The Bud Billiken Parade long has been the nation’s largest African-American parade that marks the kickoff of the upcoming school year, but on Saturday, its 89th iteration also served as an unofficial step-off for the 2019 Chicago mayor’s race.
Six challengers to Mayor Rahm Emanuel marched in the parade, which offered their first chance to practice some retail politics at a large-scale event ahead of a February 2019 election that is still more than six months away. At least one more of Emanuel’s 10 challengers worked the crowd gathered at a festival at the parade’s end in Washington Park.
And then there was Emanuel, who was front and center, surrounded by children and supporters of the city’s summer jobs program and early childhood education initiative.
Typically, a Chicago mayor’s race isn’t in full swing by the time “the Bud” runs through the heart of the South Side.
Eight years ago, former Mayor Richard M. Daley had not yet announced his plans to step down and Emanuel was still working as then-President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff. Four years ago, whispers of possible opponents to Emanuel had just started to circulate with no field of challengers in place.
This year, there were plenty of mayoral politics — even if the main attraction was the South Side’s children getting ready to go back to school and their bands, drill teams and dance outfits.
As he buzzed down the parade route, Emanuel mostly was received warmly — or at least politely — by the thousands of black voters and their families lining Martin Luther King Jr. Drive through the heart of Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side. There were plenty of smiles and handshakes for Emanuel, but also a smattering of jeers and a tent just north of 49th Street with a sign that proclaimed, “Rahm Emanuel Got 2 Go.”
The parade came at a time of heightened political tension in the black community where Emanuel has been trying to rebuild support that eroded after the Laquan McDonald police shooting scandal erupted in late 2015.
Last weekend marked the deadliest in Chicago since at least 2012, as a surge of shootings in parts of the South and West sides left 12 dead and 62 wounded. In the week since, Emanuel’s opponents have criticized him on everything from the deployment of police manpower and not hiring enough detectives to not investing enough money in violence-plagued neighborhoods and failing to create jobs in those economically challenged areas.
Emanuel and police Superintendent Eddie Johnson responded to the bloodshed by assigning 600 additional officers to five police districts on the South and West sides that have seen the heaviest share of gun violence. The mayor also condemned a culture that he said condones gang activity and too often does not provide police with valuable information they need to apprehend those who pull the trigger.
The issue was top of mind for many of Emanuel’s political opponents Saturday as they greeted voters along the parade route.
“I just want to help people. The community is just beat down so much,” said businessman Willie Wilson, who rode part of the route in a red Corvette before walking the rest. “I’m telling people, we don’t need more police officers in the city of Chicago. We need more jobs and contracts in those communities. Let’s try that, because for years, they’ve been putting in police, police, police, and the crime still goes up, up and up.”
Former Police Board president and onetime federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot walked in the parade with a contingent and continued her criticism of how Emanuel has handled the recent uptick in shootings.
Lightfoot said there is no place for the mayor to be lecturing about morality, which she said represented a form of “victim shaming.” Lightfoot said Emanuel doesn’t seem to comprehend that many fear if they come forward with information on a shooting or homicide that they could be shot next — especially since the Chicago police only solve 17 percent of homicide cases.
“Blaming people in these communities for the violence that is escalating — that has to stop. Rahm Emanuel should be ashamed of himself,” said Lightfoot, whom Emanuel appointed to the Police Board and a police reform task force after the McDonald shooting.
“Standing on the Monday after the horrific weekend that we had and blaming the victims and talking about values — of course there are values in the black community. That is shameful and offensive language,” Lightfoot said. “He doesn’t see us. He doesn’t have empathy and understanding for what’s really going on, and the complexity and the nuance in these neighborhoods. He doesn’t get it, and that’s why he’s not going to be mayor again.”
Lightfoot said Emanuel may hold public events on the South and West sides, but she portrayed his interaction with real black Chicagoans at Saturday’s parade as a rarity.
“He’s like a migratory bird,” Lightfoot said. “He makes so few stopovers in real neighborhoods in the city that’s it’s like a rare sighting.”
Emanuel walked the length of the parade Saturday, doing his typical back-and-forth sprinting to both sides of King Drive to shake hands. For the most part, friendly onlookers greeted the mayor with a smile and the occasional cellphone selfie, with many surprised by the mayor’s sudden hello.
When Emanuel reached over a barricade to shake the hand of Linda Stevens, he startled her, but she quickly insisted on giving the mayor a hug.
“Come here. I won’t hurt you,” Stevens said with a giant smile. “I love you, Rahm. I don’t care what they say.”
Stevens, who is a chef and lives in West Pullman, said she plans to vote for Emanuel in February. When asked why, she pointed to his news conference — and the very message he delivered that Lightfoot criticized.
“When he spoke on Monday about crime and the communities coming together, I empathized with him, I sympathized with him and he had the same verbiage that I have often preached throughout the community — that it starts with the people and doing what’s right,” said Stevens, 48. “The mayor has a tough job. What he said is so true.”
