Rahm Emanuel’s Funeral Oration for Laquan McDonald: “I’m committed to reform.”

On 7 December 2015, Rahm Emanuel wrote an article, a funeral oration, to explain that Chicago would be reformed after Laquan McDonald’s death. The Mayor wrote that he is committed to reform.[1] On its own a call to reform is expected. After a traumatic event, especially one that draws national attention, the Mayor would want to make changes. All cities are always undergoing reform as no city is perfect. What makes this call to reform noteworthy is it has the semblance of a funeral oration. Like Pericles or Lincoln before him Emanuel tells the public that Laquan McDonald’s death is not in vain. The article is from a superbly talented politician at the height of his powers. His public speeches and deeds demonstrate his political virtuosity where he embodies much of modern American politics. Despite his often brusque manner, he is a masterful deal maker able to neutralize, if not defeat, his opponents. His success is due to his ability to master the political art’s protean nature. Politics is an ever shifting context which requires political leaders to adapt to changes as well as engage their allies and enemies to achieve a collective good. Politics protean nature is best expressed at the individual level by the art of wrestling. Like a wrestler, a political leader has to grapple with an issue or an opponent who seeks to impose their will or vision. A political actor has to set and shift positions as they grapple with an opponent or an issue. In wrestling, the goal is to impose your will on your opponent within the rules. Politics, although cooperative, requires rhetorical and, at times, physical coercion. The political art changes slightly at the highest level when a leader has responsibility for a community. At this level, the political art is like weaving. A leader has to weave together disparate, if not conflicting, groups through a web of policies and laws. The political web protects the community from disunity and external attacks. The external attacks are like economic shocks, environmental problems, or challenges from other political communities. A leader responds to these challenges, through speeches and deeds that encourage the public to rally in support. Thus, an analysis of this article, at time of crisis when the City is threatened by disunity and external attacks, provides an insight into Rahm Emanuel’s political leadership and Chicago politics.

The analysis reveals the Mayor’s political virtuosity and his political homecoming.

The shooting of Laquan McDonald was horrendous. His family deserves justice, and every Chicagoan deserves fundamental changes in how our police officers are held accountable for any abuses they commit.

The Mayor begins with a bold statement. He draws the audience’s attention to the obvious, yet he poses a curious parallel. He does not say that that the every Chicagoan deserves justice. Instead, he says they need a better system to hold the police to account for the abuse. He does not explain why the current system is flawed or who is responsible for those flaws. Nor does he say that the City must prevent or stop the abuse; instead he reassures the public the police will be accountable for their abuse of power. What this suggests is that they have not been accountable in the past, yet that raises the question of why. Why is it that under the Mayor’s term that the police have not been previously accountable? The Mayor does not raise political reform. Only the police seem to need reform even though they only act within a political system that is supposed to hold them to account. Neither the Mayor nor the public’s political representatives seem able to hold the police to account. Is the failure of accountability something that the Mayor now needs a political crisis to achieve? If so, it suggests that the Mayor is not letting a shooting go to waste.[2] One has to wonder, though, why this shooting, why now?

The systemic issues that this incident highlights will not be solved overnight, but I am fully committed to ensuring there is significant, real, and sustained, long-term reform.

The Mayor acknowledges the deep seated problem. What is not clear is why he has not included political reform. He knows that reform of the system will take time. He leaves unasked and unanswered why it has not been confronted before this event. What is also noticeable is the amount of emphasis he has to place on the term reform. It is not just “reform”, or “real reform”, or “significant reform”. He makes sure everyone understands that he is committed to reform that is “significant, real, sustained, and long term”. He uses four qualifiers to the word reform. It is almost as if by adding adjectives he will believe it and most importantly, the public will believe. Will the victims believe it? Perhaps the dead will ask “Why did you avoid the most important word—“effective” reform?”

