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The Power of Choice: Chicago’s Black Organizers Refuse a Meeting With Mayor Emanuel

The power of the Black community has been asserted, and the legitimacy of a politician has been denied.

A year ago this week, Black Youth Project 100 staged a die-in at Chicago's City Hall in the wake of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. After a year of being alternately ignored and scapegoated by their city's mayor, young Black organizers in Chicago have now refused to meet with Mayor Rahm Emanuel as his administration attempts to navigate a major PR crisis. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

Also see: Chicago’s Call for Peace Over Laquan McDonald Video Does Not Extend to Police Department

As the city of Chicago continued to await the release of a graphic police dashcam video, on Monday, with officials hinting that unprecedented charges against a Chicago police officer might be in the works, a coalition of young Black organizers announced that they were refusing a private meeting with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel, scrambling in the face of a PR nightmare, had hoped to discuss the pending release of police dashcam footage of the death of Laquan McDonald with Black youth leaders. A refusal issued Monday morning, in a statement jointly issued by the grassroots groups Black Youth Project 100, Fearless Leading by the Youth, We Charge Genocide, Assata’s Daughters, the #LetUsBreathe Collective and Black Lives Matter: Chicago, carried the sentiments of those who have led the charge against police brutality in Chicago during the last year. The mayor was no doubt hoping to harness the power of these groups’ credibility in the coming days as he continues to call for a tempered response to the sight of a white police officer firing 16 shots into the body of a young Black man, who reportedly posed no threat to the officer’s safety. Upon receiving word of the coalition’s refusal, I was both heartened, and unsurprised.

In a situation that has been defined by the choices of those with political and structural power, the power of the Black community has now been asserted, and the legitimacy of a politician who deserves no respect has been denied. It was a choice made from a position of strength and moral authority, and I am grateful for it.

This situation has been a complex one for young organizers, who are faced with the pending community trauma of the video’s release. The video is said to have captured white police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times, as he attempted to walk away from approaching officers. Police, who had been following McDonald for allegedly slashing tires, have offered claims that the young man was armed with a small knife, and under the influence of drugs, in defense of the killing, but with a video of a young man riddled with bullets while simply trying to walk away about to be released, few expect those excuses to hold up to scrutiny. From what is already known of the killing, it seems evident that this is yet another case where the mere act of Black disobedience was deemed a capital offense by a white police officer, who was all-too-ready to play the part of executioner.

McDonald’s mother has not viewed the video of her son’s death, and has openly expressed that she does not want footage put on public display. But the clamor over the video’s release has continued over time, as the city has continued to drag its feet, over the course of a year, neither firing nor indicting McDonald’s killer. With the video’s release now imminent, organizers are faced with the task of helping a community to express its outrage, and find love and healing in one another, as they continue to demand justice for McDonald and others.

In my own conversations with organizers, I have consistently heard them talk of love, of healing, and of wanting to show respect for McDonald’s mother, who never should have endured the loss of her child, and who should not have to bear witness to the media spectacle to come. Her pain has been in their thoughts daily, as they’ve worked to envision a way forward, and in mine as well.

When I think about McDonald’s mother, whose son’s death will soon be elevated to a world stage against her wishes, I am reminded of Mamie Till Bradley’s decision to have an open casket funeral for her son, Emmett Till, in 1955, after he was lynched at the age of 14 in Mississippi. After bringing his body home to Chicago, Till’s mother chose to let the world bear witness to the horror of her son’s death by holding a public, open-casket memorial service. She explained her decision by saying, “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.”

Those words are crucial, so allow me to emphasize them again:

She wanted the world to see.

Mamie Till Bradley chose to allow her son’s bloated, mutilated body to be viewed by the public, and photographed by the media. She believed there was meaning in doing so. That matters. And it matters that McDonald’s mother did not believe there was anything to be gained by what’s currently unfolding. And given the endless spectacles of Black death that this country bears witness to, I can understand how she might feel that one more video – her son’s video – won’t be the one to turn the tide, and may in fact cause her and others more unnecessary pain.

In any case, her reasons are her own, and I respect that she has them. I recognize the harm of her being deprived of the right to choose what would be seen and unseen, with regard to her son’s death. And we all should.

