Identity Rules: A Report from Reddening Chicago

Daniel X. O’Neil from USA • CC BY 2.0

Fake-Progressive Identity Cloaking

Beyond the identity-politicized excitement of Chicago electing its first Black female chief executive and becoming the largest U.S. city to have a Black female mayor (and to have a gay mayor), there wasn’t all that much for a leftist to choose from between victor Lori Lightfoot and her opponent Toni Preckwinkle. Mayor-Elect Lightfoot is a longtime corporate lawyer, a partner in the venerable multinational Mayer- Brown firm, and a former federal prosecutor. She covered for the legendarily racist Chicago police (currently operating under a federal civil rights consent decree) in her role as the head of outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force. She did the same on the Chicago Police Board under Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Chicago Tribune investigation of Lightfoot’s Mayer-Brown years found that “she has represented corporate clients accused of racial discrimination, as well as police and prosecutors accused of the kind of misconduct she has criticized as a candidate. Lightfoot also has made millions of dollars working at a firm whose attorneys have represented tobacco companies and other corporate clients accused of egregious wrongdoing.”

None of this stopped Lightfoot from branding herself as an outsider “progressive” seeking to clean up the city’s corrupt practices and deliver its forgotten people and neighborhoods from oppression and neglect.

“It’s hard,” Chicago native Matt Reichel wrote me, “not to be skeptical of a former federal prosecutor who spent most of her career siding with the cops in police misconduct cases until she recently decided to opportunistically rebrand herself a ‘reformer.’”

There’s a reason that white police officers voted for Lightfoot. “If someone had told me in the era of Richard J. Daley (when I moved to Chicago) that cop neighborhoods such as Mount Greenwood would vote overwhelmingly for an African American woman,” longtime Chicago activist Kingsley Clark writes, “I would have said: ‘What are you smoking, man!’ The word ‘progressive’ lost meaning with the Clintons and was buried deep in this mayoral election. Those Chicagoans who cling to that illusory concept are going to be mightily disappointed.”

Like with the silver-tongued neoliberal “from Chicago” (really from Honolulu and Harvard Law) Barack Obama? Obama must have used the word “progressive” at least a thousand times to describe himself on his path to the presidency between 2004 and 2009. We saw how that worked out.

The 44th president called to congratulate Lightfoot, one rich fake-progressive identity-cloaked corporatist talking to another.

A Neoliberal Machine Mayor-in-Waiting

Lightfoot’s victory is arguably another in a long line of nails in the coffin of the old Chicago machine.  Preckwinkle is a longstanding machine politician, the president of the Cook County Board and the head of the Cook County Democratic Party. She has been caught up in the campaign finance shenanigans of the legendarily corrupt 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke.  The Black female Preckwinkle was bidding to become the first politician to hold both the Chicago mayoralty and the top Cook County Democratic position since the original Chicago Mayor Daley – the last big city patronage boss Richard J. Daley (whose reign ran from 1955 through 1976).

But the old machine, based on the trade of city jobs for votes, died long ago.  The new machine under Mayors Richard M. Daley (1989-2011) and Rahm “Mayor 1%” Emanuel (2011-2019) has been based on neoliberal “pinstripe patronage” – the trading of city contracts, corporate privatization deals, tax-breaks, and taxpayer-funded development deals greased by regressive Tax Increment Financing (TIF) arrangements (rampant throughout the city). The “business community” got behind Lightfoot in the reasonable expectation that she will keep urban neoliberalism machine set on profit.

According to veteran Chicago left activist and author Joe Allen, “The fact that the leader of the Democratic Party and such an entrenched politician as Preckwinkle went down to historic defeat shows once again that the political establishment is under siege in Chicago and across the United States…But when it comes to all the key issues around police reform, gentrification, the schools,” Allen ads, Lightfoot “is our class enemy.”

