“I was born with Spastic Cerebral Palsy and I was born blind,” said Don Kuss. He was standing in the power-laden fifth floor lobby outside of the mayor’s office waiting for other protesters to arrive.
Kuss appears to be in his sixties. The blue windbreaker he wears seems to swallow up his short figure. His head—balding and goateed—protrudes from his neck and out from the coat like a turtle’s head from its armored shell. He’s slight but scrappy, hardened by years living in Humboldt Park before and after progress cut the neighborhood up into smooth-edged pieces like Wicker Park and Bucktown and spoon-fed it to “the yuppies,” in Kuss’s recollection.
“They said the odds of me being severely mentally handicapped, me even living with [Cerebral Palsy] were one million to one. And the odds of me living at all were greater than one million to one. And here I stand. So, Rahm, I’m one of those nuts. I’m one the nuts! Now, you come and call me a nut! I don’t think he will.”
The activist said that he’d read Kari Lydersen’s unauthorized biography of Emanuel, “Mayor 1%,” and was irritated by a passage in the book in which the mayor is in a budget meeting and sees some mental health activists enter the room.
“He saw them and said to somebody, ‘Oh I thought we were going to talk about the budget, but the nuts are here,'” Kuss recalled. “That really sends me into a rage.”
Kuss was one of about three dozen mental health advocates and clients of the city’s six mental health clinics who showed up to City Hall last week on March 10 to protest what they believe is only the most recent indication of Emanuel’s contempt for the marginalized poor.
On March 4, during a campaign event in the Wicker Park neighborhood, two mental health activists — Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle and Debbie Delgado — claim that the mayor blew his top after they publicly berated him at the event over his decision to close six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics in 2012.
A video of the exchange shows Delgado telling Emanuel about the shooting death of her son and its impact on her surviving family members.
“Three years ago, you closed our clinics down. My son was getting help. Now they diagnosed him as major depression,” says Delgado, who, along with Ginsberg-Jaeckle, frequently interrupt the mayor.
After inviting the two to talk behind closed doors, the activists say Emanuel lit into them. Ginsberg-Jeackle wrote on Facebook that, once he got them off camera, “Rahm’s voice raised, his demeanor changed, in no time he was shouting in my face, nose-to-nose… ‘YOU’RE GONNA RESPECT ME!'”
After the confrontation, Emanuel’s office issued a statement to the Huffington Post, noting that the 15-minute meeting “ended very cordially.” But Delgado and Ginsberg-Jaeckle apparently weren’t appeased.
At the March 10 counterattack, the mental health activists blasted Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” while holding signs with letters spelling the word out.
“We are here to demand respect,” said N’Dana Carter, a leading spokesperson for the mental health movement in Chicago and herself a client at one of the city’s clinics.
“We’re holding up a card responding to a mayor who has not given respect to the citizens of Chicago. Everyone in the city of Chicago deserves respect. [Emanuel] has openly disrespected the mentally ill, the poor and people that come to him asking him to give them respect in order to thrive,” Carter said.
During his campaign against Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Emanuel has tried desperately to remake his image as a brash and emotionally icy political calculator who is disconnected from the needs and concerns of the poor.
On the night of the Feb. 24th election, in which he was forced into an April 7th runoff with Garcia, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (4th) — Emanuel’s campaign co-chairman — tried framing the campaign within a message of inclusion, noting that the mayor “has laid out an agenda for Chicago’s future that makes room for everyone in the City of Chicago.”
Late in his first term, Emanuel got behind raising the city’s minimum wage to $13 an hour. And more recently, the mayor tried addressing the city’s controversial red light camera system, which many say is just an attempt to raise revenue on the backs of the working- and middle-class.
On election night, Gutierrez touted to the mayor’s attempts to make the city’s educational system more equitable.
“I can say without equivocation here tonight that the one place where young immigrants who arrive as children to this nation can go to school, graduate and are guaranteed [college], regardless, of their immigration status, is the City of Chicago,” Gutierrez said.
“I think of the City of Chicago four years ago and the kids were getting shortchanged. Kids not just from downtown, but from every neighborhood in Chicago were getting shortchanged. They’re not…now they’re staying in school longer, they’re getting better grades, they’re graduating at greater effort because we have made changes to our educational system,” said the congressman.
But the mayor’s critics say that the reforms have been too tepid — ‘too little too late’ — to counter some of his more egregious policy decisions, such as the mass closing of the mental health clinics in 2012 and the closing of 50 schools in 2013, “the largest single wave of public school closures in history,” according to the Huffington Post.
“The mayor is desperately trying to appease a community he’s disrespected for three-and-a-half years,” said newly elected First District Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, who is among several county commissioners endorsing Garcia.
“Too many of our citizens, especially the poor, dispossessed and disinherited have been unfairly treated by this mayor,” said Boykin, who won his seat last year despite Emanuel pouring thousands of dollars into the campaign of a challenger.
“He has disrespected the West Side and the South of Side of Chicago by closing schools without community input,” Boykin said. “I’m told when you close a school, you prepare to open a prison.”
Andrea Cooke, a social worker and a client at a mental health clinic, relayed an experience with the mayor that’s similar to the one Kuss read about in Lydersen’s book.
“When we went to the Thurgood Marshall library at Pullman, I heard him say, ‘It’s not about the libraries anymore, it’s about the nuts. So, that’s what he thinks of us.”
After blasting Aretha Franklin and explaining to the news cameras how the closed clinics disrupted their lives, the activists began circulating half sheets of paper with two pennies taped to each of them.
“An estimated 1 in 17 people struggle with serious mental illness and this is what it would cost each taxpayer—two cents a month—just to keep two additional clinics open. That’s $2.7 million to open two clinics for the next four years,” said Carter.
The measure would make the daily lives of people like Don Kuss a little better. But so far, the activists said, their frenzied activity has been ignored by Emanuel’s administration.
“There are people all up and down the street talking to themselves,” said Linda Hatcher, a client at one of the city’s closed clinics. “They might fight each other, some of them might jump on me. The mayor is scared to walk down where we are, but he’ll come to our church, New Beginning Church on the South Side, but he don’t know I’m a mental patient. If he can come to the church, at least he could support us and listen to us so we wouldn’t have to be doing what we are doing now.”
Carter took a big stack of the half sheets of paper to which the pennies were taped and handed them all to one of the mayor’s staffers, a “Caucasian girl,” Carter quipped, who “is probably from the suburbs somewhere—not even from Chicago”.
The girl, who was smiling politely and appeared to be in her twenties, then handed Carter something that sent the already inflammatory activist into a heated rage. She was so mad she seemed on the verge of tears as she held the object up and out to the fifth floor crowd like some sort of sacrifice. It was a city business card that bore no name.