives. Because that didn’t happen, other tragedies by the hands of police did: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Philando Castillo. And now, Amir Locke.
Letting Jason Van Dyke off easy ensures that there will only be more Jason Van Dykes — and more Laquan McDonalds.
Let me be clear, in case anyone is still confused: We’re not asking for any more #BLM tweets. And we’re definitely not asking our leaders to wear Kente cloth. What we want — what we need — is for our lives to be treated as sacred, and that’s going to take systemic change. It comes with abolishing the filibuster and passing a whole slate of legislation that will prevent the next young, unarmed Black kid from being killed by the police: the Breathe Act, the Ending Qualified Immunity Act and the Mental Health Justice Act.
It also means repairing some of the injustices that plague our justice system by releasing the hundreds of thousands of disproportionately Black and brown Americans who are currently in prison for nonviolent offenses — many of whom are serving sentences longer than Van Dyke served for his incredibly violent offense. And it means changing how we prosecute and sentence such offenses going forward.
Getting all that done won’t be easy. But the first step is pretty simple: spend less time policing the ways Black people speak up, and more time listening to what we’re saying when we do.
Kina Collins is an activist and gun violence prevention advocate who led and organized protests in the aftermath of Laquan McDonald’s murder and sat on the Biden-Harris transition team’s task force on gun violence. She is a candidate for Congress in Illinois’ Seventh District.