A Sacrificial Rahm? Mayor 1%, Racist Policing, and Metropolitan Disorder

Shit That Hit the Metropolitan Fan

Chicago’s “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel is in trouble with his city’s 1%. Here is an interesting report from Crain’s Chicago Business, a leading journal of the Chicago corporate and financial elite:

“At the kind of civic soirees where Mayor Rahm Emanuel normally would fit right in as a guest, lately he has become the topic du jour—and not always in a way he would like…During a by-invitation-only retirement party for Shedd Aquarium’s president, Ted Beattie, board chairman and Goldman Sachs veteran John Gilbertson Jr. told the crowd that a mayoral proclamation honoring Beattie will be issued in February. But given recent events, Gilbertson said, ‘the governor could issue the proclamation (instead) should Chicago’s mayor no longer be in office.’ …The reaction: an awkward rustle in the crowd of 100-plus [wealthy] guests, and a fair number of nervous glances. Gilbertson added that he had been invited to a fundraiser for Emanuel but didn’t know if that would occur now that ‘you-know-what hit the fan.’ …The police abuse scandal that has caused strife in the streets and elicited more than one mea culpa from the mayor is now being discussed openly—even at the podium—during gatherings of the city’s business and civic elite.”

The “you know what” that “hit the fan” was of course the recent release of a police dashcam video showing a white Chicago police officer’s savage and extrajudicial execution of Black teenager Laquan McDonald and the mass outrage and protests that occurred after the release. The tape is chilling. It shows Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke pumping sixteen bullets into McDonald, with the most of the shots launched while McDonald lay on a South Side street on the night of October 20th, 2014.

It isn’t just the graphic video and the murder itself that has driven protest in the streets of Chicago. A number of developments and revelations have accumulated and converged to fuel Black anger and demands for – among other things – Emanuel’s exit from City Hall:

* The city kept the Laquan tape under wraps for more than a year because Emanuel feared it would deep-six his chance of winning Black votes he desperately needed for re-election after four years of alienating Black Chicagoans by closing many dozens of Black and Latino schools (to make his wealthy charter school buddies happy) and after years of stonewalling on endemic racist police abuse and misconduct (including the operation of a “black site” detention and torture center on the city’s West Side).

* The city released the tape only because it was forced to last month by a county judge ruling in a lawsuit filed by independent journalist Brandon Smith.

* Emanuel offered Laquan McDonald’s family $5 million settlement to keep it quiet prior to Emmanuel’s re-election last spring.

* Emanuel absurdly claimed that he’d never seen the Laquan murder video prior to its release last November 24th – a preposterous story given his approval of the $5 million settlement prior to the election.

* The city refused to release another police murder tape, the Ronald Johnson kill video (showing a young Black make suspect shot in the back while running away from police on October 12, 2014 over the same period of time. This video came out only because of public after the Laquan video came out.

* The city has also been forced to release a graphic video showing police in a city lockup contributing to the death of a black University of Chicago graduate named Phillip Coleman by repeatedly using a Taser on him and dragging him out of his cell in handcuffs.

* Laquan McDonald’s executioner, Officer Jason Van Dyke, was allowed to stay on the force, at full pay, for 13 months after conducting a blatant extrajudicial execution clearly visible on tape. (When a white cop was seen on video fatally shooting a fleeing Black suspect in Charleston, S.C earlier this year, he was charged in just five days.)

* Chicago police on the scene threatened the Laquan killing’s eyewitnesses with arrest and deleted more than an hour of videotape from a fast food restaurant near the murder site. Numerous Chicago police officers who witnessed the execution protected the cold-blooded killer Van Dyke (in accord with the “blue code”) by making abjectly counterfeit reports claiming that McDonald posed an imminent threat to his killer. The dashcam video totally contradicts these claims, making the officers accessories to murder.

* One year after the slaughter of Laquan and the cover-up that Emanuel certainly approved, Emanuel attended a private meeting with 100 of the nation’s top law enforcement and elected officials, including U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. He received loud applause when he told Lynch that, by the Washington Post’s account, “fear of being the next face on the 6 o’clock news had prompted officers in Chicago and across the country to become ‘fetal’ and not risk engagements with the public that could become viral video sensations. Emanuel… implored Lynch…to back the nation’s police officers publicly before the next, inevitable cellphone video surfaces to cast aspersions on someone wearing a badge.”