I also respect that young Black people have made a significant decision about how to build forward as the release of this video approaches. Monday morning, as dozens of Chicago activists headed to court to face charges related to last month’s massive act of civil disobedience against police violence, a number of the city’s most prominent young Black organizers released a statement announcing that they have refused Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s invitation to discuss the pending release of the video of McDonald’s death. In their press release, the group stated, “The Mayor’s office is calling on community ‘leaders’ to control Black people’s response to the execution recorded on the dashcam video to be released. It was important to deny this invitation to meet because we believe that the community has a right to respond as it sees fit.”

Critical of the mayor’s overall treatment of peaceful protesters, the group rejects the administration’s current efforts to make young organizers players in its damage control efforts. Having challenged the mayor on the slashing of public services, and the unchecked brutality of local police, the city’s efforts to host a private sit-down, at this late stage of an unfolding PR crisis, ring hollow to many in Chicago’s organizing community. After all, the mayor has had no shortage of opportunities to address the concerns that Black youth have steadily raised about his slash-and-burn attitude toward Black and Brown communities and the overall nature of policing in Chicago. And while Emanuel has repeatedly claimed that community oversight has caused police to hesitate in their work, effectively scapegoating activists for Chicago’s infamous crime rate, organizers point out that in spite of this alleged hesitation, Chicago police have not ceased their overwhelming use of violence.

“Chicago police kill more civilians than any other police force in the nation,” according to Veronica Morris Moore, a local activist who organizes with the grassroots group Fearless Leading by the Youth.

The problems with policing in Chicago run much deeper than the current controversy over one young man’s murder, at the hands of police, no matter how egregious the circumstances of his death may have been. While much has been made of the $5 million settlement paid to McDonald’s family, the larger context of that number is far more telling. The city of Chicago has spent more than $500 million over the past 10 years in settlements for police misconduct. And as Chicago’s mayor continues to cry poverty with regard to the city’s schools, educators and public health care, he continues to oversee a police department that bleeds Chicago’s public coffers of $4 million a day.

Ask anyone in Chicago if they think they are getting their money’s worth, in terms of public safety, given that level of investment, and you will hear a chorus of negative responses loud enough to drown out one of the most powerful municipal PR machines in the country.

And now, finally, after so much failure, so much protest, so much distrust, the mayor wants to talk with young organizers. But privately, and quietly, so that when the video is released, he can claim that he consulted with local activists, and imply that they are in agreement with his vision of “healing” and forgetting. Emanuel wants his city to enjoy its heaviest shopping season, stare at the shiny objects in the store windows of Michigan Avenue, and to forget all about Laquan McDonald. And more than anything, he wants to avoid the world bearing witness to any of those windows breaking, because in a city as troubled and poorly governed as Chicago, he knows that the blame for such unrest would fall squarely at his feet.

After all, what action has Emanuel taken to address the tragedy of McDonald’s death, prior to the imminent release of this video? What action had he taken on behalf of any Black or Brown person murdered by police in his city? Now that the visual proof of McDonald’s murder is about to hit the airwaves, Emanuel is ready to acknowledge that the officer who shot McDonald “violated [the public’s] trust at every level,” but where were such pronouncements when young people cried out for justice for Dominique Franklin, who was tased to death by police for allegedly stealing a bottle of liquor? And where was the mayor’s indignation when Chicago Police Officer Dante Servin was acquitted after firing into a crowd and killing Rekia Boyd?

Fortunately, Chicago’s young organizers aren’t amateurs. They are not about to lend their power to a politician who has done nothing to earn an audience with them. If Emanuel wants to engage with these young people, he will have to do so publicly, and be accountable for rejecting calls to fire an incompetent police superintendent, who has routinely defended killer cops, no matter how high the mountain of evidence against them.

At this tense moment, as we all await the trauma of our city, and the world, bearing witness to yet another police murder, Rahm Emanuel will find no free shelter. His choices have paved the path to this moment, and no one who cares about our city should stand beside him as he calls for calm and patience.

Instead, we should stand with those whose choices have always reflected a willingness to fight for a better Chicago.

It’s important to remember that this is not the first time in recent history that fears of unrest in the streets have been stirred up by both politicians and the local media. Last year, as our communities prepared to protest the pending non-indictment of Darren Wilson, for the murder of Mike Brown, I was asked by numerous reporters if I was afraid of the violence that might erupt upon an announcement being made. It was a year ago this week that I took those calls, and responded to each inquiry by explaining that the fears of our communities were grounded in our fear of what police are capable of, of what they perpetrate in our communities daily, and what they might do to harm peaceful protesters.

