On the evening of Saturday, February 21, a group of activists and allies took to the subway in Chicago to make some noise about this week’s election and the much discussed reparations ordinance. The ordinance, which would provide care and compensation to individuals tortured by Chicago police under Jon Burge, will not be on the ballot, but the man who has prevented it from getting a hearing before the City Council will be: Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The majority of the City Council supports the ordinance, but in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, such details aren’t really relevant. Emanuel has never seen police torture victims, or other victims of police violence, as a political priority. Given this mayor’s overall treatment of communities of color – shuttering dozens of schools and clinics in black communities – his failure to prioritize the safety and dignity of those most affected by police violence is unsurprising.
The horrors of the Burge years aren’t the kind of thing Rahm Emanuel factors into his day to day, high powered cronyism. Addressing the harm done to people of color who were coerced into confessions, after being held at gunpoint, suffocated, terrorized, and subjected to genital electrocution, doesn’t put money in any millionaire’s pocket. It doesn’t feed any ongoing scheme pick our pockets as we travel through the city, and it doesn’t privatize any public services. It’s also a fairly disturbing and complicated subject, and therefore not the kind of feel-good sound byte opportunity that a mayor up for re-election might hope for.
In truth, this mayor probably never had what it took to do right by these victims. Emanuel knows their stories, and he knows that police torture in Chicago didn’t end when Jon Burge was shut down. He knows that rather than receiving care and compensation, Burge’s victims watched as their city spent $20 million to defend the man who tortured them. He knows that the United Nations Committee against Torture has called on Chicago to reign in its ongoing police violence, and to pass this ordinance. And he knows that while he has brushed this issue aside, a culture of state violence, intimidation, and impunity has not only continued to fester in our city, on our streets and in our police interrogation rooms, but has actually spread beyond the borders of our country, tying our city to the international horror story of torture at Guantanamo Bay.
Last week, Spencer Ackerman at The Guardian told the story of Richard Zuley, a Chicago detective who tortured suspects in Chicago for years before he and his tactics were exported to the interrogation rooms of Guantanamo Bay. As I read Ackerman’s report, I thought about the Senate torture report, and the public disgust that it provoked. I wondered how many Americans realized that some of these tactics were developed in their own backyards, and used to extract false confessions from their own neighbors. In any event, Zuley is just one example of a reality our current mayor will never acknowledge: from Chicago to Guantanamo, agents of the state are not required to treat people of color as human beings.
A politician who refuses to address such realities is, at best, complicit in the horrors perpetrated against people of color. Change can’t come without a reckoning, and power rarely holds itself accountable.
So what does accountability look like? Many of us will be voting against Rahm on Tuesday. Electoral politics is not my area, but I will be showing up, as I hope many of you will, because this mayor is an enemy of the marginalized, and I believe that his reign over our city must be challenged. But an election only lasts a day, and regardless of the outcome, there will be more to build in the days that follow.
Movement building work doesn’t really have a slow season. In good times, we join hands, celebrate, and create, and in dark times, we lock arms and live in resistance. We are aware that even when we aren’t staring down the Rahm Emanuels of the world, we are still staring down a system that devalues and dehumanizes us. So, we fight.
On Saturday night, I saw some of that fight. I saw strangers connecting with my friends and allies on train cars and el platforms, telling their stories, and sharing their hope. I saw people gladly hold a mock ballot expressing support for reparations, and rejecting Rahm Emanuel. I saw people fill the subway with song and poetry and chants. One young woman, who we had never met, asked if we would chant for her fallen partner. I will never forget the expression on her face as a train car full of people she’d never met lifted up the name of her lost love, yelling, “JUSTICE FOR JOSH! JUSTICE FOR JOSH!”
This is who we are, and this is what comforts me before elections, after elections, and in the long in between where most of our work happens.
So, if you’re showing up to vote on Tuesday, I just might see you at the polls. Either way, I hope I’ll see you in the streets.