Save Us From the Likes of George and Melody

For two years now at least, Chicago has been at the mercy of George and Melody, two wealthy people seeking to build a museum in our city.  Though George and Melody are accomplished, creative, and presumably well-connected, they never tried to build local support for their idea.  They never turned to other wealthy people in the city to join up with them and share in the expense of realizing their project (as was done, for example, to get the Auditorium Theater built).  They never mustered support from other leading cultural institutions or civic leaders, which might have convinced the public of the substantial benefits that would flow from realizing their idea.

Nor did George and Melody follow the example of themost ambitious museum-builder, the late J Paul Getty, who went out and bought the real estate on which his great museums stand.

No, George and Melody’s museum was to be built on public land.  Their museum was to go up on a parcel of public property that they would lease from the city for 99 years.  The lease payment would be a dollar a year.  For the museum’s design, George and Melody turned to a foreign architectural firm, so that not even the architect’s fees ended up staying in town.

For George and Melody, Mayor Emanuel was willing to make any concession.  The city government devoted oodles of time and expertise to ‘studying’ and fighting for this wealthy couple’s idea, at a time when our schools are out of cash and children in poor neighborhoods are being shot to death.  When the courts at last gave a cold shoulder to the presumptions of George and Melody, Melody chose to play the race card, lamenting that those thwarting the museum had deprived minority children of a signal something.

How different it might have been had George and Melody displayed some sensitivity to the city’s dire condition and sought to accommodate the public’s objections to their appropriation of public land.  As it was, their initiative fell short of being truly public-spirited.  Mayor Emanuel, for his part, was too willing to give too much away.  He ignored public anger about Daley-era lease deals that left Chicago with the short end of the stick and sought to subvert the public’s determination to prevent further desecration and development of the public lakefront.  Mistakenly, Emanuel promised George and Melody something that wasn’t his to give away.  And, instead of representing the citizens’ interest throughout the negotiations, Emanuel took up a position that was inimical to theirs.

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A Day in the Life of the Finance Committee: Estate of McDonald, case no. 14C2041

ON APRIL 13, 2015, five days after Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel narrowly won re-election, his corporation counsel, Steve Patton, appeared before the finance committee of the City Council.  He was there to urge aldermen to authorize a $5 million payment that the City had negotiated with Laquan McDonald‘s family.  (A transcript of the committee meeting is below.)

While Mr Patton made the aldermen uneasily aware that a video from the scene would establish that Laquan McDonald’s killing had been wrong and unnecessary, he plied them at the same time with positive arguments about the pay-out, a ‘common sense’ measure that would save the city trouble and money.  Already the family had been talked down from $16 million to just 5; settling with them would keep the video under wraps and silence inconvenient truths that the plaintiffs’ lawyers were murmuring.

Questions from the finance committee were not very searching but betray some disapproval and disgust.  Alderman Laurino’s questions about why Tasers were unavailable at the scene prompted Alderman Burke to comment, “It would appear had the Taser been available in this case, the taxpayers wouldn’t be shelling out $5 million.”  Alderman Burke, once a city cop, recalled that, in his day, officers were taught to shoot only three rounds (instead of the 16 that Officer Jason Van Dyke pumped into McDonald).  Alderman Ervin’s questions explored whether the officer who killed McDonald (identified to them only as ‘Officer A’) would be bear any responsibility, given that his misconduct was about to be cleaned up by the city.

The finance committee (which included ‘good’ aldermen like Scott Waguespack) then approved Patton’s proposal, which swiftly advanced to the Council, where it passed unopposed.  Alderman Burke, as the committee’s chair, introduced the $5-million payout merely as ‘Estate of McDonald, the case 14C2041.‘  This cryptic cue was understood by all, for the Council, with Mayor Emanuel present and wielding the gavel, approved the measure in 36 seconds, without a single question about what it might mean.

As a consequence, the rights and wrongs of McDonald’s shooting were never discussed in a judicial setting, sparing the city from accusations of wrong-doing.

The finance-committee transcript establishes that members of the Emanuel administration and City Council knew in April that McDonald’s killing was likely unjustified.  They knew that ‘Officer A’s’ actions were uncalled-for and way out of line.  In light of that uncomfortable reality, however, aldermen went along with the mayor fairly readily, agreeing to pay off the victim’s family rather than to speak out against City Hall or the police’s actions or to demand any change.

(Thanks to Natasha Korecki for making this transcript available on Scribd.)

Scandal Envelops Chicago

Screen shot of Officer Jason Van Dyke raising his weapon to shoot Laquan McDonald on a Chicago street.

The October 2014 video of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting Laquan McDonald became available only after a court battle and was first made public on November 25, 2015.

Everyone is more comfortable talking about ‘the video’ than about the killing of Laquan McDonald.  But the video is important only as ‘the thing left behind’—a messy artifact revealing that, for more than a year, Chicago’s police force and political establishment have all been complicit in covering up a dirty killing.

With this artifact as key, events of the past year have taken on a whole new meaning, one filling all Chicago with disgust and outrage.  This clue to ‘what really happened’ gives the public a yardstick, empirical and moral, for measuring all the related actions that our officials took subsequently.  The callousness, cowardice, and banality of their actions are enveloping the city in shame.

In a town used to corruption, this scandal is different, implicating the mayor, the police, the City Council, the state’s attorney, a complacent media, even, arguably, the victim’s family.

