Chicago: No sweet home Obama

Ishmael Alamin  cuts hair at the Hyde Park Hair Salon in Chicago, where President Barack Obama was a long-time customer. (AFP)

Ishmael Alamin cuts hair at the Hyde Park Hair Salon in Chicago, where President Barack Obama was a long-time customer. (AFP)

When I told ­people in New York I was moving to Chicago last year, they generally spent the first five minutes telling me how lucky I was. They emoted about "the lake" – Lake Michigan – that marks the city's eastern boundary, the eclectic skyline, the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, the affable locals, the jazz scene and the vibrant, self-sufficient neighbourhoods.

Then they would spend the next 10 minutes explaining why they would not be coming to visit me for seven months of the year. They would recall their wasted hours at Chicago O'Hare Airport, where they missed their connection because of bad weather, and threaten me with winds so cold that they would freeze me from the inside out.

But the year I have been here has not been typical.
It has been unseasonably warm throughout most of it and I have seen shirtsleeves in October and sandals in April. But the clement weather has brought its own problems. Because when the sun is shining, people go out. And when people go out in Chicago, it transpires, they are more likely to get shot. The murder rate for the first half of the year was up by 38% on last year – which was not a great year – meaning that, by June, fewer United States forces were killed in Kabul than murdered here. Over May's Memorial Day long weekend alone, there were 43 shootings and 10 murders.

"Chicago is a different beast when it comes to the issue of violence," Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire Illinois, a violence prevention group, told documentary series Frontline. "You have outbreaks of violence the same way you have outbreaks of diseases in countries throughout the world. Some people are going to sleep in Chicago thinking about who they are going to shoot the next day."

At a meeting on traffic awareness at my son's day-care centre, one of the parents asked whether school outings would still pass the site of a recent shooting. "We must talk to the children about how to handle situations like that," said the principal, "because the big problem in those situations is that they panic."

Panic in the presence of gunfire in broad daylight, I thought, was a perfectly rational response. Going home, I saw posters on the window of the youth club at the top of our street saying "Stop Killing People". It seemed like the kind of suggestion you should not need a poster for.

Every major US city has, at some time, gained a particular reputation for dysfunctionality, usually related to crime, violence, corruption or insolvency – and occasionally all four. But Chicago is not any city. It is Obamatown. Pictures of the president are everywhere: in barbershops, diners, nail salons and bodegas. He smiles down from the foyer of the college that houses the day-care centre, only to peer out again amid the stick-men pictures on the wall of the centre itself. Whenever the first family come back for a break or a family event, traffic jams with pride. Not long ago, I saw a bumper sticker in my neighbourhood, "Oromos for Obama", expressing support from Ethiopia's largest ethnic group: now that is micromarketing.

Vulnerable
Obama, needless to say, is not responsible for this mayhem. True, the current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was his first chief of staff. (His second was William Daley, the son of one former Chicago mayor and brother to another.) But Emanuel has been in for little more than a year and Obama only served three terms as a state senator in the city – when the murder rate was much lower – before doing four years as senator for Illinois. Nonetheless, of all the places where this shape-shifting president has lived – Hawaii, Indonesia, New York, Boston – this is the place he is most closely identified with (unless you are one of those stubborn Republicans who still believes he is really from Kenya). It is where his campaign headquarters are and where, on that unusually warm November night four years ago, he strolled out on to a stage in Grant Park to claim his place in history.

As the first president for several decades to be associated with a big city, he is particularly vulnerable. For regardless of how many mass slayings may occur in suburbs and how much crystal meth may be distributed in rural areas, cities remain the principal repository for the nation's anxieties. All the national woes are evident here. The abandoned shoes outside the door across the hallway from my son's friend's apartment are testament to a housing market only now bouncing back. The queues at the local food banks keep growing. The mortality rate for black infants is on a par with the West Bank.

It is widely believed that it was to avoid scenes of rioting in his home town that Obama abruptly moved the Group of Eight summit from Chicago to Camp David. It is also thought to be the reason why  Emanuel now seems keen to compromise in the face of an impending teachers' strike that is due to start on the same day as the Democratic Party convention (this and the fact that the overwhelming majority of the city supports the teachers).

And so it is with Chicago that Obama is tarred by opponents, who have come to refer to the city not as the third-largest in the country, but as an epithet. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney described Obama's attacks on his record as a venture capitalist at private equity firm Bain Capital as "Chicago politics at its worst". Former Bush consigliere Karl Rove, who knows a thing or two about political smears, called the attacks the "gutter politics of the worst Chicago sort". Romney surrogate John Sununu, who recently insisted Obama should "learn how to be an American", previously said: "Can you imagine coming out of Chicago politics, where 'politician' and 'felon' are synonymous? You've got two governors in prison today."

This is not quite true. One of those imprisoned Illinois governors, Republican George Ryan, was not from Chicago. And although Obama lived in the city and practised politics there, he was hardly a product of its political culture; indeed, as a community organiser he was most often trying to confront it from the outside.

