Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff, is in trouble. Calls for his resignation have been echoing across the streets of Chicago and the internet since a gruesome video of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald's fatal shooting at the hands of a Chicago police officer was released by the city’s police department on November 24, more than a year after the shooting took place.
In late December, protesting intensified after officers fatally shot a man and a woman, one of whom is believed to have been mentally ill, in the city’s West Side. The mayor, who was vacationing in Cuba at the time, cut his trip short to return to the burgeoning crisis.
The shooting, coupled with the earlier video and a long history of perceived police brutality against the city’s minority residents, is fueling the unusual tidal wave of anger.
Chicago City Hall has been the site of numerous protests throughout the past few months, with chants of "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Rahm Emanuel has got to go." Protesters have thrown rocks at the home of a Chicago alderman and downed the city’s Christmas tree in Millennium Park.
On Black Friday this year, just a few days after the video’s release, protesters shut down Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s main upscale shopping artery.
The demands have also spread beyond city limits. Multiple newspapers have demanded Emanuel’s ouster. A bet on PredictIt, an online betting market, briefly spiked to 66 cents last week to favor Emanuel's resignation by the end of the year (it’s currently at 88 cents against), and a listing for Emanuel’s City Hall office has appeared on Craigslist.
To the casual observer, it’s not totally clear how the furor surrounding a police video could possibly lead to the resignations of elected officials. The video is certainly hard to watch, and people are rightly revolted that a mayor may have stifled its release for personal political gain. But in other places where similar videos have been released — in New York City, where police were recorded holding Eric Garner in a lethal chokehold, or in South Carolina, where an officer shot an unarmed Walter Scott after a routine traffic stop — the videos did not lead to demands that mayors resign.
But from the activists’ perspective, Emanuel’s offenses against the city’s minority communities stretch back far beyond the suppression of a video. "All this began with the Laquan case," said La Shawn Ford, a state representative who introduced a bill last week creating a process to recall Emanuel from office. "But that, that was just the tip of the iceberg."
The conflict has roots in a teachers’ strike and a bunch of school closures
Rahm Emanuel swept into office in 2011 on a pledge to bring about the most comprehensive reform the Chicago Public School system had seen in a decade, implementing teacher evaluations, opening charter schools, and lifting graduation rates that then hovered around 58 percent.
But on September 9, 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike for the first time in more than 25 years. The reasons for the strike are convoluted and difficult to boil down to a simple explanation, a dynamic that Vox’s Emmett Rensin captured well in his essay on Emanuel’s tortured reelection.
Distrust had been growing between the teachers union and the mayor for months, after the mayor proposed extending the length of the school day and giving teachers an accompanying salary boost, an offer that he later rescinded.
By the time the teachers began their strike, salary increases, a sticking point of negotiations, had actually already been settled, and the school board, which the mayor controls, believed only minor issues remained.
But the striking teachers felt differently. In numerous media reports, they complained about the new evaluation system the Emanuel administration had put in place, as well as rising class sizes and lagging school staff. Above all, they felt disrespected by the mayor’s seeming disregard for their jobs, pushing through data-driven reforms that were popular with education reformers across the country but not with teachers on the ground.
Just half a year later, with virtually no union input, Emanuel announced the closure of nearly 50 public schools across the city, the largest one-time school closure in living memory.
Emanuel saw the closures as a way to at once shutter low-performing and underused schools, sending students to higher-performing alternatives, while also wiping out some of the school district’s gaping budget deficit.
But for the communities who saw their neighborhood schools close, centers of stability had suddenly disappeared. Most of the school closures, naturally, were in the city’s South and West Sides, in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods.
To Emanuel’s credit, the school district as a whole did improve by several key measures. By the end of his first term, the graduation rate had risen to 70 percent, a high for the city, and the number of black students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses had ballooned by 40 percent. And a study out of the University of Chicago found that of the students who had been displaced, 93 percent went to schools with higher rankings.
It’s worth noting, however, that only a fifth of students went from the city’s lowest-performing schools to ones in its top tier. Fully a third transferred to other bottom-tier schools. So though most students experienced some improvement, in many cases the improvement was modest.
More outspoken progressivism has been growing in Chicago for years
Behind the well-organized structure of the Chicago Teachers Union is a burgeoning protest infrastructure, built out of the same minority communities on the South and West Sides of the city that saw the vast majority of school closures.
Right around the time Emanuel had entered office, a coalition of activists calling themselves "Stand Up! Chicago" had begun protest actions against symbols of extreme wealth: disrupting a meeting of the Mortgage Brokers Association and occupying a wing of one of Chicago’s most upscale hotels.
The protesters are aligned with a national progressive movement, the same ideological drive that swept Bill de Blasio and Eric Garcetti into office in New York and Los Angeles, respectively. Emanuel fueled the movement in Chicago when, in 2011, he shut down that city’s Occupy protests, preventing them from creating encampments like the tent city erected in New York’s Zuccotti Park.
What’s interesting about this progressive element in Chicago is how closely tied it is to the city’s teachers union, which participated in actions at least a year earlier than the 2012 strike.
