Civil disobedience revs up against school closings

Police detain more than 100 protesters in front of City Hall.

March 28, 2013

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More than 100 people were detained and ticketed yesterday afternoon at a protest against proposed school closings. It was the first major protest since the district announced last week it wants to shut down 54 schools. WBEZ was there.

About  a thousand people packed Daley Plaza in 40 degree temperatures to denounce the massive closings, most planned for the South and West sides of the city. As they held signs deriding the mayor, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told them: these schools are not closed yet.

"There are many ways you can show that this is not over," Lewis said from the stage. "It’s not over, brothers and sisters, until you say it’s over. Our schools are under attack. What do we do?"

"Fight back!" the crowd yelled in unison.

"So lemme tell you what you’re gonna do. On the first day of school, you show up at your real school! You show up at your real school! Don’t let these people take your schools!"

The union has promised that if Chicago shuts down schools, protesters will shut down the city.

A few minutes later, in front of City Hall, janitors, lunch ladies, teachers,  parents, clergy and union officials interlocked arms and sat down in neat rows in the northbound lanes of LaSalle Street.

"Save our schools," they chanted.

After a time, police approached each protester individually.

'Ma’am, you’re in violation of the law and you’re endangering yourself. This is your last opportunity to leave without being arrested. Will you leave? " a white-shirted officer asked one protester after the next. "You’re under arrest," he told them.

Police now say people were simply ticketed, not arrested.

Karen Lewis and the  Rev. Jesse Jackson stood together on the sidewalk as protesters were led away.

Jackson said the protests follow in the tradition of Ghandi and Martin Luther King—with people using their bodies so their cause can be heard.

"We earnestly want our children to have an education and security and safety. And their parents have a job and transportation, and housing—that’s a comprehensive plan for the urban crisis," Jackson said. "South Side and West Side must look like the North Side, and that must look like the suburbs."

Earlier in the day, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the reason for closing schools was to give kids a better education. He cited graduation figures that have been climbing, but noted that for black boys in the city, the graduation rate is just 44.5 percent.

"The status quo is not working, and it’s falling woefully short for the children of the city of Chicago, regardless of where they live and regardless of their circumstances. Every one of the children—if they go to a better school—can achieve their potential."

Orquidia Ramos pushed a stroller through the march, with her older daughter walking alongside her. Ramos has four children at Peabody, slated to be closed. She lives on the same block as the school. She says her tax bill doubled—and now, with Peabody closing, she feels the message is clear: the city is trying to get rid of lower income Latino families like hers. She doesn’t believe the receiving school will be better for her kids.

"As parents we try to watch out for our kids," she said in Spanish, 'keep them away from gangs. Then the school system sends them right into the gangs."

Eighteen-year-old high school senior Lavell Short won’t be personally affected by the closings, but he was at the march after he heard his elementary school was on the list.

"A part of me got very angry, but it was a righteous anger--it wasn't just rage," said Lavell. "Mayo is a school that teaches me principles, Mayo is a school that taught me about leadership and who I am, not only my history but also who I can also be. So, to close down a school like Mayo…. And there’s so many schools on the list like Mayo."

You wouldn’t guess it by talking to Lavell, but Mayo is rated Level 3 by the district, the lowest performing. He now attends Bronzeville Military Academy High School.

Like a lot of people at the protest, Lavell isn’t fond of the mayor right now. Right after telling me he’s headed to Milliken University in Decatur, he said there was something else I should know….

"I’m considering running for mayor in the 2015 election, so… I’m considering it! Be on the lookout, you guys."

If he and other protesters get their way, Lavell might be handing out campaign flyers that brag, “I helped keep Mayo Elementary open.”