Meet Rahm Emanuel, America’s most endangered mayor

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After an apparent cover-up by the Chicago Police Department of the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, a growing chorus of Chicago residents, organizers, and legislators is calling for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“A lot of people don’t like the way he’s run Chicago in the past couple years,” said DeAngelo Bester, the executive director at Workers Center for Racial Justice, a Chicago-based nonprofit. And now they’re doing something about it.


Last month, State Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Democrat, introduced legislation to start a recall process of the mayor. Weeks later, the state’s Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, threw his support behind the bill, promising to sign the legislation if it crossed his desk.

In June of 2014, in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Mayor Emanuel opined about the relationship between police and civilians in the city he presides over. He expressed confidence in the force. “We have really good leadership in the department. From the district level all the way up,” he said.

What a difference a year and a half makes.

Emanuel (center) listens as Interim Chicago Police Superintendent John Escalante addresses changes in training and procedures that will take place at the Chicago police department in the wake of recent shootings on December 30, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.
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Laquan McDonald was shot and killed by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in October of 2014. For 13 months, Chicagoans demanded the city release footage of the shooting, which was rumored to be gruesome and contradictory to officers’ stories. For 13 months it didn't happen. Meanwhile, Van Dyke remained working on limited duty. (He was charged with first-degree murder only after the tape’s release. He pleaded not guilty.)

Activists, residents, even the Chicago Tribune are dismayed by the mayor’s intransigence and apparent complicity in keeping the tape under wraps. Last week The Daily Beast reported that lawyers for the mayor tried to withhold the video during negotiations for a settlement with the McDonald family.


Now, with his neck on the line, Emanuel is easing up on talk of putting “more cops on the street” and community policing. Instead, his rhetoric has shifted to rebuilding the relationship between police and the community. “The trust and the leadership of the department has been shaken and eroded," Emanuel said after he asked department’s superintendent, Garry McCarthy, to step down.


But Bester, who says his organization was the first to circulate a petition on calling for Emanuel to step down, says the public’s distrust of the mayor has been building for quite some time.

“When Rahm Emanuel closed 50 schools in black and Latino neighborhoods, that really rubbed folks the wrong way,” said Bester. Ruby Reid from the Democracy for America, another organization calling for Emanuel to step down, echoed Bester. “He closed schools in Chicago’s poorest communities, in communities of color,” she said. “It was clearly not an accident.”


In May of 2013 the Board of Education, under Mayor Emanuel, voted to close 50 schools whose enrollment had declined. The city said it would save an estimated $437 million over 10 years, according to the Huffington Post. The closures represented 10 percent of all schools in the city, said a report by CBS.

But the event that shook the city into action was the death of Laquan McDonald.

“It’s one thing to talk about police brutality and it’s another thing to see it,” said Reid. “The [Chicago PD] is one of the most brutal police forces in the nation,” she continued. “And we don’t see Rahm Emanuel doing anything to rein them in.” Instead, Reid says, the mayor and the state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, are doing everything they possibly can to protect their political reputation. “And I think people are just fed up with it.”


The tape of the McDonald shooting shows Officer Van Dyke stepping out of his car and shooting the teenager 16 times. The video came out last month, after a judge ordered the city to release it. Van Dyke said he shot McDonald after the teen wielded a knife at him. His account of the incident differs from what is shown in the video.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“Initially we weren’t thinking about doing anything,” said Bester. “But then we were getting calls from members and people from the community,” he continued. “We got hundreds of emails from folks saying, ‘What about Rahm?’”


The Workers Center for Racial Justice petition received over 10,000 signatures. And according to Reid, Democracy for America joined forces with other community-based organizations to deliver 250,000 signatures to the mayor’s office calling for his resignation.

Bester doesn’t expect Emanuel to step down from his mayorship anytime soon. “Pigs will fly before that happens,” he says. “But if he does, we’d want a special election to happen within 90 days of resignation and get a qualified, more transparent candidate in that office,” Bester said Emanuel is an “old school Dem,” he said, and Chicago needs a mayor who takes poverty and inequality into their views on law and order.


Since Emanuel is not caving to local pressure, Bester is calling on the international community. “We’re calling for an investigation by the United Nations,” he said. “We want full investigation police department and mayor’s office by the U.N. for human rights violations.”

But for now, Reid says her organization is concentrated on the present. “We want him to step down. We want him to step down so we can make that structural change.”


Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.

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