“There’s no such thing as un-bloody birth,” says the Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston, reclining in his office chair in his South Side Chicago home on a recent afternoon. “Birth is a joyous occasion but it’s a messy one.” A longtime preacher and community activist, Livingston, outsized in both physical and emotional presence, is wont to speak in metaphors such as this, especially when discussing untidy topics — in this case, how his organization, Coalition for a New Chicago, has been using non-violent, albeit occasionally contentious, protest to try and force Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign from office.
Livingston has long been critical of Emanuel’s policies on a broad level, but he really saw the need for change after the November release of a 2014 police dashcam video showing Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, seemingly without provocation; recently an email trail was discovered suggesting city officials, including Emanuel, tried to prevent the public from viewing the video. The city, for its part, argued that releasing the video would taint the investigation of the case, but Judge Franklin Valderrama of the Cook County Circuit Court ultimately ordered its release last fall under a reporter’s Freedom of Information Act request. City leaders have now brought first-degree murder charges against Van Dyke for shooting the teenager 16 times.
Livingston’s organization is certainly not the only one calling for Emanuel’s resignation, but it’s undoubtedly the loudest. Coalition for a New Chicago, in conjunction with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, have staged a number of protests over the past two months, most notably in the city’s posh Magnificent Mile shopping district on Black Friday and Christmas Eve; protesters chanted, “Stop the cover-up!” and, “16 shots! 16 shots!”
Livingston recently spoke to Rolling Stone about the power of protest, his group’s upcoming plans and why he feels President Obama should put pressure on Emanuel to resign.
In the wake of the Laquan McDonald case, do you believe responsibility falls not on the police to self-regulate, but on elected officials to regulate them?
We have a social contract with the police that they’re allowed to use lethal force when required. But when you abuse that power and things start to unravel, and it comes forward that you’re [allegedly] falsifying reports, that’s too much. The out-and-out lies and the collusion… it’s frightening when you think about it. Not only should [police and elected officials involved] lose their jobs, but they should be criminally prosecuted. And if the law is supposed to act as a deterrent, it has to be strong enough for them too.
Not that it makes it right, but Chicago has long been a haven for political corruption.
Was this kind of corruption likely present before Rahm came into office? Of course! Chicago has always been run by bosses. Chicago is a gangster town. [Former Mayor] Richard J. Daley was a gangster, man. I grew up here. I could tell you stories. But right now this is the perfect storm. This has become a galvanizing point for the electorate. And while we have [their attention], now we can inform them and educate them as citizens to make a real difference. To me, it’s about giving the people their voice back. Illinois has made it incredibly difficult for its citizens to have a voice through the ballot. Now we have a chance to turn a lot of that around. And I’ll tell you, as far as the young protesters, it’s cold outside, but they’re not backing off.
If Emanuel were to resign his post, do you believe that would have a direct impact on the city’s lawfulness and overall conduct?
Getting Rahm out is significant because Rahm tends to cater to the elite classes. Rahm was basically a political assassin for Clinton. He even was when he was in Congress, with his involvement with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And then he was again for Obama. So he comes to this job not as one who governs, but as one who takes out his enemies. He takes out those people who take away from those you have, if you will. By removing him, we’d have the ability to work on putting a more balanced person in that seat. Nobody’s perfect. We understand that. But I think that Rahm tends to be way on the other side of what’s right.
If he does resign, current Alderman and Vice Mayor Brendan Reilly would take his post. Would that please you? Or do you have someone else in mind?
Anybody but Rahm. Having said that, whoever else we get in there, by knowing we have the ability to get him out, he will have to have a lot of respect for the position.
What do you make of state Rep. La Shawn Ford’s proposed legislation that would allow Chicago voters to recall the mayor? It’s gained support from the governor.
Why should citizens have to wait until the next election if their elected official isn’t doing them right? Here we are in a state where we’ve had four governors in prison. We were always trying to find a way in terms of the Illinois Municipal Code of how we could remove Rahm. But there was nothing there. You could recall the governor. If you can do that you should be able to recall the mayor. The recall piece is a great organizing tool. We need to go down to Springfield and demand this is voted on and passes the state House of Representatives. This is something that Illinois citizens should have the right to do. We understand that Rahm and his people will probably fight it in court, but that’s to be expected.
