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In an unfortunate coincidence, Rahm Emanuel‘s confirmation hearing to be the next U.S. ambassador to Japan is scheduled to take place on the anniversary of the brutal and deadly Chicago police shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald in a case that the city’s former mayor remains accused of helping to cover up.
The hearing is set for Wednesday, seven years to the day since now-imprisoned former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke killed 17-year-old McDonald By shooting him 16 times in the middle of a street on Oct. 20, 2014. Rahm, who will face questioning from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has faced opposition to and enjoyed support for his potential return to government since leaving Chicago City Hall in 2019.
Speculation built shortly after President Joe Biden was elected that he would look for an opportunity to include Emanuel in his administration in some way, shape or form. Once rumored to be considered for transportation secretary, the man who also served as President Barack Obama‘s first White House chief of staff previously drew criticism from a range of groups, including the NAACP and trade unions.
Chicago-based activists have suggested to no avail that Biden consider the optics of giving someone like Emanuel a position in his administration. Continuing to bolster Emanuel’s political profile with a new and important role could send the message that the Biden Administration only pays lip service when it comes to accountability and justice. Especially after police reform — a top campaign promise from Biden — recently died in the Senate.
Their opposition is not without good reason and primarily stems from the police shooting that killed McDonald.
To be sure, the graphic and horrific dashcam video of McDonald’s brutal killing was made public after Emanuel’s re-election in 2015 when a judge forced officials to release the footage more than a year after the shooting. Emanuel had denied seeing the video until it was released. However, the subsequent publication of 3,000 pages of emails between officials in the mayor’s office, the police department and the officials reviewing the shooting showed that Emanuel’s advisors were fully aware that the “case could be politically explosive,” the Associated Press reported at the time.
At the time, critics said this was due to the fact that Emanuel was running for re-election in a tight race and didn’t want the footage to damage his chances, especially with the crucial African American voting bloc.
The emails also showed that Emanuel’s staff was scrambling to deal with and react to the shooting, especially when the media and community activists began ringing the alarm.
In addition, Emanuel’s staff contacted crisis management PR people to get “advice on crafting talking points on how to address McDonald’s murder and the city’s silence on the issue for over a year.”
Combined, the above scenarios prompted accusations that city officials and the police wanted to cover up the true nature of the shooting.
Still, Emanuel has emerged relatively unscathed and is now on the verge of becoming the next U.S. ambassador to Japan.
McDonald’s shooting has revived lingering questions about Emanuel’s trustworthiness, honesty and integrity and calls urging Biden against rewarding that controversial work history with a high-profile ambassadorship.
The progressive grassroots organization RootsAction reshared a June statement from victims and relatives of victims of police brutality during Emanuel’s tenure objecting to his nomination.
“The possibility that Rahm Emanuel will become the U.S. ambassador to Japan is abhorrent to those of us who continue to mourn the loss of our loved ones due to police violence that he aided and abetted as mayor of Chicago,” read the statement. “No president who is truly serious about stopping brutality and murders by police would nominate Rahm Emanuel for an important government post.”
“Rahm Emanuel became a symbol of lethal disrespect for Black lives,” continued the statement from Chicago victims of police brutality. “Making him a U.S. ambassador would make the U.S. government a similar symbol.”
In 2019, the Rev. Al Sharpton called Emanuel a hypocrite for criticizing Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx over dropping charges against actor Jussie Smollett — who had previously been indicted by a grand jury on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report — while ignoring his own mishandling of McDonald’s police shooting.
“The reason this is of national significance to me, there is a marked difference between how they reacted to this [Smollett case] and how they reacted to the Laquan McDonald case,” Sharpton said during a speech in Chicago. “They were not outraged when the video was withheld until after the mayor’s election.”
Sharpton’s sentiment echoed the unheeded calls from Chicago activists for Emanuel to resign.
In an unexpected twist, though, a number of Black leaders have been supporting Emanuel’s nomination and at least one member of McDonald’s family is doing the same.
One of those Black leaders is South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose support for Biden’s agenda has been unwavering.
In addition, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, a Chicago pastor who is McDonald’s great uncle, signed a letter last month in favor of Emanuel’s nomination.
Hunter wrote: “I realize that my position on this nomination might come as a surprise to some. I may even be attacked for speaking up. However, I am a man of faith. I believe in what the scripture says about righteous judgment and looking into a person’s heart. I have taken the time to get to know Rahm Emanuel. We have listened to each other, truly heard each other. I understand the character of the man and that is why I support this nomination.”
Hunter later told the Washington Post that the rest of McDonald’s family was not “in agreement” with his support of Emanuel’s nomination.
Other support for Emanuel in the Black community includes the Chicago Urban League and the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus.
Beyond covering up the murder of a Black teenager, Emanuel’s policies exacerbated a history of segregation and systemic disinvestment in Black and brown neighborhoods in Chicago. Early in his tenure as mayor, Emanuel closed 50 schools and walked back promises that communities would have a say in the future uses of those sites.
Making his nomination to be an ambassador in Japan even more problematic is the fact that he played into racist stereotypes of Asians shortly before his departure from city leadership in early 2019, according to advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Chicago.
More recently, the Council on American-Islamic Relations called Emanuel “unfit for service” in the Biden-Harris Administration for use of an Islamaphobic trope to describe the relationship between Republicans and Democrats post-Trump.
Emanuel’s confirmation isn’t guaranteed. Even though the House has a Democratic majority, the Senate is split 50-50 along Party lines, which means that it could come down to Vice President Kamala Harris — the first Black person to serve in that office — needing to cast the tie-breaking vote.