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Will Mayor Lead Chicago Over Bridge to Unity or Be a Barrier That Divides?

By Mark Konkol | November 25, 2015 11:44am
 Rahm Emanuel, right, and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy at the press conference ahead of the release of the Laquan McDonald video.
Rahm Emanuel, right, and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy at the press conference ahead of the release of the Laquan McDonald video.
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BRONZEVILLE — Behind a podium at police headquarters, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pleaded with Chicago — the entire city — to keep the peace.

And, at least for one night, Chicagoans obeyed.

Emanuel looked nervous at the news conference prelude to the release of the shocking dash-cam video showing Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke fire every bullet in his 9mm semi-automatic pistol at Laquan McDonald, hitting the teenager with all 16 shots.

The mayor thanked the African-American pastors and community leaders and the three aldermen who stood alongside him on the podium as he called for the entire city to come together to turn “this episode” into a “moment of understanding and learning.”

“The question before all of us: ‘Will we use this episode in this moment to build bridges that bring us together as a city or will we allow it to become a way that erects barriers that tear us apart as a city?'” he said.

That was a rhetorical question, of course.

After the strange news conference that contained very little news, I was pretty sure the mayor must think all the questions rhetorical because he didn’t give any straight answers. It was as if Emanuel’s administration called reporters together to hear a divine and indisputable passage from the Gospel according to Rahm.

“All of us will be judged by our actions and I call on all of us to look inside ourselves and see this moment as a potential to do something that we have talked about and discussed, but for reasons have not actually endeavored to journey on.” 

I had no idea what that was supposed to mean.

So I asked the mayor if his speech was a pledge to strengthen his administration’s commitment to rebuild the poverty-stricken neighborhoods plagued by gun violence and free people from the fear that holds entire communities captive.

Emanuel, as he is wont to do, didn’t really answer the question directly. Instead, he made a vague statement.

“We have been doing that,” Emanuel said, “but we have to rededicate ourselves because there’s no doubt there’s a gulf that exists and we need to continue to work on that.”

Then, the mayor took other questions from other reporters and managed not to answer those either.

But I’ll give the mayor some credit.

He realized that the shooting video could push the city past a tipping point. How much abuse are those living in violent, poverty-stricken parts of Chicago willing to take before they're not willing to keep protests peaceful because people in power continue to ignore them?

Emanuel said, “We, as a city of Chicago, all of us, also have to make an important judgment about ourselves and our city as we go forward” — which seemed to be a acknowledgement that our town has been divided by race and class for too long and it’s time to close the gap.

And he pointed out “it’s time for Chicago to come together" and “show respect for one another, to work every day in building a culture of trust and respect for one another.”

I couldn’t agree more. Heck, I’ve harped about the Tale of Two Cities narrative that keeps our town divided for so long that the mayor's comments made it seem, for a moment at least, that he finally got the message and planned to use his clout and connections to do something about it.

And when it comes to our police department, it’s no secret that there’s a pervasive lack of trust in the local criminal justice system that contributes to a startling fact that keeps shooters on the street — about 90 percent of gunmen involved in nonfatal shootings don’t face charges.

That lack of trust stems from generations of police corruption and misconduct, wrongful prosecutions and the “thin-blue-line” code of silence within the police department that a federal judge called a “matter of public interest” and a “persistent widespread custom.”

Folks on the street know one reason many people refuse to cooperate with police and prosecutors to catch violent criminals is they don’t trust the system.

Civil rights attorneys and academics who study crime in Chicago will tell you that part of the reason that the police code of silence still exists is because there are provisions in the police union contract that forbid misconduct allegations from being made public unless the complaints against the officers are sustained by the city’s Independent Police Review Authority, better known as IPRA.

Officer Van Dyke, currently in protective custody at Cook County Jail, faced 18 police misconduct allegations before he shot and killed Laquan McDonald. None of those allegations were made public while the charges were being investigated. And the allegations would have remained a secret because they weren’t sustained by IPRA — and only 4 percent of all allegations are — if the non-profit Citizens Police Data Project didn’t fight to get the information public.

A lot of people believe if the public immediately knew when and how often officers are accused of misconduct it might help identify potential patterns of abused power and maybe inspire cops with corrupt tendencies to stay honest.

So, I asked the mayor if he thought that in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting, the city should no longer allow officers to remain anonymous unless proven guilty — if “under investigation” should no longer be a basis from withholding information about police misconduct allegations.

Rather than answer the question directly, Emanuel stepped away from the microphone, whispered something in McCarthy’s ear and stood behind his top cop.

“That’s a great question, Mark,” McCarthy said. “What I can address is the changes we’ve made …”

The police superintendent offered up details that didn’t answer my question.

Frustrated, I tried to interrupt McCarthy — loudly pointing out that my question was for Emanuel and I wanted to know if the mayor would go after the provision in the police union contract that keeps police misconduct allegations secret, wasn't being answered — but our bulldog top-cop stood his ground.

“I can give you details and [the mayor] can follow up,” McCarthy said.

Emanuel apparently appreciated that. “Thanks, Garry,” he said.

