Chicago Teachers Union and allies protest against school closings, but offer no alternatives

March 29, 2013

Brittany Clingen Brittany Clingen

A Chicago native, Brittany graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2009 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Finance. After working in the private financial sector for two years, she transitioned into a full-time journalism career. Brittany can also be found on Twitter.
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CHICAGO – “Save our children, save our schools!”

protestorCPSThat’s the chant that rang out as approximately 140 people sat arm-in-arm on LaSalle Street Wednesday in front of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters, participating in a pre-planned act of “civil disobedience” to protest the proposed closing of 54 Chicago schools.

Had the protesters been honest with themselves, and for once chosen not to hide behind Chicago’s children, these teachers, cafeteria workers, janitors and other employees would have been chanting, “Save our union jobs!”

The children will, of course, continue to go to school, regardless of what building they attend. But some of the teachers and other union workers may be out of work next year. That’s what they’re really upset about.

In response to CPS announcing the list of schools to be closed at the end of this school year, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) hosted a rally and march Wednesday in downtown Chicago.

The event brought out all the usual suspects – the Occupy Chicago contingent, fellow union members from SEIU, members of CORE (Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators) and Action Now, and a general assortment of anti-capitalism protesters who relish any excuse to march around with angry signs held high.

According to CTU President Karen Lewis, the school closings are racially motivated. In her speech delivered to the crowd of approximately 700 gathered in Daley Plaza, she said, “They are closing down schools that have names of African American icons, but they’ll open up schools to put a living billionaire’s name in the front.”

Lewis failed to mention that CPS is approaching an astronomical $1 billion budget deficit. And the schools that are slated to close are either underperforming, underutilized (a school that has far fewer students than its capacity allows) or both. The students whose schools are scheduled to close will either be placed in charter schools or their closest neighborhood schools.

No one present at the rally was able to offer a better alternative to closing the schools, with some even implying that there is some sort of conspiracy going on within CPS.

“I think it’s a made-up crisis,” said Katelyn Johnson of Action Now. “Some of [the schools] are actually overcrowded.”

Nobody – except one seventh-grader who attends Ross Elementary School – suggested the teachers give up the 18% raise they received as a result of last fall’s strike in order to funnel more money back into the system to keep the schools open.

“Teachers deserve their raises,” said SEIU member Lamot Christmas. “They fought for them.”

Johsua Marburger is a teacher at Enrico Fermi Elementary School. Though his job is on the line if the school closes as planned, he said that his main concern is for the children at the school.

The children currently enrolled at Enrico Fermi would attend the Renaissance 2010 school that shares building space with Enrico Fermi. Any new students would attend the next closest neighborhood school.

“This takes kids back to segregation, back to the days of walking past a school they can’t go to,” says Marburger of the Renaissance 2010 school.

There’s one big difference. In those days the kids couldn’t attend certain schools because of their race. The city’s school closing plan has nothing to do with race.

Racism and segregation were popular themes throughout the day. In her speech, Lewis said, “Let’s not pretend that when you close schools primarily on the south and west sides that the children who will be affected aren’t black. Let’s not pretend that that’s not racist.”

After the speeches by Lewis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and others, the group marched past City Hall and stopped in front of CPS Headquarters where the pre-planned acts of civil disobedience took place.  The Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign (CTSC) and Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) teamed with the CTU to host civil disobedience training sessions in the weeks leading up to the rally.

Those who wanted to participate were instructed to email their name, driver’s license number, address, and date of birth to CTSC organizers so that the police would have the information ahead of time. In an email sent to supporters, the CTSC wrote:

“The plan for the March 27 non-violent civil disobedience will be arranged arrests.  That is, for this action the plan is to give to the police ahead of time the names and identification of those who plan to be engage in non-violent civil disobedience.  The police will then do a background check, and then the arrestees will not be taken to jail but be taken somewhere downtown (on a quiet street or in a bus) to be issued the arrest certificate, and then that will be given to the union attorney on site.  Those doing CD should be sure they do not have any outstanding warrants or otherwise they will be taken to jail and remain there until they see a judge.”

So the entire episode was a staged play, with the cooperation of the police.

The people detained – without handcuffs – were only issued citations and ticketed, not arrested. Though local media outlets implied that protesters sat down in the middle of the street during rush hour’s peak, risking life and limb, the streets were, in fact, blockaded with police barracks for several blocks surrounding the route and no traffic was allowed near the marchers.

Marburger was among those cited for civil disobedience. He said participating in the display was a no brainer for him, as “extreme times call for extreme measures.”

Despite the melodramatic display, the rerouted traffic and the angry pedestrians, it is unlikely that CPS officials will change their minds on the school closings.

Good for them.

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