Wolves in Progressive Clothing
Many Democratic big city mayors claim to be anti-Trump, but their policies mirror the racism and violence of the president.
Most of us are all too aware that we live in dangerous times. With new political crises emerging daily, many find it hard to keep up with the onslaught of President Trump’s attacks on civil liberties, the social safety net and the rights of marginalized people. As we struggle to address these ever-emerging threats, it’s easy to feel off balance, as though we’re always missing something, or potentially focused on the wrong thing.
But as we pivot between nightmarish Trump stories, there’s a phenomenon that has escaped the attention of many progressives: the neoliberal machinations of Democratic mayors. While Trump plays the villain on a national stage, Democratic mayors in cities like Chicago and Baltimore push dystopian, carceral agendas and allow police to harass, kill, and maim marginalized people with near-impunity.
Mayors control enormous swaths of the criminal injustice system—a system that is largely defined by state and local law, rather than any federal apparatus. Police departments work for mayors, so when we talk about policing in the era of Trump, we must understand that the decisions of big city mayors have a larger, immediate impact on the policed than either Trump or Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In truth, the pro-privatization, pro-police dictates of neoliberalism may be packaged differently than the populist conservatism we associate with Trumpism, but an examination of policy and outcomes, rather than rhetoric, reveals striking overlaps in the goals and priorities of some Democratic mayors and our current president.
In Illinois, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel provides one of the most profound and troubling examples of a Trumpian Democratic mayor at work. Emanuel, who famously shuttered 50 public schools in Chicago and plans for even more closures, has recently been criticized for his efforts to invest $95 million in a new police academy, rather than investing those funds in much-needed community resources. Emanuel has received less heat, however, for his efforts to ramp up youth incarceration and in high-tech surveillance of protesters. With a recent “carjacking bill,” Emanuel played on the public’s racialized fears of carjacking, but the legislation had little to do with armed vehicular theft. It originally called for the default detention of any youth found in a stolen car, or a car that included a stolen part, regardless of whether the youth was aware the car was stolen. In its original form, the bill would have allowed the Chicago Police Department to detain minors for up to 40 hours before being brought before a judge. While opponents of the “carjacking” bill managed to soften up the de facto youth detention clause, the bill did pass, as did a recent surveillance bill that will allow police to fly drones over crowds of protesters.
As originally written, the drone surveillance bill would have allowed Chicago police to deploy drones, which could be equipped with facial recognition software, over crowds of 100 or more protesters. After significant outcry and counter-organizing by groups like the National Lawyers Guild, the bill was altered so police may only use drones when 1,500 or more people have assembled, and cannot deploy drones equipped with facial recognition software. In a different political moment, both bills might have been completely derailed, in spite of Emanuel’s efforts, but we are living in a time of political chaos, and as Rahm Emanuel has noted in the past, he never lets a crisis go to waste.
Playing on the public’s racialized fears about Chicago’s street violence is a trademark Trumpian maneuver, but such tactics are also freely deployed by Democratic mayors like Emanuel. In practice, Emanuel is likewise in lockstep with Trump’s insistence that police should not be punished for excessive violence against community members, with little in the way of consequences for police violence for racially motivated police violence and harassment. In fact, a recent report from Chicago’s Lucy Parsons Lab has revealed that from 2011-2015, Chicago had the most intense stop-and-frisk program in the nation, performing stops at a rate four times greater than New York’s at the height of its infamous program. In addition to daily abuses, Chicago police have both a local and national reputation for killing and brutalizing unarmed Black people, with some high-profile cases, such as the shooting of Laquan McDonald, garnering national attention and launching countless protests.
While Emanuel claims to be enacting police reforms as dictated by a 2017 Department of Justice (DOJ) report on policing in Chicago, his administration seems to be laser-focused on aspects of the report that involve allocating more money to the city’s already over-funded police department. With a department that already devours $4 million per day, Chicago spends more on policing than its public health services, family services, transportation, and affordable housing services combined. In a city that has lost 50 schools and half of its publicly funded mental health clinics to Emanuel’s austerity measures, residents are now being told that the city can suddenly afford to spend $95 million on a new police academy with a swimming pool and shooting range.
While Trump has garnered significant attention for his total aversion to the truth and disregard for the effectiveness of his policies, Emanuel has continued his overinvestment in a police force that has become less effective under his leadership. Trumpism has also become a source of terror in immigrant communities, where his cruel policies and large-scale deportation efforts have created a climate of constant fear and trepidation. Democrats like Emanuel present their “sanctuary city” policies as the antithesis of such measures, but local activists have pointed out that such policies often provide little in the way of protection for undocumented people.
