Rahm Emanuel and Bill Clinton
As a member of Bill Clinton's administration, Mayor Rahm Emanuel helped push through policies that have mired many Chicago communities in a cycle of poverty and violence. Clinton campaigned for Emanuel's mayoral bid in 2011. [Photo courtesy of Joshua Mellin]

After 45 Chicagoans were shot over Easter weekend, including six children, Mayor Emanuel made another angry speech, talking about values and responsibility.

But he shares a portion of responsibility, too — particularly for his role pushing through a series of policies in the 1990s that have devastated the communities now plagued by violence.

As detailed in Kari Lydersen’s book, Mayor 1%, Emanuel was chief arm-twister in ramming the North American Free Trade Act through a very reluctant Congress in 1993. (It passed although a majority of Democrats opposed it.) NAFTA was supposed to bring back manufacturing jobs, but it didn’t: within ten years it had caused the loss of an estimated 1 million U.S. jobs.

Chicago had been losing the kind of manufacturing jobs that supported black working-class neighborhoods since the 1970s, but NAFTA didn’t help: between 2000 and 2010, Cook County lost 90,000 manufacturing jobs — more than any county in the nation except Los Angeles. Today, thanks in part to a free-trade regime championed by Emanuel, which values corporate profits over communities, there is massive unemployment.

Emanuel also pressed hard for welfare reform — over the opposition of leading cabinet members — that established limits on benefits and ultimately contributed to the growth of poverty and homelessness. Years later Emanuel celebrated welfare reform for “connecting a generation of children with a culture of work.” Others argued that in reality, the initiative created a new underclass.

Lydersen also cites evidence that Emanuel was a prime mover behind the Clinton administration’s tough-on-crime agenda, which, like welfare reform, was a ploy to win votes from Republicans. It included billions of dollars for prison construction, three-strikes-you’re-out provisions, an expanded death penalty and mandatory minimums for a range of offenses.

The Clinton administration also banned drug offenders from receiving financial aid for college or from living in public housing. As Michelle Alexander recounts in The New Jim Crow, it “enacted a lifetime ban on eligibility for welfare or food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense — including simple possession of marijuana.”

When the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended reducing the penalty for crack cocaine possession — which led to harsher sentences for blacks compared to whites — the administration refused.

The Clinton administration’s crime policies — with Emanuel as top cheerleader — “resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history,” according to the Justice Policy Institute.

In 2010, a study by the National Institutes of Health reported, “Large areas of Chicago have escaped the brunt of the incarceration regime, while a small band of communities on the [West and South Sides] of Chicago are highly affected.”

“The combination of poverty, unemployment, family displacement, and racial isolation is bound up with high levels of incarceration,” according to the report. This creates “a self-reinforcing cycle that keeps some communities trapped in a negative feedback loop.”

A few weeks ago Emanuel announced a pilot program to allow a handful of ex-offenders to live with their families in CHA housing. He didn’t mention his role in implementing the policy which banned them in the first place.

Meanwhile, despite a new ordinance allowing Chicago police to issue tickets for possession of small amounts of marijuana, the Reader reports that over 20,000 Chicagoans were arrested for the offense since the ordinance went into effect — 95 percent of them black or Latino. It appears to be part of a stop-and-frisk strategy to sweep young people off the streets — often jailing them for months on minor charges that are dismissed when they finally come before a judge.

Anti-violence initiatives can make a crucial difference in individual lives — and crime rates can also be lowered through statistical manipulation. But it will take radical changes to address the roots of violence in Chicago communities.

It will take a turn away from the policies of the past several decades, of public sector cutbacks and private sector subsidies, of abandoning the poor in the name of “personal responsibility,” of using law enforcement not to mete out justice but as a form of racialized social control, of cutting taxes for the rich and cutting social programs for everyone else.

Those policies have failed.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.