A Tale Of Two Cities: Rahm Emanuel Vs. The People Of Chicago

Across Chicago and around the world, people watched in horror as 16 shots were pumped into the body of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Fourteen of those 16 shots entered his body as he lay dying on the pavement. The lack of audio created an eerie, disturbing effect and only heightened the visual of smoke wisps curling up from cold concrete, the only indicator of the force of bullets ripping through the young man’s body.

Meanwhile, downtown, Mayor Rahm Emanuel stood in Daley Plaza smiling and waving to families that had come out for the annual tree-lighting ceremony. He had just left a news conference announcing the release of the video that showed Officer Jason Van Dyke killing McDonald. He and his now-fired Police Superintendent had just uttered trite, canned phrases calling for Chicagoans to use McDonald’s situation to “build bridges” and the city of Chicago coming together to “heal.”

The scene playing out in Daley Plaza felt like a parallel universe – one in which the cold-blooded killing and 13-month cover-up of a troubled teenager did little to affect the Mayor’s ability to stand waving at the families in the Plaza, for most of whom the nightmare playing out on laptops, desktops and smartphones around the country was the most remote reality they could imagine for themselves. And yet for far too many, that nightmare is not just realistic, it’s chillingly real. The dichotomy of that imagery eloquently, if not frighteningly, captures the dynamic of the City of Chicago: Our mayor, tone-deaf and callous to the horror being broadcast around the world.

Laquan McDonald’s killing ripped through the hearts of so many not just because of his actual death, but because the message that was communicated by the City of Chicago  in the massive cover-up following his death makes real the notion that his life didn’t matter. His death was merely an inconvenience – a bump in the road on the way to re-election and the safety of elected office.

The revelations about McDonald’s death call into question the outcome of Chicago’s extremely close February mayoral elections and the mayoral runoff election this past April – the first runoff election in Chicago’s entire history, in fact. It was an election that cost Mayor Emanuel $26 million. He won largely because of a campaign that cynically played on divisions between the African American and Latino communities, which in the end helped Emanuel secure a large percentage of the African American vote. Had the image of Laquan McDonald, killed by a member of a police force in Emanuel’s Chicago, been seared into the minds of the public at any time before that election, it’s almost inconceivable to think that the Mayor would have secured enough African American votes to eke out a win.  

Unanswered questions surrounding the case have only spurred more protests, anger, and calls for the resignation of the city’s top officials, including the Mayor. No one has answered questions about the missing 86-minutes of Burger King surveillance camera footage that had somehow disappeared after officers stormed into the Burger King shortly after the shooting demanding access to the tapes. No one can explain the odd lack of audio on all 5 of the dashcam videos released to the public, with the former Superintendent’s best excuse being a “technology glitch.”  No one has answered why there was such a discrepancy between police union spokesperson Pat Camden’s well-publicized report and the actual autopsy report: Camden told the public that McDonald had been shot once in the chest after lunging toward police officers. The autopsy showed McDonald had been shot 16 times, all over his body, after moving away from officers.

The city used taxpayer dollars to try to keep the dashcam footage from going public, in direct violation of Illinois open records laws. Moreover, City Council quietly approved a $5 million payout to McDonald’s family and did so without having viewed the dashcam footage or being aware of the specific details of the case.

True leadership demands transparency, honesty, and forthrightness. Instead, the Mayor has grabbed frantically for scapegoats to throw to the masses or kick under the bus. The tone for the city starts at the top, and the corruption on display in this case is an indictment not just on “bad apples,” as some would say, but on a system that has wallowed in corruption for far too long. It is a system that sees the life of a 17 year old as too much of an inconvenience for business-as-usual, so instead of seeking justice, the City attempted to throw a blanket over his body and keep moving on.

The calls for accountability have not subsided. Protests on Black Friday shut down Michigan Avenue with losses in revenue of up to 50 percent reported by some retailers. Activists are saying protests will continue throughout the month of December until their demands are met. This case has not been confined to the city’s African American community, either – it has garnered the attention and ire of a broad array of ethnicities. It has created space for the sort of intergenerational planning and action that some only dreamed of. It has even created a common space between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, who are uniting on the principle that the sort of corruption on display is not acceptable.

So far, the Mayor has called for a new task force to explore issues of police reform – another stalling tactic designed to buy time and breathing room. He also fired McCarthy, a sacrificial lamb. But as the Mayor seeks to release pressure valves, this is the time for the public to increase pressure points. It’s the only way to force the transformative change needed at all levels of government.

[Image via Getty]

Amara Enyia JD PhD is a public policy consultant, writer, traveler, athlete, and nature-loving polyglot. In other words, not your average government geek.