The attacks also seem to be aimed at Chicago's past rather than its present. The Republicans are not slating the city for its gun crime (they are against gun control) or the teachers' dispute (they loathe teachers' unions), but for the place the city occupies in the national imagination, in which crime and politics are ostensibly deeply intertwined.

"When their ideas of today's ­middle class are rooted in the JR Ewing family in the remake of Dallas," said Emanuel, "it's no surprise their idea of Chicago politics comes from watching Boss. They need a reality check on both fronts."

Raw
This is not quite true either. The city's history of machine politics, in which patronage was far more important than policies or ideology, does stretch back a long way. In 1948, Abner Mikva, originally from Milwaukee, famously went to the local Democratic Party to try to sign up to campaign for Adlai Stevenson for governor and Paul Douglas for Senate.

The local committeeman asked him: "Who sent you?"

"Nobody sent me," said Mikva. "I just want to help."

"We don't want nobody that nobody sent," said the committeeman and sent Mikva away.

But the legacy of those years still lingers. A report earlier this year by Dick Simpson from the University of Illinois at Chicago revealed that the city boasted the most convictions in the country since 1976. Since then, more than 1 500 elected officials, appointees, government employees and some private individuals have been convicted of corruption in Illinois' northern district, the judicial zone that includes the Chicago metropolitan area.

Politics here is about as raw as it gets in the west. Rod Blagojevich, a previous Illinois governor and a Chicago native, was caught on tape trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by Obama when he won the presidency. "I've got this thing and it's fucking golden and I'm just not giving it up for fucking nothing." For this, Blagojevich got 14 years in prison, the fourth of the past eight governors to end up behind bars in the past 50 years.

The notoriously profane Emanuel (nicknamed Rahmbo) once mailed a dead fish to a pollster whom he accused of costing his candidate an election. When he was inaugurated, he said: "I am not a patient man. I will not be a patient mayor."

For most of the postwar period, Chicago politics was also a family affair. For 43 of the past 56 years before Emanuel took over, the city was run by just two men, a father and son with the same name: Richard Daley. The father and, to a much lesser extent, the son, doled out jobs and released funds to those who did their bidding and punished those who did not. In 2005, a judicial inquiry found the city council had been granting jobs to people who were ostensibly interviewed while dead or serving in Iraq. The fact that, a year later, Daley Junior was re-elected with a whopping 72% tells you something about how many Chicagoans view these matters.

Tolerance for corruption
"We have a higher level of tolerance for corruption than other towns," Simpson, the author of Rogues, Rebels and Rubber Stamps: A History of Chicago City Politics, told me when the inquiry was at its height. "Our political culture makes an allowance for corruption because it is our tradition. Corruption by itself will not cause a mayor in Chicago to be defeated. It has to be coupled with other issues, such as poor services or high tax increases."

It is this attitude that makes Chicago such an endearing city to me despite all the obvious flaws. Its citizens display a remarkable ability to convert its insecurities into a positive local identity.

As corrupt as the Daleys may have been, there was never any suggestion that they were in it to line their own pockets, or that they were not generally driven by their passion for the city. Mayors are more likely to be fired here for not clearing the snow than interviewing dead people, because Chicagoans appreciate leaders who get things done and can deliver. That does not make the corruption excusable. But it explains why it is not definitive.

There is a healthy disdain for the self-referential arrogance of the coasts. Unlike many New Yorkers, Chicagoans love their city in its own right, not because they think it is better than anywhere else.

And there is a general sense that City Hall is cleaning up its act. When I visited schools recently, most principals emphasised that all attempts to buck the system were futile. "I couldn't even get my daughter into this school. There's no such thing as the 'Chicago way' anymore," said one, using the shorthand for the kind of corruption particular to the city.

None of this compensates for the sense of insecurity when a shooting takes place at the top of your block – as it did recently – or when your five-year-old asks to cycle a different way to school because "people over there keep getting arrested".

But it makes it liveable. Because all the things New Yorkers referred to in their first five minutes are still true. Cycle alongside Lake Shore Drive in the early morning and you will pass black church groups jogging, Asians playing cricket and the tinkling of masts in the marina. All this with the lake lapping at your feet. Whether I will feel quite the same next winter is another matter. – © Guardian News & Media 2012


Clinton sings Obama's praises

After the Democratic Party ­officially nominated United States President Barack Obama as its candidate for the election on November 6, former president Bill Clinton threw all his prestige behind Obama’s bid to hold on to the White House.

In an old-fashioned barnstorming speech to the Democratic national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Wednesday night – much of it ad-libbed and considerably longer than the prepared text – Clinton boiled the differences between Obama and Republican opponent Mitt Romney down to a simple, essential point.

The choice, he said, would be between whether voters wanted to be part of a “we’re all in this together society” or a “winner take all, you’re on your own society”. – Mail & Guardian reporter

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