A lot of times, in political conversations or (ashamedly) on message boards in the past, when I have revealed that I am from Chicago there is a certain set of assumptions. At least in these forums, it doesn’t have to do with Al Capone or Michael Jordan, but rather an assumed liberalism, and in the era of Barack Obama, something shady and ugly and untrustworthy (depending on if my interlocutor is a right-wing crank or not, of course). But even Obama aside, Chicago has become synonymous with being liberal, because it is a staunchly Democratic city, and “democrats = wild-eyed libs”, even though this has rarely been true. Even now, where the party is as left as it has been since LBJ, it is still essentially moderate.
Chicago has always shown how “Democratic” is not equal with liberalism, except in one very important and telling way. When Old Man Daley was running the city, he was the bane of every liberal. He hated uppity blacks, long-haired kids, loud-mouthed ladies, reformers (especially reformers), and anyone else who wanted to tell him how to run his city. There was a way of doing things, and damn you if you tried anything else. You know what you need? A talking to from the parish priest, that’s what. I knew your father, rest his soul, and he’d be spinning in his grave to see what you’ve done with your life. (Sorry- we almost slipped into a James T. Farrell novel.)
But there was that one way which, to the right, Chicago and other machine-run inherently conservative and anti-liberal cities did seem like liberals, and that was because they made noises toward taking care of minorities. This was pure politics, of course, and was honored more in the breach than otherwise (“the wettest blacks!”), but they distributed jobs and other goods, especially the goods of having a pliant alderman and ward boss, who did what the machine wanted.
For many in Chicago, this was a bridge too far, especially as the black (and Hispanic, but that divide didn’t have deep and angry roots in Chicago) population grew, and the Machine had to pay more attention. The essentially conservative white-ethnic base grew angry, and while they didn’t have the same power, they did have control of the police forces, which more than ever became a private army for keeping the wrong people away from the right ones. This anger culminated in the vicious “Council Wars” that erupted when Chicago elected its first black mayor. We talked about how the leader of the anti-black movement, Alderman Fast Eddie Vrodolyak, was the spiritual ancestor of the Chicago-based Trump movement, a bitter reactionary who knew exactly how to play to the “Silent Majority”, stoking racial fears and hatred.
That’s still around now, despite a reputation for Obama-y liberalism. In this turbulent city, where a violent spring seems to be edging into an apocalyptic summer, the forces of action and reaction are simmering over again. We see this in today’s planned “Police Lives Matter” rally, placed at one of the two hearts of Chicago’s white ethnic redoubt.
These are to take place as a joint effort between the 38th and the 41st wards, on Chicago far northwest side, near the airport, where the city seems to blur into a grittier kind of strip-malled suburbia, bounded by some forest preserves, and row after row of bungalows. They are changing, a bit, with upscale condos in a few areas of Edison Park, but they are what they have been for decades: a mostly working-class area, with a lot of cops and fireman. Rules are they have to live in the city, and they tend to congregate at the far northwest and far southwest. Some people see this as wanting to be as near the suburbs as possible, and a sign of hating Chicago, but I think it’s understandable. It’s a tough job, and I’d probably want to feel like I’m leaving it as well. Consequently, these are safe neighborhoods, with families on the street and decent, though rarely great restaurants, and some great authentic Irish pubs.
But it is in the “police lives matter” rally is clearly the product of angry, racially-tinged reaction. Now, to be clear, police lives do matter. They do great and brave work, dangerous work. As Charlie Pierce said, in an article about a stomach-churning police scandal in Oakland, “Sometimes, I wonder how the good cops, all of them, get up in the morning and go to work. There’s something amazingly selfless in there that’s beyond my understanding.”
This, however, is not a parade for honoring good and great work. It’s a direct sneer at the activists of Black Lives Matter. You can tell it is due to the sickeningly disingenuous prattling of Alderman Anthony Napolitano, a former firefighter who is enjoying his first term.
Asked if Black Lives Matter protesters might object to a catchphrase turning the tables on their group, Napolitano said, “I have no clue why they would. There’s a Black Lives movement. There’s a Police Lives movement. That’s two totally separate things.
“What if someone came up with Puppy Dogs’ Lives Matter?” Napolitano added. “If you want to champion a cause, you should be allowed to champion it.”
This is obvious nonsense. It certainly wasn’t like “X Lives Matter” was a common phrase, and “black” is just the latest entry. Doing any “Lives Matter” is a clear choice to be in direct opposition to them; it is always prefaced with a not-so-subtle “No, actually…” His fun example is actually more telling than it seems. “You think black lives matter? Fuck you. I think puppy dog’s lives matter.”
(If you think that in the same article, Napolitano set up a “political correctness/common sense” dichotmy, you get zero points for guesswork, because come on. That’s easy.)
There is understandable fear in the city about what is happening, but it is telling that the “police lives matter” support comes mainly from some of the safest neighborhoods. It’s raw tribalism, and you can see how tribalism in Chicago has altered due to the pressures of race. Look at Napolitano. Time was no Irishman, of which there are a lot in the 41st, would vote for a man with a vowel at the end of his name, whether it was Italian or some form of “ski”. But the tribes have coalesced. And this tribe, the Police Lives Matter tribe, is why Chicago will never be a liberal city. The tribe is by definition conservative, and if still nominally Democratic in city politics, essentially socially Trumpian. It’s why even though he can’t win, his rise will mutate politics in the entire country, especially in angry barstools on a fearful and reactionary ring around Chicago.