No closures without a fight

Rachel Cohen reports from Chicago on a big protest against the city's plan to shut down dozens of schools--and explains what the struggle will face going forward.

Chicago parents and students gather in Daley Plaza to protest racist school closuresChicago parents and students gather in Daley Plaza to protest racist school closures

THOUSANDS OF Chicagoans filled downtown Daley Plaza on March 27 to send a message to Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) administrators: "We won't let you wreck public education in Chicago without resistance."

Several days before, CPS announced an unprecedented assault: a total of 71 schools slated for punitive "school actions," including 54 that will be closed down outright. Others will undergo "turnaround"--in which the school remains open in name only and the entire staff is fired--or co-locate with other schools.

Rahm's sweeping list of closures, consolidations and turnarounds would be the largest-ever set of school actions carried out in a single year--in Chicago and possibly in the U.S., according to press reports.

Despite the chilly and gray weather on the Wednesday afternoon in the middle of spring break, more than 3,000 people came together to rally, march and sit in. As busloads of families arrived from schools across the South and West Sides--overwhelmingly Black and Latino areas of the city that will bear the brunt of the closures--Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) education organizer Jitu Brown kicked off the protest.

Brown called out to the crowd, "Education is under attack. What do we do?" Elementary school students with handmade signs; janitors in purple SEIU hats; UNITE HERE cafeteria staff proudly wearing their hair nets; teachers at schools both on and off the closures list; and community organizers working against police and street violence shouted their answer in unison: "Fight back!"

The rally was just in time to greet Emanuel on his return from a ski trip in Utah. He was enjoying his vacation when the city unveiled its hit list--which, though significantly shorter than the 129 schools that CPS officials said were on the chopping block, nevertheless represents close to one in seven elementary schools in the system. Some 30,000 students will be displaced from their current schools.

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis responded immediately to the closings announcement, giving voice to the anger of tens of thousands of people who in recent months have participated in hearings, neighborhood organizing meetings, local school actions and community forums to show their opposition to the city's plans. At a press conference, Lewis said:

These actions will not only put our students' safety and academic careers at risk, but also further destabilize our neighborhoods...This is why we intend to rally, united and strong, to send a signal that we are sick and tired of being bullied and betrayed. Some of us are going to put our bodies on the line--because a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Lewis pointed out that Chicagoans can see justice threatened everywhere around them:

Rahm Emanuel has become the "murder mayor." He is murdering public services. Murdering our ability to maintain public-sector jobs, and now he has set his sights on our public schools. But we have news for him: We don't intend to die...We are the city of big shoulders and so we intend to put up a fight. We don't know if we can win, but if you don't fight, you will never win at all.

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IN ALL of the measures that Lewis was referring to, Black Chicagoans in particular have born the brunt in lost jobs and declining access to public transportation, health care and social services. In some neighborhoods, public schools are among the only remaining public institutions.

At the March 27 rally, Lewis, a member of the CTU's Black Caucus, highlighted the unmistakable racism at the center of Rahm's attacks on education. Lewis pointed to the schools that have served Black families over generations, which bear the names of historic Black leaders, from Crispus Attucks to Mary McLeod Bethune. Emanuel and CPS deceptively claim these schools are "underutilized" and a waste of resources, so they must be closed. Yet, as Lewis said, Emanuel "will open up schools to put a living billionaire's name on the front"--a reference to the accelerated trend of opening new privately run charter schools, even as public schools are shut down.

The role of school closures in deepening racial inequality isn't lost on students, either. Teen organizers involved in Project Orange Tree dotted the crowd with their bright orange t-shirts. The group--formed by friends of the 15-year-old CPS student Hadiyah Pendleton, who was shot and killed in late January--was spreading the word to wear orange on April 1 as a catalyst for discussion about the structural roots of violence in Chicago.

As the group explained on a Facebook page promoting the event: "The color orange is used because hunters wear the color to warn other hunters not to shoot...By wearing orange on April 1st we are showing others that we are human and wish not be gunned down."

The action was designed to declare solidarity and unity in the face of the tragic loss of lives in the city with the highest murder rate in the country--and to spark broader conversation about the systematic segregation and disinvestment in Black Chicago communities that produces violence.

Other contingents at the March 27 march included Fight for 15 retail workers, who are organizing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and the Illinois Campaign the End the New Jim Crow, representing families of victims of police violence. Popular chants, such as "Hey Rahm, we're no fools, close prisons, not schools!" and "Apartheid schools are a crime, no charters on our dime!" rang out in the blocks surrounding City Hall.

Meanwhile, rows of activists linked arms and sat down, blocking traffic in the downtown streets. One teacher among the nearly 150 people arrested in a mass civil disobedience demonstration explained:

It's important for us to fight here, because this is where this whole thing started--this whole reform movement. If we don't nip it in the bud here, it's just going to go across the United States. And it'll be a horrible, horrible experience for children and teachers and the society in general if this continues to make it across the United States. We have to break this.

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AS THE teacher underlined, Chicago has been a laboratory for corporate school "reforms" that are imperiling public education. Similar attacks--from school closures to the shift in public resources to privately run charter schools--are underway in cities from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and Detroit to New Orleans.

In this year's closings in Chicago, politicians tried to give their justifications an innovative twist. Instead of claiming that schools serving poor Black and Latino communities are failing because their test scores don't match those of wealthier and better resourced schools, Rahm and CPS say the schools they are axing have been "underutilized."

To get away with such claims, they resort to dubious math. They've counted any classroom with fewer than 36 students as less than full and claim that rooms devoted to critical services such as special education or community education programs are unused. And they don't take any account of how schools on the South and West side have been starved of resources that could turn supposedly empty rooms into libraries, science labs, or music, art and foreign-language classrooms.

Any school that didn't live up to these criteria is dismissed as a drain on district finances. CPS spokesperson Becky Carroll went so far as to tell the press that a "high-quality" teacher shouldn't have a problem leading a class of 40 students.

It's almost as if Rahm and his handpicked team at CPS haven't read the state standards discouraging elementary schools from packing more than 28 students into a classroom--and recommending far smaller numbers for students with special needs. Maybe they lost track of this fact amid all millions in tax breaks and giveaways that they've awarded to wealthy businesses like Boeing, Sears and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

One protester summed up the shameful state of affairs with a sign that simply read: "Rahm's brain is underutilized."

Announcing a shortened hit list of school actions in the days leading up to the mass protest was a shrewd political move. The mayor's office hoped to undercut by efforts of the unions, families and communities fighting for education justice before the school board--appointed by the mayor himself--makes a final pronouncement on closures and turnarounds at the end of May.

Moreover, while working-class Chicago rallied behind last September's citywide strike by the 30,000-strong CTU, helping teachers to hold the line against the school deformers' assault, those confronting the school closures agenda don't have the same power in this battle.

Nonetheless, those who came out to protest on March 27, and more beyond those thousands, are determined to take a stand. There are already numerous events planned for April, from a picket at the next monthly meeting of the school board to a coordinated day of canvassing in neighborhoods around schools slated for closure.

In Chicago, public education is facing an unprecedented attack. But we know what we need to do: Fight back!