Mayor Rahm Emanuel responded to the growing outrage over his handling of the Laquan McDonald case by embarking on a campaign to step up his presence in black Chicago, according to newly obtained records that show how the City Hall public relations machine worked to limit the political damage.
After the release of the police dashcam video in November — showing now-indicted Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting the teenager 16 times as he walked away from officers — Emanuel began making more visits to African-American churches.
His staff posted photos on Twitter showing him eating at soul food restaurants.
He pressed to keep minority political allies on his side.
Those were among the steps Emanuel took in the face of the deepening political crisis he faced just months after black voters were key to his reelection, according to mayoral schedules and staff emails released to the Chicago Sun-Times in response to public records requests.
A spokesman for Emanuel wouldn’t discuss details of his visits with community residents and religious and political figures in the two months after the release of the video.
“Those private conversations are meant to be a real dialogue with the people who will play an important role in addressing a decades-old challenge in Chicago and restoring trust in our police department,” Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins said.
But Collins also acknowledged, “They have certainly increased in frequency over the past few months.”
City Hall typically gives advance word of the mayor’s public schedule. It didn’t provide any notice, though, of most of his appearances in the black community after the release of the McDonald video.
The mayor also tried to avoid unscripted encounters with reporters in November and December as he worked to shift the focus of news coverage toward reforms he was pushing for the police, the city records show.
The McDonald video was made public as the result of a court order 13 months after the shooting. Even before the video came out, the mayor and his staff worried that criticism from African Americans could spiral. On Nov. 18, an aide alerted other staffers that Black Lives Matter activists planned demonstrations timed to the court ruling the next day.
“BLM has already hosted a protest at the site of the alleged incident, and they’re planning an upcoming event, City Hall possible site,” Vance Henry wrote in an email to other mayoral staffers.
The following morning, Emanuel held a “safety update” at his office that included his chief of staff, Eileen Mitchell; police Supt. Garry McCarthy; and Janey Rountree, a mayoral aide on public safety.
That afternoon, word came a judge ordered the video released by Nov. 25. A couple of hours passed before the mayor’s office put out a statement promising to comply.
An image from the police video showing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot and killed by a police officer.
Emanuel then flew to Guangzhou, China, for a trade conference.
His staff, meanwhile, made plans to contain political fallout, the City Hall records show.
The Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Catholic church in Auburn-Gresham, called for Van Dyke’s firing even after speaking with Kenneth Bennett, a mayoral liaison to religious leaders.
“This is one reason why we urgently need to meet with community leaders on Monday,” Rountree emailed other staffers.
They soon had another. On Nov. 21, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said talk that Van Dyke was in danger when he shot McDonald was “just propaganda.”
Bennett reached Jackson, the records show, telling him the case was in prosecutors’ hands. “He said our silence regarding the video has hurt us,” Bennett wrote.
That weekend, Bennett, Rountree and other staffers made dozens of calls and invited clergy, activists, black community leaders and members of Congress to join a conference call or meet with Emanuel that Monday.
“We want these folks to accept responsibility and to help us — and the city they live in and love,” Stephen Patton, the top City Hall lawyer who’d negotiated a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family, emailed mayoral aides. “I would think it would include urging calm and restraint.”
Back in Chicago on Nov. 23, a Monday, Emanuel met with McCarthy and other police officials, then had the conference call and met with clergy and activists. Even some supporters were dissatisfied.
“We want to promote a peace and calm dialogue, but there are so many questions still unanswered,” Shari Runner, interim president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Urban League, wrote to Bennett.
On Nov. 24, while Emanuel was at a police recruit graduation ceremony, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder.
The mayor postponed a meeting that afternoon with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Around 3:30 p.m., his office announced Emanuel and McCarthy planned a news conference an hour later. That’s when they released the video.
As Emanuel went on to a holiday tree-lighting ceremony at Millennium Park, protesters took to downtown streets.
“I just got word from some of our friends, protest groups (outsiders from Baltimore, Ferguson etc) have arrived to city and will begin to mass at City Hall,” Henry wrote to other aides the next morning. “I was also told we should prepare for more aggressive, direct‐action, confrontations with CPD.”
That Saturday, Emanuel had “lunch in the community” at Alice’s Restaurant, a soul food spot in Austin, and stopped by the 15th District police station. News organizations weren’t told of the events, but the mayor’s staff posted photos on his official Twitter feed.
The mayor maintained his slate of appearances in the black community that Sunday — Nov. 29. First up was Bright Star Church in Bronzeville, whose nonprofit affiliate, Bright Star Community Outreach, has received several federally funded city contracts for youth programs since Emanuel took office, records show.
Emanuel also visited nearby Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church. Nonprofits led by the church’s pastor, the Rev. Leon Finney, have gotten tens of millions of dollars in public funds to redevelop and manage low-income housing in Chicago.
Finney said Emanuel has visited his church “lots of times.” Questions about police accountability go back decades, Finney said: “It didn’t start with Rahm.”
The mayor had “lunch in the community” at another well-known soul food restaurant, Pearl’s Place, on South Michigan Avenue. His staff posted photos on Twitter of him with patrons. They also posted pictures of him later that day at an unannounced ribbon-cutting at a playground in Washington Park.
As the mayor made his South Side stops, his office issued a statement on his plan to expand the body-cam program for cops, which the Sun-Times had reported. The New York Times and others picked up the story.
“How are we doing on body cams,” Emanuel emailed aide Kelley Quinn, who told him it was getting national play.
That Monday, Nov. 30, McCarthy met with Emanuel for 45 minutes, the mayor’s schedule shows. Emanuel told him to come back with ideas for coping with street violence and the McDonald case, Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reported.
That night, the newspaper posted an editorial online calling for McCarthy’s dismissal. Quinn forwarded it to other aides, noting, “He is still going out tomorrow though.”
The next morning, McCarthy did several interviews and was set to go on WGN-TV when called to City Hall. Soon after, word broke that Emanuel demanded his resignation.
At a news conference to announce a task force on police accountability, the mayor said McCarthy had become “an issue, rather than dealing with the issue.”
Afterward, mayoral aides coordinated statements with black and Hispanic aldermen, with a series of emails labeled “DRAFT black caucus response.”
Over the next several weeks, Emanuel’s continued community outreach effort included a breakfast with interim police Supt. John Escalante at MacArthur’s, a soul food restaurant in Austin; holiday shopping with South Side aldermen at a Walmart in Pullman; and an interview by Munir Muhammed, leader of the Coalition for the Remembrance of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, a former leader of the Nation of Islam.
On Dec. 8, Emanuel attended a “meeting with faith leaders” at Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin. Still, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Ira Acree, was among ministers who boycotted the mayor’s King Day breakfast on Friday.