by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
CNN's Chicagoland "documentary" is an 8 part wet kiss for Rahm Emanuel & neoliberalism by the same crew that made Brick City, a propaganda flick to boost the career of Newark's Corey Booker prior to his re-election campaign. Black Agenda Report talked to a few real Chicagoans about what it does and doesn't show or tell, and why.
CNN's Chicagoland -- An 8 Part Miniseries Campaign Commercial for Rahm Emanuel & Urban Neoliberalism
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
I missed the first installment of CNN's 8 part Chicagoland miniseries. But catching up was easy. The first few minutes of episode 2, broadly outlined its picture of Chicago, explaining that (1) the city and its schools were in deep financial trouble, mainly due to teacher pensions and pay raises; (2) Chicago's police chief is devoted to stemming a rising tide of crime and violence; (3) that Chicago's sports teams are what holds the city together and; (4) that the mayor's proposed new sports stadium is a net job creator. The central figure tying every episode of Chicagoland together is Rahm Emanuel, the city's feisty, embattled mayor, with a supporting cast that includes his police chief Garry McCarthy, the chief surgeon at what used to be called County Hospital, and Liz Dozier, the charismatic principal of a south side high school.
Chicagoland is an eight part miniseries-length campaign infomercial for Rahm Emanuel first airing a little less than a year before his mayoral re-election bid. Chicagoland is produced for the Sundance Channel by Brick City TV LLC, the same crew who did a similar "documentary" to boost Newark NJ mayor Corey Booker's political career in 2009-2010. Chicagoland does what every commercial tries to do, sell its audience a product and/or proposition without having that audience engage in any rational thought about it. The product is Rahm Emanuel's 2015 re-election run for mayor, and the proposition is putting happy faces on austerity, punitive policing, privatization, and “cities that work” for the wealthy and well-connected; the neoliberal vision of life in urban America.
Chicagoland makes a kind of neoliberal action hero out of Rahm Emanuel in Chicago just like the Brick City crew did Corey Booker in Newark. It treats us to scenes of the mayor picking up and mentoring apparently random black children on the west side, slow motion shots of him climbing into his armored SUV. (OK, OK, I don't know if it's really armored, for all I know bulletproof glass, door plates and run-flat tires aren't technically “armor”.) Chicagoland lets us see the mayor and police chief bonding with black children in a classroom, and flashes us back to footage of Emauel at the age of 18, coming out shirtless to confront Nazis in the park. We see the mayor chilling at concerts, addressing charter school classes, and complimenting south side principal Liz Dozier. We see Emanuel's reputation for arrogant, impolitic bluntness and profanity celebrated by President Obama, who jokes that when Emanuel lost half his middle finger in an accident it “rendered him nearly mute.”
What Chicagoland Doesn't Show Us.
But there's lots more that Chicagoland doesn't show us. Soon after winning the 2011 mayoral election Rahm Emanuel had a get-acquainted dinner with Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president Karen Lewis. “25% of the kids,” he told her, referring to children in the city's public schools, “are never going to amount to anything,” and for that reason he “wouldn't throw resources at them.”
The outraged union leader promptly made Emanuel's words public. “Even if he does believe that,” Lewis told this reporter, “he cannot say that to me.” The mayor's office immediately denied he'd ever said such a thing, but nobody who's paid even passing attention to Rahm Emanuel's abrasive, abusive style over the years believes that. This is after all, a man who when he lost half his middle finger, claims he had to learn to talk with his left hand.
Being what it is, a campaign commercial, Chicagoland plays Rahm Emanuel as an heroic figure, depicting his decision to close 49 Chicago public schools in 2013 as tough and pragmatic, based on population loss and underutilization, while it reduces the overwhelming opposition of city residents to the closings, almost all of them in black and Latino parts of the city, to incoherent background noise.
“If they wanted to show the incredible diversity and depth of this city,” Jitu Brown of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization told us, “they could have shown those weeks and months of widespread protest and opposition to Rahm's cuts and school closings. Thousands of people showed up at meetings all over town. Moms banged on doors, communities met and struggled over how to develop their own plans, their own visions of how educational resources ought to be deployed and utilized. In the end, nobody listened because the objective (of CPS and City Hall) was and has been for years first to cripple and eventually to privatize public education.”
