Emanuel’s Campus Appearances Face Increasing Opposition
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Feb. 20 speech at Harvard University was met with resistance from students of the university, many of whom believe that the decision to host Emanuel ignores the impact that the mayor’s policies have had on black and brown communities in Chicago. Student organizers have challenged Emanuel in three of his college appearances since January.
The students penned an open letter to the university’s administration that revealed a very different image of the mayor than the one endorsed by the school.
On the Harvard webpage for Emanuel’s lecture, the mayor is praised for accomplishments in public education and for his public safety and policing strategy. The irony is lost on Harvard’s administration; these areas are precisely where Emanuel has drawn the most criticism. As the university glosses over the mayor’s most glaring faults and presents them as victory, the open letter calls it what it is — erasure of the experiences of marginalized people across Chicago.
Where the university says, “The mayor lengthened the school day and added more than 200 hours to the school year,” the letter is quick to point out that Emanuel also ordered the mass closure of 50 schools in Chicago in 2013. In June, the mayor and CPS are also closing Robesen High School in Englewood and phasing out three other Englewood open-enrollment schools in the next three years.
On policing, the university says, “The mayor’s comprehensive public safety strategy is focused on expanded prevention programs for at-risk youth, smarter policing strategies, and empowering parents and communities to reduce violence.” The letter counters by noting Emanuel’s role in covering up the murder of LaQuan McDonald, and his highly unpopular plans for building the $95-million police training academy in West Garfield Park.
This solidarity extends beyond the Harvard campus. On Jan. 19, Emanuel was heckled by students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor during a speech. Michigan activists echoed the criticisms lodged against Emanuel's decision to build a police academy while defunding countless schools across his political career.
The open letter itself seems to be adapted from a similar collective action against Emanuel taken by UCLA students. Students and organizations at UCLA signed a letter protesting a speech that Emanuel gave on Feb. 12 at the UCLA College of Letters and Science. The similarities between the letters indicate collaboration from coast to coast as community organizers share strategies for equitable representation and accountability in government.
Likewise, the web pages advertising the events at Harvard and UCLA used nearly identical language praising Emanuel.
The original letter was written by Los Angeles-based organization Policy Professionals for Diversity & Equity (PPDE), who worked with Chicago community organizers on the letter.
When asked about why the UCLA-associated organization was invested in the policies of Chicago's mayor, PPDE said, "In Los Angeles, the community also battles for investment in education, jobs, and positive change rather than increased policing of black and brown bodies, and as such we see the efforts of the movement builders in Chicago as inspirational and we are proud to stand in solidarity."
The UCLA letter was co-signed by both Los Angeles-based organizations such as Critical Resistance Los Angeles and Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA, as well as Chicago-based organizations including the People’s Response Team and Black Lives Matter Chicago.
The open letter to the UCLA administration was accompanied by direct action on campus, where activists organized to show solidarity with black and brown communities in Chicago. According to Kareem Youssef who helped to organize an action on-campus, “The aim of it was to put UCLA on the spot. They’re inviting people who are orchestrating these systematic forms of oppression.”
Emanuel is scheduled to speak at several other universities as part of the ThinkChicago initiative to support technology and engineering in Chicago. Emanuel is slated to appear next at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Feb. 28. UW-Madison has yet to advertise the event publicly, and has not yet used any of the language that organizers felt misrepresented the mayor’s policies.
The rest of Emanuel’s ThinkChicago speaking engagements are taking place at Midwestern schools like Purdue University and the University of Iowa. With the student bodies of these schools being made up of many more Chicago students than East and West Coast schools, it seems that the trend of resistance from students will likely continue.