Every school is our school

Crystal Stella Becerril reports from Chicago on a three-day march against closures.

Students help kick off day three of Chicago's West Side march against school closures (Sarah-ji)Students help kick off day three of Chicago's West Side march against school closures (Sarah-ji)

DAYS BEFORE the Board of Education was set to vote May 22 on the final hit-list of as many as 54 Chicago public schools to be shuttered, thousands of people took part over three days of marching that covered 40 miles of city streets to demand education justice and a moratorium on all school closings.

Two major routes through Chicago's predominantly Black and Latino South and West Sides and a smaller march on the North Side took parents, teachers, students, community members and activists to the schools slated for closure, where parents and students spoke about the importance of their schools for the welfare of their communities.

Vice President Jesse Sharkey of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) kicked off one of the marches on Saturday morning, May18. "The ones who care about our schools are us," he told a crowd of hundreds who were preparing to march across the city's West Side. "The ones who fight to defend our schools are us. And we will continue to defend our schools."

Taking turns at the bullhorn while stopping at schools along the route, people spoke of the out-of-touch politicians whose policies are destroying public education and putting the lives of students in danger by forcing them to cross gang lines to get to receiving schools.

Many voiced anger over their feeling that Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett have no interest in hearing what these communities have to say. Yet amid the anger and frustration from parents, students and teachers, there was a palpable sense that the movement has the potential to turn the tide--if not in this current round of school closures, than in the coming months and years.

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THE BATTLE lines for this fight were drawn long ago. In February 2012, as the teachers' union was gearing up for a possible strike, CTU President Karen Lewis said in an interview that during one of her first meetings with Rahm Emmanuel, the mayor said that "25 percent of these kids are never going to be anything. They are never going to amount to anything. And I'm not going to throw resources at them."

Emanuel certainly has lived up to those words since taking office, as evidenced by the attack on public education that he and his handpicked Board of Education have waged on the African American and Latino communities.

Last fall, on the heels of a successful nine-day strike by the CTU, where 26,000 educators, clinicians and paraprofessionals walked the picket line in fight for a fair contract and smaller class sizes, the CTU research team put together a report called "The Black and White of Education in Chicago's Public Schools," which looked closely at CPS's so-called school "reform" agenda and exposed it for what it really is: a racist attack on working-class communities of color.

In the report, the CTU noted that Black communities have been hit the hardest--88 percent of students affected by CPS "school actions" attend "economically poor and intensely segregated African American schools."

For many of these communities, the schools are often the only place to turn for vital social services that have been wiped out of their neighborhoods through years of job losses and neglect by the city government. Neighborhood schools ensure that students get two meals a day during the school week, can access some mental health services that would otherwise be out reach for many families, and have a safe environment in which to learn and develop.

While there's never enough money in this city for ensuring that all of our schools are fully funded and our mental health clinics stay open, there always seems to be a bottomless pool of cash to fund pet projects of the city's elite. The latest example: Emanuel announced his plans to devote $300 million in public funds for a new basketball stadium for private DePaul University and to revamp Navy Pier, a public arcade and entertainment center. The money for these projects will come in part from Tax Increment Financing (TIF), which diverts tax revenue from schools and libraries towards "development" schemes chosen by the mayor.

So when parents, students, teachers and community members showed up to CPS's sham public hearings on the school closings, they made it clear that the problem isn't lack of funds in the city, but rather the distorted and self-serving priorities of Emanuel and his big business backers. Activists quickly realized that it was going to take a lot more than directing their opinions on deaf ears to stop these schools from being closed.

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ON DAY Two of the March to Save Our Schools, Natasha Capers, a parent from Brooklyn, N.Y., who flew out to be part of the protest, kicked off one of the demonstrations with a speech about why these school closings devastate communities and lead to the death and incarceration of thousands of Black youths every year.

"Our children are ours," Capers said. "Not Cook County's. Not King County's. So we walk. We walk because it's the right thing to do." She spoke of communities of color all across the country that are fighting to keep education and social services accessible; of the devastating poverty that produces violence; and of the school-to-prison pipeline that continues to destroy communities.

By the time the march was underway, the sun was blazing, and the heat was on. But armed with ice-cold water, resolve and a number of choice chants, off we went. Nearly 200 people participated in the West Side march on Saturday, and everywhere we went, people honked their horns and waved from their homes. Some even joined the march when they realized what it was for. Chant leaders kept spirits high with their enthusiasm, and as people marched, they made new friends and allies and talked about the importance of this fight.

Nearly three hours and four miles later, three students from one of the schools targeted for closure, Leif Ericson Elementary, asked if they could lead the crowd in a couple of chants they had written themselves. The first came from 4th grader Tamia Elis, who softly at first, and then progressively louder, said into the megaphone: "We are the students! We are the kids! We are the voice of confidence!"

After a couple of minutes, the bashful 4th grader attempted to hand the megaphone back to an adult. But the crowd was so pleased with the chant that they requested another from Tamia's notebook. Tamia then handed the megaphone to her fellow 4th grader, Edward Jones, who led the next enthusiastic chant: "Rahm! Rahm! We will fight! We will fight for our school rights!"

These students gave us a glimpse of what this generation is capable of, and of the movement's beauty and determination.

Also on hand was Kia Hinton from Philadelphia, where last week, thousands of students from 27 different schools walked out of class and marched to City Hall to demand an end to the board's proposed budget cuts that would cause massive layoffs of school staff and the end of all music and arts programs. As Hinton said:

We have politicians and corporations trying to dictate how we live our lives, and they are not taking into consideration the voice of the people. I'm motivated and inspired to continue this struggle. This is a continuation of the civil rights movement. I'm looking forward to the people of Philly realizing what is possible and joining in. Dr. King said that what we need is for everybody to come together as one, regardless of our differences, and that's we did this weekend.

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THE THREE days of marching culminated in a rally at Chicago's Daley Plaza, where contingents from the West and South Side marches met up in the late afternoon. Hundreds more joined in after they got off school, including teachers, parents and members of other unions like Service Employees International Union Local 1, which represents janitors in the schools.

The highlight of the rally came when Asean Johnson, a 3rd grader from Marcus Garvey Elementary School on the far South Side, climbed on a chair and took the podium to address a crowd of nearly 2,000 protesters.

"Rahm Emanuel is not caring about our schools," Asean said. "He's not caring about our safety. You should be investing in these schools, not closing them. You should be supporting these schools, not closing them...We are not toys. We are not going down without a fight!"

This weekend is a testament to Asean's words. As Karen Lewis of the CTU said, "This is a movement. And whatever happens on Wednesday, this is not over." Lewis also pledged to organize a mass voter registration drive in the city with the aim of ousting Emanuel.

There are some divisions in the local Democratic establishment over the school closings--the weeks and months of activism has pressured several aldermen into speaking out. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a former teacher, has also criticized the closings.

Even so, politicians and the businesses that back them have a long-term agenda to end public education as we've known it. This includes privatization through the creation of charter schools and breaking the power of the teachers' unions.

In Chicago, CPS's racist plan to close 54 schools represents their attempt to turn education from a public good and a human right into something to be "earned." That's why many in the movement for education justice see this as the civil rights issue of our time. And like the 1950s and '60s civil rights movement that came before it, it's going to take nothing short of a mass, diverse and united grassroots movement to reclaim our schools.