* Emanuel claims he didn’t want to release the Laquan tape because he feared it might taint a federal investigation but the U.S. Justice Department says it never asked the city to hold off on making the tape public.

* It was recently learned that the city’s so-called Independent Police Review Authority has received no less than 10,000 excessive force complaints since 2008, resulting in the dismissal of just four officers. (The IPRA’s previous chief, Lorenzo Davis, was fired by the city earlier this year because he refused to reverse his finding that a fatal police shooting was unjustified.)

* In a meeting with Chicago’s leading Black ministers and pastors right before he released the Laquan video, Emanuel arrogantly warned them that he would withhold money for jobs programs in the city’s Black ghettoes if civil unrest ensued. The pastors found this highly insulting.

“At the Illinois Venture Capital Association annual dinner earlier this week,” Crain’s Business Chicago reports, “there wasn’t a word said about the issue. Also missing was the usual praise for the city and the mayor.”

“Slick and Meaningless Talk”

Rahm has been getting sternly reprimanded in local corporate media outlets since the Laquan video was released. Emblematic of the metropolitan business elite’s growing distance from Emanuel – a militantly corporatist mayor with long demonstrated neoliberal attachments to elite financial rule – is the media’s refusal to be moved by Emanuel’s recent teary-eyed apology for racially biased police misconduct in Chicago and his promise to “own” and “fix” the problem in a spirit of transparency.

In a December 9th broadcast editorial titled “Rahm vs. the Volcano,” the Chicago FOX television affiliate’s General Manager Dennis Welch responded acidly to Emanuel’s mea culpa. Welch referred to the mayor as “an arrogant control freak who bullies his way through life…All this stuff about ‘being transparent’ and ‘owning it,’” Welch coldly proclaimed, “is just slick and meaningless talk.” Welch held in his hands a specially commissioned 2014 report prepared for the city and titled “Preventing and Disciplining Police Misconduct.” The report was quietly shelved by City Hall. “It took two years to put together and they just threw it away,” Welch noted, flinging the document on the floor for dramatic effect. “Now they’ve put together a task force to do the same exact thing,” Welch added.

An Orwellian “Toolkit for Teachers”

On December 8th, Crain’s Chicago Business published a column in which three University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) educational curriculum experts noted that the mayor-controlled Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had recently produced and distributed an Orwellian guide instructing teachers on how to spin the Laquan McDonald story once the video was released. This blatant propaganda document – titled “Teaching About Laquan McDonald: A Toolkit for Teachers” – was made available to teachers over the Thanksgiving holiday. The Crain’s column was highly critical of the mayor- and police-friendly “toolkit”:

“The account in the lesson plan mirrors the account given by city and police department officials: It suggests a timely investigation, and emphasizes that the officer was charged with first-degree murder, as if to imply an aggressive prosecution of the case. Not mentioned are the reports that officers at the scene dispersed witnesses, failing to take statements from those who might have provided a different account. There is no mention of the fact that the video contradicts CPD testimony, that the charges were not brought until a judge ordered the video’s release (against CPD’s wishes), or of widespread demands for the resignation of the state’s attorney, CPD chief and mayor.”

“These delays have been widely criticized by local and national press, and especially by local community members. The introduction fails to point out that the $5 million settlement with the family was not the result of a lawsuit but was initiated by the City in apparent acknowledgment of the egregiousness of the case.”

“We are troubled that CPS would repeat this much-questioned narrative from city officials in a lesson plan for teachers and students, as if it were the district’s own narrative of the events of the case. No news outlets have offered an account of events that so cleanly adheres to the official story. Mayoral control of the district should not mean that CPS curriculum is used to parrot city officials’ talking points. A lesson plan designed to meet the learning needs of young people should not be used as a vehicle for political manipulation.”

Black Friday, Indeed: the Rage of the Ghetto v. the Gold Coast Bottom Line

So, has Chicago’s business elite suddenly been converted to the causes of racial and social justice? Hardly. There may be a few tender ruling class Chicago souls moved to genuine concern for how young Black people are treated by police and other authorities. But the deeper and darker reality is that the city’s capitalist establishment has long been content to see the city’s lower and working class Black majority kept savagely separate, unequal, oppressed, and repressively over-policed in the names in accord with standard urban “growth machine” imperatives of gentrification and downtown-centered commercial and real estate profitability. Now, however, the bully-boy “brass balls” Mayor Emanuel – never endowed with a winning personality (his campaign ads last spring openly acknowledged his disagreeable nature) – is causing problems for the bottom line through his failure to keep the city’s large Black population under proper control. Behold the following Chicago Tribune report on what happened to Christmas season sales in Chicago’s affluent Gold Coast shopping district when Black activists furious over the belated release of the explosive Laquan murder video decided to disrupt mass-consumerist purchasing on the traditional “Black Friday” spending holiday one day after Thanksgiving:

