CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel cut short a family vacation this past week and returned to a city in crisis: On the North Side, more than a dozen people stood outside his house, hurling insults. On the West Side, a close aide was punched and kicked while attending a prayer vigil for a police shooting victim. And all week long, there were protesters, haunting one of Emanuel’s biggest political donors, haranguing his police force, beating a papier-mâché likeness of his face at City Hall.
More than a month has passed since a judge forced Emanuel (D) and other city officials to release a graphic video of a white Chicago police officer shooting a black teenager 16 times.But public anger over the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald in October 2014 has not dissipated. Instead, it has grown bitter and more personal.
“Oh, it’s personal, all right. We’re making it personal,” yelled Ja’Mal Green, 20, a former Emanuel supporter who spent hours in bone-cold weather on the sidewalk outside the mayor’s spacious Ravenswood home, mocking him and urging him to resign.
The protests reflect frustration with chronic problems Emanuel inherited in Chicago, a city long plagued by police brutality, failing schools, rampant gang violence and dire finances. But as Emanuel enters his second term, critics say he has deepened distrust in City Hall through a string of scandals affecting his administration, a lack of transparency and his abrasive personal style.
More anger may be on the way.
Leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union, a longtime political foe, are threatening a “protracted strike” this year, the union’s second since Emanuel took office in 2011. And a massive tax and fee increase that Emanuel ushered through the City Council this past fall is about to take effect, including the largest property tax increase in modern Chicago history.
Although Emanuel built a reputation in Washington as a crisis manager and consummate fixer for two presidents, critics and friends alike say it remains unclear how, or whether, he will be able to fix this crisis.
“His entire legacy is resting now on making real reform happen,” said David Axelrod, a friend and brother-in-arms from the Obama White House.
On the streets of Chicago, the list of grievances is long — especially in the city’s black wards, where Emanuel won strong initial support from voters because of his service as chief of staff to the nation’s first African American president, and he managed to hold on to a majority there when he won reelection last year. But over the years, community activists say that Emanuel has done much to abuse their support.
They point to his feud with the teachers union and say he has plowed cash into big, splashy projects downtown at the expense of desperate needs in their neighborhoods. He handpicked a public schools chief executive who pleaded guilty in October to a federal corruption charge in a scheme to receive a fortune in kickbacks.
Perhaps most infuriating, though, was his shuttering of 50 public schools in 2013 — the largest one-time school closures in U.S. history — almost all of them in black and Latino neighborhoods. The move sparked widespread anger and in part fueled the political campaign of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a comparatively unknown Cook County commissioner who failed to unseat Emanuel, but only after forcing him in February into a runoff.
“Rahm came around asking for votes, then turned around and quickly forgot all about those same people,” said Zerlina Smith, 38, who said her daughter had to walk through gang territory to catch a bus to school after her old elementary closed.
Smith said she now drives her daughter to school every morning. But she fears further disruption later this year, when the new elementary school is set to be merged with a high school to save money.
Emanuel and his supporters say the mayor has taken significant political risks to salvage the city financially and rebuild its economy. But they say he is battling “multigenerational problems” of racial disparity, poverty and violence.
“From Day One, the mayor has taken on deep-rooted challenges that had built up in Chicago over past decades to stabilize pensions and finances, create economic opportunity throughout the city, improve educational opportunities for our children, and reform the police culture,” Emanuel’s spokesman Adam Collins said in an email. “He has been unafraid to make tough decisions when the result would be a stronger city.”
The shooting of Laquan McDonald, 17, occurred Oct. 20, 2014, just before Emanuel announced he was running for a second term. Police said they were responding to reports of a man with a knife. Police then said that McDonald refused to drop the four-inch blade and that Officer Jason Van Dyke emptied his 16-round handgun into McDonald because he felt that the teenager posed an imminent threat.
When journalists demanded to see the dashboard-camera video of the incident, officials in Emanuel’s administration refused to release it for more than a year until a judge ordered them to comply.
The video — released Nov. 24, a day before the judge’s deadline — shows Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times even as McDonald is walking away. Heightening suspicions, prosecutors waited until hours before the video’s release to charge Van Dyke with first-degree murder.