What Chicagoland's viewers see is a minute or two's worth of shots of marchers and demonstrators, and a brief, unflattering clip of Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis apparently shouting something about “the murder mayor” or “murdering public education.” Taking its cue from Mayor Emanuel, who the series shows being more comfortable in rooms full of children than he is in the presence of critical adults, the only critic of the mayor's school closings, the largest single block of public school closings in US history, policies who gets more than a whole minute of time is 9 year old Asean Johnson, shown addressing the CPS board, speaking at a demonstration and what looks like a press conference. Johnson is articulate and inspiring, but he's still 9 years old, and it's not his commercial, it's the mayor's, so we never see anything like a 2 minute adult explanation of what's wrong with the mayor's education policies.
“We're seeing now that privatization has been the goal of City Hall going back to 1995, when Mayor Daley took over direct control of the city's public schools,” said Jitu Brown. Before that significant power was in the hands of hundreds of Local School Councils (LSCs) of elected parents and teachers from each neighborhood. They had veto power over principals' contracts and title one funds, and direct input into the day to day life of each school. Chicago's LSCs were a successful experiment in democracy from the bottom up, perhaps the only lasting progressive achievement of the mayoral administration of Harold Washington in the 1980s, and an obstacle to the goal of scrapping and privatizing education.
“Test scores had gone up six years in a row under those Local School Councils,” Brown added. “but the mayor scrapped that, and it's been downhill ever since.”
I asked teachers union president Karen Lewis what the current state of Chicago's Local School Councils was. “About 300 Chicago public schools are 'on probation' with their LSCs 'suspended,'” she affirmed, “meaning they can no longer exercise the powers that made them vehicles for community input into the schools.”
The Drive to Privatize Public Eduction in Chicago
In 1995 Chicago did away with educators running its school system and went to a “CEO” an accountant out of the mayor's office named Paul Vallas. Vallas began stripping the democratically elected and successful Local School Councils by placing dozens of schools “on probation” while closing dozens of public schools, firing their staffs and replacing them with privately run charter schools including in some cases military charter schools. Many of these private schools are run with public money by political allies of or contributors to the mayor, often in the same buildings where public schools previously were, or sometimes co-located in the same buildings but with preferential access to facilities, thus encouraging parents to abandon the public schools in favor of the charters.
Paul Vallas went on from Chicago to do the same in Philadelphia, where he closed and privatized about a quarter of that city's school system, and from Philly to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina where he closed all 107 schools and fired the entire school system staff in an attempt to make the first all charter big scity school system. After New Orleans Vallas made his way to Haiti after the earthquake where he was charged with “rebuilding” public education there as well. Now Paul Vallas has returned to Illinois, after being selected by Democratic governor Pat Quinn to ride his ticket as lieutenant governor. When Vallas left the Chicago Public Schools his replacement was Arne Duncan. Duncan closed so many schools, almost entirely in black and brown neighborhoods, and fired so many black and brown teachers that teachers successfully sued him for discrimination. Arne Duncan took those policies national when he was tapped by Barack Obama to be Secretary of Education, and along with President Obama, has pledged to “turn around,” meaning to privatize more than 5,000 public schools in the immediate future.
But in the dishonest tradition of commercials, Chicagoland fills us in on none of this. Chicagoland nimbly ignores our capacity for rational thought, aiming instead at our guts and feelings. It shifts rapidly from gritty, compelling image to image, from sports stadiums as economic development tools, to Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson & Duane Wade as token sports figures offering “inspiration” and mentoring as the answer to job and education opportunities that don't exist. It depicts implacable urban violence as an existential fact kept at bay by the thin blue line of the city's police. This vision of urban life has a name. It's called neoliberalism.
