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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Won’t Seek A Third Term. These Movements Are A Big Reason.

Protesters blasting everything from punitive prosecutors to police brutality should be remembered for their role in upsetting the Windy City’s political status quo.

A demonstrator protesting in 2015 over the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with murder in the 2014 death of 17-year-old McDonald.Photo illustration by Anagraph/ Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty

On Sept. 4, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he would not seek re-election. Many local activists and organizers celebrated the news. But with a race dominated by establishment candidates, including former Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy and Paul Vallas, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools who is a veteran of New Orleans’ racist charter school system and a longtime advocate of school privatization, others insisted the celebrations were premature.  

I was among those celebrating, because, for Chicago’s grassroots organizers, the moment was well-earned. Though I would be troubled that in the days afterward many of the key stories behind Emanuel’s downfall were being clipped from the public narrative, despite strong, continuing evidence of their impact.

There are movements that should not be forgotten when the history of Emanuel’s Chicago is told: the Mental Health Movement, which fought Emanuel’s devastating attacks on public mental health care; the Dyett hunger strikers, who prevented a local high school from being shuttered; parents who occupied their children’s schools in the battle against Emanuel’s mass school closures.

Movements against state violence also had a tremendous impact on the Emanuel administration. Conservatives have seized upon Chicago’s often-exaggerated murder rate as a signifier of “Black on Black” crime, but for those who live here, intra-community violence is part of a larger continuum of harm, and cannot be separated from violence imposed by the state. It is therefore impossible to understand the story Emanuel’s two terms as mayor without examining protest movements that challenged the violence of his police force.

As an organizer and a movement journalist, I contributed to these moments and also worked to document them. Given that perspective, I believe that these campaigns and movement moments should be preserved for the historical record.

‘Reparations now’

Between 1972 and 1991, over 100 Black men were tortured by the Chicago police under the infamous leadership of Commander Jon Burge, who died at the age of 70 on Sept. 19. The city has paid $120 million to settle claims related to torture allegations against Burge and his officers, but a true tally of those affected may never be known.

In 2010, a group called Chicago Torture Justice Memorials began organizing to seek justice for the survivors of police torture and to memorialize their suffering. In 2012, the group drafted a reparations ordinance including demands for financial compensation for victims as well as specialized counseling services and free tuition at city colleges for survivors and their immediate families. The document also called for a monument to survivors of police torture and an addition to the public school curriculum that would reflect the experiences of torture survivors. It seemed like an impossible set of demands—but as organizer Mariame Kaba stated at the time, it was “a transformative document” worth fighting for.

The campaign for reparations dogged Emanuel as he campaigned for re-election in 2015, turning the lobby outside his office into a pop-up art exhibit about police torture and interrupting his day-to-day activities. One activist ambushed him while he was enjoying some ice cream. Organizers also staged mock votes on city trains, in which voters chose between Emanuel and reparations. Politically vulnerable, and hampered by the scrutiny of the media and his opponent, Jesús “Chuy” García, Emanuel could do little to defend himself.

On a cold night in February that year, a group of protesters amassed outside Emanuel’s home, lifting a large, lighted message that read “REPARATIONS NOW.” There was a visible reaction inside the home. Blinds were closed and lights went out. After Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term was announced, a source close to him claimed that protests outside the mayor’s family home were a major stressor and a serious consideration as he pondered a re-election bid. It has also been noted in the media that Emanuel would most likely face another runoff if he sought a third term—a prediction that probably troubled Emanuel, given the beating he took from activists during his runoff against Garcia.

The strongest crusaders for the ordinance were, of course, the torture survivors themselves. Their stories were nightmarish, moving and profoundly articulated. Darrell Cannon was subjected to three mock executions with a shotgun before his genitals were shocked with a cattle prod. A plastic bag was placed over Anthony Holmes’s head while he was subjected to electric shocks from a crude device that Burge operated himself. Students and artists, moved by their narratives, created and exhibited work that fueled a moral reckoning. By the time the city agreed to a negotiated version of the ordinance, a narrative had been forged that could not be undone—one that has now been written into the curriculum of Chicago’s city schools.

With the early momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement at its back, the reparations campaign saw victory in 2015, after leveraging Emanuel’s vulnerability in a mayoral runoff. On May 6, 2015, the Chicago City Council passed the reparations ordinance which established a $5.5 million fund for Burge’s victims and provided free tuition at  city colleges for survivors and their families. In May 2017, the Chicago Torture Justice Center, which “seeks to address the traumas of police violence and institutionalized racism through access to healing and wellness services,” opened on the city’s South Side as part of the reparations package.

‘16 shots and a cover-up’

In October 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. Over a year later, video of McDonald’s killing was released. Emanuel along with other officials, including then State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, withheld the video from the public until after Emanuel had secured his second term. In a hotly contested race, many questioned whether Emanuel could have defeated Garcia if the images of McDonald being killed—as he was walking away from Van Dyke—had been broadcast during the campaign. Garcia has continued to ascend politically, and is currently running for U.S. Congress in Illinois’ 4th District.

The court-ordered release of the video of McDonald’s death gave rise to massive demonstrations led by Black youth that electrified the city for weeks. During one protest, participants shut down the city’s most popular downtown shopping destinations, including Macy’s, on Black Friday in 2015, costing retailers 25 to 50 percent of their projected sales on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. “Today, there is no shopping on Michigan Avenue,” said one protester. “Because Laquan McDonald won’t have a Christmas.” Unsatisfied by the first-degree murder charge filed against Van Dyke on the day the video was released, most protesters also echoed demands for the resignations of Emanuel, then-police superintendent Garry McCarthy, and Alvarez, chanting “16 shots and a cover-up”—a refrain that follows Emanuel to this day.

