Faced with outrage against police violence, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel must decide whether he will turn crisis into an opportunity for accountability and healing for his city.
Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is famous for “Rahm’s Rule” of political crises management: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Emanuel articulated this rule in the fall of 2008, shortly after accepting the job of chief of staff in the Obama White House. Seven years later, as the mayor of a city on edge over police shootings of unarmed black men, and excessive use of force against African-Americans, Emanuel seems to have forgotten his own rule, just when he needs most to remember it.
On October 20, 2014, Rahm Emanuel was fighting to win a re-election campaign that should have been a cakewalk. He had a $30 million war chest. He had name recognition, and an endorsement from President Barack Obama.
It wouldn’t be enough. Imposing an austerity agenda on Chicagoans — closing schools in black and Latino neighborhoods, shutting down half the city’s mental health clinics, and slashing city worker pensions — while diverting $1.7 billion into a slush fund for corporate subsidies earned Emanuel the title “Mayor 1 Percent.” A progressive populist movement rose up against Emanuel’s agenda, and threatened to make him a one-term mayor.
That same night, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot and killed by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. Officers responding to a call about a man with a knife had McDonald hemmed in with patrol cars. They were waiting for officers with stun guns to come and subdue him, when Van Dyke arrived. Thirty seconds later, McDonald lay dead. Police reports later claimed he took a single shot to the chest, fired in “self-defense” after McDonald “lunged” at officers with his three-inch knife.
The truth was somewhat different. An autopsy report showed McDonald was shot not once, but 16 times. Only two bullets — one in his upper right thigh, and one in his lower back — struck McDonald while he was standing. The rest were fired into him as he lay in the street. Chicago police department policy requires officers to activate their dashboard cameras when in pursuit. There had to be video of the shooting.
It would take 13 months, before the public saw the grainy video that showed McDonald moving away from police officers, not “lunging” at them. It would take a Freedom of Information lawsuit before the public saw McDonald crumple to the ground after the first shots. Police officers descended on a Burger King restaurant hours after the shooting, and erased nearly 90 minutes of security video that might have shown events leading up to the shooting.
Emanuel claims not to have watched the video. Someone watched it, because the city offered McDonald’s family a $5 million settlement without a lawsuit being filed, on the condition that the video remain confidential. Someone watched it, because the city government fought to block its release. Someone didn’t want the public to see McDonald writhing on the pavement, smoke and debris rising from his body, as Van Dyke fired 14 more bullets into him. Questions around the shooting and coverup have launched a federal Department of Justice investigation.
If Emanuel knew what was on the video, he didn’t need to watch it to know what it would mean for the city — and his campaign. Ferguson, Missouri, was still smoldering from unrest after a grand jury failed to indict officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The last thing Emanuel needed was for his to be the next city that was one dead black teenager away from burning. Thus, a crisis was “wasted.”
Still mayor, after being forced into a runoff, Rahm Emanuel now has a chance not to let another crisis go to waste. After seeing the video, and learning about the cover-up, 51 percent of Chicagoans think Emanuel should resign. Just 18 percent approve of the job he’s doing, and 63 percent don’t believe he didn’t watch the video of the McDonald shooting. Meanwhile, city has released more videos involving black men who were shot and killed by police officers or died in police custody.
Emanuel has offered only the most tepid “reforms.” He recently announced that Chicago will expand its use of body cameras to six more districts, through a $1.1 million matching grant from the Department of Justice. Emanuel also announced that he would establish a task force on police accountability.
It’s not nearly enough for a city with Chicago’s history of racism and corruption on the police force.
- From 1972 to 1991, Chicago police commissioner Jon Burge and officers under him tortured more than 200 defendants to extract confessions. Some received death sentences as a result, leading Gov. George Ryan to commute the state’s entire death row in 2003.
- From August 2004 to June 2015, Chicago police detained over 7,000 people at a warehouse called Homan Square. Nearly 6,000 were African-American. Homan operated as a “black site” where people were held without being booked, or given access to an attorney or the outside world. Just 68 ever had any access to attorneys or were allowed to let family and friends know where they were. Detainees said police threatened them and their families with violence and false charges if they didn’t become informants.
- Jason Van Dyke was part of a small group of officers who were repeatedly accused of abusive practices in public complaints that reveal Van Dyke as an officer who would shoot at subjects, rough them up during arrest, conduct illegal searches, and use racial slurs.
This week, Emanuel publicly apologized for the events surrounding McDonald’s death, telling the city council, “I take full responsibility for what happened, because it happened on my watch.” However, Emanuel should again heed is own words: “Nothing less than complete and total reform of the system and culture will meet the standards we set for ourselves.”
“Sorry” won’t be enough. One day after Emanuel’s apology,hundreds of protestors marched through the streets and staged die-ins, calling for his resignation. Local black religious leaders called for a “vote of no confidence” against him. Two Democratic Illinois lawmakers introduced a bill that would make easy for Chicago to recall Emanuel. If he really means it, Emanuel should spell out what his reforms will look like, so that he may be accountable for reaching them.
Perhaps Chicago needs a “truth and reconciliation” commission, like those formed when nations emerge from brutal regimes and periods of unrest; one that supports criminal prosecutions whenever possible. Emanuel could start by taking a look at Black Lives Matter’s “Campaign Zero,” and implement true community oversight of the police, establish policies limiting the use of force, committing to independent investigation and prosecution of police misconduct and abuse, increase community representation on the police force, and invest in rigorous training on implicit bias and appropriate interaction with diverse communities.
That’s a tall order for a guy who just months ago blamed the “Ferguson effect” for causing police to “go fetal” in order to avoid being “prosecuted before they even have a day in court,” via the internet. Still, it’s what Rahm Emanuel needs to do if he’s to have a hope of healing Chicago, saving his job, and not letting another crisis go to waste.