Rahm Emanuel will be remembered as a Chicago mayor who adored rich people and hated everyone else.
He has all but handed the keys to the city to corporate heads, tech start-ups, and wealthy developers. He has relentlessly attacked public education and the public sector as a whole. He covered up a brutal police killing of a black teenager. Even mainstream retrospectives on his tenure — written in the wake of his surprise announcement yesterday that he will not be seeking a third term as mayor — tried to sound fair and balanced yet couldn’t help but coming off as a long list of giveaways to the wealthy while the city’s poor and working class suffer or are pushed out.
Emanuel is the bête noire of the principled segments of Chicago’s labor movement, community groups, and the Left. He is “Mayor 1%.” All roads of evildoing lead back to him. Which makes his impending departure difficult to wrap my mind around. In many ways, he defined my adult political life in Chicago.
Rahm has been mayor since 2011. In that time, I’ve attended who knows how many protests at his house, outside City Hall, at a public mental-health clinic occupied by patients, at public elementary schools slated for closure, in basically every corner of the city. He sparked the Chicago Teachers Union’s 2012 strike, a major turning point in recent Chicago history and a turning point in my life, showing the kind of power the working class can wield when it is democratically organized and committed to militancy and a broad agenda on behalf of the entire working class.
I’ve written dozens of articles about him and a book in which he was a principal villain. Crain’s Chicago Business, the paper of the city’s executive class, once let me write a rant against him. (Thinking about Chicago’s C-Suiters reading my call to tax the rich in between is still deeply gratifying.) I wrote, solicited, and edited articles about his reelection campaign, criticizing his record and his claims and the unions who endorsed or praised him; I organized a public event and solicited op-eds from organizers to parse the lessons of the election (leading me, incidentally, to realize for the first time that I wasn’t just faking my way through a job — I was actually a good editor).
I once wrote a post about Emanuel for the sole purpose of spreading a GIF in which an educator disdainfully refuses to shake his hand; I interviewed a guy who posted a stone-faced photo of himself with a beaming Rahm on Instagram, saying he “still can’t stand this muthafucka tho” — and found out Emanuel was a horrible tipper.
I watched the Cubs win the World Series in dramatic game-seven fashion at a Far North Side bar. My first thought after the win was to bike to Wrigleyville to somehow get a sign on TV that expressed the collective opinion of so many in Chicago: “RAHM EMANUEL IS GARBAGE.” I imagined him clinking glasses somewhere with a private equity manager in a rare moment of unalloyed joy as he watched a live cast of ecstatic revelers on Clark Street in the heart of Wrigleyville drunkenly “woooooooo”-ing and singing “Go Cubs Go” — then suddenly jarred out of his celebration by a reminder, scrawled in black marker across a piece of cardboard I pulled out of a Cubs bar dumpster, of how much he is loathed in this city.
I somehow made it through the crowd, onto Clark, and spotted a camera crew. Fans were crowded in around it. But a very visibly drunk white guy in a Cubs hat saw me and my sign, and silently determined he was going to help get me on TV. “Dude” was all he said before grabbing my arm, clutching the sign, and thrusting it in front of the WGN camera.
One of the city’s fluffier journalists wrote a piece the day after the World Series titled, “Is Rahm, Like the Cubs, Planning an Epic Comeback?” Its point was, sure, because of the CTU and “Mayor 1%” and Laquan McDonald and all of that, Rahm was in the tank now. But just as the Cubs came from behind to win it all, maybe Rahm would, too. It was one of the dumbest pieces of local commentary I’ve ever seen. But smack in the middle of the post — a giant turd floating in a punch bowl — was a picture of my sign.
Apparently, I got under the mayor’s skin. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I heard from somebody who knew somebody that his office had an opposition research file on me. I also heard that some of the “progressive” groups I criticized for cozying up with him talked a lot of shit about me, too. The former felt a little worrisome, but the latter didn’t: probably unlike those who claimed to be progressives yet went all in for Rahm in 2015, my conscience doesn’t keep me up at night.
This personal history has left me in a bit of a daze in thinking about a Chicago without Emanuel as mayor. Not because Rahm is particularly special, though. He’s a standard-bearer for austerity, unique only because he’s been particularly ruthless in carrying this agenda out; because he doesn’t seem to have much of a conscience to speak of that might have checked the human devastation his agenda wrought on Chicago.
But his tenure in Chicago is also noteworthy because that human devastation is only part of the story. This city was the home of the most inspiring and successful strike the American labor movement had seen in a decade and a half, helping inspire the current wave of teachers strikes throughout the country. It saw a militant mental-health movement that hounded Emanuel for years and organized constant anger and protest against racist police killings. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the trial for Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald sixteen times in 2014, began today.)
A broad and vibrant anti-austerity movement has developed in Chicago under Rahm’s tenure. While that movement’s record has more losses than wins, it’s the only hope we have to turn around the miseries that so saturate Chicago and American society.
Emanuel is still in his prime politico years. Maybe he’s eyeing a higher office. But no matter whether he stays in Chicago or heads back to Washington, sticks with politics or does another lucrative jaunt in investment banking, people everywhere will remember that Rahm Emanuel is, in fact, garbage. Chicagoans have stuck him with that stench. I don’t think it’s ever coming off.