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Can Chicago forgive Rahm Emanuel?

He’s starting with the “man in the mirror,” but will the DOJ report help him change his ways?

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel - CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES
  • Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel

It's no secret that, like countless other Chicagoans, I've been miffed with Mayor Rahm for quite some time now.

His undermining of the public schools, his apparent deference to the city's monied power elite, his initial reluctance to challenge Chicago's culture of policing, and the alleged cover-up in the Laquan McDonald shooting have all but convinced me that "Mayor 1 Percent" is a fitting moniker for the former Washington operative.

And indeed I was among the many who called on him to resign in December 2015.

That month, when Emanuel tearfully apologized during a speech to the City Council about the McDonald shooting, I wasn't buying his crocodile tears. He's a politician, sure, but he's no ordinary one. He has oratory prowess. He has charisma and nerve, if not some undue aggression. He can perform and posture for the cameras. He's beyond obsessed with his public image.

But I'd be lying if I didn't say I was somewhat compelled by his prepared remarks at the Department of Justice press conference. On January 13, he stood alongside outgoing U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch as she unearthed her bureau's findings, and the "agreement in principle" to enter into a consent decree that would address the Chicago Police Department's deficiencies and misdeeds.

A thorough investigation into the department, Lynch said, found that far too many of the city's residents have not enjoyed "police protection that is lawful, responsive, and transparent."

"It's also bad for dedicated police officers trying to do their jobs safely and effectively," she said in a statement.

But for Emanuel, who initially resisted any federal probe of Chicago's policing problems, the long-awaited release of the DOJ report was an apparent day of reckoning—even more so than when the city's Police Accountability Task Force issued its own scathing account last April.



At the DOJ presser, Emanuel said that any wrongdoing cited in the report can be "solved by what most Chicago police officers are doing right, and doing right every day."

But he also argued that everyday citizens have a role to play.

"If we want Chicago to be a model for the nation," he said, "each of us must choose to be a model in our own lives—a model toward those we protect and serve, a model toward those we love and cherish, and a model toward those we do not know or have not noticed."

I'll take that as his soft nod to racism, discriminatory behavior against marginalized groups, and implicit bias. Yet neither he nor Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson ever named these issues explicitly in their prepared remarks.

But as the Tribune pointed out, that morning, at an interfaith breakfast to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Emanuel said, "Later today I’ll be standing with the attorney general as the Justice Department issues a report outlining the unequal treatment at the hands of the very people sworn to protect and serve us. It's a sobering reminder that [King's] work, our work, is not yet finished."

So which Rahm is the real Rahm? When he spoke to the general public, he tap danced around the issue of race. The Rahm behind closed doors at a fund-raiser breakfast with an audience filled with black Chicagoans was a bit more full-throated.

Thankfully, members of the press held his feet to the fire during the DOJ press event. One reporter even asked the mayor if he felt he owed Chicago an apology in the wake of the report's release.

And after pivoting here and there for a few moments, Emanuel finally answered the question, even as he rebuffed it.

"There's a difference between holding people accountable and being cynical," he said, adding that the latter approach "gets you nowhere."

But the mayor has to understand that his handling of the McDonald shooting, his dealings with the police department, and his economic and social policies have worn thin the patience of Chicagoans, those who were so dissatisfied with him in 2015 that he became the first sitting Chicago mayor to ever face a runoff election.

If he wants true forgiveness, we need honesty—100 percent, unadulterated, unfettered honesty from here on out. No audience posturing. No publicity stunts. No taking credit from where its due, as some have accused him of doing at past press conferences (and arguably even at DOJ event, where he didn't mention his initial reluctance toward an investigation as much as he emphasized how "swiftly" he wanted to implement changes).

If you want Chicago's forgiveness, Mayor Rahm, you must earn it. Earn our forgiveness, and let your actions speak louder than your posturing. Until then, I'll be peering down my glasses at you with a side-eye.   v


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