They held signs on rooftops, their arms stretched to the sky. They called on first responders, news helicopters, a higher source—anyone—for help. Yet in a flash, the single most powerful elected official who could’ve sat with them and shared their grief, who could’ve extended consolation, concern, and a commitment to full restoration, made a decision that characterized his entire tenure in office: he gazed down at the suffering, soaring above from the relative comfort of Air Force One, as a king might look upon the poor—with insincere pity.
That man was President George W. Bush. His public image never recovered from the photographic evidence of detachment from those most in need, during the oft-bemoaned emergency management failures following Hurricane Katrina.
Roughly a decade later, as the rising tide of antiblackness and police violence washed away another life on a wide south-side street—that of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald—the city’s most powerful official knew what he knew, even if he didn’t watch the video, as he now claims.
But Mayor Emanuel carried on, as if taking cues from an old-school PR handbook, shielding himself and his political allies from doing anything but their jobs, while managing a crisis indicative of poor police accountability and reduced life chances for black and brown Chicagoans. These conditions have long been the impetus for organized protests, and for calls to action from African-American and Hispanic politicians. Even so, Emanuel—and his ego, and his reelection chances—just couldn’t risk a highly publicized case. He looked over the situation, saw through a settlement, and sat back while other officials did the dirty work and took the fall.
Make no mistake: this is Rahm Emanuel’s Katrina moment.
To be fair, Chicago is no New Orleans, and it wouldn’t be wise to compare their plights too closely. Chicago’s not Iraq, either, even though people’s afflictions in that far-away land likewise came at the hands of morally bankrupt regimes, including the one that dropped bombs over Baghdad under false pretenses. In both cases, the on-the-ground crises ultimately stemmed from a crisis of leadership, where stubborn agendas trumped the needs of the most marginalized people.
In a city like Chicago, where political inertia and passing the buck have become facts of life, the initial information about McDonald’s death most certainly provided an opportunity for Emanuel to deliver on promises he made while stumping in 2011.
Emanuel rode in like a white knight from Washington, cruising on the popularity of his time in the Obama White House, with messianic promises of stronger schools, fixes for the city’s financial woes, and safer neighborhoods.
Yet we’re still reeling. To date, he’s all but eviscerated public schooling in Chicago—disproportionately attended by black and brown students, with appalling graduation and college completion rates. He’s further burdened city home owners with a property tax increase he promised wouldn’t happen, rather than investing his political weight in a “fair tax” system that could prove more sustainable and equitable for residents of varying income levels.
And starting in October, the City Council’s Black Caucus called for Garry McCarthy’s ouster as police superintendent, noting his absent approach to “quality of life” issues in their communities—all while reports lambasted his department’s legacy of torture and coerced confessions. “I’m standing by him,” Emanuel said, pledging his support of a man that, unbeknownst to the public, may have been complicit in the cover-up of Jason Van Dyke’s senseless 16-bullet shooting spree just over a year ago.
These moments, among many so far in Emanuel’s tenure, are snapshots of a mayor detached from the cries for change from beleaguered citizens and the officials who represent them. And as the blood of Laquan McDonald cries out from the streets of Chicago, hundreds of days later, in the form of marches and rallies, Emanuel still sits atop his perch of power, absolving himself of full accountability and resisting a full review from the Department of Justice.
This failure of leadership will go down in the city’s history as proof that some of its most powerful officials simply do not care about black and brown people. Emanuel is one of them.
For many Chicagoans, the memory of this time will surely recall the pained frustration shared by another aggrieved city highly populated by black people. As Emanuel’s old boss once said of Bush while campaigning in New Orleans in 2008, the city calls out the memory of a moment when the government failed its citizens, because when the people extended their hands for help, help was not there.
“People looked up at the rooftops and for too long they saw an empty sky,” Obama said. “We can talk about what happened for a few days in 2005, and we should. . . . We can talk about a president who only saw people from the window of an airplane instead of down here on the ground, trying to provide comfort and aid. That was a metaphor for his presidency.”
And for Emanuel, his ineptitude in the murder of Laquan McDonald will serve as a metaphor for his administration in the city of Chicago.