Under neoliberalism, the problems of poverty and the poor are deemed unsolvable. The neoliberal vision calls upon us all to instead to retool and reform our individual lives, to pull ourselves up by bootstraps or whatever, seek or be role models, mentors and mentees, to adjust our expectations of society and solidarity downward and our positive attitudes upward. That's the unspoken vision Chicagoland is selling. Brick City boosted the career of Corey Booker when he ran for re-election as mayor. Now Booker sits in the US Senate. There is no reason to doubt that Rahm Emanuel has political ambitions beyond City Hall in Chicago, and there are less than a handful of elected offices in this country with more visibility and power than he now wields.
Chicagoland's South Side Hero Principal, Liz Dozier
Liz Dozier, principal at south side Fenger High School is easily the most engaging of Rahm Emanuel's supporting cast. depicted as a charismatic educational shero, personally thanked by the mayor for transforming the the place from a cesspool of violence and underachievement to a clean, safe, functional high school in her 4 year term. We see Dozier doling out jokes and tough love, attending football games, funerals and graduations, agonizing over how many students will be victims of gang violence this year. The principal rallies her students to march through the neighborhood around the school demonstrating their opposition to the same random, endemic looming violence that Chicagoland's hero mayor and supporting cast all struggle against. That this violence has causes outside and beyond the neighborhood is a concept outside the universe of Chicagoland.
Four years ago cell phone video captured the beating death of Fenger High student Derrion Albert, on school property, after Mayor Daley's hand picked Chicago Public Schools (CPS) bureaucrats closed one neighboring high school, and turned another into a military academy, causing students from multiple gang territories to converge at Fenger. Even so, veteran school staff, familiar with the neighborhoods and the young people would have clearly seen the possibility of violence and mobilized to prevent it. But just as in a thousand other school districts across the country and a hundred or two other schools in Chicago, the mayor's CPS honchos fired most of Fenger's experienced staff so they could be replaced with younger, cheaper, whiter and more pliable help.
If Chicagoland wanted to tell a story instead of jerking emotions and heartstrings, they might have talked to George Schmidt, a 26 year teacher, organizer and founder of Substance News. Schmidt recently served as security consultant at south side Bowen High school a few miles northeast of Fenger.
“It was my job,” Schmidt told us, “to know everything there was to know about every gang active in and around the school, to talk to them and to the police to establish the school as a safe zone a place where everybody respects the rules, to make certain we as educators could do the job we needed to do for those kids. That's how you prevent incidents like what happened at Fenger. At the time of the killing, Fenger had about 1200 students. Now it's down to 400, if that. I haven't had time to find out how Dozier's team reduced the student census at Fenger, but the typical ways such things are done in 'school turnarounds' include the pushout or expulsion of all students with learning disabilities and/or behavioral issues along with repeated waves cutting the bottom 15 or 20% of scorers on standardized tests...” all under the watchful eye of “education as a business” consultants from downtown.
It's a well established formula, engineered by consultants from the Bill & Melinda Gates, Bradley, Eli Broad, Walton Family and other right wing foundations. This culling of the student census is part of the job “turnaround” principals like Liz Dozier are hired to do. But again Chicagoland is not a “news” story, even though it's on CNN. It's not a documentary either, because it's not telling a factual story which a viewer can think about and draw your her conclusions on. It's a commercial, flashing compelling images and pulling heartstrings and evoking real and imagined memories to sell the mayor and his neoliberal politics.
Chicagoland never, ever asks where those other 800 students are who no longer attend Fenger. And apart from Liz Dozier, the only black adults who get consecutive whole minutes of screen time in Chicagoland are rappers and current and former gangbangers.
Chicagoland Shows Off Problem Solving Skills of Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett
The current CPS chief is Barbara Byrd Bennett, who played a major role in destroying public education in Detroit before coming to Chicago. A revealing segment sheds unintended light on the character of the problem solvers Rahm Emanuel has chosen to head the city's public schools. In the wake of the mayor's massive school closings, done supposedly because the city was full of underutilized classrooms and teachers with no classes to teach, a kindergarten class has 44 children. Barbara Byrd Bennett briefly interrogates the teacher and confirms the number. She looks at the camera and affirms this is too many children, that not much instruction can take place in such a classroom.
