Laquan McDonald

When the news broke about the death of Laquan McDonald in October of 2014, I have to admit that I’d become not quite desensitized to the story of the white cop killing the young black man. I could no longer hold the distinction between these kinds of incidents of the news cycle. There was Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri not long before that and Eric Garner in New York, New York. There was the very young Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio shortly after it. I’m not going to list them all. 

Then fragile white folks and offended law enforcement communities took umbrage with the radical idea that Black Lives Matter. They turned it into a political division by declaring that “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” as if a profession was a race. What got lost in the mix was the sanctity of life. Right leaning news outlets did what they could to dig up every  seemingly unappealing thing the murdered black man had committed in the past, illegal or not. This was a way of placating the public and helping us to believe that it was justified. Because if it wasn’t, then we’d have to realize that there is a crack in the system and we might just want to mourn an unnecessary death. 

It wasn’t until October 2018 when the trial of the police officer who killed McDonald was happening that I took a closer look at the case. I remembered the video of the shooting when it first happened four years previously. I remembered thinking that it seemed hard to justify shooting an intoxicated youth 16 times because he had a three inch knife in his hand. I remember crying. I try to empathize with the police officers in these cases. Because I can’t know what’s going on in their heads when these situations happen. But this was just…sad. This was not justified.

The “system” failed Laquan even though it was full of individuals who stepped outside their duties to help him. I found a December 2015 article from the Chicago Tribune, “The complicated, short life of Laquan McDonald” by Christy Gutowski and Jeremy Gorner. He had folks who cared about him, but his life seemed destined for tragedy from the start. It’s a great piece of journalism. It touched me. I wrote a song. I wish Laquan’s family could hear it.
Maybe I didn't do my mama right 
I should have stayed off the streets that night 
Maybe I shouldn't have lost myself 
Wishing I was born somebody else 

16 shots What do you get? 
Just another black boy dead 

Maybe I didn't help my sister enough 
I was always trying to stay fucked up 
Maybe she don't need me now 
17 years old I'm 6 feet in the ground 

A 3 inch blade Brough 8 cop cars 
They didn't even ask what I was out there for

If I was born a different color 
If I was born to a different kind of mother 
Would my chances be different instead 
Of just another black boy dead

Maybe I should have just stopped and stayed
They'd have shot me dead anyway
Maybe I should have seen it coming 
Whichever way I was running

16 shots What do you get? 
Just another black boy dead
Just another black boy dead


A recent morning at the gym found me on a treadmill in front of the television dedicated to Fox News. The headline was something like “Millennials Not Patriotic” and went on to credit a recent survey by a conservative think tank that asked the youngins, “Do you think America is the greatest country in the world?” About half didn’t think so. As if that is the defining criteria of what makes one a patriot. I tracked it down to a study done by The Foundation for Liberty and American Greatness (FLAG). You can read more about their interesting poll questions here

A lot of folks confuse patriotism with something closer to nationalism. It’s not the same. Nationalism infers a belief of superiority of country and culture. Patriotism is about love of country, coming from the word compatriot, “fellow countryman.” A lot of folks think patriotism is simply about flying the flag, supporting the troops, and hating those who don’t. Google “patriotic art” and you’ll find glorious images of American flags, bald eagles, and men in military garb. I say let’s take back the meaning of “patriot.” 

Patriotism can be all those things espoused by the traditional ideas of the conservatives. But usually when we love someone, something, an idea, it also means we know when it’s not living up to its potential. Confronting a country’s racist past doesn’t make one any less patriotic. Do you love your spouse? Does he/she not have faults? Right, thought so. I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot, patriotism. It’s similar to how the right-wing evangelists have come to define what Christianity means to our culture, but often lacks a lot of the content of what Christ actually stood for…in my opinion. It makes it hard for folks to proclaim themselves as such.

I’ve been listening to these lectures on Walt Whitman and his influence on American culture. That dude was a goddamn patriot! Not your first image when you think “patriot,” eh? Good lord, he wrote about America all the time. But he also found its faults and felt personally hurt when it didn’t live up to the heights he gave it. He cherished Lincoln and was radical in his opposition to slavery. Whitman saw that the United States of America was for everyone.

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

America, Walt Whitman

You could argue that Whitman’s poetic America was an ideal passed on to the Beat poets, the vagabond folksingers, the nonconforming artists, the activists who saw that more, that “better” was possible. Definitely Woody Guthrie. Definitely Langston Hughes. Definitely John Coltrane. Definitely Jackson Pollock. Definitely Martin Luther King, Jr. Definitely….

I’ve recently been playing a song I wrote, called “Patriot.” I was timid about sharing it at first, not knowing how folks would receive it. It seems to be hitting a nerve and that makes me feel less alone in all of this. A couple folksinger friends have asked to cover it, and now I want everyone to cover it, share it, change the definition. Challenge the comfort of tradition. “I’m a patriot whether or not I look like one to you.”



Charlottesville is burning
America is on fire
White men stomping on the graves
Of slaves who built their empire

We got backwards superstitions
Passed off as true religion
The God I know would never
Put your bullets before children

Don’t tell me how to be proud
It’s my country too
I’m a patriot whether or not
I look like one to you

There is no expiration
On Children with a dream
They didn’t come to steal your job
Or change the language that you speak

Well, I wonder what it’s like
To choose where you were born
Try to make a better life
Then get sent back home to war

Don’t tell me how to be proud
It’s my country too
I’m a patriot whether or not
I look like one to you

Come gather around people
Wherever you may roam
Bring a bucket to the fire
They are burning down our home

Turn off the television
Don’t blame the quarterback
For trying to stand for something
By kneeling for the flag

Don’t tell me how to be proud
It’s my country too
I’m a patriot whether or not
I look like one to you