Stevens said some in the black community are criticizing Emanuel because he’s a white politician delivering the message, but the truth should be “colorblind.” Asked about the other candidates, Stevens said she liked Wilson because of his long history of philanthropy on the South Side — including the type of cash and check giveaways he’s done recently to help the poor pay property tax bills.
While those giveaways have drawn the criticism of Gov. Bruce Rauner and allegations by some that he’s trying to buy votes, Stevens said Wilson’s record of helping people goes back decades. She said when she was unemployed in 2001, she got a $500 check from Wilson — but she still plans to vote for Emanuel.
“Rahm is more qualified. Sorry, Willie,” Stevens said. “Rahm has been through all this before. Even though I want to see faces change, and I’m tired of the same old machines, Rahm’s passion hits my heart.”
Not everyone greeted Emanuel so warmly. Near 43rd Street, Michael Heard booed Emanuel loudly and shouted for him to “get out!”
On the South Side, Heard said, Emanuel no longer is viewed as the favorite candidate of Obama.
“He doesn’t do (anything) for the South and the West Side. … We don’t have any resources. Ain’t nothing going on for these kids on the South Side, so what do they resort to?” said Heard, 45, who lives in Bronzeville. “I voted for him the first time, learned my lesson the second time, won’t do it a third time. He slid in on the help from Barack Obama, but we got hip the second time. It won’t happen again.”
Emanuel was shaking hands on the east side of King Drive near 49th Street when he approached the tent with the “Rahm Got 2 Go” sign and quickly crossed back to the other side. There, Zakiyyah Muhammad yelled at the mayor through a megaphone, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Rahm Emanuel’s got to go. He’s a punk. He stinks. We don’t like him. He hates black people. He’s trying to push us out the community.”
Muhammad said she voted for Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in the mayoral race four years ago. She said she has been coming to the Billiken parade for 60 years, and her tent has always had a theme.
“I usually do ‘Keep Hope Alive’ or ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but the sentiment of the people is so strong in the black community about Rahm Emanuel and getting him out that I had to put this message up,” said Muhammad, a community activist who lives in Bronzeville. “A man who comes into our communities and closed down 50 schools and six mental health clinics, that’s a man who doesn’t care about people and, in our case, black people. Rahm Emanuel is no good.”
In addition to Emanuel, Lightfoot and Wilson, four other mayoral candidates made their way down the parade route: Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, Chicago principals association President Troy LaRaviere, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and activist Ja’Mal Green.
A longtime staple in the Billiken parade, Brown used the day to emphasize she would improve the city’s schools, declaring that “making a commitment to educational excellence will give our youth a fighting chance against the crime that plagues our community.”
LaRaviere joined a group of anti-violence protesters and released a plan to reduce violence by reopening mental health clinics, improving schools, bolstering economic development and targeting racial bias among other proposals. Like Lightfoot, LaRaviere also railed against Emanuel’s remarks from last week.
“Our communities don’t need ill-advised insults. They need economic investment, education and strong public institutions,” LaRaviere said. “They need a government that will end bias, racism and segregation. That is what will reduce violence, and that is what this plan is about.”
Vallas was joined by a group of veterans, a drum line and a dance team as he walked the parade route. He marched in the parade many times as CEO of CPS, but said the political climate with all the candidates campaigning made this year’s event unusual.
“It shows that, clearly, people are dissatisfied,” said Vallas, who added that the No. 1 question he got at the parade was, “What are you going to do to invest more in our community?”
Tech entrepreneur Neal Sales-Griffin, who also is running for mayor, worked the crowd along the parade route.
“A lot of candidates are out here trying to promote themselves, but I’m just trying to listen to people. This is home. I’ve been coming to the Bud my whole life,” said Sales-Griffin, who grew up in Kenwood. “A lot of people I know are numb to the violence, numb to the pain that’s out there. I’m numb. I’ve felt it my whole life, but today all you see out here are smiles and kids having fun. This is what people want more of.”
For his part, Emanuel largely focused on the theme of the parade — education. He touted his plan for universal pre-K in the coming years and noted his past push to make full-day kindergarten a reality across the city.
“This September, we’re embarking on a four-year plan where every 4-year-old in the city will get free, full-day pre-K. This is a new beginning,” Emanuel said. “It’s a new day for the city of Chicago — and seven years ago, we didn’t even provide full-day kindergarten for every child. So, when we’re all done, we will have added two additional years of education to a child.”
Asked about all the political opposition at this year’s parade, Emanuel just shrugged. He did, though, acknowledge that events like Saturday’s parade are a good barometer of public support — and he liked what he saw.
“I do think people are alert to the political season and alert to who has ideas for the future,” Emanuel said. “I know what a warm reception looks like, and that’s why I’m sweating.”