Mariame Kaba: Social Movements Brought Down Rahm—Now They Can Transform Chicago

A conversation with writer and organizer, Mariame Kaba.

Sarah Lazare

Demonstrators protest the shooting of Laquan McDonald along the Magnificent Mile November 27, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Rahm Emanuel’s September 4 announcement that he will not seek a third term as Chicago’s mayor inspired instant celebration from the activists who have spent nearly eight years fighting — and trying to survive — his brutal policies. Emanuel’s resignation also provoked angry attempts to tally the harm he has done, from orchestrating the largest school closure in U.S. history to shuttering half the city’s mental health clinics to overseeing a police department guilty of racist violence and unreasonable killings,” as the Department of Justice determined in 2017. In a city run by Democrats, Emanuel turned Chicago into a petri dish for neoliberal programs — showing the rest of the country you don’t have to be a Republican to enforce ruthless capitalist policies.

"We need to care for each other in real ways. We need to ensure that the commons are built up so that we can actually use the commons for addressing the needs of the most marginalized within our community, so that becomes a part of our culture."

Following Emanuel’s announcement, organizer, educator and writer Mariame Kaba — who lived in Chicago for many years — immediately took to Twitter to declare, I need our people TO ORGANIZE IMMEDIATELY.” Kaba knows a thing or two about organizing. She founded and directs Project Nia, which aims to end youth incarceration, and she has co-founded numerous organizations and projects over the years, from We Charge Genocide to Survived and Punished. Kaba has been instrumental to the popularization of abolitionist organizing which pursues a world beyond police and prisons in which social well-being — not punishment — is the goal. In Chicago, she’s seen as a mentor and co-conspirator to many of the organizers who have been going head-to-head with Emanuel throughout his tenure. In These Times spoke with Kaba about Emanuel’s legacy as mayor and what social movements can do next.

According to Kaba, Emanuel’s resignation was won, in part, by social movements — and now it is up to these movements to seize on the opening. Doing so requires a full accounting of the destruction wrought by Emanuel’s policies, she says, as well as a highly organized base to put Chicago on a new course to ensure the commons are built up.” Kaba emphasizes, Those who are on the sidelines now should come into the fight. They’re needed and they’re wanted.” The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Lazare: I was hoping to start by getting your gut reaction to the news that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not going to seek reelection. 

Mariame Kaba: I was surprised, to be honest, that he’s not going to go for a third term. He’s been raising all this money, and it appears that he’s been making plans to go ahead and run, so it was definitely a surprise that he chose not to run. It wasn’t shocking, but I was surprised. It is a difficult job that he does very poorly. If he did go for a third term, he wouldn’t go for a fourth. That would be almost unimaginable. And so this would be a third term where his power would be significantly diminished. He’s already losing power.

Sarah: Do you think social movements deserve partial credit for Rahm not seeking another term?

Mariame: Yes. There’s no question. I said at the beginning I’m surprised that he’s not running, but not shocked. He was under relentless pressure from the moment he won. He was under pressure before he won because people knew what kind of Democrat he was — from the corporate wing of the Democratic Party. The protests have been relentless.

Rahm’s wife Amy Rule said in an interview a few days ago that it’s no fun for [his family] having their front yard picketed.” We’re supposed to feel sorry for him because of that statement, when in fact what that shows is that people were relentless in pushing back against him all the time, which is exhausting and it can feel so futile. It can feel like people’s suffering is increasing and you’re having to fight like hell but seeing only minimal positive results.

There’s just no question that the push from so many sectors and so many people is, in part, why he’s not going to run, why he’s quitting. We also need to acknowledge the fact that it was not one group of people that was responsible for this. It wasn’t just the Chicago Teachers Union or the nurses or whoever; it’s not one group that pressured him. These seven years have actually been a great demonstration of the amount of pushback that can happen across multiple sectors with lots and lots of different groups fighting all the time. It’s a great illustration of movement work.

Sarah: What do you think the public should remember about Emanuel’s political legacy — and the legacy of the protests and organizing against him? 

Mariame: I think people should know a few things about him. The term neoliberal policies” gets thrown around quite a bit. But neoliberalism is just capitalism at its core. The policies Rahm pushed and tried to implement are so emblematic of what people mean when they talk about neoliberal politics. He was 100 percent about using the state to remake communities in favor of those with resources over those without. At every opportunity, he favored privatizing the commons.

He used the powers that he had, including mayoral control of the schools, to basically decimate the Chicago Public Schools system, and to vastly increase the number of charter schools. He oversaw the most massive school closure in the history of the United States, closing 50 schools as of 2013. Those traumatic events galvanized the Chicago teachers’ union to really become, as they call it, a social justice union. And there was the big teachers’ strike in 2012. His policies and the ways that he was operating in his job really galvanized the teachers. I think he miscalculated in thinking the public would turn on the teachers. We didn’t.

At the start of his first term, he immediately began the privatization of mental health care by closing down half of the mental health clinics in the city of Chicago. Community pushback against this move was fierce. This was supposed to save the city money. The money it was supposed to save was negligible, but the pain suffered by people who lost their public mental health clinic was incalculable.