What does the CEO of CPS do? Does she hire an extra teacher, commandeer an empty classroom, order a mobile unit parked at the school? Does she arrange for some kids to be bussed to another nearby school with more teachers and space? If she did, Chicagoland missed all that. We get to see her instead affirming to the camera that if her grandson were in that class, she would simply pull him out of that school. That's it. That's all. That's the solution offered by the school system CEO in a system where about 160 public schools don't even have libraries. Maggie Thatcher once infamously said of “society” that there was “no such thing,” that there were only individuals. When your city schools CEO thinks like that as well, you're in the land of neoliberalism. Or in Chicagoland, whichever.
“Mollison Elementary School in our neighborhood has 54 kids in a kindergarten class right now,” Kenwood Oakland Community Organization's Jitu Brown told us last week. “Its gym is now its lunchroom, and 30% of children are still eating lunch in their classrooms. Mentoring programs from Isaiah Thomas or the mayor himself do not begin to make up for that... We've seen systematic disinvestment in our neighborhoods followed by gentrification, services cut back, schools and hospitals, even police stations closed...”
Chicagoland's Big Lie: Greedy Teachers & Their Pensions Bankrupting Chicago's Public Schools
One of foundational lies of the film, and of urban neoliberal politics in general is the myth that public employee pensions are excessive, unpayable, that they contribute to multibillion dollar budget deficits, so they have to be cut. You hear this in Atlanta, you hear it in Los Angeles you hear it from a hundred other cities, states and local governments.
The fact, as economist Richard Wolff explains here is that those pensions were the outcome of collective bargaining between public employees and local and state governments. In place of higher wages right now, public employees and their unions accepted deferred wages, wages delayed until their retirement which were supposed to be paid into the pension fund every year, and invested conservatively so they'd grow and over time be able to pay out more than was originally paid in. This looked like a good deal to the politicians, because they could publicly claim that they'd held the immediate fiscal line.
But it's been pretty much standard procedure, Wolff explains, for cities and states to simply refuse to make their promised payments into those pension funds. State legislatures in Illinois and elsewhere regularly pass bills that excuse the state and other entities from making the required payments. Chicago for example, hasn't paid into the teachers pension fund since 1995. Besides that, many cities and states invested a great deal of the money they did have in risky derivatives which paid insider brokers and banksters big but lost money for ordinary investors. Before Detroit's hip hop mayor went to jail for spending public money on his affair with his chief of staff he got a medal from Wall Street for his “visionary” investments of city pension funds in derivatives which turned out to be financial black holes.
In the real world, not the fable of Chicagoland, it's been the bad faith and dishonesty of decades of mayors, legislators and governors, not the greed of teachers and public employees, which endanger the pensions of public employees. The politicians of both parties refuse to raise taxes on the wealthy interests that fund their political careers. They desperately need crises to justify slashing or eliminating those pension obligations altogether. Chicagoland does an excellent job of projecting this engineered crisis in Chicago. And as Rahm Emanuel has said, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”
CTU president Karen Lewis says she hasn't seen Chicagoland. “They didn't come here to make a documentary. They came here to make a profoundly dishonest campaign commercial for the mayor, for privatization, for neoliberalism and that's what they did. We tried to direct them to some of the facts, they wouldn't go there. We've got a research department that's produced and pushed out to the public detailed studies of what CPS leadership under this mayor and Daley before him are and continue to do wrong, how their polices are preventing learning and promoting privatization. One is The Black And White of Education in Chicago, available on our web site. We also produced The Schools Chicago's Children Deserve, a comprehensive vision of what a child-centered, people-centered, community centered educational system would look like in Chicago, full of concrete recommendations. There are plenty of facts out here Chicagoland's producers chose not to tell, and plenty of voices they didn't want to hear. Ours is just one, there are plenty of others. I've got a background in documentary film making, I know what it's supposed to do. I won't be watching Chicagoland.”
Bruce A. Dixon is a native Chicagoan now living in exile in the suburbs of Atlanta, where he works as an IT professional and is co-chair of the Georgia Green Party. He can be reached via this site's contact page, or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.