We rarely see a black man cry. Not in public, at least.

On the witness stand, with an audience of strangers watching, an African-American man broke down in tears. He held his head down and wept out loud.

It took many of us watching online by surprise. Black men aren’t supposed to cry. Or so we’ve been told. Unlike the rest of us, they are devoid of emotion. They have no tears to shed.

Edward Nance broke the stereotype. The pain former police Officer Jason Van Dyke once inflicted on him was too fierce to hide. So he ripped off the mask that black men are forced to wear, revealing sensitivities that few imagine they have.

For the first time since Van Dyke murdered 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, we were able to see on the stand just how devastating a routine encounter with police can be for African-American men. We saw evidence of the torment and fear they carry every day.

During a traffic stop in 2007, Van Dyke pulled Nance out of his car and threw him facedown on the floor of the backseat. He dragged Nance to the squad car by his handcuffed hands, shouting profanities all the while.


The high school basketball and football referee suffered torn rotator cuffs on both arms and has undergone multiple surgeries. The physical damage was extensive, but it was the emotional damage on display in court.

It was obviously difficult for Nance to take the stand during Van Dyke’s sentencing hearing Friday. Clearly, he would rather not have been in that room. He could barely look at the former policeman seated at the defense table in orange jail garb.

But we needed to see Nance’s anguish. We needed him to prove that black men are indeed human beings. We needed him to show us that, when the mask came off, McDonald was just a scared teenager who should not have been killed.

We all knew that at the end of the day, the sentencing would come down to a single question: How much is the life of a black man worth?

Nance and three other African-American men Van Dyke had harmed in his 14 years on the force implored Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan to hold the disgraced police officer accountable, for once, in his long history of horrible deeds.

The judge listened, but clearly he did not hear them.


What he heard apparently was the desperate voice of a 17-year-old girl begging him to restore her hope and bring her dad home. He heard the words of a letter written by her 12-year-old sister. “My dad and my family are really hurting, and I think we have hurt enough,” she wrote. “I need my dad in my life.”

A wife’s cries for leniency spoke louder than a family’s cries for justice. Her despair over going to bed at night without her husband at her side and the anguish over financial ruin took precedence over a mother whose grief kept her from entering the courtroom.

I will acknowledge that the slain teenager was not perfect, because that is what many need to hear. And I will express my sorrow for the hurt Van Dyke’s wife and two daughters have suffered in the years since the shooting was revealed.

But their agony is not McDonald’s fault. It is caused by the man they love so deeply.

I will reserve most of my sorrow for McDonald.

His great-uncle spoke for him in a letter read to the court. He reminded us that the teenager was a victim of murder, and that his family’s imperfections were not adequate reasons to dismiss their boundless heartbreak.


The boy who had yet to become a man deserved a chance to see where his life would lead. His last paycheck from his construction job should not have been spent on a suit to wear in his casket and clothes for his mother and sister to wear to his funeral.

“I’m a real victim of murder and that can never be changed,” read the letter written in McDonald’s voice. “Please think about me and my life when you sentence this person to prison.”

When all was said and done, the judge answered the question that has haunted African-Americans for centuries.

How much is a black man’s life worth?

The pain and suffering of African-American men at the hands of police is worthless. And the debt for murdering a boy can be paid off in 81 months.

By handing down such a light sentence, Gaughan invalidated the courageous efforts of Nance and the other black men to bring the problem of police brutality to light. He reaffirmed the notion that black men are killed because they don’t deserve to live.


McDonald deserved better than that. Every African-American man does.

Dahleen Glanton is a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, where this first appeared.

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