Jamiles Lartey, Guardian, January 20, 2016
Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, will be back in the national spotlight on Wednesday telling mayors from across the United States how police must work to win back the trust of the communities they serve.
Yet while Barack Obama’s former chief of staff is on Capitol Hill trying to shape the future of policing and urban violence at the US conference of mayors, back in his own city there is a growing clamor for him to quit because he has lost all credibility on exactly those issues.
Ever since video of the 2014 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer emerged in December, Emanuel has faced mounting scrutiny and calls to resign, especially from sectors of Chicago’s black community who feel he has done nothing to help lift them out of poverty or tackle the daily scourge of gun violence.
That was the scene last week outside the Hyatt hotel off the shore of Lake Michigan, where a handful of activists and black clergy gathered in protest as guests filed in for the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr breakfast celebration. “You should be ashamed,” they shouted at the crowd headed inside to Emanuel’s event, many of whom were clergy themselves.
“Everything that’s going on here in Chicago under the current mayor completely contradicts the legacy and the spirit of Dr King,” said activist William Calloway, one of roughly two dozen protesters assembled.
The event, which has been hosted by the mayor’s office every year since the early 1990s–traditionally a non-controversial, even apolitical affair–had become embroiled in the same schism that has hung over Chicago politics for weeks.
Calloway, who was instrumental in forcing the release of the tape that shows officer Jason Van Dyke of the Chicago police department firing 16 shots at the teen as he runs away from the officer, said the backlash against Emanuel feels “euphoric”.
“It’s a certain feeling when people are just now coming to grasp something that you’ve known for years,” Calloway added.
Pastor Corey Brooks was one of at least 60 black Chicago religious leaders, according to organizers, who joined a formal boycott of Emanuel’s breakfast. “We have been more than loyal, but the return on our loyalty has gotten us nowhere,” said Brooks, adding: “If people are going to be loyal to you, it’s only right for you to try to correct the issues that those communities face every day–and I just don’t see that.”
Brooks, who runs New Beginnings church on Chicago’s South Side, has been a highly visible community leader on the issue of gang violence and supported Emanuel publicly during his first campaign. He also backed the mayor’s re-election bid, even though Brooks said he had begun to have doubts about Emanuel’s leadership. “I allowed my name to be used, but I wasn’t as out front and vocal as before,” Brooks said.
But the release of the Laquan McDonald tape in November, and the uncovering of 3,000 pages of city emails related to the case in December, turned Brooks against Emanuel for good. “It was a major flaw of leadership. For him to say he did not know what happened on that video is totally unbelievable.”
Brooks believes Emanuel should resign, a position shared by a majority of Chicagoans, according to a December poll that placed the mayor’s approval rating at an anemic 18%. However, despite the polling and a steady barrage of “Resign Rahm” protests since November, almost no one expects Emanuel, known for his hard-headedness, to assent.
Emanuel issued a teary-eyed apology for the shooting in early December, and called for “nothing less than complete and total reform to the system and the culture that it breeds”. After initially offering his support, he also forced the resignation of Chicago’s police chief, Garry McCarthy, and published a plan to reform the city’s police department.The plan revolves around revamped use-of-force training and a pledge to equip every officer with a less-lethal Taser weapon by the summer. The officers who approached McDonald on Pulaski Road, including Van Dyke, were waiting for an officer with a Taser to arrive when the shooting occurred, according to police reports.
“There has to be more than tears; there has to be action. Until we have action, there can be no reconciliation,” Brooks said. For him, part of that action needs to be a genuine effort to listen to the needs and demands of Chicago’s black citizens.
Emanuel has gone out of his way to at least create the impression that he is listening. On Saturday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that since the backlash began, the mayor’s office has increased the frequency of Emanuel’s events and visits with black Chicagoans.
According to Kari Lydersen, author of the 2013 book Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%, this is nothing new for Emanuel. “He has, throughout his time as mayor, mostly ignored black neighborhoods, occasionally making these really concerted efforts–like charm offensives–and throwing money and leveraging his connections,” Lydersen told the Guardian. That has been an ongoing characteristic of Emanuel’s mayorship, according to Lydersen, “and this is just an amped-up version of what he’s done in the past”.