What’s Officially “Historic” and What’s Not

Beyond the ideologically narrow contest between Lightfoot and Preckwinkle, the most interesting and genuinely progressive development in Chicago’s runoff election last Tuesday was that three self-described socialists – Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th Ward), Rossanna Rodriguez-Sanchez (30th Ward), and Andre Vasquez (40th Ward) – defeated establishment aldermanic candidates. Lopez, Rodriguez-Sanchez, and Vasquez will join two other socialists – Dan La Spata (1st Ward) and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward) – in the Chicago City Council.

On election night last Tuesday, Chicago corporate media television news was agog over the “historic” mayoral victory of a gay Black female. It had nothing to say about Lightfoot’s conservative, corporate, and power-serving record or about the arguably more historic victories of self-declared socialists in the city council.

The Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday gave its full front page to a picture of Lightfoot with her fist raised above the giant-type headline “LORI-OUS: Lightfoot Trounces Preckwinkle in Historic Mayor’s Race, Winning All 50 Wards.”

“Lori Lightfoot,” the Sun-Times exulted in its lead story, “will become Chicago’s first openly gay mayor – and the first African-American woman ever to serve as chief executive – after cruising to a landslide victory that transcended the city’s tribal politics.” (“Landslide” was a bit of an overstatement given the near-historic low voter turnout – around 30 percent – for the Lightfoot-Preckwinkle contest, a reflection of the absence of significant ideological as well as racial and gender difference between the candidates.) Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell waxed eloquent on how “there’s no stopping the march of history…Tuesday’s election,” Mitchell elaborated:

“made Lightfoot not only the first Black woman to go to City Hall, but the first openly gay to have that honor. Chicago is now the largest city to elect an African-American woman mayor…Maybe it was all the tears black mothers shed on the streets of Chicago after a son or daughter was killed…Maybe it was their anguished cries against the brutality of a male-dominated Chicago Police Department that opened the door for this political revolt…Lightfoot….joins an elite club of seven other African American female mayors currently leading a major American city.”

Was Mitchell ignorant of Lightfoot’s record of siding (under white-mayoral appointment) with the city’s legendarily racist (as well as male-dominated) cops and against Black city residents?

The capitalist media coverage and commentary has been fixated on representational identity – on the color, gender, and sexual orientation of faces in high municipal-elective places. A different Sun-Times article titled “City Council Poised to Have Most Hispanic, Fewest White Aldermen Ever” reported that the new City Council will have 19 Black people, 15 women, 11 “Hispanics,” and “no Asians.”

There was no reference to the fact that 5 of the city’s 11 new Latinx City Council seat-holders are socialists.

The paper did briefly mention (on page 15) that Andrew Vasquez (who defeated the longtime senior Alderman Patrick O’Connor) is “a former battle rapper, socialist, and political newcomer” and that (on page 16) Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez was “one of five members of the Democratic Socialists of America who made it to run-off elections this year.” That was it on the socialists. Some political stories are more “historic” than others.

So Scary

Chicago activist Rory Fanning offered an interesting reflection on one telling moment in the live television coverage on the election night. “Rossanna Rodriguez-Sanchez,” Fanning writes, “gave an incredibly powerful speech in uncompromising language about how she would fight all forms of oppression and exploitation in Chicago’s city council last night. WGN, which is broadcast to thousands of small towns across the country, was covering her live. After they finished interviewing her, the WGN reporter cut to a long-time Republican strategist who could only say how scared he was of her.” Another “urban nightmare” (Stephen Macek) for suburban, exurban, and rural whites to fear on top of rampant rape, murder, gangs, and car-jackings in the dark and scary city: Chavista Latina Chicago City Council members who sign on with Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s windmill-wielding Reign of Green New Deal-Terror! Ooooh, scary!

