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Rahm Emanuel uses lame-duck session to smuggle South Side police training deal past critics

The lame-duck mayor's sneaky, silent move to hand an old school over to police is 'a slap in the face to young black people.'

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), seen here at a graduation ceremony for police cadets, is stepping down at the end of his second term this spring. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), seen here at a graduation ceremony for police cadets, is stepping down at the end of his second term this spring. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images

With six lame-duck weeks left in his term, Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) is trying one last time to put his thumb in the eye of the young black Chicago activists who hounded him out of office.

An ordinance Emanuel quietly slipped to Chicago city council leaders in March would hand a vacant Chicago Public Schools property over to city police, to be used as a training facility for the next decade.

Under Emanuel’s proposal, the city’s public schools system would receive just one dollar a year for handing the old South Shore High School building over to the police through 2028. The schoolhouse sits just a block from the selective-enrollment high school that replaced it earlier this decade.

South Side residents are vocally supportive of making better use of vacant public buildings, according to Page May of the local social justice activist group Assata’s Daughters. What has locals so frustrated is the idea that Emanuel and a council that includes several other lame-duck representatives would choose to bestow that space on the police.

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“There’s a lot of other resources necessary in that area. One of the ideas I’d heard proposed for that site is a parent and child resource center,” May told ThinkProgress.

Three young black men have been killed by police in the past year within a few blocks of the site Emanuel proposes to convert to training space for the department, she said.

Like many black Chicagoans, the young women involved with Assata’s Daughters are glad to see the end of a mayoral tenure marked by both ongoing state violence and steep disinvestment in critical public services in predominantly African-American and Latinx communities. Emanuel’s quiet bid for a legacy favor to his police force will now become an early test of how Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot’s (D) instincts differ from those of her predecessor and one-time boss.

“Three months ago nobody expected [Lightfoot] to make it this far. Now everybody’s [wondering], ‘How will city council work?’” May said. “If we can get her to come out and oppose this…that will influence the current aldermen.”

The council Lightfoot will rely upon contains almost a dozen brand-new faces – and fewer white ones than at any other time in Chicago history. And even in the lame duck session, it’s not clear Emanuel’s new ordinance will get the same deference mayors are accustomed in a city where back-room dealmaking culture is legendary.

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“From what I understand, not even the alderman of this ward knew that this ordinance had been put forward. There’s been no community involvement,” May said. “The first step of community input is you have to tell people what you’re doing. They’re not even making those first steps, and then they’re shutting down community members who are concerned.”

Ald. Michelle Harris (D) did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposal, which had eluded even close watchers of City Hall in the closing weeks of the city’s April 2 run-off elections.

It’s hard to understand why Emanuel would move so quietly here without first grasping what May and a coalition of other activists have been up against the past two years. The old South Shore High School, empty for about five years, would provide a stop-gap venue while Emanuel’s most controversial public project – a $95 million academy for the city’s police and fire cadets in the similarly underserved West Side neighborhood of West Garfield Park – is built.

Young activists on the heavily African-American south and west sides of the city have waged a fierce public campaign against the latter facility. Organizing under the banner #NoCopAcademy, the kids have made pointed use of public-comment opportunities at various council hearings related to the project – presenting an uncommonly direct challenge to a civic machinery long accustomed to plowing quietly ahead on such policies.

They’ve also knocked doors and polled residents in West Garfield Park – something the campaigners say Emanuel and his council allies never bothered to do before moving ahead with the project – and found substantial local opposition.

Seventy-two percent of the 500 locals surveyed said they had never heard of the police academy proposal before being asked by a canvasser. That same group came up with more than a thousand different ideas for similarly-sized investments in public educational, after-school, and health facilities on the West Side.

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The new construction has been contentious public issue in large part because Emanuel’s investment contrasts dramatically with his approach to other public service budgets during his two terms. Before the mayor asked councilors to spend tens of millions to help a widely distrusted and occasionally reviled police force, he instructed them to shutter dozens of public schools as well as half the city’s mental health clinics out of concern for the city’s balance sheet.

#NoCopAcademy protests have provoked a stern and simple response in return. City council leaders and police officers have frequently tried to silence the project’s critics at public meetings. Activists were physically barred from the council chambers during the final vote in March, May said, by officers who allowed groups of white visitors to walk right in after they said they weren’t there to protest.

In an effort to bypass this boisterous public discontent, Emanuel sought a quieter path through the council for this new and separate scheme, opting to submit the bill on the same mid-March day that hundreds of activists had flooded the council chamber for one of the final public votes on the West Garfield Park academy project.

Emanuel’s timing was effective, Debbie Southorn of American Friends Service Committee told ThinkProgress.

“The day of the vote was chaotic. We had hundreds of people kicked out of city council, we had a teenager who was pretty forcibly arrested and we were doing jail support until late,” explained Southorn, who’s assisted the coalition of activists who oppose the West Garfield Park project.

“We felt like that stage of the fight was over,” he said

The council’s Housing and Real Estate Committee has put the South Shore lease proposal on the agenda for its April 9 committee meeting, the last of its kind before the new council and mayor are sworn in in May.

“One of their main concerns with the current training facility in West Loop is it’s next to a high school. And now they’re going to do this again, in Rahm’s last [council] meeting, just as we’ve cracked open this system with our campaign,” Southorn said. “It’s a slap in the face to young black people. But that’s not surprising, right?”

If the committee approves the plan, it would get a full council vote the next day at the last scheduled meeting before defeated incumbents give way to their replacements.

In the most recent election, Chicago voters ensured that the city council will look dramatically different – both to the current body and to the traditional makeup of Chicago’s famously aristocratic political machine. The next council will feature the fewest white aldermen in city history and multiple members from the Democratic Socialists of America rather than the Democratic Party. Several council mainstays will be gone, including powerful Housing and Real Estate Committee Chairman Joe Moore. Nevertheless, these ousted incumbents will get the first crack at Emanuel’s quiet repurposing of the old South Shore school on Tuesday.

“Part of what #NoCopAcademy seeks to do is to expose how much bullshit is happening and how broken city council is, in a way that was empowering more people to pull levers, to be involved, and to call out the bullshit when we see it,” May said.

May, Southorn, and the dozens of others who’ve worked on the #NoCopAcademy campaign were always clear that they couldn’t stop the West Garfield Park plan. The hush-hush rush-rush move on South Shore High, though, doesn’t feel so inevitable.

“A lot of the people who lost [their seats] didn’t expect to lose. They think of themselves as progressives and they lost because they aren’t progressive enough,” said May.

“We’re trying to make sure they know, you still have choices about how you’ll be remembered. And this is one of them.”