If American race relations in 2015 seemed like one enormous déjà vu, revisiting Margaret Walker Alexander's 1942 poem "For My People" helps drive that point home. She expansively captured the highs and lows of black society, championing the certain joys of family, church and community, pointing an accusing finger at duplicitous elements:
"For my people … distressed and disturbed and deceived and devoured by money-hungry glory-craving leeches, preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty, false prophet and holy believer …"
Residents of Chicago, a character in "For My People" and the city where Alexander once lived, certainly know a thing or two about facile forces of state in the person of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, currently in the hot seat for his actions—or lack thereof—after the grotesque police shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
It doesn't help that police shot and killed two more residents on Saturday after the father of one victim, 19-year-old engineering student Quintonio LeGrier, had called 9-1-1 seeking help for his distraught son, who was at home wielding a baseball bat during a mental breakdown. LeGrier's neighbor, 55-year-old Bettie Jones, perished in the pursuit, guilty only of answering the door so police could get in to minister to LeGrier's needs, according to his father.
The McDonald case and others like it have put Chicago and its mayor in the national spotlight just as the neo-civil rights movement in the guise of Black Lives Matter is leveraging pressure and awareness of police brutality in black communities. If Emanuel flew under the radar of #sayhername activists who uplifted the name of Rekia Boyd, an unarmed Chicago woman shot and killed by off-duty police officer Dante Servin, he certainly isn't now.
Protesters like those from the Black Youth Project 100, one of the leading activist groups challenging Emanuel, have been unrelenting in pressing the need for safety from police in a city where residents in poor black and brown communities need to be protected from criminals, too. The city has seen days and weeks of protests in front of posh retail establishments, City Hall, police headquarters and even the mayor's own house.
Let's not forget that Chicago was in the grip of an epidemic of youth murders before Emanuel came to office and before 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida by a wannabe cop who got off. And before another cop mistook 18-year-old Michael Brown for a monster and felt perfectly sane in saying so because he knows so many others don't regard black men has fully human anyway. Residents have sought answers to community-based gun violence since before the 2013 death of fresh-faced 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, which drew the attention of the White House where Emanuel's friends, the Obamas, live.
Believe it or not, African Americans want to call the police, too.
And yet a sense of rote operation—tone-deaf, automatic and without empathy— has been infused in the response to a judge's order to release the McDonald video and Emanuel's actions since then, such as the Wednesday announcement of new policies to change way police use excessive force.
The mayor's apology for McDonald's death was punctuated by uncharacteristic and frankly incredible near-tears. That his ill-fated listening tour was followed by a holiday vacation to Cuba paints a picture of a man perfectly comfortable working from a well-worn crisis communications handbook—not someone attuned to his constituents.
It is this refusal to address the racial component baked in to American policing that chips away at blacks' enfranchisement as citizens.
While some, including Chicago's own brand of "glory craving leeches" who crowd into the shot every time local TV news cameras roll around, have called for Emanuel's resignation, he's not legally compelled to leave an office for which he was duly elected, even if he had to work for it this last time. But just because he isn't going anywhere doesn't mean Emanuel shouldn't act swiftly and offer real answers to the race and culture question no one in authority in Chicago or beyond wants to address. While Chicago police move to inject "more humanity" into policing and train all officers to use stun guns, it shouldn't have taken additional deaths at the hands of cops to get to this point.
It is this rote, workaday approach that treats cases like McDonald's, Boyd's and even Sandra Bland's as isolated incidents that is the real problem with the American way of policing in black communities. This ethos spends more time protecting a culture of authority and excessive force than residents—and even has some black officers believing in its efficacy. It is this refusal to address the racial component baked in to American policing that chips away at blacks' enfranchisement as citizens.
For example, how is it that the cases of Tamir Rice in Cleveland or Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner in New York or Freddie Gray in Baltimore could be evaluated outside of a context that considers police culture? These tragedies have provided plenty of opportunities to address broader systemic problems such as how race and history intersect—with often-tragic results for people of color. Yet there's a resistance to rebuilding a centuries-old justice system never meant to protect protect them, regarding their spaces as places to occupy and control rather than serve. From Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow to mounds of other research, we know the problem—and the answers. The fact is Chicago police apparently showed up to the LeGrier home more ready to shoot to kill than to help.
It's notable that Emanuel, whose first run for Chicago mayor got a lift from the blessing of President Obama, benefited from a sort of shorthand for black and brown voters affected by violence. Many apparently felt no need to do due any further due diligence on a candidate with a lengthy record of championing causes antithetical to their plight, such as being anti-union.
If more Chicagoans spend as much time marching to the polls next year as they have downtown blocking retail traffic that, too, will be progress.
If Emanuel is comfortable allowing time to usher in forgetfulness and the same brand of complacency that kept so many voters from the polls when they had a choice, he, too, is poetic in understanding what Alexander described as "walking blindly spreading joy, losing time, being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when burdened, drinking when hopeless …"
Through this bleakness, however, there are signs of progress: In Chicago, Emanuel was forced to fire Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and the cop seen shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times in that notorious video, Jason VanDyke, has been indicted. (He pleaded not guilty Tuesday.) As racial patterns go, the all-white Oklahoma jury that drew skepticism among those seeking justice for 13 marginalized black women sexually assaulted by former officer Daniel Holtzclaw deposited a little more faith in the justice system.
If more Chicagoans spend as much time marching to the polls next year as they have downtown blocking retail traffic that, too, will be progress. If every 18-year-old high school senior registers to vote for everything from judges and the state's attorney to president—and actually follows through to show critical mass—people like Emanuel who keep wishing it all would go away will know better.
But then again, Alexander knew that, too:
"Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second generation full of courage issue forth; let a people loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control."
Deborah Douglas is a Chicago-based journalist and adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University.