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Taking the Gloves Off in Chicagoland

Even as it celebrates Chicago’s ‘toughness,’ CNN’s mini-series doesn’t confront the real reasons behind the city’s inequality

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March 18, 2014

This article originally appeared on InTheseTimes.com on March 17, 2014.

By Kari Lydersen

Chicago is one tough town.

It’s always had that image—home of mobsters, brawlers and political bosses; hog butcher to the world; city of big shoulders. And CNN’s docuseries Chicagoland, set to air for six more weeks on Thursday nights, is just the latest cultural offering to cement and celebrate Chicago’s image of toughness.

Chicagoland’s gruff narration, by veteran South Side Chicago journalist Mark Konkol, drips with Midwestern machismo. The series also celebrates the Blackhawks, Chicago’s contender in the most brutal of major sports. And it portrays the main characters—mustachioed police chief Garry McCarthy, fearless yet warm-hearted high school principal Elizabeth Dozier and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, famed for his profanity, dead-fish-sending and “brass balls”—as the epitome of rugged go-getters, furrowing their brows and maintaining their resolve as they try to “save” Chicago from debilitating gang violence, failing schools and a budget crisis.

But therein lies a fundamental problem with the framing of this series, which is nonetheless visually gorgeous and emotionally engaging. Chicagoland is very much about a handful of tough authority figures trying to rescue their low-income, black and brown subjects from urban decay, while giving short shrift to the power, creativity and agency of those communities. It also fails to address the ways the political status quo represented by Emanuel and McCarthy created and continues to help perpetuate Chicago’s vast inequality.

Much has already been written in social and mainstream media about Chicagoland’s overly adulatory treatment of Emanuel. And it’s unfortunately true that the series, at least thus far, fawns over Emanuel while leaving out many facts about what critics call his misplaced priorities and various stumbles.

Just as shamefully, though, the documentary also neglects to mention some of the most exciting and inspiring people fighting fearlessly and working tirelessly to make Chicago a better place for everyone—and specifically opposing Emanuel in the process. Of course, one series cannot even begin to highlight every notable community figure. But with a few exceptions, Chicagoland clearly steers away from prominent Chicagoans who aren’t on board with Emanuel’s campaign to remake Chicago into a hipper, leaner, more “innovative” city unencumbered by labor unions, costly public services and democratic processes.

The team behind Chicagoland (including producers Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin) clearly understand the beauty, diversity and vibrancy of Chicago neighborhoods, including low-income minority and immigrant neighborhoods like Roseland, Little Village and Albany Park. They offer lovely and energetic scenes showing the rich culture, complex identities and physical attractions of these areas, including murals, marching bands, youth plays and street food. And they do feature some inspiring local leaders—but rarely those who resist Emanuel or his policies. Criticism of Emanuel is largely offered in quick sound bites, while those who are profiled as full characters are politically neutral and therefore “safe” for Emanuel and his backers.

In its first episode, Chicagoland spotlights Asean Johnson, the precocious pint-size Chicago public schools student who has become a mascot of sorts for the Chicago Teachers Union—his mom is a member—in its battle with Emanuel. Aside from Asean and his mother, however, Chicagoland doesn’t spend time on other parents and teachers who vehemently reject the way Emanuel and his handpicked school board are remaking the Chicago educational system with privately run non-union charters. It doesn’t fairly feature strong African Americans who are critical of the mayor, despite the historic and crucial role of Black leaders in Chicago and the fact that Emanuel’s popularity among Black residents has plummeted. Though Chicagoland gives screentime to teachers union president Karen Lewis, by highlighting her more incendiary remarks and using some poor quality video, it portrays her somewhat more as a caricature than a thoughtful and popular leader.

By contrast, Chicagoland allows Emanuel ample screen time to joke around with Black school kids and highlights his mentorship of a young African-American man. And it allows him to repeat his favorite trope about kids who look longingly at downtown from afar but never go there. Emanuel talks of plucking kids from poverty and bringing them into the shiny new Chicago, full of digital startups, bike lanes and hip restaurants.

The mayor may well be sincere in this mission, symbolized in Chicagoland by poor high school students’ visit to the exclusive downtown eatery Alinea, where chef Grant Achatz earnestly invites them to drop by any time. But that doesn’t excuse the way the mayor has disrespected, ignored and actually attacked vaunted institutions and bases of power in marginalized Black and Latino neighborhoods, including laying off the parents of the kids he claims he is trying to save. After all, we never hear about Emanuel’s widely known nickname, Mayor One Percent, in Chicagoland, though we do hear him making a pointedly defensive reference to serving “the 100 percent.”

