The last election day in Chicago was 24 February, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel was expected to stave off a re-election challenge. But that morning, the high-profile mayoral race took an unexpected turn: allegations of abuse and detention inside a secretive Chicago police facility known as Homan Square reverberated from a Guardian report across the world, and Emanuel was forced into a runoff to save his political career.
Nearly six weeks later, as voters head to the polls once more, advocates seeking new reforms to years of Chicago police violence remain frustrated that Homan Square never became more of a direct campaign issue. In a city where boss-style politics and police brutality rarely evolve, they say, a culture of top-down silence has drowned out a potentially historic flashpoint.
Despite multiple protests, international outrage, a federal civil-rights lawsuit as well as local and national activists calling for the facility to be investigated by the mayor, organizers now worry that if Emanuel succeeds after looking the other way, what they consider to be abusive police business will only continue as usual.
“He is cowering in the tradition of silence that he inherited,” said Jason Tompkins, an organizer with Black Lives Matter of Chicago. “Why do you think the mayor has denied Homan Square and not allowed for an investigation?”
Homan Square did not come up in three mayoral debates or in candidate speeches, even as the Guardian continued to report stories of off-the-books interrogation by the city’s police force. Emanuel – abetted by near-silence over the reports from his challenger, Jesús “Chuy” Garcia – has managed to skirt public confrontations with the issue, save for a short reply in a local public television interview that “we follow all the rules”, echoing continued police denials.
But Emanuel’s involvement in Homan Square runs deeper than his public silence indicates. An official in the Chicago police department’s office of legal affairs, Victor Castillo, has told the Guardian’s attorney that he needed the mayor’s office to sign off on the disclosure of at least one Homan Square-related document.
Emanuel’s office has declined multiple requests for comment about Homan Square, citing only a police statement, which has served as one of two department responses to allegations from at least 11 people who say they were held incommunicado at the site. A police “factsheet” attempting to refute the Guardian’s reporting did little to quiet critics who charge Emanuel has allowed unconstitutional brutality to continue on his watch.
“In many ways, for the past 60 years, the torch has been passed from Richard J Daley to Richard M Daley and on to Rahm Emanuel,” said longtime Chicago civil-rights attorney Flint Taylor, referring to Emanuel’s predecessors and the long history of Chicago police abuse. “The assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was carried out by Richard J’s police; the Chicago police torture scandal was Richard M’s; and Homan Square is now Rahm’s.”
No matter who wins Tuesday’s runoff, activists say voters will have been robbed of any real option for a mayoral candidate actively pursuing police reform: even Garcia, the progressive challenger, has said next to nothing.
In a single local independent newspaper interview, Garcia briefly called the Homan Square allegations “troubling”. At multiple campaign appearances, he has instead called out Emanuel’s unfulfilled promise to hire 1,000 police officers in a move that would make one of the largest US police forces even larger. Garcia has also connected the lack of an expanded police force to the more than 10,000 shootings in Chicago since Emanuel was elected in November 2011.
“What we have here are two candidates who are basically fighting over who is more pro-police,” said Mariame Kaba, executive director of Project NIA, an advocacy group focused on criminal-justice reform. “We don’t have a choice in this election between people who are pro-police accountability.”
Another Black Lives Matter of Chicago organizer, Aislinn Sol, said neither Emanuel nor Garcia “offer an answer to police brutality and thus no answer to the people of Chicago”.
‘Not much happens’
On the morning of 16 March, the parents of Dakota Bright, Roshad Mcintosh, Ronnie Johnson and Desean Pittman made their way to Chicago city hall for a meeting with the mayor about the deaths of their sons at the hands of Chicago police.
After waiting for some time, the families were notified that Emanuel could not attend.
Local activists say the mayor’s office has been similarly unresponsive – during his entire tenure and especially the campaign home stretch – on other issues, from stop-and-frisk searches to a years-long push for reparations for a torturous regime led by the notorious Chicago police commander Jon Burge, beginning in the 1970s.
“Not much happens in Chicago without making the mayor move,” organizer Kelly Hayes said at her event in early March, dubbed ‘Reparations Not Black Sites: Rally for the Run Off’.
Also in March, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report detailing that Chicago police had more stops per resident than their counterparts in New York City, who came under heavy pressure for a practice that has been ruled unlawful for singling out minority citizens.
“These stops are of great concern to us,” said ACLU legal director Harry Grossman. “But they are particularly of concern to us because we don’t believe they are properly recorded or monitored by the Chicago police department.”
Black Lives Matter organized a protest outside the mayor’s office, demanding reforms to what they considered “excessive” searches on primarily black and brown Chicagoans. They have not received a response, even though Emanuel met on Saturday with a coalition of religious leaders calling for a “complete” overhaul of Chicago police oversight, including stop-and-frisk data.
Meanwhile, Cook County commissioner Richard Boykin and US congressman Danny Davis were expecting a reply by the end of this week from the US department of justice to their hand-delivered call for a Homan Square investigation – but not before a second election day which Emanuel, with a double-digit lead in the polls, was expected to survive.
A week after the runoff election, the Chicago city council will hold a hearing on an ordinance, filed in October 2013, seeking $20m in reparations for victims of the torture tactics orchestrated by Burge 30 years ago. Even with backing from 27 local aldermen who called the tactics “torturous” when the ordinance was discussed, the payout legislation has been stalled.
But next Tuesday, along with dozens of activists who said they would confront Chicago’s politicians once more, there will be a new face: Mayor Emanuel, who must approve any such reparations, is scheduled to attend.
“I look forward to seeing a mayor who speaks up and out – to talk about the legacies that continue as a result of these kinds of horrific abuse of people,” said Kaba, of Project NIA. The reparations ordinance, she said, “is a great example of what is possible when people fight together, collectively, for a long period of time to try.”