What is particularly troubling by his claim is that for the past 10 years, the City of Chicago has spent over 500 million dollars for police abuse and killings.[3] Why Rahm has decided to conduct reform becomes a question in itself. What is strange is that the Mayor who decides the reform, which suggests that the reason why reform has not happened before is that the Mayor has not wanted it or could not deliver it. If that is the case, then we have to ask whether the current Mayor is going to reform the police or just ensure the appearance of reform or the appearance of attempted reform.

Within hours of the shooting, the City’s investigation began and within days, the City turned the video over to prosecutors to investigate and bring appropriate charges. Protecting the integrity of those investigations was critical. That is why the video was not made public. Nobody anticipated that they would take more than a year.

Here the Mayor provides a verifiable detail. The City knew about the video for a year. It is not as if the video became known to everyone at the same time. The City, including those who work for the Mayor, will have become aware of its content including its severity,[4] but that does not mean the Mayor saw the video. The Mayor knew the video was important. Many commentators believe that this is decisive. It is not decisive. The Mayor succeeded in Washington DC by an ability to leave no bureaucratic fingerprints when it suits his purpose. He would have his operatives find out what was on the video so he could be told so as to retain his plausible deniability.

What is of note is his claim that he was surprised it would take more than a year for it to be made public.[5] Here the Mayor makes a serious mistake. Even a cursory glance at the published police investigations statistics show that investigations on average take longer than a year. What is unexplained is why the prosecutor took so long to bring charges or what role the Mayor had in that process.[6] He will have known the City fought disclosure. He would have been involved in the decision to pay the family $5 Million. At the same time, his comment raises the claim that making the video public sooner would have prejudiced the investigation without explaining how as other cities have released videos sooner.[7] In what way would it have prejudiced an investigation for it suggests the investigation was completed before it was released? If the investigation was completed earlier, then disclosure could not prejudice it. Otherwise, it suggests that the investigation, or at least the part relying on it, was only completed just before the judge ordered the video’s release. Either way, the City played politics with the video. If they are willing to do that, they are willing to play politics with everything. Nothing can be trusted in such a City. The question is no longer “Who is corrupt?” The question is “Who has integrity?”[8]

When a judge ruled last month that the videotape should be made public, we complied. Shortly before the tape’s release, the state’s attorney brought charges of first-degree murder against police officer Jason Van Dyke.

Here the Mayor raises another point. The City did not have to wait for a judge to force disclosure. They could have disclosed earlier. Instead, they chose to fight the disclosure to force the people making the FOIA requests to file lawsuits for its disclosure. The City’s attitude to Freedom of Information is a common to those who want to avoid accountability. The politically powerful only want to be accountable on their terms, if at all. If the judge had to order disclosure, and the video was withheld to protect the investigation, then it undermines the Mayor’s claim. The video would not undermine the investigation because the investigation was already completed by the time the judge ordered the disclosure. Why would the Mayor make such an empty claim?

When the tape was released, people were outraged — and rightly so. There is no excuse for the actions of that officer. And, I understand people’s frustration that it took more than a year to bring charges.

Here the Mayor understands that people will be frustrated by the delay. Yet, he does not seem to understand why or how it could be delayed despite the published statistics on police investigations.[9] He understands the frustration but does not explain how he will change it or reform it. One can note that he has not said that the police reform will include the prosecutor’s office. Indeed one could note that he has left them out on purpose. If he did, then why mention the delay? It is as if he wants to give the appearance that he shares their frustration but is unwilling or unable to do anything about it even though he is the only one who has the authority to do something about it. What is also curious is that the Mayor misses the opportunity to personalise his outrage. He does not say “I was outraged.” Perhaps, such a statement would be more than a Mayor can say publicly. However, we have to consider he makes various statements about the outrage and his desire for reform, yet he does not personally condemn the shooting. He may have omitted simply because it is obvious or he believes it is unnecessary in such a context.

He does personalize the welcome to the Department of Justice investigation.