Police Supt. Garry McCarthy fields questions Tuesday. (Getty Images)

Eventually, the mayor stepped to the microphone and gave one of his patented non-answer answers.

“There’s always more work to improve the fractured trust between Chicagoans and their police department so people have a sense that nobody is being protected just because of their title or position,” Emanuel said.

Then, the mayor asked himself questions and sort of answered some of them.

“Do we need to constantly ask hard questions? In fact two years ago we started that process of asking some hard questions. Do we have all the safeguards in place to constantly be reviewing and demanding professionalism and doing it in a way that also give the public confidence about what happens in the police department?” Emanuel said.

“Is it perfect? Nothing is ever perfect. Do we have the spirit and the desire [to] constantly find ways to improve it and make it transparent so people believe people will be held accountable for their actions? That is what exists.”

(If anyone at the mayor’s City Hall spin machine can tell me what that means, please call me. You have my number.)

Anyway, when the news-free news conference was over, Emanuel rushed over to Millennium Park in the rich part of town and got there in plenty of time to complete one of his most important duties this time of the year — he was there when they flipped on the lights decorating Chicago’s official Christmas tree.

While the mayor got Chicago in the holiday spirit, protesters marched through Downtown chanting “16 shots” and shouting obscenities in a mostly peaceful expression of their outrage, just like Emanuel asked.

There’s no telling how long protests related to the video of Laquan McDonald’s last moments will last, or if the demonstrations will remain non-violent expressions of the 1st Amendment that help our city, as Emanuel put it, "build bridges of understanding rather than becoming a barrier of misunderstanding.”

But it’s important for our mayor to understand a few things.

When the outrage over the dash-cam snuff film subsides, Chicagoans who heard his call for unity and rebuilding will be watching him to see if he lives by the same gospel that he preaches.

For this “episode” to become an opportunity, community leaders in forgotten parts of Chicago expect Emanuel to  fulfill the same “moral” responsibilities he says Chicagoans have to each other and their city — a refrain that he’s repeated a lot lately when talking about tax hikes to pay for underfunded pension obligations, speaking out against baby murders and now in his call for peaceful protests.  

As any good preacher will tell you, Mr. Mayor, faith without works is dead.

Take it from Bright Star Church of Christ pastor Chris Harris, who stood along side the mayor at police headquarters Tuesday.

“I see it as something he is supposed to do as our mayor. And those of us who are faith leaders and community leaders, it's our job to make sure we hold his feet to the fire to actually delivers on … promises and potential ideas,” the Bronzeville preacher and community organizer said.

“While we are asking our communities to stay calm, we are telling them, ‘Don’t be quiet.’ We should speak out against this kind of brutality whether it by police or others. Our voices need to be heard at tables like this. Any faith leader has a moral and spiritual responsibility. To say to the mayor and others, ‘Hey our communities have needs and it’s your job to help us to address those needs.”

The ward bosses who stood alongside Emanuel during his call for peaceful protests — aldermen Danny Solis, Walter Burnett and Willie Cochran — each said they expect the mayor to do more than give lip service to Chicago’s biggest evils — economic disparity in certain parts of town and the broken trust in law enforcement.

Cochran, the former Chicago cop who represents a South Side ward pocked with decay and terrorized by gangs, said the mayor needs to know this isn’t just a police issue. 

“When we talk about evaluation [of] these communities, it must be changed with economics,” Cochran said. “Changes also have to be done on the police department. The issue of silence and protecting people who are harmful and making our profession one that is not being trusted by the community has to be addressed [by the mayor] as well.”

Burnett, a staunch Emanuel supporter, put it this way: “I think it's up to all of us to make sure he keeps his word on those things. Us, and the community, we just have to make sure he do what he suppose to do.”

And Solis — who told me he’s interested in calling on the City Council to look at the provision in the police contract that keeps misconduct complaints against officers secret while being investigated — agreed that it's time for “sections of the city — particularly on the South and West Side, and Southwest Side too — need to have some special attention to them and get them involved in some of the good stuff that’s going on in the city.”

Those messages aren’t coming from Emanuel’s aldermanic critics in the very vocal progressive caucus. Those men are the mayor’s City Council allies.

Like everybody else, they heard the mayor when he begged Chicagoans — all of us, he said — to look within ourselves and challenge ourselves in this time of unrest to work hard to turn our city’s crisis into an opportunity, a chance to become the “city of Chicago we know we can be.”

“We have a collective responsibility in the city of Chicago, the city we love, to ensure this opportunity for healing begins now," Emanuel said.

Us. We. That’s how the mayor describes the moral obligation to undo generations of damage and rebuild broken trust in Chicago.

But everybody knows nothing gets done in this town without the mayor leading the way.

And when people finally stop watching one of our police officers shoot and kill a teenager on YouTube, we — all of us, the entire city — will remember Emanuel's idealistic speech about reaching our town’s potential one day.

We’ll be watching to see to what you do, Mr. Mayor.

Will your leadership take us over a bridge that brings us together, or will it erect barriers that tear us apart?

Don’t worry, boss, there's no pressure to answer.

That really was a rhetorical question.

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