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Spike Lee Bashes Mayor 'Bully,' 'Bootlickers' and Chicago's Economic Divide

By Mark Konkol | October 26, 2015 6:38am
"Chiraq" director Spike Lee called Mayor Rahm Emanuel a "bully" and Ald. David Moore a "bootlicker" in an exclusive interview with Chicago magazine writer Bryan Smith.
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CHIRAQ — It’s downright funny — but not really as shocking as some people make it out to be — that filmmaker Spike Lee called Mayor Rahm Emanuel a “bully” and accused a couple aldermen of being mayoral “bootlickers” in his first interview about his controversially titled film, “Chiraq.”

Just to be clear, Webster’s defines a bully as a “blustering browbeating person; especially: one habitually cruel to others who are weaker.”

Sound like an apt description of Rahm?

Let’s ask an expert, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

After all, Lewis called out Emanuel for being a bully years ago after the mayor told her "F--- you, Lewis" during a tense discussion leading up to the 2012 teachers strike.

On Friday, Lewis told me that there's no doubt our mayor is a bully. And it’s not because a Brooklyn filmmaker validated her expert assessment of the mayor’s penchant for pushing people around.

“I was right. What Spike says doesn’t prove [he’s a bully.] It was just a matter of reiteration. Spike said it out loud. People who know the mayor and understand how he operates have said it before, they just have not said it out loud,” Lewis said. “I think for everyone who has had their experience [with Rahm], that’s how you describe him.”

When contacted, the City Hall spin machine declined to comment on the most recent allegations of attempted bullying levied against the mayor.

Why? It’s hard to tell. Maybe there’s no point arguing against bully allegations anymore.

Mark Konkol discusses the mayor's "Washington-style" politics:

All this talk about Rahm being Rahm came up during an exclusive interview with Chicago magazine when Lee told writer Bryan Smith that he noticed evidence of Emanuel’s bullying tactics. Specifically, Lee said he spotted the mayor’s “fingerprints” on efforts to shut down the film and other examples of perceived harassment perpetrated by aldermanic "bootlickers."

The so-called bootlickers include Ald. Will Burns (4th), who tried to block Lee from getting tax credits if he didn’t ditch the “Chiraq” title, and Ald. David Moore (17th), who blocked Lee from throwing a block party but later dropped his objection.

Burns didn’t return calls seeking comment.

But Moore, a rookie alderman representing Englewood, said being called names by a guy who doesn’t know him — even if it is the world-renowned director of “Do The Right Thing” aka “Mars Blackmon” — doesn’t bother him one bit.

I understood that completely. Chicago aldermen have been called much worse: “rubber stamps,” “bag men,” “errand boys” and, in special cases, “inmate” to name a few.

Moore wanted me to relay a message to Lee about his initial move to balk on signing off on a permit for a Chiraq-themed block party.

“The mayor and I did not even talk about it. I listen to my constituents, not the mayor,” Moore said. “My constituents were concerned about the ["Chiraq"] name. I want to make that clear.”

Also, Moore emphatically stated he does not, and never has, licked the mayor’s boots. And despite Moore’s previous perception of Emanuel, the Englewood alderman no longer believes the mayor is a bully.

“Before I took office I thought he was [a bully] and that was based on when he used the 'F.U.' word to Miss Karen Lewis. As a black man that was totally unacceptable to me. I saw him as a bully,” Moore said. “But you have to get to know people. I have been in several meetings with the mayor with different people and it’s never come across as him trying to bully anyone.

“If he ever bullies me … if he ever tries to bully me, that is — because I would never let him bully me — I will let you know.”

(And I will be waiting for his call.)

A rational person would have to consider that it’s possible Lee sat down with Chicago magazine to dish dirt on Mayor Emanuel’s bullying ways to get people to talk about his movie, “Chiraq.”

A little controversy, say stirring the pot by calling President Obama’s best buddy a bully, might create just enough buzz to save this latest Spike Lee joint from going bust.


That’s why the name-calling, at least for me, lacked shock value.  

One thing that really struck me about what Lee had to say was his take on the biggest obstacle Chicago faces to becoming the world-class city that the mayor and boastful civic leaders proclaim our town to be — a stark divide between rich and poor.

Lee described the mayor’s “gripe” about the film title as worry about the potential effect it might have on the city’s image, tourism and economic development.

The director, who was well prepared with talking points, rattled off statistics about his visit — 331 people were shot and wounded and 65 were murdered during the 39 days it took to film “Chiraq.”

“His whole thing was, the title is going to hurt tourism, the title is going to hurt economic development. But what tourism is he talking about? While we were shooting the film, you had the NFL draft here. Quarter million people in Grant Park. Can’t get a hotel room, can’t get a reservation. I mean, it’s packed. Then the Grateful Dead. Then Lollapalooza. So this part of the city is booming,” Lee told Chicago magazine. 

“But there are no bulletproof double-decker buses going through the Wild Hundreds [the gang-infested area from 100th to 130th Streets] or through Terror Town [a 2-by-4-block patch of South Shore]. What economic development is going on in the South Side?

“The mayor is a well-educated man. He and my wife both went to Sarah Lawrence. So I know he read Charles Dickens’s "A Tale of Two Cities." It is a fact that Chicago is the most segregated big city in America. That’s not Spike Lee saying that. That’s a fact.”

And it’s a message sent at the exact right time as the City Council enters the final days before taking a vote on the mayor’s budget proposal — a spending plan that sets an agenda that claims to secure Chicago’s financial future by levying the largest property tax hike in generations and creating a long list of new fees and taxes.

The ongoing debate on the budget remains drawn along the same economic lines that divide Chicago into two cities, one for the rich and one for the poor.  

Emanuel is betting that state lawmakers will pass a bill that Gov. Bruce Rauner will sign into law aimed at sparing homeowners with property valued at less than $250,000 from being hit by the giant tax increase.

That might sound like a fair way to protect the working poor, but some aldermen object, saying it would force people on the rich side of Chicago to bear too heavy a tax burden.

Homeowners and commercial property owners in wealthier parts of town would pay an even higher percentage of the proposed $540 million property tax increase, which, by the way, aims to replenish public pensions that were underfunded during the same years city leaders spent billions building an Emerald City that prices out the working class.

One of the aldermen who Lee called a bootlicker said he agrees with the director’s "Tale of Two Cities" narrative for a very important reason — it’s true.

“That’s not Spike Lee saying that. That comes from voices in the community and a message that rings out from all the residents in this ward and Englewood and Auburn Gresham and Chicago Lawn and Lawndale and South and West Side neighborhoods,” Moore said.

“Spike Lee picked up on it. He heard it. He repeated it,” said Moore.

The great economic divide that keeps Chicago at war with itself is what's ruining our city’s reputation.

Over the years, Chicago has been called a lot of unsavory things — “City on the Make,” “Beirut by the Lake” and, now, in rap lyrics and a movie title, “Chiraq."

And none of them matter one bit.

Chicagoans don’t need a blustering browbeating person to protect us from being called nasty names, to preserve our image or spin how our city’s story gets told to the world.

What we need is a bully willing to fight to close the economic gap that divides us, someone with a plan to rebuild the poor parts of Chicago  — the glorious and forgotten South Side lakefront neighborhoods, poverty-stricken pockets of the West Side and blight surrounding vacant lots where public housing high-rises once stood — that generations of Chicago politicians left abandoned, broke, blighted and at the mercy of the rich part of town.

In our Tale of Two Chicagos, people living through the worst of times could use a bully on their side.

Haven't they been picked on long enough?

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