How specifically does your organization hope to impart the changes you wish to see?
Firstly, we’re looking at applying economic pressure on January 15th. We want to affect trading at the exchanges that Friday. We want to see if we can throw them off. We believe those are the people Rahm listens to, and they won’t want us down there disrupting the trading. Secondly, as we see things continue to unravel and people continue to resign and get out of the way, we believe that we can move toward some criminal prosecution. The mayor, his hand being involved [in the video cover-up], he has been criminally involved and therefore needs to be dealt with as a criminal.
I assume you’re consulting with attorneys regarding the legal proceedings to force Emanuel’s hand.
We are working with attorneys pro bono. These are great guys to help us navigate the legal waters. We’re putting some things together, but this is new territory. I’m learning as we go as well.
Just like we did in the Sixties with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, we essentially have to make up these laws as we go. But that’s what I love about America: America is a country where you may not be able to legislate morality, but you can moralize legislation by amending, changing and creating.
Why is now the time for change? Is it exclusively because of Emanuel’s apparent involvement in helping quash the release of the Laquan McDonald video?
I’ve always had issues with him in terms of his policy. I’ve always felt it was not the policy for the challenged and the disadvantaged, and he could care less about them. It doesn’t mean we exclude those who are thriving, but we just can’t forget the least of these among us. But to [allegedly] cover up this murder for the purposes of getting reelected, a conspiracy to conceal and defraud, that’s huge! It’s unacceptable.
You’ve called for President Obama to get his “boy” Emanuel to step down. I take it you feel Obama needs to take imminent action in Chicago?
Barack and Michelle Obama and I used to work out together. So I know him and have a comfort level with him, which is why I said that. When I was working with [2015 Chicago mayoral candidate] Willie Wilson, I got him in to see Barack at the Pullman National Monument dedication. I said, “Mr. President, I’ve got my guy right here.” He was standing next to Rahm and he looked at Willie and said, “I know who you are, but I’ve got to support my boy.” Meaning Rahm. So I’m just using the president’s language. So Mr. President, come get your boy! You’ve got to take him home. Take him back with you.
So you believe the president needs to tell Emanuel to step down?
Do I think Barack has a responsibility to do something? Yes I do. He’s the president of Chicago, he’s the president of Illinois, he’s the president of these United States. And especially because of his relationship to this town. I think the president should step in. It does not belittle his position as the chief executive officer of this country. As the CEO of this country, one of his divisions, we’ll call it, Chicago, is going through some serious changes right now. Everything is happening in your corporation and here, Rahm is the person that sits atop. He may not be to blame for all of it, but because of his position he’s now responsible for it. So yeah, just by using natural logic the president should say, “Rahm, you need to step down. You need to go.”
Were you inspired by the political and social protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities?
The agitation is necessary. Irritation is necessary for mutation. My granddaddy used to tell me this story about this old hound dog on a porch whining. A man says, “Why is the dog whining like that?” And the other says, “Because he’s lying on a nail.” The man says, “Well, why doesn’t he move?” And the other says, “Because it doesn’t hurt bad enough yet.” Everybody has to feel the pain for change to happen. In order for Rahm to hear us, we have to make noise. What I love about our demonstrators is they’ve learned from Ferguson and Baltimore that going the violent route is not the way. The question becomes, then: Can we deal with a little discomfort for a little while to make a change?
Do you view your group’s protests in Chicago as connected with the Black Lives Matter movement?
Without a doubt. This is an American movement. The people rising and revolting is a wonderfully American thing. It hasn’t really been painted that way. But I’m still so excited by this.
Are you optimistic about the future of Chicago?
If I want to lose 50 pounds and get in tip-top shape, I’ve got to make some sacrifices. But I appreciate and understand the process.
In order for life to move forward, sometimes you have to moult and leave the old skin behind. This thinking allows me to deal with what can be very painful, daunting, frustrating, exhausting challenges. It’s hard. But every once in a while you get a good win. This is all part of the process.