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LaSalle Protesters

Bryan Lowry/MEDILL

Protesters blocked LaSalle Street Wednesday in an effort to save schools in the wake of CPS' announcement that 54 will close in the fall.

Sound and fury: Will they still be angry in two years?

by Bryan Lowry
March 28, 2013

Terrell McKinney

Bryan Lowry/MEDILL

Terrell McKinney, 8, leads Betsy Ross students in a drum circle in Daley Plaza.

CTU Protest 1

Rebecca LaFlure/Medill


Sylvia Brooks, a parent at Miriam G. Canter Middle School, which is set to close, distributes flyers Wednesday while protesting Chicago school closings.

CTU Protest 2

Rebecca LaFlure/Medill

A demonstrator raises a flag on top of a downtown Chicago bus stop as protesters march by.

Jesse Jackson Protest

Bryan Lowry/MEDILL

Rev. Jesse Jckson leads a crowd in a chant against school closings outside CPS headquarters.

OJ Johnson

Bryan Lowry/MEDILL

O.J. Johnson, the grandfather of a CPS student, encourages his fellow protesters to make an impact at the voting booth, which he says is the only way to fix the school system.

Bryan Lowry/MEDILL

Parents and students chant, "Save our schools, don't close our schools!"

What’s that sound? It’s a group of elementary students banging sticks furiously on buckets, like makeshift battle drums. In the center, one, with fury in his eyes, gives the rest an order. Get louder.

He’s not the biggest in the group, but it’s clear he’s in charge. His name is Terrell McKinney. He’s an 8-year-old student at Betsy Ross Elementary, located at 61st and Wabash in Washington Park. Four generations of his family have attended the school.

“They’re trying to shut down our school, but I know they’re not,” he said. “I’m going to graduate from Betsy Ross just like my brother did.”

Welcome to Daley Plaza on Wednesday, the site of a massive rally organized by the Chicago Teachers Union to protest Chicago Public Schools plans to close 54 schools next year. A CTU representative estimated the crowd was between 4,000 and 8,000 people.

The Police Department estimate disputed that, claiming that there were 700 to 900 people participating. Others guesses were higher, however, and whatever the number, the crowd filled Daley Plaza and closed streets to Loop traffic during a march from the plaza to CPS headquarters.

Terrell and his classmates are African-American, as are the majority of students who will be affected by the closings.

Union president Karen Lewis was blunt. She called the decision to close schools racist, and accused officials of creating a two-tiered education system, with one set of students taught how to rule and the other trained to work at Walmart.

A Chicago Sun-Times editorial published a few hours after the rally criticized the union for framing the debate as a racial one, warning that inflammatory rhetoric could exacerbate an already tense situation.

The editorial, “CTU, don’t burn the house down,” also said that CPS had been guilty of aggressive spin of its own.

CPS addressed the issue of race in a general email to the media:

“According to U.S. Census data, there are 181,000 fewer African-Americans in Chicago today than last decade. This has had a significant impact on the utilization rates of schools in these communities – in fact 65 percent of underutilization in elementary schools is due to population decline.”

As part of a civil disobedience demonstration connected to the protest, 127 people received tickets from and were briefly detained. The majority of these people were teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers and school security guards, according the CTU.

The police department’s press office noted that “there were no physical arrests. It was all very peaceful and those ticketed were promptly released.”

Despite a large presence, police were hardly an adversarial presence. In fact, some officers on horses even posed for pictures with student protesters on LaSalle Street, making sure to smile.

Jackson Potter, a CTU representative, said it was no wonder the police were friendly: “The police also feel that the mayor has overlooked their service and commitment to our city. There is a lot of solidarity between us.”

Lewis is not the only person to term the closings racist; at least one alderman has said the same. And the union is far from the only group that has argued school closings disproportionately affect minority students. At the rally the union was joined by community organizations such as the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Action Now and the Pilsen Alliance, all of which saw closings as racially motivated and all of which pointed the finger at Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Protest signs caricatured the mayor. One depicted him as the Incredible Hulk smashing schools. Another portrayed him as a ghoulish figure swinging a bloody ax.

One protester was focused on action, wearing a placard that said: “Register & Vote Today!”

“That’s the key. Politicians only respect the power of the vote,” said O.J. Johnson, the grandfather of a 7-year-old CPS student. “We need to put him out of office. The only way we can put him out of office is to vote him out.” The mayor appoints the head of CPS and the Board of Education.

Adonnis Williams, a 19-year-old student at Harold Washington College, carried a sign that read: “Stop the School Closings – Stop the Destruction of the Black Community!” He said that Emanuel had permanently lost his vote.

Emanuel is not up for re-election for another two years.

Aldermen, however, are monitoring the dissent.

Members of the City Council’s Progressive Reform Coalition, which officially formalized its bylaws earlier this month, stood behind the teacher’s union on the stage.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said that members of the coalition have repeatedly called for a moratorium on school closings and having an elected school board. He also said that his caucus had reached out to other aldermen to support their efforts against school closings but to no avail.
“I think people here today and thousands of people out there are going to stay focused on the fact that the only way to effect change is to vote in people who hold those same viewpoints,” Waguespack said.

Tara Stamps, a teacher at Jenner Academy, one of the schools saved from the final closing list, accused some African-American aldermen of failing the community for not taking a stronger stance against school closings.

“We’re coming for those wards!”

When asked for comment on the rally, the mayor’s office pointed to his remarks made hours before the event.

"When our educational system has unequal results, you cannot lock in the status quo," Emanuel said. "The steps being taken were postponed for years — because of politics." Last Saturday he had also dismissed claims of racism as nothing more than schoolyard taunts.

The taunts are likely to continue, however. CTU has promised to continue to fight school closings, offering training on civil disobedience. Lewis instructed the students in the crowd to go to their “real school” on the first day of classes next year.

This week Catalyst published an internal CPS memo instructing principals on how to respond to acts of civil disobedience. The union’s representative, Jackson Potter, criticized the district for this authoritarian approach.

“We think it is designed to have a chilling effect on public dissent and opposition to the school closings policy. By instructing administrators to monitor the first amendment activities and behavior of students, teachers, parents and community, it sends the signal that they will be watching everyone carefully,” Potter said.

“We would much prefer to have a constructive dialogue about how to keep schools open rather than policing people who are upset about the policy,” said he added.

CPS did not respond to specific questions about the rally or the memo. An emailed statement from the district, credited to CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, addressed the right to free speech:

“I fully support the rights of individuals to express their opinion and, as a former teacher and principal who has lived through school closings, I know this is not easy for our communities,” Byrd-Bennett said. “But as CEO of this District, I need to make decisions that put our children first.”