When You’re Being Sued by Black Lives Matter and Still Get Invited to Speak in an Architecture School


Léopold Lambert – Philadelphia on February 19, 2018
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Tomorrow, Tuesday 20th February, the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) will host a lecture by current Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel. Besides the fact that inviting such a figure of the political establishment is problematic for the personal agenda necessarily carried by a sitting mayor engaged in a “lecture tour,” as well as for the total absence of a need to hear more from hyper-mediatized personalities who already accumulate hours and hours of interventions on mass-media, we should be particularly outraged at this invitation of Emanuel in an architecture institution. It is ironic to think that, at a time when Steve Bannon, Eric Trump or Milo Yiannopoulos are invited to discuss their fascist ideology on United States’ campuses, Harvard’s department of architecture may have imagined that inviting Emanuel, a member of the Democratic Party and former Chief of Staff of President Obama, constituted a bold political positioning against the current state of U.S. politics. Emanuel’s politics are however an embodiment of the status quo and its violence against Black and Brown bodies in the U.S..

The fact that the city of Chicago is currently being sued by a class-action undertaken by Black Lives Matter activists calling for a court oversight of the Chicago police could have been an indication of the insult that this invitation constitutes for all of those who dedicate their energy struggling against structural racism in U.S. cities. Instead, the lecture’s brief uncritically reproduces a text most-likely sent by Emanuel’s public-relation office, which mentions the mayor’s “achievements” for the city of Chicago — as well as the fact that “he is married to Amy Rule, and [that] they have three children” for some reason that are difficult to understand! — as a comparison with the page featuring his February 12 UCLA lecture brief attests (see below).

Text Comparison Rahm Emanuel
Text comparison between the lecture Emanuel gave at UCLA on February 12 (left) and the one at Harvard on February 20 (right).

The passage of this brief highlighted above mentions Emanuel’s “comprehensive public safety strategy” and his “smarter policing strategies.” One has to appreciate the extent of the uncontested hypocrisy that such a statement represents. The “smarter policing strategies” evoked here do not seem to account for what a report of the U.S. Department of Justice itself has called a “‘pattern and practice’ of unconstitutional abuses, including the use of excessive force, especially against people of color” (Mother Jones, 2017). In 2015, massive protests had also demanded Emanuel’s resignation as investigations had established that a video of Black teenager Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times by a white police officer on October 20, 2014 had been deliberately hidden from the public by the mayor’s office while Emanuel was running for reelection, as Bernard Harcourt explains in this New York Times article.

Admittedly, Emanuel did not transformed the Chicago Police Department into the enforcement force of structural racism it currently is. Using the most extreme instance of its brutal recent history, between 1972 and 1991, the CPD has tortured over a hundred Black men in the West Chicago Homan Square facility, as The Guardian revealed in 2015. However, he brought and still brings his contribution to this history; most recently in projecting the creation of a $95 million new police academy in the Black neighborhood of West Garfield Park, not far from Homan Square, which continues to be used by the CPD, despite the atrocities committed in it. Activists gathered under the slogan “No Cop Academy” are currently organizing against the construction of this facility and advocating for the re-attribution of its funds to the local communities of Chicago.

This police academy project, just like the various forms of displacement of low-income Black and Brown populations of Chicago (in particular in the South) caused by a municipally-encouraged gentrification, should particularly resonate to architecture students and architects for their profession’s complicity with such programs. As such, Emanuel’s lecture in an architecture education institution is not simply to be considered as political propaganda for a potential run at the Presidency in 2020 (his insistence on how his model for Chicago should be extended to the rest of the U.S. is a strong hint for it), but rather as the normalization of various forms of municipal racist structures and the recruitment of architects in this project. Given the lack of acute politicization that architects often manifest and their disproportionate demographics (91% of registered architects in the U.S. are white when 28% of this country’s population is not), chances are that they will be easily seduced by a discourse that will introduce itself as the alternative to the current U.S. administration, when it is in fact its more reasonable version.

A letter signed by the Harvard Urban Planning Organization, the GSD African American Student Union, as well as a certain amount of personalities related to the GSD or not is currently circulating. It does not miss the opportunity to remind the future role students will play in municipal politics: “As future and current designers, urban planners, policy-makers, organizers, and educators, we cannot disregard the people who are in danger because of Rahm Emanuel’s administration.” We can only hope that the signatories will manage to be heard by the students and faculty who will attend the infamous lecture as some have succeeded to do during the February 12 lecture in UCLA.