A week after the video McDonald’s death was made public, Emanuel, who had previously defended McCarthy, fired him in an effort to stem public outrage. And now Van Dyke is on trial in a Cook County courtroom, in McDonald’s killing. Chicago activists have held vigil outside the courthouse where the trial is taking place and say they will continue to do so until a verdict is rendered.


In early 2016, a coalition of young Black people organized the #ByeAnita campaign to hold Alvarez responsible for her role in the cover-up of McDonald’s killing, for her complicity with police violence, and for her aggressive prosecutions of Black people for acts of self-defense such as Naomi Freeman, who was charged with first-degree murder after she ran over her abusive partner with a minivan. Back then, most incumbent prosecutors were either easily re-elected and or ran unopposed. But protesters were undeterred because as Tess Raser, who worked on the #ByeAnita campaign, told me at the height of the effort, Emanuel “conspired with State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez during his own re-election campaign to cover up the police murder of Laquan McDonald—a life that to Emanuel, Alvarez, and [Hillary] Clinton did not matter—and any politician who supports him is implicated in it.”

The #ByeAnita campaign was characterized by relentless confrontation. Alvarez’s movements were tracked online through the hashtag #WheresAnita; her campaign events also faced repeated interruptions. On election eve, 16 banner drops highlighting her harms against the community were staged throughout the city—one for each bullet that struck McDonald.

“People need to be aware that Anita Alvarez argues for maximum penalties against young people, in juvenile court, as a matter of policy,” organizer Kaleb Autman, then just 14 years old, told me, “and people need to understand the effect that has on children and on our communities.”

Operating on a budget of less than $1,000, young Black organizers from groups like BYP 100, Assata’s Daughters, and Fearless Leading played a pivotal role in bringing down Alvarez, who was defeated by Kim Foxx in March 2016. Particularly pionering was the #ByeAnita campaign’s focus on accountability for prosecutors, rather than endorsing Foxx. “Kim Foxx did not win this campaign,” Raser said. “Anita Alvarez lost this campaign because we pushed this city to see what Anita Alvarez has been doing to this city and its people.”

In the last year, as young activists have squared off with Emanuel and the City Council, they have warned “Don’t believe us? Go ask Anita.” Indeed, the specter of Alvarez’s ouster, and the relentless nature of the campaign to remove her was most likely on Emanuel’s mind as he decided whether to run for a third term in a race that would unfold as McDonald’s killer was being tried, reopening the wounds that led so many into the streets.

The #ByeAnita campaign resonated far beyond Chicago as incumbent prosecutors and other establishment candidates are now being challenged—and defeated—across the country, often on similar issues that drove Alvarez’s loss, such as police shootings.

The culmination

Organizing against police violence in a city like Chicago is a complex project. “It was the combination of sustained and varied resistance against every single attack against the community waged by Rahm,” Black Lives Matter Chicago organizer Aislinn Pulley told me, “that collectively made it politically infeasible for Rahm to run for a third term.”

Some of those attacks included the killing of Rekia Boyd by an off-duty police officer in 2012 as she made her way home from a party—a case that helped seal Alvarez’s fate; the 2014 police killing, just days before McDonald’s death, of Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson, whose mother has led a fight for justice; and Emanuel’s attempt in 2017 to spend $95 million on a new police academy while his austerity policies continue to punish Chicago’s most vulnerable communities, spurring the #NoCopAcademy movement.

Emanuel hoped that the story of his tenure would not be written by such protests. But every attempt he made to shape his history was interrupted by the storytelling of movements that would not allow the violence of his policies to be erased. The most impactful of these efforts drew clear connections between Emanuel’s austerity measures, police violence and the intra-community violence incubated by conditions that city officials help cultivate.  

In July, Emanuel boasted “I made a few phone calls” after a highway was shut down for a peace march led by his longtime friend, the anti-violence activist Father Michael Pfleger. The event was framed as civil disobedience but Emanuel’s comments revealed it to be effectively a protest managed by the state. At the time, some activists believed that Emanuel was attempting to co-opt protest as a means to gloss over his past harms to protesters and perhaps even pave the way for a third-term mayoral run. In hindsight, however, it seems more likely that the event was yet another example of legacy shaping. The image of Father Pfleger, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Emanuel’s current police superintendent marching arm-in-arm, amid a large crowd, made for a picture-perfect protest moment. But a week later, Emanuel’s police gunned down a South Side barber, Harith Augustus, launching yet another rebellion by the community.

“McCarthy resigned, Jason Van Dyke was indicted and on the eve of Van Dyke’s trial, Mayor Emanuel decided not to run for re-election,” Frank Chapman, director of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, told me.  “One doesn’t have to be a political analyst to connect the dots here. Rahm knew that what he managed to hide in the last election would be staring him in the face in this one. Being the political coward that he is he chose not to run.”

Emanuel recently announced that after leaving office he will be writing a book called The Nation City: Why Mayors Run the World for the prestigious New York publishing house Alfred A Knopf. His publisher says the book will focus on “effective governing in a time of historic gridlock”—a curious theme, given his dismal track record on everything from criminal justice to education. But while Emanuel pens a post hoc effort to reclaim his own story, Chicago organizers will be working hard to prevent another mayor like Emanuel from taking office.