The close linkage means two things: First, that by the time Emanuel went after Chicago’s schools, teachers were already seasoned street activists.
And second, their close ties with the progressive movement meant that when Emanuel went after schools in poor neighborhoods, the union —which already uses racially charged language to describe the city’s racial and economic divides — had a preexisting relationship with minority communities to trumpet a racialized message.
This new movement was powerful enough to force Emanuel into a runoff
Ahead of the 2015 mayoral election, the teachers union inhabited such a central role in the city’s progressive politics that its president, Karen Lewis, planned to challenge Emanuel. But early in the race, Lewis learned she had cancer (now in remission), preventing her from continuing a bid.
So union leaders instead turned to Jesus Garcia, a little-known county commissioner popularly known as "Chuy."
On Election Day in February, Chuy forced Emanuel into Chicago’s first mayoral runoff election in history, cutting into the 50 percent Emanuel would have needed to win the election outright. It was a real feat for a late entrant with little personal charisma.
In the ensuing months, Emanuel sought to soften his famously rough edge. In one ad, the mayor appeared seated in a living room and acknowledged his faults. "They say your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness," he told the camera. "I’m living proof of that. I can rub people the wrong way, or talk when I should listen."
Emanuel eventually went on to win the April runoff, with a substantial 10-point triumph over Chuy.
Interestingly, part of Emanuel’s winning coalition included a majority of the city’s black voters, a fact his opponents chalk up to Chuy’s inability to connect with black voters — in the general election, he only won Latino-majority neighborhoods. Emanuel also enlisted high-profile supporters including President Obama to appear on the campaign trail, and he aired frequent radio ads in black neighborhoods across the city.
But in a sign that the city no longer tolerated Emanuel’s overbearing style, Chicagoans during the general election overwhelmingly called for the city to elect future school board members, taking the city’s public schools out of the mayor’s direct control.
All this culminated with a shocking video of police brutality
It was into this already fractious climate that the video of the Laquan McDonald shooting was released.
Several months before the February election, on October 20, 2014, officers from the Chicago Police Department responded to calls that a young black man was armed with a knife.
Thirty seconds after arriving at the scene, when McDonald walked away from police, officer Jason Van Dyke opened fire, shooting McDonald 16 times in under 15 seconds. A video of the shooting was caught on a police cruiser camera, contradicting the official police narrative that McDonald had lunged at Van Dyke with the knife.
But the video was not released until 13 months later, and only then at the behest of journalists who had sued the department to release the video. Chicago PD finally released it under court order. (The department had denied nearly a dozen other Freedom of Information Act requests.) One day before the video was released, Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder.
Months earlier, immediately after Emanuel’s successful reelection, the city reached a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family on the condition that the shooting not be publicized.
This appears to be the city’s preferred method of dealing with police misconduct; in the 10 years through 2014, it has spent more than $500 million in settlement money to keep similar incidents quiet.
The timing of the video’s release, well after Emanuel’s reelection, has stirred understandable outrage. Activists believe that had the video become public during the race, Emanuel would have lost to Chuy, who would have picked up more of the black vote.
No clear evidence has yet surfaced to suggest that the delay of the video release was directly related to Emanuel’s reelection, though emails released through FOIA requests show that top officials in City Hall, including Emanuel’s chief of staff, knew of its existence back in March.
People want Emanuel out of office, but he seems likely to survive
It’s possible that more damning evidence against Emanuel will surface through the Justice Department’s investigation. As of now, though, it does not appear that Emanuel has actually violated any laws.
That hasn’t stopped protesters from demanding his resignation, even drowning out the mayor’s uncharacteristically emotional public apology about the shooting, which Emanuel said "happened on my watch."
To the protesters, his crime is one of flagrant abdication of morality, rather than any particular action that could spur his removal from office. Their anger, foisted into national prominence by the Black Lives Matter movement, has adopted the mayor as a symbol of white, corporate interests — one that has further segregated the city through school closings and police brutality.
Activists and political observers alike think it’s unlikely the mayor will resign — this is the man who once mailed a political opponent a dead fish, after all — unless new evidence implicating his involvement in a cover-up surfaces. Rep. Ford’s recall bill was dead on arrival in the state legislature, where Emanuel allies populate the top ranks.
But from this vantage point, it’s hard to see the mayor’s way forward. More than three weeks after the video’s release, Chicago is still embroiled in protests, which continue to make daily headlines. For his part, Emanuel has been making few public appearances.
The Chicago Teachers Union, which has its own issues with the mayor, voted once more to strike this week.
A recent poll taken by the Chicago Observer found that 51 percent of Chicagoans want their mayor to resign, and only 18 percent approve of the job he’s doing — a record low for Emanuel’s tenure.
In order to move forward, Emanuel will need to win back some of the trust he has forfeited, though activists can’t even name specific actions they would accept as peace offerings. Other political watchers say it’s possible Emanuel will just cruise through the worst of the protests until anger begins to fade.
Whatever else can be said about the man, though, it’s clear that he has an uncanny ability to weather turbulent storms — and there’s little reason to believe this time will be different.