We welcome a U.S. Justice Department investigation of our police department. But fundamental change does not need to wait. Next year, police officers serving one-third of our City will be wearing body cameras, which should reduce incidents of excessive force as well as unfounded complaints.

He understands that a public rebuke or a public dispute with the federal government does not help him or the City at this stage. He has to defuse the public and federal attention. In the face of the external attack, he has to appear malleable or pliable. Later, after the people and the national media have moved to other issues, he can criticize the investigation. By then, his patron will be out of office. At this stage, he will welcome the DOJ investigation to gain political leverage to shape the Chicago Police Department (CPD), if not control it. The CPD will have to rely on him to defend them as well as to carry out the reform. It is unlikely that any reforms are going to be required that will be completely unpalatable to the Mayor, as Mayor, even though they will be unpalatable to the CPD. The CPD realize the Mayor has an advantage over them. He can offer them his political capital if they will cooperate, which gives them an incentive to cooperate rather than resist. To reinforce this point, the Mayor has created his own task force. He can create recommendations that will either reinforce or negate the DOJ investigation. Unlike the DOJ investigation, this one is within his control.

What is curious is that the Mayor has presented the police body cameras as an important innovation for accountability and reform. He is at pains to mention that it should (a strange qualification given his earlier insistence that he will have reform) reduce excessive force incidents. On the surface, that sounds plausible. Yet, the dashboard camera did not prevent the Laquan McDonald killing. The officer did not think twice about the camera, or anything else, before he shot an unarmed, defenceless, man 16 times even as he lay dying on the ground. It seems strange that the Mayor and Chicago have to rely on technology to reform police behaviour.

If we look closer at this decision, we face the same situation that emerged in the Laquan McDonald case. The video was not released for a year. Even though the prosecutors had it within hours, they did not file charges until just before the video was released. As the Mayor said earlier, the City resisted the legal request for information as they believed it would prejudice the investigation. The same would occur with the body camera videos. The process will be repeated. Unless the access process is reformed, which the Mayor has not said would be part of the reform, his claim is hollow. It is nice soundbite; it sounds good, full of sound and fury, yet signifying nothing. The City will continue to resist requests for information and the investigations will be delayed, even with a promised protocol on disclosure, the fundamental problem of resistance to accountability has not been addressed. Even if there is better evidence from future videos, it will not change the procedural problems that delay justice. The Mayor knows this, which is why he has called for disclosure protocol only addresses one part of the problem.

What is particularly troubling is the last part of the sentence. The body cameras are not there simply to protect the citizens. They are there to protect the police from unfounded complaints. Yes, that is correct. In an article about the brutal police killing of an unarmed, defenceless man where the Mayor is outlining his commitment to reform to reassure the public, he has explained that the cameras will protect the police from unfounded complaints. Yes, that is correct. The police need to be protected from unfounded complaints in the same measure that citizens have to be protected from excessive force and being shot to death by the police. You have to hand it to the Mayor. He knows how to display chutzpah. The police dismiss 99% of all complaints from Blacks.[10] Thus, it seems strange to say that stopping complaints is going to be a benefit on par with stopping excessive force.

I’ve also appointed a Task Force on Police Accountability to push significant reform in our police department and discipline system. The task force will scrutinize everything from training and monitoring officers, to crafting a protocol for the timely release of police videotapes, to ensuring the integrity of our investigations. It is empowered to offer fundamental changes, and I am committed to implementing them.

Here we see Chicago politics (but really of any successfully run polity’s politics) at play. The Mayor has appointed his own Task Force[11] before the DOJ investigation was announced. As mentioned earlier, this gives the Mayor flexibility, which all political leaders desire, to manage the issue on his terms. He has appointed the task force so we can be certain there is no one on it that he does not want to be on it. As such, it is handpicked to reflect what he wants to achieve. Moreover, if the reforms do not work, he can claim that he wanted reforms. All that he needs is the appearance of the attempt at reforms. In other words, no mayor would openly resist the call to reform in the face of such an event. However, he also knows that he only needs to have the appearance of reforms to placate the demand for reforms.