Chicagoland's first installment features the battle to save two specific elementary schools slated for closing, Marcus Garvey—attended by Asean Johnson—and George Manniere. As the school board took its historic vote, Garvey and Manniere were among just four schools removed from the chopping block. The series mentions that Emanuel’s administration laid off more than 3,000 teachers and school staff as part of draconian budget cuts. But it lacks much important context about both the strike and the school closings.

While watching Chicagoland’s footage of the hearings around the shutterings, for example, observant Chicagoans will likely catch the fact that the administration’s presence there consisted of a few disengaged lower-level representatives, not the mayor or board members. The scenes, though, lack any narration specifically pointing out the absence, which would conceivably allow less astute viewers to weigh the hypocrisy of a mayor who cares so much about the children but couldn’t make it to one of the hundreds of meetings where they themselves spoke out.

The series also gives Emanuel the last word on the teachers’ strike in September 2012, seeming to depict him as “winning”—a conclusion contrary to the opinions of experts across the political spectrum. Throughout its battle with the teachers union, for instance, the mayoral administration promised the resulting longer school day would come with more arts and music instruction. However, many art, language and music teachers and school librarians were actually laid off and programs cut in the subsequent weeks, even as money was funneled to charter schools.

Meanwhile, the series also fails to reveal that many kids ended up at schools with worse academic rankings and fewer offerings after the closings. Or that the administration was never honest or consistent about its rationale for deciding which schools to close, and that cost savings figures used to justify the closings didn’t hold water.

There’s also some crucial context missing regarding Fenger High School in the Roseland neighborhood, where Dozier is principal. The school made national headlines in 2009, when student Derrion Albert was beaten to death and video of the incident was posted online. Chicagoland dramatically juxtaposes the murder and that violent era with the relative peace and positivity Dozier has ushered in. But the series doesn’t mention that the attack was attributed to the transformation of another area high school into a military academy, forcing its students to cross gang lines to get to Fenger. Such violence was exactly what parents and students feared in the wake of the school closings.

Dozier did indeed work near-miracles at Fenger, greatly reducing violence and increasing student engagement, with the help of a four-year federal grant. Chicagoland notes that this funding is running out, and Dozier fears a resurgence of conflicts will arise thanks to staff and program cutbacks. The series sidesteps the fact, however, that Fenger and public schools like it are seeing their class sizes grow and their budget situations worsen because of the administration’s decisions. Fenger is also losing more funding as its student population drops despite Dozier’s heroic efforts, exacerbated by the proliferation of the charter schools that Emanuel is aggressively pushing.

As a smart, funny, charming woman with an amazing backstory—her mother was a white Catholic nun, and she was conceived while her African-American father was in prison—Dozier herself is a wonderful central character for this or any story. But teamed with McCarthy and Emanuel and supporting characters like an ER doctor and South Side police commander, all of them white, the bi-racial Dozier becomes part of a group apparently trying to “rescue” poor Black kids from their surroundings and their neighbors, rather than questioning or challenging the structures and priorities that create these social problems and inequities. Chicago clearly needs many more Doziers, but it also needs systemic change.

At the least, along with Dozier, Chicagoland should feature or quote Black leaders and thinkers such as Brandon Johnson of the Chicago Teachers Union, Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Robert Starks of the Center for Inner City Studies, pundit Laura Washington or Cook County Board president and possible mayoral contender Toni Preckwinkle. And even as the series celebrates Black hip-hop artists, including Chance the Rapper, it neglects Grammy-winner and politico Che “Rhymefest” Smith, a famously outspoken critic of the mayor.

For all its oversights, though, Chicagoland can act as an inspiration for both media commentators and residents alike when it comes to the city’s future. An eight-hour documentary aimed at a mainstream national audience with a short attention span might not be expected to get into the weeds of complicated education policy and funding issues—but it can, and should, certainly inspire its viewers to take action. With that in mind, Chicagoans should take all of the buzz around the series as a challenge to ourselves. As we revel in the vicarious limelight and celebrate our city’s “toughness,” the truly tough and brave among us will ask the hard questions, do the grueling research and seek, promote and support leaders who value not only toughness but accountability, democracy and respect.

- Kari Lydersen is a research associate in journalism at Northwestern University.