CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel must’ve thought that when Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow earlier this month it was a sign that his personal winter of political discontent would meet an early spring.
At least that’s what it sounded like when Chicago’s boss sat down to share the new spin on his “let’s look forward, not backward” talking points on Sunday’s episode of “Connected To Chicago” with WLS Radio’s Bill Cameron, the dean of the City Hall press corps.
“We went through some challenging period of time here. But I’ve been through that before in a sense,” Emanuel said, comparing the current criminal justice crisis in Chicago to some other catastrophes he has endured.
“The city just went through two months with some difficult issues. Now, what they want is my leadership [audible pause] and the participation of everybody in making changes, where you have the grit and the determination to make the necessary changes.”
It seems Emanuel’s perception on this issue might be getting filtered through the City Hall spin machine.
Because I’ve never heard anyone chant: “Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Rahm Emanuel, has got to … give us your leadership.”
But I do remember the chorus of ticked-off Chicagoans calling for him to resign. It was a catchy tune, something like, “Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Rahm Emanuel has got to go!”
There’s no forgetting Emanuel’s detractors making allegations that his administration — specifically Corporation Counsel Steve Patton’s law department — actively fought to keep secret the infamous video of Laquan McDonald’s death at the hands of indicted police officer Jason Van Dyke, who now faces first degree murder charges for shooting the black teenager with all 16 bullets in his gun.
And how could anyone forget Emanuel’s emotional apology for not challenging the generations-long policy to keep information about police shootings, especially videos of the action, secret from the public.
Still, it seems the winter doldrums have set in, especially when it comes to expressions of civil unrest related to police misconduct in our town.
Indeed, some angry Chicagoans have shifted their focus on other things — the Chicago Public Schools financial crisis, a potential teachers strike, the continuing state budget stalemate and the hotly contested presidential primaries, among other things.
There haven't been as many opportunities for shouting during the wait for Van Dyke’s trial, the results from a mayoral-appointed police accountability task force, a separate report from the Emanuel-initiated probe of the law department outsourced to a politically connected legal firm and, of course, whatever it is the U.S. Justice Department probe of the police department turns up.
Emanuel seems to have recognized this lull in the collective community rage.
During his radio chat with Cameron, the mayor clearly attempted to widen the spotlight on police misconduct — or focus it on other places in America with similar troubles — possibly in hopes that the bright beam might stop burning his own retinas.
“On the police use of force, this is not [new]. Everybody knows we have had other issues as it relates to the Abbate case, the Burge torture, the Summerdale [district scandal]. Every mayor, my predecessors — have dealt with this in one way or another,” the mayor said.
He also pointed out, “Cleveland has this. Cincinnati has this. Los Angeles with Rodney King had this. Baltimore has it. New York — the Garner case starts today. They have it. This is not unique to Chicago.”
What’s different now, Emanuel says, is that the crisis facing post-Laquan Chicago is … wait for it … an “opportunity” that he won’t let go to waste.
“I am determined that this opportunity not be lost and that we finally fix what’s broken in the system; not just in the police department and not just in the oversight and accountability, although that’s important. But also in the more important part to me: The relationship building that has to happen between the community and the police department.”
Emanuel dodged a question about Chicagoans’ trust issues with him, specifically the Chicago Tribune poll that showed 73 percent of residents — 80 percent of African Americans and 77 percent of Hispanics — don’t approve of the job he’s doing as mayor. And 83 percent of those polled say they don’t believe the mayor is telling the truth about what and when he knew about the McDonald shooting incident.
Instead, Emanuel talked about early childhood education and fixing slow zones on the Red Line. He focused on the future, a figurative spring.
“My measure is not where I stand snapshot of time,” Emanuel told Cameron. “My measure is over the next three years, are we preparing every part of Chicago to succeed for the next 30 to 40 years.”
Emanuel told Cameron, in a mayoral monologue, that he is leading an effort that will “finally, once and for all, make the greatest, longest, deepest effort in making the reforms necessary to help build and sustain the trust between the community and the police department, which is essential to public safety.”
In a lot of ways, it feels good to bask in the glorious idea that somehow Chicago in the future will be a better place for our struggles today.
It’s hard to blame Emanuel for keeping his eyes on the horizon rather than the rearview mirror and easy to understand his wanting to portray himself as a man on a noble mission charging full-steam ahead.
But the call to power through tough times has always been Emanuel’s public coping mechanism.
It is, however, asking a super majority of Chicagoans who don’t trust him to take quite a leap of faith.
For those folks, to characterize the realities of what came to light after McDonald’s death — the actual existence of a corrupt, racist criminal justice system administered by generations of mayors and ratified by decades of aldermen in contracts and protocols that offer inequitable protections to a small but powerful sect of police unworthy of the public trust — as “two months with some difficult issues” might seem insulting, or worse.
But don’t take it from me.
Listen to the message spread by Chancelor Bennett, the son of Emanuel’s top deputy, Ken Bennett, on national TV this weekend.
You probably know the younger Bennett by his stage name, “Chance the Rapper,” a talented Chicago artist with arguably the most powerful voice spreading a socially conscious message since Gwendolyn Brooks.
While performing with Kanye West on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Chance, who grew up near 79th Street in Chatham, pleaded with his fans to keep an intense spotlight on Chicago’s police misconduct troubles in a song called “Ultralight Beam.”
"But people just please don't forget about Jason Van Dyke,” Chance sang live from New York, wearing a White Sox cap. “You cannot mess with the light.”
The issue of police misconduct is old news in our town.
So is a mayor’s rush to put trouble behind him.
Fixing broken trust in Chicago — should it happen under Emanuel’s leadership — must come slowly and painfully under the hot, bright light of transparency the people can trust.
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