DOWNTOWN — Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday backed the decision of the Chicago Police Department to reprimand two officers who kneeled while in uniform even though he defended athletes doing the same during the national anthem before games.
"There is a difference between an athlete wearing their uniform and a police officer, who is paid by the public, wearing theirs," he said.
Emanuel's comments came as he was asked by reporters about President Donald Trump's blistering criticism of NFL players' decision to kneel in protest.
Emanuel said Trump was trying to deflect attention from policy failures — including the all-but certain failure this week of congressional Republicans' latest attempt to repeal Obamacare, the slow response to the hurricane that ravaged Puerto Rico and the tensions with North Korea.
"It was divisive, a cynical ploy," Emanuel said of Trump after celebrating the decision by health-tech firm Outcome Health to add 2,000 new employees.
In the matter of the Chicago police officers, anti-violence and anti-poverty activist Aleta Clark posted a picture on her Instagram account Sunday showing her kneeling between two unidentified African-American officers who were holding up their fists.
She said the officers kneeled after she asked if they opposed police brutality and racism.
While Emanuel defended the athletes, he said the Police Department "has been consistent" on upholding Rule No. 42 of its Rules of Conduct that prohibit uniformed officers from "participating in any partisan political campaign or activity."
In January, police officers were warned about the ban on taking part in partisan politics after a hat featuring Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan was seen propped on the dashboard of a police vehicle assigned to monitor the Inauguration Day protests at the Daley Center.
Choosing his words carefully, Emanuel said that the officers were caught "betwixt and between" the Police Department's policy, and the department's push to rebuild the trust between officers and community members as part of his effort to reform the Police Department in the wake of the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald.
"You have two very important principles that, here in this particular place, are in conflict," Emanuel said, adding that he was pleased Clark felt "comfortable enough" to walk into the police station and discuss the protests with the officers on duty.
Officials with the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, did not respond to a request for comment about the department's plan to take disciplinary action against the officers.
Trump on Friday called on owners of NFL teams to fire any player who kneels during the national anthem and “get that son of a bitch off the field.”
The president tweeted nearly a dozen times during the weekend about the issue, creating a furor.
However, Emanuel said it would be doing a disservice to American ideals to not consider the protesting athletes patriots — along with those who choose to stand and salute the flag.
The mayor, who served as an aide to former President Bill Clinton and chief of staff to former President Barack Obama, said those who protest during the anthem serve as a reminder that "America is a work in progress," one that has "fallen woefully short" in ensuring that all are equal before the law.
The president has a "responsibility" to be a voice of tolerance of diversity and different views, Emanuel said.
"As president, [Trump] has abandoned a core strength of the presidency," Emanuel said.
The mayor also criticized Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner for echoing Trump's criticism of the protests during the anthem. The governor called participants "disrespectful" but said "our country is great because it guarantees freedom of expression, so people can choose to be disrespectful."
Emanuel urged reporters to ask Rauner why the governor chose to comment on the protests but not the latest Obamacare repeal effort or his position on a bill designed to ensure access to abortion in Illinois.
On his Facebook page, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham, who often speaks out against gang violence and police brutality, said the officers should not be reprimanded.
"I understand they might have acted out of line doing so in Uniform, but they should NOT be disciplined...only reminded...after all Many Police have BEAT and KILLED in UNIFORM and they walk around FREE!!!!!!" Pfleger wrote.