“Two Chicagos”

“Who,” Fanning asks, “would have thought Chicago could become an epicenter for real political hope and inspiration?” A recent study suggests that the socialist City Council victories in Chicago are less surprising than they might at first seem. In their 2018 report Who Can Live in Chicago?, the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois at Chicago compiled data and constructed maps demonstrating the stark shrinkage of the city’s middle-class and the rise of an increasingly class-polarized city over the past five decades. The Vorhees Center’s maps show that half the city was middle- income in 1970, including vast stretches across every side of town. Forty-nine years later, just 16 percent of the city’s 797 census tracts are middle-income.  These last-ditch middle-income areas are found mainly in distant corners of the city and in narrow sections between zones of wealth and poverty.

“We have two cities,” Vorhees Center Co-Director Janet Smith told Chicago WBEZ radio last February: “We have the rich and we have the poor.” Wealth has spread from its former Golden Age concentration along a thin lakefront layer of the Gold Coast and North Side to a much larger and wider section of the North Side while high-poverty sections have vastly expanded in the Black and Latinx neighborhoods on the city’s South, West, and Northwest sides.

Academic experts consulted by WBEZ to explain the incomed/class-polarization of Chicago (and other big U.S. cities) cite “macroeconomic trends” including “technological changes that reward high-skilled workers like engineers or designers but reduce demand for less skilled workers; globalization, including the outsourcing of labor; and the decline of unions.”  We might suggest a translation: capitalism and capitalist top-down class war aided, abetted, and advanced by neoliberal politicians like Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel.

Good Riddance, Rahm

Lightfoot will serve the same corporate and financial “elites” who Emanuel attended to and who have made millionaires out of Lightfoot and other Mayer-Brown partners. Still, it will be nice for ordinary Chicagoans to see the last of Emanuel in City Hall.  “Mayor 1%” picked up the neoliberal ball from the second Mayor Daley (1989-2011) and ran fast and hard with it.  As Rick Perlstein noted four years ago in an essay titled

“How to Sell-Off a City”:

“For over a decade now, Chicago has been the epicenter of the fashionable trend of ‘privatization’—the transfer of the ownership or operation of resources that belong to all of us, like schools, roads and government services, to companies that use them to turn a profit. Chicago’s privatization mania began during Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, which ran from 1989 to 2011. Under his successor, Rahm Emanuel, the trend has continued apace. For Rahm’s investment banker buddies, the trend has been a boon. For citizens? Not so much.”

Emmanuel’s corporate mayoralty promoted gentrification greased by regressive TIF deals that transferred tax revenues to wealthy financial and real estate oligarchs. It all came with chilling doses of neoliberal racism and police-statism. After his inauguration, Emmanuel moved quickly to shutter 54 public schools in low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods. The largest deliberate mass school closure in history, Emanuel’s educational blitzkrieg was a taxpayer-funded windfall for rich allies seeking to build private charter schools.

Emmanuel stonewalled on the abusive and criminal practices of the city’s legendarily racist and violent police force. He flatly denied the Chicago Police Department’s operation of an illegal “black site” detention facility (Homan Square) where thousands of mostly Black and Latino suspects were “disappeared” and forced to make false confessions.

Emanuel capitalized on his longstanding association with Obama (for whom he worked as White House Chief of Staff in 2009 and 2010) to win solid majorities of the Black Chicago vote in both of his Chicago election victories (in February 2011 and April 2015). But he lost that support with his ugly response to the public uproar over the racist police killing of the Black teenager Laquan McDonald.

White Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke executed the teen in cold blood on a busy street on the city’s South Side on October 20th, 2014. Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times, riddling Laquan’s body with bullets while the victim lay in the pavement. As the Chicago Police lied about and covered up the murder, Emanuel offered McDonald’s mother $5 million on the condition that she stay silent. The city buried a dash cam video that clearly displayed the vicious murder for thirteen months because Emmanuel feared its release would spark civil unrest that would endanger his re-election. The video might have never surfaced if lawyers and journalists had not been tipped off to its existence and but for the courageous order of a county judge. Emanuel’s response to the McDonald scandal was aptly described by the New York Times editorial board: do as little as possible — until the furor caused by the release of the video forced his hand.”

