Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel has about as ugly record as a Mayor can have when it comes to protecting the public – especially African Americans – from police brutality. An ongoing series by the Guardian this year revealed that since Emanuel took office in 2011, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) has detained over 2500 people – nearly all of whom are black – at a secretive facility known as Homan Square. Locals liken it to a CIA “black site” where arrestees are routinely held for hours or longer and subject to physical abuse.
In response to reports by 1) four black men of “prolonged shackling and off the books interrogation,” 2) attorneys who say they were unconstitutionally denied access to clients, and 3) white protesters that they were shackled for 17 hours at Homan Square, Emanuel told the Guardian “we follow all the rules”.
In July 2014, Emanuel declined to follow the recommendation of the Chicago Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) to strip Commander Glenn Evans of his authority. IPRA had investigated a complaint that Evans jammed his handgun down a black suspect’s throat and held a taser against his crotch while threatening to kill him. Notwithstanding a DNA test finding the Ricky Lee Williams’ saliva on the muzzle of Evans’ weapon, Emanuel left him in command. Evans was only discharged after he was charged with assault stemming from the Williams arrest.
In October, Emanuel attributed the recent uptick in Chicago’s crime rate to tentative police who fear they will be videotaped by cell phone wielding citizens when they arrest suspects. To protect themselves, from unfair charges of police brutality, many officers are becoming “fetal” the Mayor said. The Mayor did not explain how the cops at Homan Square and Commander Evans managed to torture and batter citizens while “fetal”.
Chicago is now being roiled by protests stemming from the release of a police videotape of the execution-style killing of 17 year old Laquan McDonald in October 2014 by white Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. The video shows that McDonald was walking away from the cop whose first rounds struck the teen in the back spinning him to the ground where he fell into a fetal – there’s that word again – position facing the killer cop who emptied his 16-bullet clip into McDonald’s prone motionless body. Within days, the officer was taken off the streets and given a desk job.
In the wake of the killing, Emanuel did everything he could to prevent the video’s release. This included 1) requesting approval of a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family in April 2015 – just a few days after Emanuel won re-election in a run-off against a progressive challenger tapped by the Chicago Teachers Association – even though several officers on the scene described the shooting as legitimate self-defense, 2) denying 15 FOIA requests for the video, 3) fighting in court a lawsuit brought by a journalist demanding the video’s release.
In light of this history, one might expect the President and the leading Democratic Presidential candidates to distance themselves from Emanuel if not to follow the lead of Roots Action and demand the Democratic Mayor’s resignation. One would be wrong.
President Obama and Hillary Clinton released anodyne statements on social media expressing dismay at the McDonald slaying but studiously avoiding mentioning Emanuel. Both singled out the police for praise. On facebook, Obama asked Americans to be “thankful for the overwhelming majority of men and women in uniform who protect our communities with honor.” For her part Clinton decried on twitter the “loss of so many young African Americans taken too soon” but like Obama reminded us that “[a]ll over America, there are police officers honorably doing their duty”.
Obama’s and Clinton’s refusal to chastise Emanuel, even in the mildest terms, is understandable. Obama endorsed Emanuel, who was his first White House Chief of Staff, against a much more progressive challenger earlier this year. In 2011, Bill Clinton campaigned for Emanuel. Hillary has praised Emanuel as the “glue” who held Bill Clinton’s cabinet together. Suggesting Emanuel did less than he should have would be akin to admitting they badly misjudged a man they have empowered and relied upon heavily.
Still, their broad-based encomiums for the police set a standard in tone-deafness given that many police are complicit in McDonald’s death and protecting Van Dyke after the fact:
1) Five officers watched Van Dyke gun down McDonald and said nothing.
2) The manager of the Burger King near where McDonald was slain claims a CPD detective and technician seized surveillance footage from the restaurant and returned the records with the video from the time of the shooting missing.
3) Prior to killing McDonald, Van Dyke had never apparently been subject to disciplinary action, despite A) the fact that CPD had received 20 citizens complaints against him including several claims of brutality and that he used the n-word and B) a payout by the city of over $500,000 after a jury finding that Van Dyke employed excessive force when arresting a suspect for a traffic violation.
4) Van Dyke was not fired until it became clear that CPD and the Mayor’s Office could not prevent the video’s release.
Less understandable than Clinton’s and Obama’s inadequate response to Emanuel’s neck-deep involvement in the latest Chicago police outrage, are Bernie Sanders’ tepid comments.
All Americans should be sickened by the video of Laquan McDonald’s murder. As a nation we must do more than just echo the phrase Black Lives Matter. We must put actions behind those words. Actions that will bring about the fundamental reform that is needed in the face of this crisis. Criminal justice reform must be the civil rights issue of the 21st century and the first piece must be putting an end to the killing of African Americans by police officers.
At least he didn’t praise the police. But with no connections to Emanuel, whose impeccable DLC credentials make him anathema to the progressives who support Sanders, the Vermont Senator missed a golden opportunity to call directly for a full-scale Justice Department investigation into the unconstitutional practices of CPD and Emanuel’s involvement in covering them up. Perhaps, Sanders feared that taking too confrontational approach might hurt him with the white working-class voters he is trying to woo. If this is the case, it is most regrettable.
Regardless of the reasons, top Democrats are wrong to give Emanuel a pass. Doing so flies in the face of their claims to support the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Nothing would reform bad police departments like the indictment, or failing that, the forced resignation of a high-profile Mayor and Police Superintendent because they protected killer cops.
City and county executives, police chiefs, sheriffs, and other top police officials will be loath to cover up brutal cops if doing so is likely to lead to the end of their political careers and possibly jail time. With the recognition that their political livelihood depends on overseeing clean forces, bad apples will quickly be removed to prevent their taint rubbing off and police killings are likely to be fewer and farther between.
Moreover, Democrats lose the moral high ground when they fail to call out their own. Progressives rightly in my view see themselves as morally superior to right-wing Republican knuckle-draggers. But how superior can we be if our party’s leaders support a powerful Mayor who repeatedly condones police brutality thereby enabling the abusers.
Finally, when Democratic leaders back an unrepentant Rahm Emanuel, they greatly weaken their (and our) ability to rally Americans to support them and the obvious liberal solutions to our most serious problems.