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Moral failure the go-to move for Chicago City Council

Of course the Chicago City Council took the teeth out of its resolution condemning Islamophobia in India. That’s what they do.

Then-President Donald Trump appeared with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Hyderabad House in New Delhi in February 2020.
Like Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stokes ethnic hatreds to keep his power base whipped up. The Chicago City Council considered speaking out against that strongly, then pulled back.
Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images

I try not to contradict colleagues in print. However, something stuck out of Rummana Hussain’s otherwise flawless column about her experience with anti-Muslim bigotry in India, and I must speak.

She expresses disappointment at the Chicago City Council for gutting its non-binding resolution decrying Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi fanning the flames of Islamophobia and scapegoating minorities to distract the country from its actual problems.

No argument there. But one sentence caught my eye like a fishhook:

“The City Council is expected next week to vote on the dramatically watered-down resolution, which will represent a failure of character.”

A failure of character for her, or me, or your average person with a functioning moral sense. But for the Chicago City Council, it isn’t a failure of their character, but an expression of it. That’s who they are.

Craven collapse when the moment calls for courage is a council specialty, their go-to move. They’ll take the teeth out of an ethics ordinance, if it applies to themselves, faster than a Skid Row dentist.

There are so many examples, space is limited and I hope you’ll forgive me for quickstepping through a few.

This is the same body that in 1971 refused to support a resolution against firebombing homes. A Black family had been burned out of its house on the Southwest Side, and Ald. William Cousins introduced a resolution disapproving of the practice. It lost, 34-13. The outcry was so great, Mayor Richard J. Daley later said, in a stage whisper, “You are against firebombing,” and then the resolution passed unanimously.

This is the body that couldn’t denounce police beating people in the street, where the Rules Committee buried a resolution condemning “brutal repression” of protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Heck, in the 1930s, the council couldn’t condemn Nazi Germany, while the city banned films drawing attention to the suffering of Jews there as anti-German propaganda.

So as not to fill the column with failures to act, let’s look at a situation where the council did manage to offer its “unqualified condemnation” — of James Baldwin’s novel “Another Country,” which Wright Junior College put on a required reading list in 1965.

There’s a double-pump wrongness to the council — doing what local government shouldn’t do while simultaneously neglecting to do what it should. The Chicago Justice Project studied what came before the council’s Committee on Public Safety from 2006 through 2009, and found just 1% of it had anything to do with crime or violence, while 99% were stunts like Ald. Ed Burke’s (14th) resolution not to honor prohibition agent Eliot Ness.

Lest you think I’m focusing on rarities, remember: the central function of the Chicago City Council is to approve whatever the mayor wants approved, no matter how wrongheaded (two words: parking meters). In 1999, University of Illinois at Chicago professors Dick Simpson and Tom Carsey looked at the council over 40 years. (Simpson served two terms on the council in the 1970s, running as an independent.)

“Thus, in the 40-year period from 1955 to 1995, we find in Chicago a dominant pattern of Rubber Stamp and Weak Rubber Stamp Councils,” they concluded. “None of these meet the standard of a representative legislative body in a deliberative democracy.”

Has it gotten any better? I checked with Simpson at UIC on Thursday. How would he characterize the council over the past quarter century?

”If the mayor is opposed to it, the council voted it down no matter what it was,” said Simpson.

Which raises the question: How does the council imagine it has the moral authority to urge anyone to do anything? How can you even talk about repairing the past when you can’t do the right thing right now?

Space dwindles, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I should say the mistake of viewing the council as a source of significant action is a common one, and forgivable. More sensible to see it as a like one of those tourist-trap gold mine attractions, where children are set free with shovels in a sand pit, looking for shiny prizes.

Sand pit? That’s too kind. More like cat owners sieving through a well-used litter box and coming up with the expected nuggets.

Oh, I almost forgot. After endlessly debating the non-binding resolution against religious hatred in India, holding meetings for months, making changes, trying to appease the Indian consulate here, the watered-down version was rejected. The past is prologue.