Had the police wanted to resist this outcome, they would have had to disclose the video themselves so that he would be on the back foot. Such an approach would have required greater risk taking and political courage than the CPD have shown previously. They have succeeded and endured through the great Chicago political technique of waiting out the storm. Chicago has faced scandals in the past, even nationally televised beatings of defenceless protestors in 1968, which have been shrugged off the City’s broad shoulders.[12] The political establishment endures as all parts of the city establishment have a stake in the system’s survival. No part wants reform in any part which will affect their overall benefit. As a result, reform is nearly impossible. The police, though, are now on the back foot as Rahm’s talk of reform and the public spotlight have suggested reform might occur this time except it seems to be the same appearance of reform as all the other times the City claimed it would have police reform after a crisis.[13] The police may have to change the way they work and become accountable. However, the police have not endured as part of the Chicago political establishment by being unable to engage effectively in their own bureaucratic trench warfare. Even with such a public event, it would be surprising if the CPD simply accepted reform that they did not want to implement. In a few years as attention shifts to other issues, the Police and the Mayor will be locked in the political trench warfare to manage the appearance of reform let alone real reform.

The shooting of Laquan McDonald was indefensible. We cannot let anything like it ever happen again. As mayor, I am committed to fixing our broken system and holding our police and my administration to the highest standards. That way, Laquan’s death will not have been in vain.

The Mayor begins the final section of the article with a bold statement. He states that the shooting was indefensible. How can he know? The officer is entitled to trial so such claims could be considered prejudicial. The officer has not made his defence and should have his day in court to explain his behaviour. He then continues in that bold vein by claiming that we cannot let it happen again. How that is to be done is unclear as he does not explain what that will require. We may reduce abuse, but as he expressed earlier, at the middle of his article, the body cameras should reduce incidents, but will it prevent it? One could almost believe he has sandwiched his doubt, qualification, and uncertainty between his bold statements at the start and the end.

The Mayor continues with a commitment to fix the system, hold the police to account, and hold his administration to the highest standards. The obvious question, though, is: “If the administration and the police were not being held to the highest standards before, who will hold them to account now?” We know the City, the administration, and the police have had critics who have been calling for reform for decades.[14] The Mayor makes his statement as if it is the first time, or an innovation, to consider that the system is broken and standards have to be met. Will the Mayor fix a system that has condoned the police behaviour, and pay out over $500 million to settle claims of abuse and shootings by the police over the past 10 years? Can he reform such a system? The brutal truth is that the system is beyond reform. The Mayor cannot deliver what he claims; he can only hope to deliver the appearance of reform. The City knows this and the people know this. The only people who do not realize this are the people who continue to call for reform. The system has no desire to reform; it has shrugged off such reform because no part of the system gains more from reform than they will lose from reform.[15] To put it directly, the City knows that dishonesty, corruption, and silence pay better than honesty, integrity, and accountability.[16] The City’s factions, the powerful financial figures who do business within the city, benefit from this arrangement. So long as crime is kept within the black communities and away from the neighbourhoods where the powerful financial faction live, the City “works”. [17] The city is deeply segregated and as long as white cops shoot black men in black neighbourhoods, the City shrugs its broad shoulders.[18] That is the Chicago way. The task is too great. The divide is too deep. The Chicago political establishment thrives on this segregation and no one; in particular the establishment wants to change it.

The Mayor’s claim is simply empty rhetoric. He knows this which makes his claim so cynical. He cannot reform the system and he has no desire to reform for two main reasons. First, the system, as a system, is designed to work for the mayor. Even if he personally as a moral agent desires reform and abhors the corruption, segregation, and brutality he cannot change the system. His political power, the raison d’etre of the political system including the Mayor’s office, is based on the system. Second, he has nothing to gain from changing the system. What he has to do is deliver the appearance of change. As long as the City and the system continue to work for the powerful factions and the appearance of reform delivers that continuity, he will have succeeded. He cannot affect reform without the corrupt system. He cannot appeal to the people. He cannot appeal to the media. He cannot even appeal to the federal government. The Mayor is trapped in a corrupt system he cannot reform. At best, he can save himself but not save the city.