At the same time as the mayor’s Martin Luther King breakfast, just one mile across town at a nearby union hall, the Chicago teachers’ union was holding its own breakfast on the same theme. In a direct jab at Emanuel’s event, the union billed its gathering as an “alternative, people-centered celebration of the civil rights leader”. The union used the day to honor several community activists, and invited the Rev Osagyefo Sekou, a prominent voice of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, to deliver the keynote address.
The dueling events were just the latest skirmish between Emanuel and the CTU, the city’s teachers’ union, who have been at war with one another since virtually the moment he was elected in 2011. Emanuel’s administration pushed for the closure of nearly 50 schools during his first term as a part of his platform to be tough on public spending. During contract negotiations in 2012, the union launched a strike, for the first time in the city since 1987.
More recently, the CTU president, Karen Lewis, briefly explored a run against Emanuel in the 2015 Democratic primaries before health issues forced her to bow out. Earlier this month, citing the “alleged 400-day cover-up conspiracy” of the Laquan McDonald case, the union voted “overwhelmingly” for a resolutiondemanding that Emanuel resign.
When Lewis withdrew her challenge to Emanuel, Jesús “Chuy” García, who has served on the county’s board of commissioners since 2011, stepped into the race. “We felt that Rahm Emanuel had been imposed on the city by folks in DC, by the local machine establishment and big-business Chicago; and the neighborhoods were the losers in that,” García said from his City Hall office.
In a city that has been dominated for generations by the Democratic party, which residents often describe as “the machine”, the party’s primary typically functions as a de facto general election. García’s challenge marked the first primary to require a runoff election in the quarter-century since the system was adopted. Emanuel went on to win the runoff by a decisive 12 points, capturing 60-65% of the vote in Chicago’s black neighborhoods in the process.
García chalks his loss up to a few factors, chief among them being money: Emanuel amassed a war chest of about $23m, roughly four times that of García. Emanuel also had the endorsement of Obama, Chicago’s favorite son, for whom Emanuel served as chief of staff from 2009 to 2010.
García, who immigrated to Chicago from Mexico as a child, also cited “overt investments in campaigns to make me ‘the Mexican candidate’, and to suggest that the black and Mexican communities were at loggerheads”.
But activist Mariame Kaba suggested there was another reason. García “ran to the right of [Emanuel] on police”, Kaba said, adding: “I’m not surprised he lost.”
García calls claims like this an oversimplification of his campaign’s public safety proposal, which called for adding 1,000 officers to the city’s force of about 12,000, but also said: “Would I have placed as much emphasis on it today? Probably not. We’ve learned a whole lot.”
Kaba, who organizes with a number of Chicago groups, including her own Project NIA and We Charge Genocide, believes Emanuel’s current situation in Chicago is in large part due to the gruff style of leadership that has always been his forte, and a lack of legitimate bonds with the community.
“He doesn’t have a base in Chicago and he doesn’t have friends. He has people who were initially afraid of him because of his reputation of being a hard-ass and that sort of romanticization of him,” Kaba said.
“That’s gone now,” she continued. “Nobody is afraid of him now, and that’s what the post-tape era has brought . . . Who are ‘Rahm people’, except for a few ‘limousine liberals’ on the North Side? That’s not going to be enough in this city to do anything.”
There is currently a movement to force Emanuel’s ouster with a recall election, but the effort faces long odds. It would require Illinois state lawmakers to pass a bill, and the governor’s signature, at which point campaigners would need tens of thousands of signatures and the support of at least two city aldermen.
Governor Bruce Rauner of Illinois has said he would sign the bill if it passed the legislature. Carlos Rosa, alderman for the city’s 35th ward, told the Guardian he would offer his support if a recall petition reached that stage.
But some say removing Emanuel may only do so much in a city where hard-nosed “Chicago style” politics has been around for generations, and where the police department has a long history of illegal and brutal behavior.
“I don’t think [Emanuel] is genuinely concerned with the humanity that he represents, but there is something limited about the popular response against him,” activist Damon Williams said. Williams was among the protesters police scuffled with the night the McDonald video was released.
“To some extent it feels like a distraction. It is the power structure and how his office operates rather than who he is as a man . . .
“The CPD was messed up before [Emanuel] took office, and it will be long after he’s gone,” Willliams added.