There was, of course, no rioting in Chicago that week. Community members marched. They sat in. They created art in tribute to those the police have killed. And they built forward in strength, harnessing the momentum of the movement for Black lives to win the passage of the Reparations Ordinance – making Chicago the first city in the nation to pay reparations to victims of police torture. The organizing of Chicago’s youth was sound and strategic, and unlike Emanuel’s governance, it was grounded in accountability and an abiding love of Chicago’s most marginalized communities.

Throughout this year, the young leaders who have carried the fight against police violence in Chicago have made the right choices. And in exchange for their efforts, they have been ignored and ultimately scapegoated by a mayor who has not cared for his city, or delivered justice when it was needed.

And now, because of this mayor’s ineptitude, and that of his police superintendent, a case that could have been handled swiftly, in accordance with the rule of law, has dragged on, and the spectacle of a young man’s death will further traumatize a mother, a city, and to some extent, an entire nation. One cannot feel the sting of being pushed into the margins and not feel bruised by the brutality inflicted on others who live at the mercy of a system that does not care for them.

So if Rahm Emanuel wants the counsel of Chicago’s organizing community during this difficult time, he’ll obviously have to offer them much better terms, but as an organizer who has worked against the violence of Emanuel’s police for years, I will offer my own bit of advice to the mayor: Hold your police accountable for their violence, and answer the calls for justice that young people have issued. Let your responses to their demands be just, and as public as the horror of Laquan McDonald’s death is about to be. Because you cannot spin your way out of the mess you’ve made, and at this juncture, damage control is going to have to mean a lot more than addressing one incident whose imagery happens to exemplify the anti-Blackness you’ve both allowed and perpetuated with your policies, your silence, and your disregard for the lives of the marginalized.

This is a moment informed and complicated by many choices. A young man chose to walk away from law enforcement, in a city where he had every reason to fear it. A police officer decided to gun that young man down for an alleged act of vandalism, and for attempting to leave the situation with his body and life intact. McDonald’s mother was deprived of her choice, because the matter of her son’s death was left unattended for so long that it became an unchecked opportunity to sensationalize yet another community trauma.

Now, those most affected by the continuance of police violence and impunity have chosen to turn their backs on a mayor who has never served them, and instead connect with their communities, in the hopes of building, resisting and healing with those who deserve to be heard in this moment. They will be neither political pawns nor passive observers. They will be what they have always been – a community of change-makers who deserve the support of their city, and of people around the country who are willing to own up to the realities of police violence in the United States, and demand something better.

While reports began to circulate on Monday evening that an indictment in the case could be announced on Tuesday, with some suggesting that Officer Van Dyke might actually be charged with murder, local activists remained skeptical. “If there is an indictment announced, that’s no definite signal of justice,” says Charlene Carruthers, the National Director of Black Youth Project 100. “Laquan is no longer alive,” Carruthers stressed, emphasizing that a single indictment will neither heal the community’s loss, nor address the underlying issues that have led to so many Black residents being killed and harmed by police.

“We also know that an indictment does not guarantee a conviction,” Carruthers noted, “as we just saw with the case of Rekia Boyd and Dante Servin.”

Rather than celebrating what some already view as an emergency public relations move on the city’s part, Carruthers says her community will continue to focus on the larger picture. “Given the reality of what we face, in light of the Dante Servin case, and many others, we cannot put our hopes for justice in the so-called criminal justice system,” she explained. “Restorative and transformative justice can only come from the community, and those who actually have our best interests in mind.”

If the rumored timeline is correct, an indictment will be announced today, with the video’s release to follow on Wednesday. If a murder charge is filed against Van Dyke, it will be the first time in the city’s history that a Chicago police officer has faced such a charge for an on-duty shooting.

Update: In addition to the rumored indictment, it was announced Tuesday night that Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy will recommend the firing of Officer Dante Servin, saying that Servin “showed incredibly poor judgement” on the night of Rekia Boyd’s death. Servin’s dismissal has been a consistent demand of Black Youth Project 100, and other organizers who refused to meet with the mayor on Monday.

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