The Mayor closes the article with the second reference to Laquan McDonald. He invoked him at the start and here at the end to reinforce his call to reform. What is noteworthy is the way in which his language encourages us to believe that Laquan’s McDonald’s death will only have meaning should reform occur. One immediately has to ask whether the other the lives of the other police victims over the past 10 years, if not longer, have been in vain. We would like to believe that the Mayor wants to eulogize Laquan McDonald’s death as a call to remind the City that it needs to reform lest it to suffer his fate. Laquan McDonald’s death is in vain. The Mayor has ensured that it was by the swift financial settlement. His death is another political event to be exploited for short term political purposes that have no long term consequence for Chicago corruption. His death has meaning if it can serve the Mayor’s ambition, but it has no meaning for a city long inured to such deaths.

We end, where we began, the Mayor has set out his ambition for reform based on the opportunity that Laquan McDonald’s killing offers. The Mayor has revealed more than he realized, or perhaps intended, for we now can see that what matters most, what gives events meaning, is if an event or a person can serve the Mayor’s ambition. Yet, the deeper message, perhaps unintended by the Mayor is that his speech is a funeral oration for the City. The City cannot reform itself. It does not matter if he delivers on the reform. He has survived the tactical moment because he has promised the appearance of reform. What he does not realize, or perhaps he does, is that he cannot win the war. Reform is impossible. What we have been treated to a masterclass in political rhetoric, positioning, and political virtuosity as the Mayor shows he can use a crisis to effect and survive by tapping into the City’s enduring ability to resist reform. In that moment, the Mayor came home. He proved he is part of the system.

The brutal truth is that even if the voters oust the Mayor, the system will endure. That is the deeper message of his article. The eulogy is not for Laquan McDonald. The Eulogy is for Chicago’s fight against corruption for it is a fight against itself. Chicago, thy name is corruption.[19]


[1] http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2015/12/07/rahm-emanuel-laquan-mcdonald-chicago-police-editorials-debates/76941170/

[2] That Emanuel quote is: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” http://www.factcheck.org/2011/01/bum-rap-for-rahm/ source for the quotation is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mzcbXi1Tkk The video is insightful for what it says about the financial industry with transparency and accountability, which are two things lacking in Chicago politics and the Chicago Police Department.

[3] http://www.bettergov.org/news/beyond-burge The money over that time could have paid for: ”Nearly covers the $600 million contribution that state law requires Chicago to make next year to its underfunded police and fire pension funds. Or Could build five high schools like the state-of-the-art building the city recently developed in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. The 212,000-square-foot school has space for 1,200 students and includes five computer labs, six science labs, a gymnasium and an indoor swimming pool. Or Could pay for the repaving of 500 miles of arterial streets, based on a city spokesman’s estimate of it costing $1 million per road mile. Or Could cover the cost of building 33 libraries like the one scheduled to open this summer in the Albany Park neighborhood. The 16,300-square-foot building includes a landscaped reading garden and 38 public computer terminals.

[4] “The city said the dashboard camera video could not be released while the FBI and the U.S. Attorney investigated the shooting. Take our word for it, they said. The video was described to Brookins as “horrific.”” http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/01/us/chicago-police-shooting-explainer/

The tape was not shown to the City Council when they voted to pay the family $5 million to settle their claims in April 2015. “The Chicago City Council approves a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family before they even file a lawsuit. Aldermen are not shown the video of the incident before approving the settlement, even though city Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton said the footage influenced the city’s decision to settle before a lawsuit.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chicago-laquan-mcdonald-video_565603e0e4b079b2818a06f6

[5] For an analysis of the Freedom of Information request process see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chicago-laquan-mcdonald-video_565603e0e4b079b2818a06f6

