Mary Robinson, the former and first female president of Ireland, on Wednesday brought up the elephant in the room — Chicago’s soaring murder rate — giving the city an oh, so delicate kick in its Achilles heel.
It’s not every day that foreign dignitaries honored at special City Council meetings and awarded Chicago’s Medal of Merit say anything critical about the host city.
But Robinson is not your typical public official. She’s known for her guts and outspokenness. Two months before the end of her seven-year term as president of Ireland, she left to spend five years as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
On Wednesday, Robinson addressed the 50 percent surge in homicides and shootings and framed it as a matter of both human rights and sustainability.
“I don’t need to tell you that there is a blot on the landscape here in Chicago in the very high murder rate. But, perhaps it has not been seen sufficiently as an issue of social inclusion and sustainability, rather than just as an issue of criminal law, gangs and policing,” Robinson told aldermen.
“It is an issue of sustainability. It is part of the social sustainability of Chicago. … I would encourage you to look at the poverty and inclusion elements of this very serious problem and to see it in terms of something to tackle in order that Chicago continues to give that leadership on sustainability. To look at it through that lens.”
She added: “You can see that, as a former UN high commissioner for human rights, I don’t dodge tough issues wherever I am.”
At that point, the City Council applauded.
After the meeting, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was asked how he felt about Robinson’s reference to Chicago’s mounting reputation as the murder capital of the nation, if not the world.
“Well, she’s [right]. We have a lot of work ahead of us,” said Emanuel, who’s preparing to deliver a major policy address on public safety next week that will include the hiring of hundreds of additional police officers.
“There’s a lot of work we’re doing well — as she noted on sustainability and on other areas as it relates to climate change, energy policy. But, we do have work to do as it relates to making sure that everybody has the safety in their neighborhoods. I agree with her, which is why I’ll be speaking about the issue of public safety and laying out a comprehensive agenda.”
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former longtime chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said he’s pleased that Robinson didn’t hide from an issue that is front and center on the minds of everyone who lives and works in Chicago.
“We are right now in the forefront of the entire nation in terms of what we’re dealing with here in Chicago. The world sees us. And they’re saying, ‘Okay. What’s gonna happen here?'” Beale said.
“We want to make sure that it stays in the forefront — that nobody is being complacent about what’s happening in these communities because it’s real. We see it every day. Whoever can continue to put the spotlight on this [will help.] We need drastic changes right now in order to curtail the violence. We collect more guns than New York and L.A. combined. Something’s wrong with that picture. Something’s happening in Chicago that we’re missing.”
Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) represents a far Southwest Side ward that’s home to scores of Chicago Police officers who have felt under siege since the November, 2015 release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
They’ve been in a defensive crouch and laying back for fear of being captured on the next YouTube video.
O’Shea said it doesn’t matter how many additional police officers Emanuel hires if the anti-police fervor that has been sweeping the city and the nation doesn’t change.
“We need to support the police. We need to let the police be the police and do their work,” he said.
“Communities need to partner with the Police Department. Right now, we’re not seeing that.”
As a proud Irish-American, O’Shea said he was neither surprised nor embarrassed to hear Robinson raise the issue of the unrelenting gang violence that has Chicago on pace to top 750 murders in 2016.
“It’s being mentioned everywhere. It’s there. Let’s address it,” he said.
“Let’s deal with it. Let’s not run from it.”