Then there’s the complete and utter mismanagement of public housing and the Chicago Housing Authority, which people almost never pay attention to, but is incredibly critical, as affordable housing is critical to any community. There’s the decrease of Black people living in Chicago during his tenure, which precedes him, and has become much more acute during his tenure. You could go through so many different effects of his tenure that have led to the further immiseration of the population, particularly people of color, on the South and West Sides of the city.

People will say that his tenure also launched the recent spike of gun violence in the city of Chicago. That seems to be the thing that the conservatives love to link him to. When they talk about Rahm Emanuel, they like to use homicide” as a stand-in trope to basically do racial agitation. It’s all code for Black people are animals and violent savages.

I do want to say, however, that this recent spike is after Chicago had seen a precipitous drop in violence over many years. This was a drop in homicides that people sensationalize, especially for people who are outside of the city. Flash back to the 1990s, when I moved here in 95, the homicide rate was very high compared to the rates that we have today. And what we have in Chicago is an inequality of interpersonal violence in the sense that certain communities have very, very high rates compared to other communities that have much, much lower rates. Homicides in Chicago are unevenly distributed like everything else in the city.

I think that the violence that Rahm is actually most responsible for is the destructive structural and economic forces that have been unleashed through his tenure. His mismanagement, or I wouldn’t even call it mismanagement, his intentional siphoning of funding from communities through TIF into downtown locations. Extracting resources from communities that desperately need them, divesting from those communities, leaving those communities high and dry, which also then seeps into interpersonal forms of violence for those communities.

So I don’t want to fall into the right-wing trap of characterizing Chicago as the wild wild, west, where Black interpersonal violence is rampant, and then blaming Rahm Emanuel for that. That’s not the correct narrative. You should blame Emanuel for enabling systemic and structural violence that have been unleashed through his policies on to poor communities of color. But this is not the narrative about violence in Chicago that is uplifted nationally. It should be. Interpersonal violence mirrors structural violence. People like to focus on one to the exclusion of the other.

Sarah: As I’m sure you’re aware, Rahm has tried to present himself as part of the resistance against Trump, and tried to present Chicago as a sanctuary city. Meanwhile, social movements have been organizing against his brutal capitalist policies for a long time. Recently, for example, No Cop Academy has been frustrated with just how disrespectful and dismissive he is of the demands from young Black people that the city invest in public goods like schools and health care centers rather than more policing. Given this dynamic, what do you think that Chicago organizing under the Emanuel administration can teach the rest of the country?

Mariame: I think there are so many lessons to learn from Chicago organizing and organizers. I lived for over 20 years in this city, committing and working and making a community for myself in the city. I no longer live there as of the last couple years, but I think there are lessons to learn. It isn’t about Democrats versus Republicans. Chicago is a democratic city; there is only one Republican on the city council.

I think a lesson is to focus on issues instead of focusing on political parties. You need to push your issue. The candidate that exists — you should think of them as your interlocutor; they are simply a vessel to help you win your issue. Politics is ultimately about having enough power to successfully influence people to get them to do what you want. That’s what raw politics are. Politics is about power.

I think we get into a mess when we personalize politics, for example, this person is a lovely human being, or this person is the devil incarnate. We need to focus on issues, because we learned, here in Chicago, that a lot of Democrats, for years, have been neglectful of communities of color — have been completely neglectful or sometimes actively horrible. Those Democrats’ interests are aligned with rich donors, and they have no problem enacting their policies. But for us, everything is a fight. We need to be clear on our issues and be clear on our tactics and strategies so that we can achieve our goals.

I think it’s important to always know that the things that need to happen won’t necessarily happen tomorrow. To have a longer view of the struggle and fight, to always be vigilant as well about backtracking and backsliding after elections. You want people to take accountability for what they promised to do in the first place. It’s not voting that matters above all, it’s also the holding elected officials accountable to promises. Voting to me is a tactic. It’s a tool in a larger toolbox of many other things that can be used in order to win our issues. I find myself getting so annoyed when I hear people offering voting as the end all and be all to making social change. What we need to be doing every single day is to build a base of people who can demand what we want and organize to get it. 

In a city like Chicago, it is in stark relief on a daily basis that a lot of people are Democrats in their affiliation, and they continue to be antithetical to the well-being of the masses. And they are also not attentive to the key sufferings of the people — their politics are not driven by that.

Sarah: You said on Twitter that now is a critical time to get organized. Can you say what you mean by that and offer suggestions for concrete next steps?

Mariame: Yesterday was the moment, the day before was the moment, to make sure that we have organized forces that can rise to the occasion of having this unexpected opening. We have a window and we can try to get somebody in power who can be pushed to deliver our organized demands. This person is not going to be perfect, not going to perfectly align with us on everything, but it has to be somebody who can be pushed and somebody who at least has some level of accountability to people. We can put somebody there who can actually enact a significant portion of our agenda, so that less people will suffer.

