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Chicago Organizers Have Message For Next Mayor: Support People’s Agenda Or Face Resistance

“The West Side is the heartbeat of Chicago,” said Janice Peters. “You can get to anywhere from this place, anywhere in Chicago.”

Peters, an organizer with the group Action Now, was with about 50 people, who boarded a bus on a cold, windy November morning to tour several Chicago neighborhoods. They heard from community leaders and talked with each other about what they want the next mayor of Chicago to support.

The bus tour was organized by the Grassroots Collaborative, a Chicago-based coalition of community groups that organizes around issues of homelessness, immigration, economics, and education. It began at Lincoln Yards, an area along the north branch of the Chicago River slated for massive development by real estate company Sterling Bay.

From there, the tour made five stops: Jackson Park, the site chosen for the Barack Obama Presidential Library; a public school on the south side; a pair of homes in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood; Roseland Hospital; a “safety net” hospital on the south side, and the site of a proposed new $95 million police academy on the west side.

Peters once loved the neighborhood she lives in on the west side so much that she bought a house.

“It used to be a great community full of black-owned businesses, where black and brown people could get along,” she declared. The proposed police academy however, she added, is a sign of gentrification and an attempt to push marginalized people out of an already blighted neighborhood.

“They’re moving us out, they’re pushing us out, they’re tearing everything down. Now they want to put more police in our community to overpolice us and scare us out of our community,” Peters said.

Now, as the 2019 race for mayor in Chicago heats up, community groups and activists have an opportunity to reshape the city in a more equitable fashion.

Chicagoans on a bus tour about economic inequality hosted by the Grassroots Collaborative pose at Jackson Park, the site of the Barack Obama Presidential Library. (Photo by Aaron Cynic)

If there are two things everyday Chicagoans have, it is a long memory and a low tolerance for bullshit (though the latter often gets stonewalled by people with far more power who pay no mind to the former).

In Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s eight years, he ruled City Hall with an iron fist in a similar manner as Richard J. Daley and his son, Richard M. Daley, a pair of men who ruled Chicago for more than four decades.

It is debatable whether Emanuel was a traditional Chicago machine politician, however, he held near-unanimous support in the fifty-member City Council. Several studies conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s political science department showed the Council acted as mostly a rubber stamp for Emanuel.

During his first two years, city council members voted 93 percent of the time with the mayor. From 2013 to 2014, they voted with him 89 percent of the time. Those numbers dropped slightly between 2015 and 2017.

Emanuel was able to ram through an array of neoliberal policy items that shoveled untold amounts of money into the pockets of developers, corporations, and his friends and donors in the business community—often at the expense of already marginalized neighborhoods. This earned him the moniker “Mayor One Percent.”

Emanuel closed half the city’s public mental health clinics and nearly 50 public schools. He presided over the first strike by the Chicago Teachers Union in more than two decades and a multitude of high-profile police shootings. He borrowed heavily from Wall Street, and gave already wealthy corporations and developers huge tax subsidies through Tax Increment Financing, which diverted millions of dollars from schools and marginalized communities to the city’s financial district.

Despite Emanuel’s penchant for privatizing public services and an open disdain for anyone who would question him, he won re-election in 2015. But that election is when some of the dents in the king’s armor first appeared. Emanuel was forced into a runoff with a challenger backed by a broad coalition of progressive/leftist community groups and unions. He spent more than $25 million to keep his office on the fifth floor of City Council.

In the years that followed, Emanuel would see numerous calls for his resignation in the wake of the shootings of Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd, Harith Augustus, and many others killed by police. He faced a backlash for choosing to close yet more schools on the south side, and community groups built a coalition around a proposed police academy, questioning how the city could afford to pay for it when it supposedly could not afford other community services, like mental health clinics and schools.

Activists shut down major expressways and demanded an end to gun violence in marginalized communities, which is often fueled by austerity policies. People not only protested Emanuel in the streets of downtown or inside City Hall, they even showed up at his home.

Then one day in September, Emanuel announced he wouldn’t seek a third term. “This has been the job of a lifetime, but it is not a job for a lifetime,” he told reporters.

That his announcement came one day before the trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke—who was convicted of second-degree murder and 11 counts of aggravated battery for the killing of Laquan McDonald—was significant.

Activists, who’ve been fighting for more police accountability in Chicago for years, accused Emanuel, city council members, and police officials of an attempted coverup by withholding the footage of McDonald during the 2015 election.

In the evening after Emanuel’s announcement, community activists held something of a celebration in Daley Plaza across the street from City Hall. Numerous speeches recalled Emanuel’s many misdeeds over the years. They also sent a message to both candidates seeking to replace him and those in the City Council who supported his agenda.

“To any mayoral candidate: if you do not run on the people’s agenda, we will come for you,” activist Megan Groves told the assembled crowd.

One month later, during demonstrations on the day of Van Dyke’s conviction, that same message reverberated on the streets of the Loop.

“To the City Councilmen, to the judges, this verdict confirms that you are co-conspirators to murder and you must be held accountable,” said Tanya Watkins of Southsiders Organizing for Unity and Liberation. “Black bodies cannot be traded for political favor.”

“There are 34 sitting alderman that are worried about their re-election. I’m here to let them know that we don’t give a fuck about your re-election,” Watkins warned. “You should worry about your re-election every time you’re on city council, every time you allow police to run rampant in our communities.”

Both before and after Emanuel’s announcement, dozens of candidates signaled their intention to run to replace him, and more than 20 could be on the ballot in February.

Meanwhile, some of his staunchest allies in City Council are either vulnerable or have chosen not to run, and one long-time power broker, Edward Burke, is currently facing an FBI investigation.

***

For the first time in a long time, Chicagoans who’ve been fighting for police accountability, neighborhood investment, education justice, and accountability have an opportunity to demand those running represent them and listen to their voices by making these issues a priority.

In this forthcoming series, rather than focus on horse race politics, Shadowproof will explore the possibilities of a new Chicago from the perspective of activists and community organizations who’ve been fighting for marginalized communities, and the issues candidates should and need to answer for if the city can turn itself around after decades of neglect.

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Aaron Cynic

Aaron Cynic

Aaron Cynic is an independent journalist and photographer based in Chicago. He is a co-founder of the website Visu.News, co-host of its podcast, and editor of Third Coast Today. His work has also appeared in Time, Chicago Magazine, Progress Illinois, In Justice Today, Alternet, Truthout, In These Times, Nation of Change, The Daily Line, Third Coast Review, Huffington Post, Shareable, Forces of Geek, and more.