“Activists who blocked the entrances to stores on North Michigan Avenue on Black Friday to protest the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white Chicago cop may have split opinions with their tactics. But their goal of forcing retailers to suffer economic pain on what’s historically the busiest shopping day of the year was a success, according to unhappy store staff and managers who said Monday that Black Friday sales on the Magnificent Mile were 25 percent to 50 percent below projections. Images of protesters marching down North Michigan urging a holiday shopping boycott dramatically reduced foot traffic while protesters who physically blocked shoppers from entering stores also hurt sales in a big way, according to the retailers, some of whom were critical of the low-key police response: ‘We were down a lot,’ said Sarah Midoun, a sales associate at Aldo shoe store. ‘We were budgeted to make $37,000 but we only did $19,000 — customers told us they were concerned. If anything the police were kind of encouraging (protesters who blocked the entrance to the store) by allowing it,’ she said. However, she added that if police had been too heavy-handed, ‘people might have rioted.’ Aldo’s near 50 percent shortfall of its target mirrored results at other stores….the effect of the protest on the city’s premier shopping street was dramatic.”

That was a real Black Eye to neoliberal “Global Chicago” and its color-blind pretensions – one that gave a new racial justice meaning to “Black Friday” while denting premier retailers’ profits in a leading tourist area.

Since the Black Friday actions, mostly young Black activists have conducted numerous other and ongoing disruptive actions around the city’s downtown commercial and financial district as well in and around City Hall. I am reminded of something that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said during a series of speeches delivered on the Canadian Broadcast System in the fall and winter of 1967. “The dispossessed of this nation [the U.S.],” King said in his fourth lecture, “must organize a revolution” that would require “more than a statement to the larger society,” more than “street marches…There must be a force that interrupts [capitalist America’s] functioning at some key point.” That force would use “mass civil disobedience,” King armed, to “transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force” by “dislocate[ing] the functioning of a society.

“When Chicago Cops ‘Go Fetal,’ it Saves Lives”

Why did the notoriously brutal and heavily armed Chicago police allow the Black Friday actions to occur? For the same reason that they released two protestors they had briefly arrested during a large downtown protest action last Wednesday: fear of inciting aroused citizens and activists to further disruption in corporate, holiday-/shopping-season Chicago. On my recent speaking trip to Chicago, a leading local activist told me that the CPD had responded to the Laquan uprising by ironically using Rahm’s language from last October to note that the cops had gone into “a fetal position.” It has been stepping back down from its standard operating procedure of regularly harassing and shaking down poor and homeless people and young Blacks as Latinos on City Hall command in the Laquan protest environment, when (to coin a phrase from Chicago’s infamous police riot during the 1968 Democratic Party convention) “the whole world is watching.” This is a good thing. As the activist, Andy Thayer, notes, “When Chicago cops ‘go fetal,’ it saves lives.”

Beyond “Symbolic Replacements”

Elite Chicago cannot be happy with the emergence of such disruptive power rising up from police-occupied Black ghettoes to the heart of the great neoliberal Midwestern Metropolis. To make matters worse for the local and regional investor and manager classes, the city’s new civil rights and social justice activists aren’t talking merely about getting rid of Rahm Emmanuel and other figureheads atop the city’s steep and combined pyramids of race and class. “We will now hold our leaders accountable for the transgressions they commit and that are committed under their watch,” one activist group wrote online: “Task forces, press releases, symbolic replacements of one crony for another are no longer enough to mollify the masses.” (The warning was prophetic: Emanuel has recently replaced one crony with another atop the Chicago Police Department. The city’s new police chief is John Escalante, former chief of city detectives. In his previous role. Escalante approved fabricated police reports on the McDonald shooting of Laquan McDonald, including killer Van Dyke’s report!)

The critical phrase is “symbolic replacements of one crony for another.” The movement in Chicago will not be satisfied merely by musical chairs – by shifting names and faces in top positions atop a rotten and corrupt system. It demands institutional and systemic change: dismantlement of the ubiquitous police-state occupation and criminal justice shakedown of their communities; community-controlled policing; an end to the racist-mass-incacerationist criminal-marking Drug War; massive economic and social investment in destitute and jobless ghetto neighborhoods, where thousands of children live at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level; reparations for past and present racial oppression and related economic exploitation; the taking down of the city, state, and nation’s massive, globally and historically unmatched prison and criminal-marking regime.

