Rahm Emanuel’s final round of theatrics prior to the election of a new Chicago mayor (thank God) was emblematic of what is wrong with Chicago as it relates to the justice system and black life. Here is a man who is positively outraged, or so he pretends, because one black, successful young man with no prior felony record (that I am aware of) just walked away from a situation where no one was physically violated more than the young man himself.
As we stumble, flounder and lurch toward more equitable ways of treating black men and women in a criminal justice system that has, from the very beginning, meted out staggeringly severe and savage consequences to black people for even the slightest infractions, Emanuel’s rage, in this particular case, is nothing short of frightening.
At a time in Chicago, when we are, perhaps for the first time, able to have an earnest conversation about the uncaring, cavalier ways in which black people are conducted through the criminal justice system, from who gets arrested in the first place, all the way to who gets the harshest sentences — and from who gets compassionate mental health treatment and rehabilitative options to who is simply stripped of their dignity and led to a prison cell — it is striking that Mayor Emanuel considers this an opportune time to chastise the work of Chicago’s first black female top prosecutor’s office by wading into the Jussie Smollett matter.
We are, and rightly so, spending all this time holding mayoral candidates, Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle, to the fire on these critically important issues of criminal justice equity and policing in the black community, and here is the current mayor of Chicago going berserk because Jussie Smollett will not face harsh criminal sanctions.
Whatever you think of Smollett, he is not Jason Van Dyke, who ruthlessly and needlessly, under color of law and authority, spilled the blood of a 17-year-old kid in the streets of Chicago. There was police officer Van Dyke performing the jobs of judge, jury and executioner, because a black kid with a small knife was walking away from other officers who, apparently, had at least enough judgment to recognize there was no need for gunfire.
Laquan McDonald was not, and Jussie Smollett is not, Al Capone, or any of the other infamous, brutal killer/gangster/criminals who have sullied Chicago’s reputation and made it infamous. The kind of public rage Emanuel is demonstrating in the Smollett case is the kind that he should have engaged in upon learning about the brutal manner in which Laquan’s life force was drained from his body.
I suppose most of us are aware that Emanuel is trying to burnish a “good” legacy in his final months as mayor, but it is particularly appalling that, after eight years of governing this city, Emanuel does not appear to be committed to eradicating the unique unfairness that black people face, and have always faced, in the justice system, not just in Chicago, but all over the country.
For decades now, both black and white lawyers, criminologists, and social scientists have been churning out empirical research about the fact that black people are treated in brute, raw, and unjust ways at every point in the criminal justice process — from who even gets arrested, ticketed or fined to who draws the harshest ultimate sentences. The literature also makes clear that black people’s constitutional and civil rights are often violated with impunity.
It does not appear that Emanuel has chosen to turn his attention to those matters on the way out the door; no, he prefers to continue making a monumental issue out of the Smollett disposition. This is true even though we are aware of case after case after case of white people receiving grace and leniency, or having charges completely dismissed, for far worse behavior than that of which Smollett was accused.
I love this city, for it is a city where black people have accomplished incredible things despite the myriad and difficult obstacles and unfairness placed before us. But Chicago cannot go on much longer with these two separate systems of justice — an inhumane, punitive and often uncompromising one for black people who have committed the slightest offense, and a sensitive, rehabilitative one that bends over backwards trying to find ways to support a lenient disposition or outright exoneration, for white people who have committed acts that have caused real and serious harm.
Chicago’s police, politicians, and jurists simply cannot continue down this damaging path. We have to do better for the wellbeing of this entire city. And with that as a crucial mandate and an ethical guideline for equality in the justice system, I am ready to say goodbye to this mayor and hello to the new one.