No one of the parties responsible for declaring Laquan McDonald’s death an unjustifiable mistake and demanding that his killer be appropriately punished rose to the occasion.  For various reasons, everyone involved shirked this basic responsibility, efficiently burying the facts of the case in such a way that a gross miscarriage of justice was, in the end, nobody’s fault,’ as Dickens would say.

Now the guilty parties are rushing to save themselves, stab others in the back, and shift the burden of responsibility.  The mayor fired the police chief the other day.  The feds will step up their investigating.  But will the guilty be punished?  Will Chicago ever change?  As all Chicago wakes to the reality of its government’s systemic corruption, we’re about to find out whether any entity has the wherewithal to hold the police union, the mayor, or the City Council responsible for actions that amounted to an obstruction of justice.

Image: Screen shot from dashcom video,
which can be viewed in its entirety here.

Rahm’s Chicago: A Nice Place to Visit

Chicago: The Drive at night, © 2014 Susan Barsy
Heading south on the Drive after being away, I feel a surge of pride—such a beautiful city!  I pull out my camera and begin taking pictures of the familiar buildings—the Hancock, the Drake, the Palmolive with its beacon on—the Gold Coast all dressed up for the night.  The beauty of Chicago, the myriad things that are right about it, evoke pleasure and pride.  The face of Chicago is deceptive, having only grown more beautiful with time. Continue reading

Democrats: Shake It Up

CAN THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY change from within?  Probably not, because most very active Democrats see no need to.  The party has its entrenched blocs of support, just as the Republican Party does.  The Democratic Party’s need to retain its base, which it counts on to win in national elections, enforces its own tendency to be conservative.  Sadly, the party is unlikely to give up or disregard interests already in its column, even if doing so would bring it a base of support that’s broader, stronger, and more fervent.

It’s an unfortunate situation for several reasons.  1.) The Democratic Party is at risk of losing control of the Senate to an observably weaker party that’s on the verge of disintegrating.  Yet rather than boost its popularity by advancing a constellation of smart new ideas, the Democratic Party is coasting along defensively, its identity defined by its historical positions and the reactive posture it habitually assumes vis-à-vis the Republican Party.  What the Republicans attack, the Democrats defend.

2.) The Democrats’ patchy ideological vision leaves the country vulnerable to a rightward lurch: the staleness that might seem a parochial problem is a problem for the country, too.  The party’s failure to take up feasible positions on matters like fiscal reform or entitlements, for instance, leaves us with a defeated, going-nowhere feeling.  (Did you know that many Democrats, including my own representative Jan Schakowsky, voted against the bill to increase the debt ceiling?  Their numbers equaled the number of Republicans who voted no.)  Democrats’ inability to change with the times is creating an ideological vacuum that other ideas—other candidates—other factions are filling.

3.) In the meantime, large blocs of disaffected or simply bored voters have been left without partisan representation.  Such voters now comprise a plurality of the electorate, as the percentage of Americans affiliated with either party has continued to decline.  If the Democrats wish to remain relevant, they as a group must fashion an ideology that appeals to a greater number of these voters, and that’s compelling enough to induce them to identify with the party.

It’s not enough for a few leading Democrats (e.g., the President) to espouse new ideas.  The Democrats collectively must shift to new ground.  It’s not enough for a few Democrats reach out to young voters, or to green voters, say, because, in themselves, such gestures have no efficacy.  Without the power of a whole party behind them, the proposals of a few men or women mean nothing.

Until the Party modifies its identity, its would-be adherents will know the party is not really about them.  They won’t be able to rely on it as a vehicle of their values and concerns.  This is why enthusiasm for voting and the parties is waning.  This is why so many Americans are dissatisfied with the work their political leaders are doing.  The parties do not faithfully mirror modern Americans and their world; the mirrors they hold up are cloudy with the treacly cliches of decades.  They’re distorted with age.

Democrats must give up their comfortable mantras and embrace efficiency.  They must become champions of small, smart government, because this is the only kind that we can sustain.  There’s no reason why Democrats can’t continue to champion a constructive federalism (that’s only sensible), but they must work to rid government of its bloated, statist qualities.  Democrats must work toward a sort of state that maximizes individual freedom, which paradoxically might include becoming more protective of our economy, our skills & labor, and our resources and environment.

Democrats should identify themselves with the project of restoring civic integrity to the country, whether through increased emphasis on civics education in schools, through clearer paths to citizenship, or through the embrace of a party-wide pledge to renounce things like super-PAC money.  Democrats should acknowledge that entitlements must be reformed and take the lead in proposing changes that are practical and humane.

There are glimmers of hope within the Democratic Party.  I find it hopeful that the president and the Clintons are working together more closely.  Though none are ideologues, each has personified a pragmatic liberalism that could help catalyze a new outlook party-wide.  If aided by an echelon of leading Democrats, their inclinations could form the nucleus of an all-out movement.

Meanwhile, closer to home, a progressive version of Democracy is very much on display, with Illinoisans like Rahm Emanuel, Toni Preckwinkle, and now even Governor Quinn pushing against the party’s traditional constituencies in a quest for more efficient government that reins in spending.

Can the Democrats shake it up and become a new party?  Though it seems up to them, perhaps the answer’s with you.

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