Rahm Emanuel’s Departure is a Golden Opportunity for Chicagoans Fighting for Change

Soon enough, Rahm Emanuel will no longer be mayor of Chicago.

Emanuel, who’s occupied the fifth floor of City Hall since 2011, made that bombshell announcement on Tuesday, saying he wouldn’t seek a third term.

“This has been the job of a lifetime but it is not a job for a lifetime,” he told reporters.

Indeed, these past 7ish years have been one hell of a lifetime.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File photo by Aaron Cynic.

I don’t generally trust any politician, but the effective resignation of Emanuel from Chicago political life reminded me of the time I chatted with a person during a short strike University of Illinois Chicago faculty held in 2014. “Daley was a crook,” one person who didn’t want their name on record told me at the time. “But he was our crook. I don’t know who this guy is.”

“At least in the city, Emanuel was seen as a bit of an outsider during his first run for the mayor’s office – he wasn’t the Machine’s pick, and with the exception of then-President Obama most of his contributors were either from outside of the city (like Donald Trump) or weren’t part of the old political apparatus that kept Daley and his aldermen in power.” He even faced a residency challenge for renting out his Ravenswood home during his tenure as Obama’s Chief of Staff.

That Emanuel won the election (decisively) and took the mayoral reigns from Richard M Daley, (son of Richard J Daley, who should be remembered for ordering his police to brutally crack down on protesters at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention), is fitting, given that Chicago is still plagued by institutional police misconduct and police killings that have at least the tacit approval of municipal leadership.

Emanuel faced protests from the left from the get-go, but he also always understood how PR works, and a big heap of credit for that should go to the time he spent working for both the Clinton and Obama administrations. After all, despite his most recent rhetoric about Chicago being a “sanctuary city,” Emanuel once advised former President Bill Clinton to engage in more immigration hearings so he could “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.”

On Tuesday evening, while the fallout from the news was still breaking, a group of around 100 or so activists gathered in Daley Plaza to celebrate what they counted as a long and hard fought victory. One woman in attendance who I had first met during the time I spent covering Occupy Chicago – our city’s version of Occupy Wall street – gave me a long pull off a bottle of discreetly concealed champagne, and then passed it along to other activists who’ve spent nearly as much time fighting Emanuel and his agenda as he’s been in office.

Chicagoans gather in Daley Plaza to celebrate Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that he will not seek re-election. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

“Occupy was one of Rahm’s first black eyes,” another person who I first got to know on the corner of Lasalle and Jackson in 2011, told me in passing.

Emanuel’s time in the beltway and as an investment banker shaped his policies, which earned him the moniker “Mayor 1 percent.” He had a penchant for privatizing public services, and an open disdain for anyone who would question him. He closed half the city’s mental health clinics – located in mostly black and brown neighborhoods – in 2012, which allegedly “saved” a paltry $2.2 million. He gave half a million of those dollars to private mental health providers, which didn’t do much to shore up the loss those communities faced.

In Daley Plaza, Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle of the Mental Health Movement, which fought the closures, remembered the life of Helen Morley.

“Helen was somebody who was a lifelong resident of Chicago, going to a public mental health clinic for years, decades, until the man on the 5th floor of that office, the man who’s now running because he knows that he has no face left for him and his ilk in the city decided to take her therapist away and close her clinic,” he said. According to Ginsberg-Jaeckle, Morley went everywhere that Emanuel appeared in public, including Chicago’s 175th birthday celebration, to tell him that if he closed her clinic she would die.

Helen Morley died.

“Do you think he looked her in the eyes,” asked Ginsberg-Jaeckle. “Do you think he thought twice whether it was really worth it in a budget of billions to save $2 million at the expense of lives of Helen Morley and others like her? No, that man turned his back and ran out of that room.”

Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle of the Mental Health Movement speaks to a group of people gathered to celebrate Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that he will not seek a 3rd term as mayor. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

The clinic closures were the one of the first examples of a long line of austerity policies which helped funnel big money and tax breaks to big businesses and corporations in the Loop and other well to do neighborhoods at the expense of black and brown ones, mostly located on the south and west sides. Some of Emanuel’s next biggest black eyes came from the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, which was followed by his decision to close nearly 50 public schools in 2013. Even this year, another four public high schools in some of those same neighborhoods were scheduled to be closed.

“The pushing of black people out of Chicago has been steady and on an upward rise,” a person named Rachel told the crowd assembled in Daley Plaza on Tuesday. “What do we do with that? When the excuse is to say you closed 50 schools in 2013 and another four of the only public high schools that exist in Englewood in 2017/2018, what do we do with that?”

“When they sanction the death of black children by closing our schools and sanction the black death and the death of our folks who our mostly in need of mental services, that is state sanctioned violence,” she added.

Chicago has taken center stage nationally over the past couple years as a city reviled by the Trump administration and its loyalists for being an allegedly violent and lawless place, despite the vast majority of its critics not being from here or spending any time in our neighborhoods. One of Trump’s most famous allies – former New York City mayor and current attorney Rudy Giuliani even weighed in on the Chicago election, giving an endorsement to former CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

That Emanuel chose to announce his decision to not seek a third term for mayor one day before the trial of former Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke was scheduled to begin is also significant.

Footage of the death of Laquan Mcdonald – who was shot 16 times by Van Dyke – was withheld by Emanuel’s administration for 400 days, and the eventual release sparked protests across the city and the country. Van Dyke is currently on trial for the first degree murder of McDonald. Many have accused both Emanuel and McCarthy of trying to cover the incident up while Emanuel was running for re-election in 2014.

“16 shots and a cover up” is a chant that’s been heard far and wide on the streets of Chicago since the footage was released. The day after Emanuel made his announcement, activists gathered across the street from the Leighton Criminal Court Building, where jury selection for Van Dyke’s trial began.

“It’s been close to four years since the shooting happened. It’s been three years since (Van Dyke) has been charged. And we want justice. It’s time for him to face the music about what he did,” said community activist William Calloway, who along with journalist Brandon Smith, was instrumental in getting the footage of McDonald’s death released.

The king might ostensibly be dead, but the people who’ve lived through his reign know better, and they know he had plenty of allies.

“As we celebrate Rahm not running for re-election we’ve got to understand there’s aldermanic candidates that need to be removed,” Rachel told the crowd on Tuesday. “We have aldermanic candidates who are willing to side with money over people.”

Rahm Emanuel’s legacy as mayor of Chicago will be long and has already been commented on widely, and sadly the theories about his potential replacement are more about fame than actual policy. More than a dozen candidates announced their intention to run before Emanuel’s announcement he wouldn’t be running, more will follow, and the political commentariat is already hopeful for someone just like him.

People who actually live in Chicago think differently.

Chicago activist Megan Groves speaks to a group of people assembled in Daley Plaza who celebrated Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that he will not seek a 3rd term. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

“To any mayoral candidate: if you do not run on the people’s agenda, we will come for you,” activist Megan Groves told the assembled crowd.

Indeed, Chicagoans have an opportunity now to find a mayor that is truly different – one that’s not necessarily approved by the machine, but also not here to simply turn the city into a playground for the 1 percent at the expense of everyone else. The issues that so many activists have fought for years for – police accountability, better social services, better public schools, and more – should be what’s at the forefront of the 2019 mayor’s race, regardless of what names are in the pool.

Aaron Cynic
Aaron Cynic