Eliminating schools and clinics while further entrenching mechanisms of state violence is the kind of policy maneuver that many would expect from Trumpian politicians. But Democratic mayors like Emanuel are similarly slashing community resources while empowering police departments that are plagued by allegations of excessive violence, murder and police cover-ups. Such moves are clearly motivated by neoliberal ideologies that call for mass privatization, even as neoliberal initiatives, such as the mass Chicago school closings, cause significant harm in local communities.
In Emanuel’s Chicago, the Fraternal Order of Police recently organized a march for impunity, that protested any disciplinary measure—including any loss of income—for officers who officials have deemed responsible for deaths and guilty of perjury. While the police who marched on May 23 claim that Emanuel has failed them, their brazenness in marching against any accountability is an accurate social snapshot of the city’s police force, and their attitude toward many of the people they are sworn to protect. In an inarguable display of Trumpian values, Emanuel has consistently rewarded the brutal practices of the police with continued overinvestment and a very low rate of discipline—even as police brutality costs the city millions.
In 2016, for example, the city of Chicago paid $32 million in damages for 187 complaints against its police. Those cases also cost the city an additional $20 million in legal fees.
Sadly, Chicago is not the only city where Democratic mayors have been granted the kind of impunity that they have long afforded their police. Mayors in cities like Baltimore, Los Angeles, and New Orleans have continued to employ Trump-like policies in matters of policing, incarceration, surveillance, and immigration. In Baltimore, Mayor Catherine Pugh recently appointed Gary Tuggle, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent as interim police chief. On his first day as acting police commissioner, Tuggle was found to have provided false information about his place of residence on a city ethics statement—twice. Tuggle also failed to submit six schedules (financial disclosures documents), that were part of the mandatory ethics report. Tuggle’s predecessor, Darryl De Sousa, recently stepped down amid federal charges of tax evasion. De Sousa was Baltimore’s sixth police chief since 1994. He was appointed to the position even after it was revealed that he was involved in the killing of two men as well as a bystander (He was cleared of any wrongdoing in the shootings)
Like Chicago, the Baltimore Police Department was investigated by the DOJ after numerous scandals and community complaints about excessive force. The investigation led to a 2016 report in which the DOJ stated that the department “engaged in a pattern or practice of serious violations of the U.S. Constitution and federal law that has disproportionately harmed Baltimore’s African-American community and eroded the public’s trust in the police.” Despite the DOJ’s report, and a resulting consent decree, police scandals have continued, with footage of officers planting evidence bringing hundreds of cases into question in 2017. This year, two officers from the department’s Gun Trace Task Force were convicted in federal court on racketeering and robbery charges for robbing residents of money and drugs. Twelve officers from the task force either pleaded out or were convicted of similar charges.
Rather than addressing the culture of corruption within the department, Pugh has opted to continue a cycle of changing leadership—a tactic that has consistently failed to address Baltimore’s policing issues. Following Emanuel’s script, Pugh has called for increased incarceration, blaming the early release of prisoners for the city’s high crime rate instead of addressing her racist, corrupt, and incompetent police. Like Emanuel, she sees no problem in starving social services while feeding the big budgets of police; on June 6, she approved $20 million in overtime. As one Baltimorean noted on Twitter, “We have to fight for years to get close to getting $20mil for affordable housing but the police get it in 6 minutes.” On June 7, Pugh’s budget was approved by the city council; it included a staggering $510 million for the police which one councilman sharply criticized as “reckless”; another councilman said that the budget’s funding for 100 new police officers could have been used instead on “increasing recreation programming, health programming, and increasing staff levels of 911 call takers.”
Baltimore is governed by a mayor who refuses to acknowledge the relationship between poverty, austerity, and crimes of despair and desperation, as she escalates investment in failed mechanisms of violence.
Trump received a great deal of criticism for saying police should freely “rough up” suspects. Although mayors like Rahm Emanuel have made no such proclamations, they embody values that mirror Trump’s positions. And while Trump recently tweeted his support for the May 23 police-led protest march in Chicago for impunity, it should be noted that Emanuel was, in the same political moment, playing hardball to win a near-billion dollar investment in the very police force Trump sought to defend. In light of these political overlaps between Trumpism and Democratic leadership, it is incumbent upon all of us to pay close attention to local legislation and the maneuvers of Democratic mayors who are taking full advantage of the national crisis of Trumpism.