“City officials estimated 175 buildings would have to be wrecked because of fire damage; many more would need extensive repairs,” wrote the late Chicago Tribune reporter Robert Wiedrich regarding the Chicago riots in April 1968. “A Monday morning count disclosed that more than 2,000 persons had been arrested for looting, arson, and other crimes during the disorders, which finally subsided April 7.”
Following the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Chicago was overwhelmed with local police officers, federal troops, members of the National Guard, and citizens who rioted for several days.
Though police officers were reportedly praised for not using excessive force as the riots ensued, then-mayor Richard J. Daley held a press conference shortly after the unrest calmed down, during which he said officers should “shoot to kill arsonists and shoot to maim looters,” the Tribune reported in December of that year.
Such rhetoric would likely not be tolerated today. But even during the height of racial tensions in Chicago and the disputes surrounding the Democratic National Convention, Daley wasn’t asked to step down from his post, says Paul Green, policy studies professor and director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University and coauthor of The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition.
How times have changed. Fast-forward nearly 50 years later, and Chicago protesters continue to call for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s resignation, pointing to police brutality cases that have come to light under his watch amid accusations of a widespread cover-up.
Although mayoral resignations have been extremely rare in Chicago history, demands for Rahm’s resignation refuse to die down.
Green said he thinks getting the mayor to step down is highly unlikely, because the mayor has widespread support in spite of the controversy. For those who say Emanuel wouldn’t be mayor if the public had known about such misconduct, people can speculate, but we’ll never really know, he says.
“I don’t think it’ll happen here,” Green says.
In fact, the only Chicago mayor to ever resign was Joseph Medill, according to Green. Medill resigned in 1873 to travel to Europe for health reasons.
Despite the rarity of mayoral resignation, activists have collected more than 200,000 signatures in support of Rahm’s stepping down. Janae Bonsu, cochair of the Black Youth Project 100 Chicago Chapter, says the calls for Emanuel’s resignation signal his political vulnerability, and adds that this is the time for people to at least demand changes.
Some Chicagoans wanted the mayor to resign during the “school closing fiasco,” Bonsu says, but the Laquan McDonald video release was the final straw because it further damaged the public’s trust in Emanuel’s leadership. Even though Chicago’s past mayors have endured significant racial conflicts, the firing of police superintendent Garry McCarthy and the likely firing of former officer Dante Servin show signs of change.
“History is usually a good proxy, but sometimes it’s not,” Bonsu explains. “There have been problematic mayors before Rahm Emanuel and there probably will be after him. Our demands of what we want to see in the police department [and] within the city of Chicago period still remains the same.”
Jason Tompkins, an organizer with Chicago’s Black Lives Matter, said it would take a great deal of organizing to get the mayor to resign. The organization could not pinpoint an ideal candidate for Rahm’s replacement, but Tompkins says that whoever takes his seat would still be under public scrutiny.
“The root of what we’re demanding is a defunding of police systems and the demand that we fund black futures,” Tompkins said. “Regardless of who’s sitting in office, the question is: Are they going to be accountable to the people?”
The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But in an interview with Politico earlier this month Emanuel said he had no plans to resign.
“We have a process called the election,” he said. “The voters spoke. . . . I never [shirk] away from making the tough decisions that I think move the city forward.”
Following that interview, Eighth District state representative La Shawn Ford put forth a bill that would allow the recall of Chicago’s acting mayor. State representatives Mary Flowers, Ron Sandack, Thomas Morrison and Jeanne Ives have backed the bill . The house won’t be able to vote on it until early January, according to Ford.
The bill would require a petition signed by a minimum of 15 percent of the total votes cast for mayor in the previous election with at least 50 signatures from each ward. To go into effect, the legislation must be passed by the state house and the senate and signed into law by Governor Bruce Rauner.
“We have to get Chicago back to some sense of normality,” Ford says. “I think it’s my obligation to respond in ways that nonelected officials can’t. A recall bill is simply public policy that the people can work with in order to hold the mayor of the city of Chicago accountable.”
In the event that Rahm did step down, the vice mayor, 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly, would step in as mayor until the end of the term or until the City Council chose another member to serve as acting mayor.
But under the legislation Ford proposed, mayoral candidates would be submitted at a special successor primary election, called by the Board of Election commissioners and held 60 days after the special recall election.
Ford adds that with black communities in dire need of assistance, black people cannot continue “going along to get along” any longer.
“If I was elected for this moment only, I’m fine with that,” Ford says. “If you are black in the city of Chicago and you live on the south and west side of Chicago, you’ve had school closed, people being killed, foreclosures, vacant lots, high dropout rates . . . There’s nothing else to do but say it’s not working for us.”