Adding more insult to injury, Emanuel met with Chicago’s leading Black ministers and pastors to threaten before he belatedly and grudgingly released the kill tape. In an act of true sociopathic chutzpah, he warned them that they’d pay if protests went too far. He wanted the city’s Black religious leaders to know he would withhold money for jobs programs in the city’s Black ghettoes if violence ensued.

By the last three years of his mayoralty, Emanuel couldn’t visit one of his cherished inner-city charter school openings without hearing Black schoolchildren chanting “Sixteen Shots and a Cover-Up! Sixteen Shots and a Cover Up!” Blacks kinds on the city’s L platforms also chanted “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Rahm Emanuel’s Got to Go!”

But for the heroic street activism of Black civil rights and anti-racist police activists in the fall and winter of 2015 and afterwards, the killer cop Van Dyke might never have been arrested, tried, and found guilty (last Fall) of the murder of Laquan.

(All of this and much more regarding police misconduct made it disgust to see Emanuel hold a special press conference to denounce Cook County States’ Attorney Kim Foxx’s decision not to charge Jussie Smollett for faking a racist assault on himself in a wealthy North Loop neighborhood.  Smollett may have deserved prosecution, but Emanuel sacrificed any standing for comment on Foxx’s choice by his terrible conduct in the Laquan McDonald case.)

“Rahmbo” didn’t mind deploying the iron heel against whites (as well as Blacks and Latinx) of the wrong kind: Leftists, for whom Emanuel long had special contempt.  In the fall of 2011, he made a special 1% bully point of denying Occupy activists a single campsite anywhere in the city. When thousands gathered to protest U.S. and Western militarism during a NATO conference in Chicago in May of 2012, Emanuel turned downtown Chicago into a great monument to urban police-state militarism.  The activist turnout was dwarfed by Emanuel’s deployment of a vast high-tech assemblage of heavily armed public and private-sector gendarmes. Activists’ civil rights were abused with classic Red Squad arrogance.   Cops and security mercenaries from across the nation were given the latest tools and techniques of repression.  Emanuel’s police rolled out two Long Range Acoustic Devices – sound canons designed to split protesters’ eardrums if they got “out of hand.”

That’s the kind of proto-fascistic “male energy” it will be nice to see exiting the Chicago Mayor’s office along with the unbearable whiteness of Rahm as a small new cadre of democratic socialists takes up residence in the council chambers of the nation’s third largest city.

Good riddance, Rahm.  Hello, Byron, Andre, Dan and Rossana.

Some Sage Counsel from One Black Male and Two White Males

Lightfoot, welcomed with open arms by Emanuel, would do well to the heed not the commands of the city’s investor class but rather the words of John Pilger and Frantz Fanon. As Pilger noted ten years ago, speaking about the presidential ascendancy of Chicago’s (and Honolulu’s and Harvard Law’s) Barack Obama: “It is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters…above all is the class one serves.” (Dare we dd sexual orientation to the list of bourgeois-weaponized identity attributes that can seduce citizens into fake-progressive and electoralist propaganda?). “What matters,” the brilliant anti-colonial psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote 67 years ago in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, “is not so much the color of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray.”

For their part, ordinary Chicagoans would do well to remember Howard Zinn’s admonition that what matters most is not so much “who’s sitting in the White House as who’s sitting in the streets.” Substitute “Governor’s mansion” and/or “Mayor’s office” and/or “city council” (and/or county commissioner, states’ attorney, etc.) for “the White House” in Zinn’s adage and the counsel is no less relevant.

Nothing good and progressive is going to happen without the sort of people’s street heat that brought Jason Van Dyke to trial and convinced the neoliberal racist-corporatist Rahm Emanuel to call it a mayoral career at two terms.

Street was Research Director of The Chicago Urban League between 2000 and 2005. His book publications include Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman&Littlefled, 2007). He teaches American and urban history in Chicago.

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