Activists: The Democratic Party Has a Rahm Emanuel Problem

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Analysis Politics

Activists: The Democratic Party Has a Rahm Emanuel Problem

Jenn Stanley

Many Chicago activists are calling on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign after the long-delayed release of a video showing a police officer killing a Black teenager. Hillary Clinton has not joined the call.

The public is watching as Chicago activists have called for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign after a judge ordered the release of a video showing a city police officer shooting a Black teenager named Laquan McDonald 16 times.

Groups such as the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) and the Coalition for a New Chicago maintain Emanuel played a role in the delayed release of the video. A range of national figures and organizations, such as filmmaker Spike Lee and Johnetta Elzie with Campaign Zero, have either said the mayor should step down, or, in the case of Bernie Sanders, suggested “those involved” should resign. Others have declined to weigh in or are in support of Emanuel. In the latter camp is Hillary Clinton, who earlier this month expressed her continued confidence in the mayor. Chicago activists say that Clinton’s defense of Emanuel after the video’s release could have political consequences for the leading Democratic presidential candidate.

The shooting occurred on the night of October 20, 2014, when police were responding to a call about a man with a knife on the city’s Southwest Side. Police cameras caught the incident, in which Officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old McDonald 16 times, but police officials held the tape from being released to the public, stating that it was part of an ongoing investigation. The department fought for more than a year to keep the video from being made public. In April 2015, the Chicago City Council approved a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family, which included a provision to keep the video confidential.

Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama finally ordered the video’s release in November; Emanuel fired Chicago Police Superintendent Gary McCarthy the next week. Though police officials stood by Van Dyke’s account that McDonald approached him with a knife before he was shot, the video shows McDonald walking away from him.

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The day the video was released, 18 months after the shooting, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez decided to charge Van Dyke with McDonald’s murder.

Many activists allege that the Emanuel administration intentionally covered up the video during his re-election bid in 2015. Emanuel’s failure to press for release of the video until a judge acted, and Alvarez’s failure to charge Van Dyke until the video was released, left many calling for the two to step down.

During last week’s protests, activists held signs and chanted, recounting what they viewed to be Emanuel’s crimes.

Chicago has a history of police violence and political corruption. From 1972 to 1991, more than 100 suspects, mostly Black men, were tortured and forced into confessions by officers under former Police Commander Jon Burge and his “midnight crew.” Last May, Chicago became the first U.S. city to pay reparations to victims of police torture, when the city council voted unanimously in favor of a $5.5 million package for survivors of Burge’s reign of terror.

The Guardian released an investigation into another incriminating story concerning the city police department around the time Chicago lawmakers congratulated themselves over the reparations deal. From August 2004 to June 2015, the paper reported, police detained more than 7,000 people, 6,000 of whom were Black, at an off-the-books interrogation compound in Homan Square on the city’s West Side, where they were unable to contact or be found by family or lawyers. According to the Guardian:

The facility’s use by police has intensified in recent years. Nearly 65 percent of documented Homan Square arrests since August 2004 took place in the five years since Rahm Emanuel, formerly Barack Obama’s top aide, became mayor.

Chicago activists have long called for a change to the city’s systemic problems with police violence and political corruption. The release of the Laquan McDonald video has brought their cause to the national stage.

Today, more than half of Chicago residents believe Emanuel should resign, and at just 18 percent, his approval rating is at an all-time low, according to a recent poll taken after the release of the video. Yet his history within the Democratic Party has many national politicians, particularly Democrats, slow to renounce the mayor.

While President Obama said he was “deeply disturbed” by the video of Laquan McDonald’s death, he has stayed quiet about Emanuel, his former chief of staff. Hillary Clinton has so far refrained from calling for Emanuel to resign. Clinton backed the justice department investigation of the CPD, but said that she continued to have confidence in Emanuel, who was a senior adviser in her husband’s administration from 1993 to 1998. 

“He loves Chicago and I’m confident that he’s going to do everything he can to get to the bottom of these issues and take whatever measures are necessary to remedy them,” Clinton told reporters while campaigning in Iowa in early December.

