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Firing Chicago’s Top Cop Might Not Be Enough to Save Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Job

The mayor dismissed police superintendent Garry McCarthy on Tuesday, but activists are now calling for Emanuel to step down in the wake of the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Photo by Tannen Maury/EPA

Last Monday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stood by police superintendent Garry McCarthy's side at a press conference and argued that "one individual," Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, needed "to be held accountable" for the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, so that the city could "begin the process of healing."

But on Tuesday, Emanuel changed his mind completely and fired his chief of police. Evidently, the indictment of Van Dyke for first-degree murder — he allegedly fired 16 bullets into a teenager who was moving away from police — was no longer enough.


After a week that saw mass protests and a partial shutdown of Chicago's main shopping district, calls for multiple officials' resignations over what critics say was a cover-up of the details of McDonald's death, and the first murder charges filed against an active-duty Chicago police officer in 35 years, Emanuel reluctantly announced the ouster of McCarthy and the creation of a new police accountability task force to investigate the shooting.

Related: Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy Fired in Wake of Laquan McDonald Video

Not only has the dash-cam video of McDonald's shooting created a renewed wave of protests against police brutality, it has roiled the politics of the third-biggest city in the United States.

The swift turnaround by the mayor amid rising pressure raises the question: Will the city's efforts to keep the details of McDonald's death quiet lead to the firings or resignations of other public officials, and perhaps even of the mayor himself?

Calls from columnists, activist groups, and politicos in the city for the resignation of McCarthy, Alvarez, and often Emanuel himself have spread over the last week. The City Council's African-American caucus called for McCarthy's firing even before the McDonald tape was released last week, over basic issues of community safety. Monday, before McCarthy's firing, a majority of the city council's Latino Caucus and Emanuel's former mayoral challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia called for State's Attorney Anita Alvarez to resign.


'It is surprising that there's even talk of Emanuel resigning. That's quite an escalation.'

"Ms. Alvarez's record as the county's chief prosecutor has been replete with actions that show a disdain for restorative justice and a petty vindictiveness wholly inappropriate for her office," Garcia said.

Emanuel, too, has been urged to resign. In the New York Times yesterday, Columbia University law professor Bernard Harcourt called for McCarthy, Alvarez, and Emanuel to step down over the "cover-up" around McDonald's death. He suggested that the tape's release was delayed to avoid setbacks for the political campaigns Emanuel and Alvarez ran earlier this year.

Related: Graphic Footage Shows Chicago Cop Facing Murder Charge Spray Teen with Bullets

"What we're seeing is what would have happened in November 2014, which would not have been optimal for their reelection," Harcourt said, noting that events in Chicago are moving at a "dizzying speed."

"I mean, McCarthy was on the radio this morning confident that he was going to maintain his job," he said. "And a few minutes later, he's fired."

The Black Youth Project 100, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and hundreds of other protesters flooded the city's downtown shopping district on Friday, blocking doors and preventing shoppers from entering many major stores. Some stores lost as much as 50 percent of projected sales on the busiest shopping day of the year, according to the Chicago Tribune. Black Youth Project 100, a Chicago activist group, has also organized protests downtown, where some demonstrators stopped traffic and, at one point, ripped the lights off a Christmas tree.


The reaction, Harcourt said, "was known the moment that people saw this video, at city hall, and at the state's attorney's office back last fall." He says the graphic nature of the dashcam tape made the reaction "entirely predictable" to city hall and the state's attorney's office. "I have four words: Look. At. The. Video. It explains everything."

'McCarthy was on the radio this morning confident that he was going to maintain his job. And a few minutes later, he's fired.'

An op-ed in the Redeye, the city's free daily newspaper owned by the Chicago Tribune, called for Emanuel's resignation after this morning's press conference, as did Black Youth Project 100. The hashtag #RahmResign has popped up on Twitter.

"Mayor Emanuel, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez and all top elected officials involved in the cover-up surrounding the execution of Laquan McDonald must make the right decision and resign immediately. They have demonstrated a deep ineptitude to exercise compassion and good judgment as leaders and should not be trusted to make decisions that impact our lives," Black Youth Project 100 said in a statement.

Camesha Jones, a member of the group, said that without the uproar, McCarthy would like still have his job. "It was our—Black organizers, community leaders, victim's families—collective power and unity that put pressure on Rahm Emanuel to fire McCarthy," she said, adding that Alvarez, Emanuel, and other officials involved in the "cover-up" are "public servants [who] have made decisions that have harmed the black community."


Related: Questions Surround Lack of Audio on New Footage of Laquan McDonald Shooting

While the chorus to oust Emanuel and Alvarez has grown louder, neither resignation is currently likely, says University of Illinois-Chicago political science professor Dick Simpson. "The easiest of the possible actions was the firing of McCarthy and the formation of this panel to investigate" police misconduct, he said. But with more than three years left in his term, he added, "There's no way to get Emanuel to resign" — at least without any new and particularly damning revelations.

Still, he says, "It is surprising that there's even talk of Emanuel resigning. That's quite an escalation."

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But the repercussions for Alvarez, who is up for reelection in a March 2016 primary, may be slightly different. "I assume she won't resign, but that she will be defeated in the March primary," Simpson said. "That was not clear-cut even two weeks ago."

Alvarez faces a challenger from her left, Kim Foxx, who is backed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and has made more progressive criminal justice practices central to her campaign.

Emanuel and Alvarez might be safe for now, but given the speed with which events have moved in Chicago, things could look much different even a week from now. Emanuel had previously planned to go to Paris for climate change talks. At Tuesday's press conference announcing McCarthy's firing, he said he was undecided. Just minutes before, he ignored a reporter's question about calls for his resignation.

"The pressure has been building," Simpson says. "[Emanuel's administration is] pretty rattled."

Follow Micah Uetricht on Twitter: @micahuetricht