“The city is in shock and awe after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s surprise announcement… Those who aspire to replace Emanuel must put forward an urban agenda, a police that is inclusive from the bottom up, to close gaps of inequity and make Chicago one city for all, following in the footsteps of Mayor Harold Washington, emphasizing neighborhoods where the need is greatest.”
– Rev. Jesse Jackson speaking at Operation PUSH in September after Emanuel announced his decision not to run for re-election
Full disclosure: I wasn’t alive when Harold Washington became Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983. I didn’t come into this world until November 1988, a year after his death. Needless to say, I missed out on yet another groundbreaking moment in Black history. I didn’t get a chance to see firsthand a historically segregated Black Chicago band together under one voice to dethrone the racist Chicago machine. I didn’t get a chance to see firsthand a Black man, with the same chocolate hue and woolly hair as mine, lead his people through a colossal power shift.
So in September 2018, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he wouldn’t seek a third term, I just knew it was our time again. I couldn’t wait to see a modern twist on the Black thought, leadership, and unity that propelled Washington’s ascension to Chicago’s highest political office.
That Black thought, leadership, and unity never came. Our leaders weren’t prepared. Instead, they were in “shock and awe,” which resulted in this Wild Wild West showdown we’re seeing right now. After Emanuel’s announcement, everybody and their mama decided to run for mayor. We now have 21 mayoral candidates – and more than half of them are Black.
Why didn’t our Black leaders have a plan in place for the 2019 city elections? Regardless of whether Emanuel ran again or not, we knew we needed a candidate who will better represent the needs of Black Chicago. I mean, was Laquan McDonald’s murder and cover-up not enough reason to plan for this moment?
Growing up, I didn’t learn much about about Washington, or his super successful grassroots campaign. Being the documentary buff that she is, Morgan Elise Johnson (TRiiBE co-founder) encouraged me to watch Eyes on the Prize, the landmark 14-part doc series from the 1980s about Black America’s fight to end discrimination and segregation. The film explained Washington’s 1983 mayoral campaign, and we immediately realized that today’s Black leaders – many who were alive to witness Washington’s mayoral campaign – dropped the ball this election season.
Black leaders started organizing months before Washington decided to run for office. In fact, Washington said he wouldn’t run without 50,000 new registered voters and $100,000. In 1982, while Jane Byrne was mayor, there was a reduction in public aid funding – which heavily affected the Black community. So our leaders came up with a strategy and organized – standing outside the public aid offices to register Black people to vote.
We certainly didn’t see a massive voter registration drive last year – one with a theme song and radio spots like back in the day. Are those times over? Even when we look at the height of Movement for Black Lives in Chicago, led by organizations such as BYP 100 and Assata’s Daughters, the focus seemed to be on pushing out city officials such as former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and former Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy. Back in Washington’s era, Operation PUSH turned the Black community’s discontent into Black votes, and then approached Washington with 100,000 new registered voters before he decided to run. What would this election season look like today if organizers from the Movement for Black Lives had taken a similar approach?
Back in Washington’s day, organizations such as Operation PUSH got behind Washington early, but it’s unclear, in today’s politics, what organizations are even speaking for Chicago’s Black community. Is it Rainbow PUSH, the Business Leadership Council, or the Urban League? To most Black millennials, including myself, it’s doesn’t seem like we have an organization with political weight like the groups that elected Washington. Prior to endorsing Washington, Black leaders scoped out the strongest Black candidates, holding community meetings to get a feel for the community’s thoughts on each candidate. The fact that the old guard didn’t have a candidate ready before Emanuel’s announcement shows their complacency. It’s been months since the announcement, and we still haven’t seen any major endorsement, which shows our lack of unity. Though younger organizers have been eager and vocal about getting Emanuel out of the office, we also haven’t yet seen them organize a major coalition to back and endorse a candidate with anything other than social-media support (… meaning money). With the old and new guard’s choice not to work together to choose the best Black candidate, we leave so much room for Black people to vote any ol’ way – splitting our vote, and increasing the chances of Chicago electing someone who’s harmful to our community. What’s the deal, y’all?
I’m beyond excited to see new voices run for city offices. For years, we’ve complained about the old guard not passing the torch to the new guard, and this election cycle is proof that millennials are going to find a way or make one. That’s dope! But, is it the best strategy? Newer voices are struggling to organizationally and economically support their campaigns, with many facing petition challenges that could knock them off the ballot entirely.
Chance the Rapper gave mayoral candidate Amara Enyia a major push with his endorsement and campaign assistance, but where’s the money? His mentor-buddy Kanye West donated $200,000 to her campaign, with some of those dollars used to pay fines that would’ve prevented her from running, but how does $200,000 compare to the $1-million donation that Toni Preckwinkle’s campaign just received from the Service Employees International Union? And that’s just one of many big donations flowing into Preckwinkle’s camp. So far in the race for mayor, Preckwinkle and Bill Daley are leading in the amount of funds raised for their campaigns.
Essentially, no one wins when the family feuds. Rapper Jay-Z told us that, and it remains true in any and every situation. Without unity, Black Chicago could lose this election season. We could end up with another mayor who uses our plight to win votes, but continues the tradition of ignoring our needs when it’s time to fight for us at City Hall.
“Many of us have to remember how we were able to elect Harold Washington,” Operation PUSH executive Joseph Gardner said in the Eyes on the Prize doc. “We didn’t get a popular candidate first. We started talking about issues and with concern to the people throughout the city of Chicago, we built a coalition. We registered people to vote. We had a movement, if you will, that got transformed into a fairly sophisticated political organization and then we had a candidate who could drive it forward. I think that formula worked in Chicago in ‘83. It’ll work in other major cities around this country if it’s followed because I think it’s a blueprint for victory.”
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Why aren’t we following Washington’s blueprint for victory?
Beginning today, we’ll be exploring these questions and more as the election season takes our city by storm. Through original reporting, and partnerships with The Chicago Reporter and local media friends, The TRiiBE is dedicated to providing as much information as possible to our readers about the mayoral and aldermanic races.
It’s a common belief that Black people are apathetic, that Black people don’t vote, and that Black people aren’t educated enough to understand the political process. Chicago’s machine politics have taken advantage of that for years. Let’s show them otherwise. Let’s move away from the “shock and awe,” and unite around the representation we need in our mayoral and aldermanic offices. Let’s make noise this election season.
This piece originally appeared on TheTRiiBE.com.