More than 70 Chicago residents were shot — and at least 14 killed — during the first weekend of August as a wave of violence gripped parts of the city’s South and West Sides. Chicago’s crime rate is often sensationalized — Chicago is not, as it is often depicted, the most violent city in the country, or even the second or third most violent city in the country — but for those who live here, our city’s violence is a revolving tragedy. Every week brings fresh stories of anguish and heartbreak, followed by the same pointless statements of politicians who have done nothing of substance to address the problem. And every week, parents on the South and West Sides, whose heartbreak and fears for their children should propel a city to action, are met with indifference, vilification and claims that they and their neighbors should fix the problem themselves.
At an August 6 press conference at which Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel addressed last weekend’s violence, Emanuel at times appeared emotional, but he also lashed out at the very communities most affected by the violence by implicating them in their own suffering. “Don’t think for a moment people don’t know who in the neighborhood was responsible,” Emanuel told reporters. Emanuel then urged community members to prove that their neighborhoods have a moral center by turning the shooters in. Ironically, as Emanuel insisted the community should solve these crimes on the city’s behalf, the man tasked with seeing those crimes solved stood beside him. Police superintendent Eddie Johnson espoused similar sentiments, and admonished community members, insisting “you all know who these individuals are” — as though there were a vast conspiracy among entire neighborhoods to maintain their own suffering.
It was a striking moment — a police superintendent and a mayor who’s been at the helm of a major city for years, admonishing the city for failing to govern and police itself.
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The press conference itself was a shameless spectacle, rife with excuses and victim-blaming. When pressed on the roots of violence in US cities, politicians typically feign ignorance, pretending not to understand the plain-as-day reality that communities whose needs are met experience less violence. As leaders in his position often do, Emanuel implied that the affected neighborhoods are simply morally faulty. “There is a shortage of values about what is right, what is wrong, what is acceptable, what is condoned and what is condemned,” Emanuel told reporters. Emanuel and his top cop also complained that, in Emanuel’s words, there are “too many people with criminal records on the street” — an assertion that brings us back to one of the core tenets of Rahm Emanuel’s administration, that some of us simply have to go.
The View From the Other Chicago
It has been said that under Rahm Emanuel there are two Chicagos, one for the haves and one for the have-nots. That distinction could also be characterized as the wanted and the unwanted. Many people in Chicago do, as Emanuel stated, have criminal records — including this author. Rather than concerning himself with the conditions that fueled their criminalization, or how they might successfully contribute or reintegrate into society, Rahm Emanuel cites their very presence as a root issue. While most people in Chicago who have a criminal record have not committed a violent crime, and with many hailing from disenfranchised communities, Emanuel would blame our very presence for the city’s violence, rather than holding his own administration accountable for its failure to govern.
Emanuel has also stripped many community members, both law-abiding and non-law-abiding, of crucial services in his neoliberal push to privatize the city. Having closed over 50 public schools and half of the city’s publicly funded mental health clinics, Emanuel has consistently imposed policies that take from the needy and give to the rich — and like most leaders whose rule is punishing to the poor, he is very concerned with security. Under Emanuel, the city spends $4 million a day on a famously racist and incompetent police department. A shooter in Chicago has less than a five percent chance of being apprehended by Emanuel’s police, and yet the city continues to throw good money after bad.
Local organizer Maria Hernandez bristled at Emanuel’s efforts to deflect responsibility for the crisis. “How dare Rahm blame us for the ineptitude of his department?” asked Hernandez. “We are the ones dying and burying our families. Over here, police are as violent and lawless as the gangs, and get half the city budget only to produce the lowest solve-rate for murders in 30 years.” Hernandez added that the city does not provide adequate survivor services or address any of the root issues that fuel crime. “We can’t increase access to the legal economy because all our city funds go to a failed police department,” Hernandez told Truthout. “What does Rahm expect?”
In response to Emanuel’s insistence that community members need to play a larger role in solving crimes, Hernandez was blunt: “When a cop violates my whole bill of rights in order to investigate a possible bag of weed on Tuesday, he’s not the person I’m going to trust with my safety on Saturday when I hear what might be a shot in the distance.”
