What was billed as a “major address” on the issue of gun violence instead resembled a farce.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel delivered the roughly 40-minute televised speech September 22 to a room of carefully handpicked lawmakers and supporters at Malcolm X College. And although he spoke of law enforcement, investment, and prevention as pillars of his strategy to curb gun violence, not once did he acknowledge that systemic racism undergirds the city’s problems.
He never even uttered the term.
And by not facing this complex issue head-on, Emanuel’s attempt to stem the tide of violence is doomed to fail.
Most of the mayor’s speech was dedicated to describing the additional resources he plans to give police. He touted body cameras and Tasers for every officer, and called for tougher gun laws and sentences for repeat gun offenders. He also made a pitch for the mentorship of at-risk youth as the crux of a crime prevention strategy, and offered a very brief note about investing in job-training programs.
But the closest he came to mentioning systemic racism was a passing reference in the overture of his remarks.
The mayor said that he and top police officials know they “will not succeed in turning back the rising tide of violence without changing and rebuilding critical relationships with the community, especially communities of color.”
But promising to “rebuild relationships” doesn’t acknowledge how one-sided these problems are, or how severely and disproportionately police target communities of color. As the mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force noted in its April report, 74 percent of the people shot at or killed by police between 2008 and 2015 in Chicago were black, while black people are just a third of the city’s population.
Emanuel tried to sell us on more Tasers, but between 2012 and 2015, 76 percent of people police Tased were black. Roughly half of all traffic stops in Chicago involved black motorists. And black and Hispanic drivers were searched “approximately four times as often as white drivers,” according to the task force report, while police data shows that contraband was found on white divers twice as often as their black and Hispanic counterparts.
Emanuel drew a false equivalence between this systemic oppression of black and brown people and a few alleged incidents of citizens “taunting” police, as he put it.
“Respect is a two-way street,” he said, without acknowledging that most of the disrespect and brutality comes from one direction.
What does the mayor plan to do about that? For all the time he spent pitching the need for more cops, Emanuel didn’t say how he’d stop the officers already on the street from targeting black and brown communities.
That question is crucial for the city, financially as well as morally. As the Better Government Association reported in January, police misconduct settlements—paid with our tax dollars—have cost the city more than $642 million over a 12-year span. It makes little sense to hastily add hundreds more officers without first implementing changes that would keep police from hemorrhaging more taxpayer money. (Plus, that’s money that could be invested in resources at the very root of inequality in communities of color, including public education, mental health and recovery programs, and sustainable employment.)
Indeed, Emanuel mentioned employment—specifically, the need for more jobs for young people who aren’t in school—and the creation of an $8 million “neighborhood opportunity fund” to leverage new small businesses and jobs.
But even here he failed to address the systemic racism at play in city funding choices. Compared with how much will be spent on police—an estimated $135 million for the surge in force—the amount of money dedicated to neighborhood jobs is a drop in the bucket. And there’s no telling whether the promised jobs would be enough for young people to make ends meet, or whether they’d be more of the same minimum-wage jobs that keep many black and brown people locked in cycles of poverty.
Adding insult to injury, Emanuel turned to tired tropes about young people “raised by gangs” without ever once acknowledging the substandard living conditions that might lead them to turn to a life in the streets. Even for black people out in the job market, the odds remain stacked: the black unemployment rate is consistently two to three times higher than it is for white people.
Emanuel’s “raised by gangs” remarks were a clever switch—if not given a dog whistle—for remarks leaked before the speech that would have been more of a direct call to black fathers to take an active role in raising their children, specifically their sons.
But if the mayor is subtly asking “Where are the parents at?” he should seek the answer inside a prison cell. Countless black families in Chicago and nationwide have been devastated by mass incarceration, with black fathers getting shipped to prisons at disproportionately high rates.
As the New York Times noted in April 2015, for every 100 black women, there are 17 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 who are “missing” from everyday life—largely due to early death or imprisonment. In Chicago that translates to 45,000 black men removed from their communities. It’s a gap that’s virtually nonexistent in white communities.
Keep in mind that this a problem Emanuel helped create during his time with the Clinton administration, when he helped craft the 1994 Crime Bill.
Mass incarceration also bodes poorly for black women and girls. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black women make up 30 percent of all incarcerated women in the United States, more than double their share of the female population. A 2015 report from the National Crittenton Foundation and the National Women’s Law Center found that black girls were the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile detention population, and they’re 20 percent more likely to be detained than white girls.
Emanuel drew a parallel between his plan and President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance initiative, a five-year, $200 million program designed to provide mentoring, summer jobs, and other support to young men of color. Obama’s program has been roundly criticized for overlooking the needs of young women and girls of color—a critique that should also be leveled at the mayor’s plans. Emanuel’s initiative hinges on mentoring programs for at-risk young men. He never once mentioned young women.
Beyond that, while mentors can indeed provide children with positive influences and hopes for a better future, they’re no replacement for the many incarcerated parents who have been failed by racist policies and policing.
Emanuel isn’t pledging to use his political weight to end mass incarceration here in Chicago. He’s focused on alleviating a few symptoms in the short term, without exhibiting the necessary courage to remedy the problem at its core.
It’s unfathomable as to why the mayor can’t redirect money away from police on the streets and towards a more comprehensive plan that would address the material conditions that lead to violent crime in the first place.
Emanuel’s speech was the equivalent of Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal “Let them eat cake.” He doesn’t see that his people are starving.
Perhaps he’s running out of ideas, or the energy to truly lead the city through its struggles with crime, poverty, and systemic racism.
Maybe he should’ve resigned when he had a chance. v