Please, please, please read this week’s Hot Type, “Outrageless.” The question is really compelling–is Chicago more apathetic than its big city peers? The specific inspiration is our story about the shooting of Michael Pleasance vis a vis the BART shooting in San Francisco, but it goes deeper than that–do we have more tolerance of worse politicians and more dysfunctional government?
I’m not the most informed thinker on these issues, but I have a couple theories.
1. Segregation. Chicago’s famously one of the most segregated cities in the country, and its segregation is organized around broad geographic areas. And when you segregate people, you segregate information, which is the fuel of conflict and change. It’s not just that it makes people with power and money less aware of those without, it’s vice versa as well. Does segregation, intentional or not, keep information, and people, from reaching the sort of critical mass needed to create change? It’s something I’ve been thinking about.
2. The Mayor’s co-opting of community organizers. This is a really important paragraph from Ben Joravsky’s piece “Is Obama a Chicago Politician?”:
“As for Chicago in 2008 being a hospitable time for organizers ‘like the young Barack Obama,’ the truth is that Daley’s pretty well destroyed community organizing in Chicago. Many of the fiercest groups have either disappeared or been co-opted—they pull their punches because, like the aldermen, they don’t want to get on the mayor’s bad side. It took activists years to get the smoking ban passed over Daley’s opposition, and even then the mayor forced them into watering it down. Despite backing from Cardinal George and would-be independent aldermen, activists still can’t get an affordable housing ordinance through the City Council, though they’ve been trying for more than a decade. There used to be several vigilant budget watchdog groups in Chicago, with the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group leading the pack. Now there are none.”
Among other groups, this has been particularly dramatic with local churches. Historically, religious organizations have been effective advocates for social change–think of the SCLC’s role in the civil-rights movement, or the Catholic church’s role in fair-housing fights in mid-century Chicago. If you, as machine politician, can get the church to play ball with the city, for good or ill, you make it less likely to serve as an opponent.
For example, Mick Dumke wrote a great post, “Reverend Division,” during the Jeremiah Wright fracas. Here’s a key graph:
“After I graduated from seminary, I returned to journalism, and a few months later I wrote a story detailing the relationships of several large black congregations in Chicago with the Daley administration. The story attempted to show how the city had provided several of them—including Trinity [Wright’s church]—with thousands of dollars in funding for social programs, and to capture a debate within the black community about whether these churches lost their prophetic voices when they formed alliances with the mayor.”
Not to put words in Mick’s mouth, but my interpretation is that while Wright was busy damning America for its mortal sins, he (and many of his peers) were less likely to damn the city for its venal ones. And to state the obvious, lots of venal sins can be as deleterious as a couple mortal ones. Mick followed up with a post detailing the grants that Wright’s church received from the city over the years (including federal and state grants administered by the city). It looks, at first glance, like the money went to good causes that the church administers, but does it create dependence? Does it reduce the church’s ability to be an effective advocate against the powers that be?
You will no doubt recall that the elder Daley worked Martin Luther King like a speedbag during his sojourn in Chicago–Royko’s Boss provides a great account. In the abstract, it’s a Hall of Fame performance of cynical political strategizing, and we still have canny politicians with those sorts of skills. But just outmanuvering people doesn’t work as well with the locals. Better to make friends than enemies.
Related: In a small victory, William Cozzi plead guilty yesterday (also, Anthony Abbate will see his day in court). It seems that you at least can’t beat a man handcuffed to a wheelchair in this city.