[6] “The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune and a freelance journalist all filed FOIA requests for its release.” http://www.detroitnews.com/story/opinion/columnists/clarence-page/2015/12/02/page-chicago-police-shooting-video-points-cover/76706552/

[7] http://www.wlwt.com/news/local-news/cincinnati/Police-release-suspect-sketches-in-North-College-Hill-robbery-shooting/19686652

[8] http://www.chicago-bureau.org/op-ed-laquans-brutal-death-and-a-massive-cowardly-cover-up/

[9] See for example the quarterly reports by the City of Chicago Independent Police Review Authority http://iprachicago.org/2015-04-15QuarterlyReport.pdf

[10] http://data.huffingtonpost.com/2015/12/chicago-officer-misconduct-allegations One wonders if the City needs the cameras to try to reduce the legal costs. The police brutality is so bad that if someone does bring a lawsuit the city is likely to settle or lose because the police have a reputation for brutality, covering up, and lying.( http://abcnews.go.com/US/chicago-police-found-guilty-covering-bartender-beating/story?id=17716840 ) ”But many complaints dismissed by investigators later resulted in settlements after the accusers pursued lawsuits, according to a Chicago Tribune investigation.” On the problem of police corruption and the blue wall of silence see http://pols.uic.edu/docs/default-source/chicago_politics/anti-corruption_reports/policecorruption.pdf?sfvrsn=2

[11] “Former Massachusetts governor and Chicago native Deval Patrick will serve as a senior adviser to the task force, the mayor’s office announced. Patrick also previously served as an assistant attorney general for the civil-rights division under President Bill Clinton.

The task force will be made up of five members, including:

  • Sergio Acosta, former federal prosecutor
  • Joe Ferguson, former federal prosecutor and Chicago’s inspector general
  • Hiram Grau, former director of the Illinois State Police and former deputy superintendent of the Chicago Police Department
  • Lori Lightfoot, president of the Chicago Police Board and a former federal prosecutor
  • Randolph Stone, director of the University of Chicago’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Project Clinic and a former public defender”

https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20151201/downtown/rahm-announce-police-accountability-task-force-tuesday What is noteworthy is that these are all a “safe pair of hands” as the panel does not contain any police critics or victims’ rights campaigners.

[12] http://www.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf/page/tu_chicago7_doc_13.html

[13] http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/33913-new-police-reform-task-force-triggers-feeling-of-deja-vu

[14] See for example the work of Craig Futterman at the University of Chicago Law School. http://www.law.uchicago.edu/clinics/theadvocate/craig-futterman-laquan-mcdonald-shooting-video

[15] Even the judges have been caught in corruption probes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Greylord

[16] See for example this website dedicated to chronicling the City’s corruption. http://pols.uic.edu/political-science/chicago-politics/anti-corruption-reports The 8 reports, the most recent published in May 2015 outline the scale, depth, and scope of the public corruption. From corrupt cops to ghost crews of non-existent workers on the public payroll, the city lives by corruption. Everyone condemns it even as they benefit from it or participate in it. Only the most egregiously corrupt are convicted and usually of a lesser offence.

[17] “While detractors point out that he did nothing to integrate what had then become known as the most segregated city in the nation, others argue that he was acting on behalf of his constituency, who did not want an integrated Chicago.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_J._Daley

[18] http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/chicago-politics-segregation-african-american-black-white-hispanic-latino-population-census-community/Content?oid=3221712

[19] Word Origin and History for Chicago


town founded in 1833, named from a Canadian French form of an Algonquian word, either Fox /sheka:ko:heki “place of the wild onion,” or Ojibwa shika:konk “at the skunk place” (sometimes rendered “place of the bad smell”). The Ojibwa “skunk” word is distantly related to the New England Algonquian word that yielded Modern English skunk (n.). Related: Chicagoan. chicago. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved December 27, 2015 from Dictionary.com website http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/chicago

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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