Teachers, parents, students, and union members gathered in downtown Chicago Wednesday to protest the city’s proposal to close 54 public schools. If the Chicago Board of Education approves the plan, it will be the largest school shutdown in the country. The demonstration came after nearly a week of protests and is only the latest in an extended battle between the Chicago Teachers’ Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Hundreds of people gathered in Daley Plaza, where CTU President Karen Lewis spoke to the crowd and hinted at the union’s plans to fight the city’s plan. “We’ll file the lawsuits. We’ll talk to our elected officials. We will do all that, but we cannot do it ourselves. We need you to be in the streets, the courts, wherever you think you need to be. Do not let this moment pass you by.” Three public hearings are currently scheduled for April, and the board of education will vote on the proposed closings in May.
Lewis also introduced Alexssa Moore, a student with Chicago Students Organizing to Save our Schools. “You don’t know how it feels,” Moore said. “Rahm doesn’t know what goes on in these neighborhoods. You don’t sit down to talk to us and find out what’s really going on.” Moore, who lost a brother to violence, also spoke about the fact that many of the students being relocated will have to travel through rival gang territory without adequate safety precautions. “Y’all say education is the future, so why’re you trying to limit what we’ve already got,” she said.
The Chicago Public Schools plan would disproportionately affect students of color; of the 30,000 or so children set to be affected by the closures, 90% are non-white. As Lewis said on March 21, “most of these campuses are in the black community. Since 2001, 88% of students impacted by CPS School Actions are African-American. And this is by design.”
“Rahm Emanuel has become the ‘murder mayor,’” Lewis continued. “He is murdering public services. Murdering our ability to maintain public sector jobs and now he has set his sights on our public schools.”
Tensions between Mayor Emanuel’s administration and public school and community advocates have been high since he took office in May 2011 and began an aggressive campaign to expand the city’s charter school network and force unions to make contract concessions. According to the mayor and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Barrett, the school closures are necessary to close a $1 billion budget deficit and to better utilize space. The CTU pointed out that the city is planning to make improvements to schools set to receive displaced students that could cost some $700 million.
The march started in Daley Plaza and moved to City Hall and then to the Board of Education building, where barricades had been erected the day before the rally. Protesters staged a sit-down protest in front of CPS headquarters, where police officers walked through the crowd with video cameras before they began arresting people for obstructing traffic.
Earlier this month, the teachers’ union co-sponsored civil disobedience trainings to prepare for this standoff. CTU also released a memo Wednesday that had been sent to school principals urging them to “observe and report” on any teacher activities that might appear to advocate for civil disobedience. Wednesday’s march was peaceful, although one speaker at the rally urged attendees to support the students and parents who were prepared to face arrest for civil disobedience, and dozens of protesters linked arms and sat in the streets.
CTU President Lewis emphasized the importance of attending April’s public hearings. “Why are we going through this sham of hearings if it’s all over?” she asked. “It’s not over, brothers and sisters, until you say it’s over.”