The people who can organize and have a coalition of different types of people, those folks are going to be able to win. Because there’s chaos and people are trying to position themselves, being organized is going to be all the more important. I actually have some faith that this is possible, because of all the years of organizing that already have happened here in the city. There are mobilized, well-trained, smart people in this city who have been fighting for so many years who I think, with the right candidate, are in the good position to be able to win in February of next year. It’s really incumbent to find that vessel: a candidate who is aligned with a set of organized demands.

What are the four or five things that absolutely must be enacted in the first year of any new mayor? What are those things? Can people have some semblance of consensus around what those five things can be and who can train their attention to holding that person accountable for those five things? That’s critically important in this moment: What is that agenda and what will the program look like? Who’s going to pull people together to hash that out as soon as possible?

It’s not just about the mayor. There’s the horrific council, which has been a rubber stamp for this mayor for his entire time in office — and a rubber stamp for every single mayor in Chicago. We don’t have a council that’s an independent check, that does anything that the mayor doesn’t want. We’ve got to get rid of the people who are there too. So one of the strategic opportunities is to go after particularly alderpeople who have been particularly friendly to Rahm, because Rahm’s enablers have to also go.

And it doesn’t take much in Chicago to actually move an alderperson out. Because so few people actually vote in the wards. So can you imagine, if you get 2 percent more people out to vote, you can shift everything in your ward. It’s going to be really critical to start getting some candidates, or getting behind candidates, who are already on the truly progressive end of things — and who can also be pushed when they get in, and have accountability to the people who got them to power. That strategy has to go hand in hand with this mayoral election. And we have a couple people already running who are coming out of movements. We can push and hopefully get them into these kinds of power positions within the city of chicago. So I think that’s what people have got to do.

There’s the fight over who gets in, but the next day, there’s going to be continued struggle — because that’s really really important. And it’s particularly important that the left in the city is able to organize enough to get a real progressive person. Because the next day, all the monied interests of the city will be coming after that person. The question is going to be: Who is there to back that person up? Who is there to push back against those monied interests? Who is there to hold the new Mayor accountable to the promises made?

Sarah: What are the critical requisites for candidates trying to undo the harm that the Emanuel administration has done?

Mariame: The stuff about education and schools, that’s going to be critical to any sort of platform work. The stuff around the police and what is going on here, at the very least, they should push for the Civilian Police Accountability Council to go through. I think there’s going to be a whole slew of things that need to happen, and mental health clinics reopening has to be at the top of that. This is connected to the issue of policing.

There is also the question of how resources are distributed. What is going on with the TIF (tax increment financing) fund? What is happening there? The Grassroots Collaborative has been working on that for the last few years.

The issue now is people getting pushed out of their neighborhoods — rising rent and the demolition of public housing. How are you going to create housing that people can actually afford in the city? How are you going to actually prevent old communities from being uprooted because of gentrification. And it’s more complicated than gentrification.

I want to know about how this person is going to work on those things, and I think once some of that gets actually achieved, so many other things will get addressed. It’ll be a domino effect. If people have a home that they can afford, they will be less likely to be sick. If people have their mental health needs addressed, and this is decoupled from policing, we’re going to save more lives because so many people who are being shot and killed by the cops on a regular basis are calling in for wellness concerns. If we address the source of suffering, this will actually solve problems, and that will allow people to live better lives, and more dignified lives, and lives that allow them to be able to pursue their self determination. That’s so critically important.

I think we need to cancel the Cop Academy immediately, as first business. We need to care for each other in real ways. We need to ensure that the commons are built up so that we can actually use the commons for addressing the needs of the most marginalized within our community, so that becomes a part of our culture.

Sarah: Is there anything you haven’t said that you want to communicate about this moment and the opportunities it offers?

Mariame: I want to say something about the young people in the city of Chicago who have been fighting like hell in the city since the first term, and faced the non-indictment of Darren Wilson and the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the non-indictment of George Zimmerman. That class of young folks that got activated to action in those moments are the ones really leading us right now in these fights that are happening, whether it’s organizing or deciding to run themselves for office. I want to say that not in a condescending or patronizing way at all, and not in a youth-will-save-us way. I don’t believe that: I’m grown and I save myself every day. I have to fight for my own survival, and my survival is connected to everybody else’s.

But I want to say that, historically, young people have taken the lead to get more justice in the world. I’ve seen this in Chicago over the two decades I lived there. I have faith in young people’s leadership.

I also want to make clear again that voting is not a panacea, but it’s about using it as a tactic as we push for radical things. I hope that more young people get engaged in the mayoral and aldermanic elections, because their voices matter and because it can be good practice in organizing. They can use electoral organizing as one way to focus on the issues they care about, get clear on that, and the platform they’re going to be fighting for. The candidate, in my opinion, comes second to all that.

Those who are on the sidelines now should come into the fight. They’re needed and they’re wanted. All the things that they bring to the mix are really desperately sorely needed in this moment. So if they are on the sidelines, now is the time for them to come in. I hope that if they haven’t already joined the fight, that they join now. I hope that they remember that electoral organizing is not the end-all-be-all of organizing, but one significant lever in building more power to win their issues.

Amelia Diehl transcribed this interview.

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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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