An unusual kind of storm has blown into the City by the Lake, one that threatens the continued hegemony of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, as well as Chicago’s top prosecutor, Anita Alvarez, and the police force whose racist violence they have enabled. Beginning with community outrage over Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s killing of black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the storm gathered strength when the dash cam video of the shooting was released in November 2015, after being suppressed by the city for 13 months. The footage showed the teen walking by in a non-threatening manner, then Van Dyke shooting him 16 times. Alvarez waited until just hours before the video’s release to charge Van Dyke with murder.
Driven by the unshakeable image of Laquan McDonald’s writhing body recoiling, defenseless, on the ground, a movement of the old — led by Reverend Jesse Jackson and Rainbow PUSH — and the young — led by Black Lives Matter — took to the streets.
Demonstrators insisted that Emanuel and Alvarez resign, and pundits speculated as to whether they would. Even the usually supportive New York Times castigated Emanuel, who is hypersensitive to his national image, as “willfully ignorant” and having “a complete lack of comprehension.” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — who was thought to be considering Rahm for a cabinet post — added their voices to the call for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation. In a poll of Chicago voters, 51 percent said Emanuel should resign, and a measure was introduced into the Illinois Legislature to establish a procedure for recalling a mayor.
Emanuel was forced into a desperate game of damage control. He apologized, fired his police superintendent and the head of the police disciplinary agency, and named a handpicked commission to study the problem of police accountability. When U.S Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was indeed opening an investigation, Emanuel, who had called the idea “misguided, quickly reversed course and welcomed the DOJ. Further marshalling his forces, he got long-time progressive African-American Congressman and former Black Panther leader Bobby Rush to publicly support him in an open letter to the Chicago newspapers.
Emanuel publicly condemned the police code of silence, reminded everyone that he was the Mayor who approved of reparations for the victims of police torture, and wrote in his apology: “Nothing less than complete and total reform of the system and the culture will meet the standards we have to set for ourselves.”
In that, he’s right. But, despite his strong words, it’s unlikely to come from Emanuel. Consider his record so far: He appointed Lori Lightfoot, the former head of the CPD’s completely discredited disciplinary agency, as the chair of his Commission; his “reforms” to date have consisted of counterproductive measures like the increased use of Tasers and a 60-day grace period before the city is required to release shooting videos; and he has steadfastly denied of any police wrongdoing at the now notorious secret interrogation site called Homan Square.
Emanuel appears to have no intention whatsoever of resigning, however, and there is no way for Chicagoans to force their mayor out, barring a change in state law to create a recall mechanism— something that has no real hope of passing the Democrat-controlled state legislature.
So what will it take for Rahm to go? Unless a smoking gun is uncovered that directly links Emanuel to the McDonald video cover-up — or he’s offered a Cabinet post in a Hillary Clinton administration — he will likely continue as Chicago’s controversial mayor, albeit wounded once again in the eyes of the African-American community, and with his national image in need of serious repair.
In contrast, Chicago has a strong chance of ousting Alvarez. The city’s entire African-American community and nearly every progressive and black politician — including Bobby Rush — have united to oppose her in tomorrow’s Democratic primary.
Alvarez has long been notorious for being in lockstep with the police force and its union. Until charging Van Dyke with murder, she had a disgraceful record of almost never prosecuting Chicago police officers for on-duty violence or perjury.
That’s just one page of Alvarez’s disgraceful record. She has also consistently shown contempt for African-American victims of police torture and wrongful convictions. In 2009, when a witness recanted prior testimony and came forward with evidence that exonerated a wrongfully convicted man, Alvarez prosecuted the witness for perjury. In 2011, she mounted a legal campaign against students and a professor at the Innocence Project who investigated a wrongful conviction case, in a blatant attempt to discredit them. In another high-profile scandal that year, she refused to charge the nephew of Mayor Richard M. Daley for the homicide of David Koschman, publicly promoted a false account of the crime, and fought against the appointment of a special prosecutor. (Full disclosure: I jointly represent David Koschman’s mother).
Since indicting Van Dyke, Alvarez has continued to flaunt her pro-police bias. After a video was released in December of 2015 showing a police officer shoot another fleeing African-American man, Ronald Johnson, in the back, Alvarez refused to charge the officer and, in a 30 minute presentation, attempted to explain away the shooting. And more than two months after Chicago police officers shot an unarmed, mentally ill 19-year-old African-American honors student, Quintonio LeGrier, and a 55-year-old female bystander, Bettie Jones, who opened the door for the police, Alvarez has yet to bring charges.
And, although five of the eight officers present at McDonald’s shooting filed reports (and may have testified at a secret grand jury) in support of Van Dyke’s false version of events — which the dash cam footage definitively contradicted — Alvarez has not charged any of them with obstruction of justice, official misconduct or perjury. A number of community groups have joined forces to petition the Chief Judge of the Cook County Criminal Courts to appoint an independent Special Prosecutor to prosecute Van Dyke and investigate the other officers involved. (I am one of the lawyers bringing this petition.)
Alvarez’s main challenger, reform candidate Kim Foxx, has garnered the endorsement of the Democratic Party Organization and both Chicago daily newspapers, and earned wide support in the African-American community and with progressives. Foxx, an African-American woman who grew up in the Cabrini-Green Housing Projects, has withstood Alvarez’s attacks on her close connection to progressive Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and has fought back with a TV ad that attacks Alvarez for her role in the McDonald and Koschman cases.
Foxx, who has represented abused children both as a public guardian and as a prosecutor, says that her view of how to reform the 900-lawyer Cook County State’s Attorneys’ Office is “transformative”: ending the “the tough-on-crime boogeyman approach” to criminal justice that has led to a massive increase in the number of people, particularly blacks and Latinos, ensnared in the system “without making our communities safer.” She, like her mentor Preckwinkle, would strive to greatly reduce the number of incarcerated persons of color in the county Jail. She promises to aggressively prosecute police misconduct cases and supports an independent special prosecutor for police shooting cases.
However, as Foxx is the first to admit, the prosecutor’s office, as powerful as it is, makes up only one cog in the racist wheel of police violence and mass incarceration. To bring transformative change to “criminal justice,” in Chicago and across the country, will require, at the very least, fundamental reform of sentencing laws, the juvenile “justice” system, police, prosecutors, jails and prisons, and — particularly in Cook County—the criminal court judiciary, as well as complete abolishment of the death penalty. When packaged with economic justice and a revitalized public school system, these fundamental changes could bring a real and lasting transformation of the “justice” system in America. It’s rare, however, that an Election Day offers a chance to take a positive step toward such a transformation. Chicagoans should not squander that opportunity on March 15.