The ghost of Dr. King returns again. “Only by structural change can current evils be eliminated,” King argued in 1967, one year after he struggled without success to win great civil rights and anti-poverty victories in the original Mayor Richard Daley’s intractably racist Chicago. “The roots” of injustice, King said, “are in the system rather in men or faulty operations.”

“The black revolution,” King wrote near the end of his life, “is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction society of society itself is the real issue to be faced” – the real question beyond relatively trivial issues like the technical skin color or gender or sexual orientation or personality of a U.S. mayoral or presidential candidate. (For my own takes on the structural and historical roots of the racist police state in and around Chicago, please see my 2002 project study The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Poverty and Jobs in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation, my 2007 book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History, and my December 12 2015 Open University of the Left talk on “Rahm Emmanuel, Laquan McDonald, and the Racist Mass Arrest and Incarceration State”).

Excessive Hubris

Curiously enough, however, an especially noxious and maladroit personality in a key position of power can come to embody, epitomize, and personify authoritarian rule in ways that help push rank and file citizens toward radical structural and institutional critique. The great national Pullman railroad strike of 1894 was sparked in part by working class outrage over the paternalistic arrogance of the Chicago area capitalist George Pullman. Pullman built a grandiose company town bearing his own name for the manufacture of his company’s famous sleeping and dining railroad cars just south of the city. When he drastically slashed wages without cutting rents in his quasi-feudal municipality – an act of unmitigated chutzpah – he became an epitome and symbol of ruling class conceit and an unwitting spark for working class consciousness and rebellion in the original Gilded Age. The great American Socialist Eugene Debs made his conversion to Marxism (with some help from a copy of Das Kapital delivered to him in jail by Victor Berger) during his time behind bars during the Pullman Strike. George Pullman became a problem for his ruling class brethren.

The equally prideful and overconfident Rahm Emanuel has in different ways become a problem for metropolitan capitalism in the neoliberal era. His self-important hubris and arrogance has – now joined to an ugly history of vicious institutional racism within and beyond Chicago – helped ignite a “volcano” of Black rebellion the city’s mostly white corporate and financial overlords finds most unwelcome. Untold thousands of young Black and other Chicago resident are now in militant motion like no time in recent memory. Good corporate mayors are supposed to keep ghetto residents pacified. Emanuel is failing at the task.

And the heat my go up on the mayor. With a recent remarkable strike authorization vote of 88 percent, the militant and progressive Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) – a sworn enemy of Emmanuel’s neoliberal schools privatization project – could hit the picket lines next spring for the second time in three years under “Rahmbo’s” haughty rule. Angry picket lines with strong community support would again be visible outside the city’s many highly segregated Black and Latino public schools. Large teacher rallies and marches would take place in the downtown commercial and political district. Concerned about Emanuel’s continuing efforts to solve the CPS’s budget problems by closing schools and cutting staff rather than by properly taking the city’s super-opulent corporate and financial elite, the CTU smells some blood in the water. “Rahm Emanuel really does not need a teacher’s strike,” CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey told reporters after the vote. “He really doesn’t,” Sharkey added, “and what we’re telling him if he doesn’t listen to us, that is what he’ll get…Do not cut our schools, do not lay off our staff and solve the budget problems on the backs of educators.”

“Only Sustained Struggle Can Make a Difference”

This can’t make Chicago’s disproportionately white overlords any happier. Emanuel is just not doing his job of keeping the city’s poor masses of color and their progressive multiracial allies properly quiescent while metropolitan wealth flows ever upward. His hubristic mayoralty is interfering with racist-classist business-rule-as-usual. He might want to start negotiating his exit package with the city’s real rulers. Chicago’s One Percent needs a city rebranding and it is not at all certain that post-Laquan Emanuel is up to the job. The mayor may have to become a Sacrificial Rahm.

The city’s newly energized grassroots must not be fooled by coming municipal makeovers. As Mumia Abu Jamal recently reminded us from his Pennsylvania prison: “There has been an arrest, yes; but don’t be surprised by an acquittal. Any city that can make a murder disappear for a year, can surely hustle up an acquittal. Only sustained struggle can make a difference.”

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).