Frank Chapman is a longtime activist and field organizer for CAARPR, one of the groups organizing the protests calling for the mayor’s resignation. He says that Emanuel is only one part of a top-down problem that his organization is trying to address, but that all those in charge must be held accountable for real change to begin.  

One of CAARPR’s demands is the implementation of an all-elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC). Chicago activists began developing plans for community police accountability in the 1970s, said Chapman, but it had a resurgence after Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old Black woman from Chicago, was fatally shot by an off-duty Chicago police detective in March 2012. In 2013, CAARPR worked with attorneys and other community organizers to draft a proposal for establishing CPAC in Chicago.

The council would consist of elected community members from each police district in Chicago who would decide how their communities are policed and hold police accountable for their crimes. The council would appoint the police superintendent, and it would provide more detailed statistical analysis of demographic information of complaints by type and victim.  

Chapman told Rewire that while he’s happy that recent protests have brought national media attention to Chicago’s problems, he wishes there would be more focus more on the possible solutions conceived by activists.

“People get off on describing problems,” Chapman told Rewire. “The national media is presenting the problem but not capturing the solution. We’re proposing a solution.”

Stop Police Crimes, CAARPR’s campaign to implement CPAC, has 25,000 supporters across Chicago and about 1,000 active volunteers, Chapman said. While Emanuel’s resignation is not their primary concern, Chapman believes it is inevitable.

“As far as I’m concerned, this administration is dead. We just haven’t buried it yet,” Chapman told Rewire. “This administration does not have the ability to continue to run this city the way it has been running.”

Chapman told Rewire that he believes Clinton’s continued support of Emanuel will affect how Chicagoans vote.

“She really stepped on the hornet’s nest with those comments,” Chapman said regarding Clinton’s support for the mayor.

Others believe, however, that Clinton’s current dominance in the polls will keep her from having to renounce Emanuel. Scott Goldberg, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Chicago, said that he doesn’t believe that the presidential candidates are taking police violence seriously as a public health crisis, and instead are addressing incidents as individual cases. Goldberg believes that each case shows City Hall’s continued neglect of communities of color within the city. 

Goldberg was part of a group of medical students who joined the call for Emanuel’s resignation by staging a 16-minute “die-in” in front of City Hall, one minute for each time McDonald was shot. He doesn’t believe that Clinton’s comments will hurt her with Chicago voters.

“I think ultimately Chicagoans are going to vote Democrat,” Goldberg told Rewire. “So if she’s the candidate, which she likely will be, she’ll get their votes.”

Clinton has tried to make overhauling the criminal justice system a central theme of her campaign, but Chapman says that she and other top politicians, including President Barack Obama, are not holding the people in power throughout these incidents accountable.

“Barack Obama is the chief law enforcer of the United States. He’s the president. Why did it take so long for him to get the Justice Department to do something around this issue? This stuff has continued to go on at a high level since the murder of Trayvon Martin,” Chapman told RH Reality Check. “What more do you need?”

Chapman continued, saying that it’s not enough for politicians, like Clinton, to say they support the Department of Justice’s investigation into the CPD. 

“We have to take on our government on this,” Chapman said. “The justice department comes in here, and all they’re required to do is focus on operational policies and procedures. They’re not focusing on the crimes that have been committed. They’re not holding anybody accountable for these murders. They’re not addressing a systemic problem.”

Clinton’s Democratic opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), has taken a more direct stance against Emanuel, albeit without naming him directly.

“Any official who helped suppress the videotape of Laquan McDonald’s murder should be held accountable,” Sanders said in a statement. “And any elected official with knowledge that the tape was being suppressed or improperly withheld should resign. No one should be shielded by power or position.”

The 2016 Democratic presidential candidates have spent much of the primary season trying to demonstrate their embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement, but some activists believe that their promises will continue to seem empty if they fail to address Laquan McDonald’s murder, the death of Rekia Boyd, and the interrogations at Homan Square as part of a systemic problem.

“The Emanuel administration is totally discredited,” Chapman said. “Because it is very clear to everybody, people of various political persuasions, that he suppressed a crime. He held from public view a crime committed by a police officer to get re-elected.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify Ben Carson’s stance on Rahm Emanuel’s resignation. Carson called the shooting of Laquan McDonald “despicable,” but has not said Emanuel should resign. We regret the error.