The streets of Chicago erupted in protests, which continued last weekend after police fatally shot an emotionally disturbed college student and his neighbor, a 55-year-old woman.
Emanuel has worked to contain the crisis, but his response has seemed uncharacteristically clumsy for a man known in Washington for keen political calculation. Meanwhile, that same reputation for tactics has fueled skepticism about the sincerity of his response.
For example, Emanuel at first portrayed McDonald’s shooting as the isolated act of one rogue cop. But in the face of protests, he reversed course, calling for “complete and total reform” of the Chicago police.
Emanuel expressed confidence in Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy — until firing him under pressure Dec. 1. And Emanuel opposed a Justice Department investigation of the police department — until Hillary Clinton and other prominent national Democrats joined the call.
Last month, in an unexpectedly emotional speech to the City Council, Emanuel apologized for the McDonald shooting. But he has insisted that he was simply following procedure in withholding the video, and he denied allegations that he delayed it to avoid angering voters ahead of the election.
On Thursday, New Year’s Eve, Emanuel’s office released 3,000 emails related to the case that had been long been requested by news organizations. They show that the mayor’s aides knew early on that the shooting could lead to problems but revealed no specific evidence of a coverup.
“The videotape was handled in precisely the same way such tapes and evidence have been historically,” the mayor wrote in a Dec. 4 op-ed in the Chicago Tribune with the headline “I own the problem of police brutality, and I’ll fix it.” He wrote, “No one could have predicted that it would take more than a year to finish the probe.”
But many remain unconvinced.
“Everything he’s doing now, everything he’s saying now: Would he be doing it if a judge didn’t force him to release that video? If it weren’t for the people in the streets?” said Tio Hardiman, an anti-violence activist from Chicago.
The protests have included longtime critics, disillusioned former supporters and a large number of newly rising youth activists.
One of the most vocal has been Green, the 20-year-old who until recently served as an anti-
violence volunteer for Emanuel and City Hall in the public schools.
The day before the McDonald video was released, Green said he and other community activists were summoned to a meeting at City Hall, where Emanuel asked for their help keeping the city calm. But the next day, Green said, when he saw the video, he felt angry and betrayed.
“What the mayor doesn’t understand is that the trust is gone,” Green said. “He can do whatever he wants to do, but it’s not coming back. That’s why he’s got to go.”
Friends believe that Emanuel will weather and survive the maelstrom and that he would never voluntarily resign.
“No one leads through a crisis better than Rahm,” said Sarah Feinberg, one of Emanuel’s closest former aides in Congress and the White House. “He understands that these moments, tough as they are, are the ones that ultimately lead to transformative change.”
There is no legal mechanism to force his resignation. A bill to enable a mayoral recall election has been introduced in the state legislature but is given little chance of passage. And while many in Chicago’s political establishment have been critical of Emanuel, few have joined calls for his resignation.
“If Rahm were to resign, Chicago would only move from one chaos to another chaos,” Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), an influential member of Chicago’s black community, wrote in a recent letter to the Chicago Sun-Times. “We have at this time a critical point to bargain for real change.”
The more practical question, local leaders say, is how Emanuel will govern in the face of near-daily protests. At the policy level, he has promised reforms in the Chicago police, starting with a plan unveiled Wednesday to reduce police shootings by equipping every officer responding to calls with a less-lethal Taser.
And in recent weeks, Emanuel has reached out to black leaders. Two prominent ministers, the Revs. Marshall Hatch and Ira Acree, said they were called to a private Dec. 8 meeting in which Emanuel seemed to be trying to assess their level of support.
“We told him how diminished his own credibility was,” Acree recalled. “We said if you really want to build trust, you have to go beyond your scurrilous minions in Washington and listen to people who have different views.”
They took the opportunity to press him for an independent civilian board to review police shootings as well as public hearings into the handling of the McDonald video.
The mayor responded, they said, by abruptly calling the meeting to a close.
“The mayor has a reputation for getting people to do things even if they don’t want to do it. But at this point, he’s going to need people to follow not out of fear or power but out of a sense they’ve been convinced,” said Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “People want to love their city. But they also love and want justice.”
Guarino is a freelance writer. Alice Crites in Washington and Peter Slevin in Chicago contributed to this report.