Chicago’s police superintendent Eddie Johnson claims that tougher gun laws are the answer to the city’s violence, despite admitting that gun legislation passed last year has not slowed the momentum of the city’s street violence. Johnson has also absurdly claimed that he has never witnessed police misconduct in Chicago, despite having worked for the Chicago Police Department for 30 years.
The Value of Collective Guilt
Emanuel and Johnson’s assertion that affected communities hold the key to their own relief, if they would simply turn in the guilty parties, is an old-school deflection. When a community is suffering, public outrage can often be dulled by depicting every member of the community as being somehow implicated in the harms that are occurring. The notion that there are no innocents is spun by officials and is often accompanied by pleas for the marginalized to practice better values so they can be safer. The implication of guilt by association has reliably cultivated a public tolerance for the collective mistreatment of entire populations, fueling the violence of anti-Blackness, the genocide of Native people and the endless wars waged by the US that are now treated as background noise by the mainstream media.
We also see this tactic being employed by Donald Trump to justify his abuse of certain marginalized groups. He defends his attacks on immigrants using PR efforts aimed at tainting all immigrants with the violent acts of a small percentage of immigrants — and greatly exaggerating the number of immigrants who commit crimes. Trump has stated outright that immigrant children are not innocent. He also frequently asserts that the solution to his human rights abuses at the border, and in immigrant detention centers, is for migrants to stop coming to the United States illegally. Once again, those subjected to unacceptable conditions are characterized as holding the key to their own relief — if they would only behave themselves.
The political evacuation of innocence creates a realm the public is often willing to ignore. There is a rich history of this practice in Chicago, which includes popular characterizations of the city’s housing projects, but this tactic is often employed at the national level and is a bipartisan practice.
In debates over the current direction of the Democratic Party, there is a significant push by establishment Democrats to defeat candidates who are pushing for reforms that could provide more meaningful public services, as well as potential debt relief. The old guard is insisting that populist, leftist candidates should be wiped off the board. The truth is, the Democratic establishment is fighting for the Diet Coke equivalent of what Trump and the Republican Party is fighting for. They want mass privatization. They want kickbacks for the rich and they will maintain structural inequality for the sake of providing those kickbacks. They will take no meaningful action to combat state violence. That’s why the path out of the pain that communities are experiencing won’t be charted by establishment Democrats like Rahm Emanuel — and why establishment Democrats cannot be relied upon to craft a better future.
Chicago Needs a New Deal
When it comes to transforming Chicago’s most beleaguered neighborhoods, Rahm Emanuel has gotten plenty of input — whether he wants it or not. Community leaders have rallied outside the mayor’s office, seized public space and shut down roadways to highlight their demands, which they say could truly shape a better, more just Chicago. Black Lives Matter Chicago organizer Aislinn Pulley told Truthout that if Emanuel were serious about curbing violence on the city’s South and West Sides, “Rahm would cancel his proposed $95 million police academy, reopen the mental health clinics he closed and expand clinic access and service throughout the city.” Pulley says Chicago neighborhoods have been so devastated by neglect, disinvestment, state violence and intimidation that drastic steps would be needed to transform struggling communities. “Chicago needs a New Deal program to reverse the social and economic devastation of the neoliberal capitalist policies of divestment and destruction that have created this violent social crisis,” Pulley said. The work program Pulley describes “would specifically target our poorest communities, which have up to 80 percent unemployment amongst Black youth and 50 percent for Black adults.”
A coalition of Chicago organizers is drafting a fuller outline of the “New Deal” Pulley described, which has been tentatively titled, “Working Class Action Plan.”
Local organizer Maria Hadden — who is currently running against an entrenched incumbent for a seat on the Chicago City Council — told Truthout that Emanuel’s emphasis on community values as a way forward fell short. “Faith and family are important to healing after a loss,” said Hadden, “but public institutions are what are necessary to stabilize communities and allow us to build a strong, a healthy city for all of us.”
It’s an election year in Chicago, and only time will tell if the city has had enough of Emanuel’s neoliberal policies and victim-blaming, or if the country itself has had enough of such politics. But while grieving Chicagoans continue to hold vigil and shut down major roadways, crying out for investment, resources and peace, Emanuel continues to blame the very people he has failed. Rahm Emanuel’s message is that he’s not a bad mayor — it’s the city that’s letting him down. Could that be true? The 356 people who have fallen to violence in Chicago in 2018 could not be reached for comment.