Lessons from a day of defiance

April 14, 2016

The April 1 day of action in Chicago--with a one-day strike by the Chicago Teachers Union at its core--sent a message, loud and clear, against the assault on public education being carried out by a Republican governor in Springfield and Democratic officials at the local level. Since then, discussion among teachers and other participants in the protests has centered on a controversy about a speech by a Black Lives Matter activist. Here, Chicago teacher Caitlin Buckley looks at what's at stake.

WHEN CHICAGO teachers called a one-day strike on April 1, our union took a step seen all too rarely in the U.S. in recent decades by making an alliance with a wide range of social justice organizations. Among the participants in the day of action were other unions, groups fighting for public education and full funding of social programs, and Black Lives Matter activists challenging the racist violence of the Chicago police.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went beyond its own protest against unfair labor practices, like the cut in pay imposed by the school board, to link up with a wider struggle against the political agenda of austerity and repression being pushed by both Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The CTU's message was that justice for teachers is inextricably linked to justice for our students and the wider working class. The fight against racism is central to that struggle, and so among the lead banners on the April 1 march that followed a massive downtown rally was one declaring, "Fund Black Futures."

CTU members lead off a downtown march on April 1 alongside other unionists and activists
CTU members lead off a downtown march on April 1 alongside other unionists and activists (Bob Simpson)

All this was too much for the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the police "union" that continues to defend the cop who executed a 17-year-old African American youth, Laquan McDonald, in 2014. That murder was captured on police videotape, but the footage was only released last November--and when it was, it created an acute political crisis for Mayor Emanuel.

Since April 1, the FOP has seized on the comments of one speaker at the rally in front of the State of Illinois building downtown. Page May, speaking for the group Assata's Daughters, ended her speech with the words, "Fuck the police." Since then, May has received numerous death threats--and the FOP is demanding that the CTU denounce her.

It is important, before anything else, that we teachers unequivocally defend May from these attacks. The threats against her are threats to the whole of our movement. They also expose the true character of the FOP and its supporters. It's telling that the FOP can defend officers who murder Black and Brown children, but it cries foul at harsh language.

It's clear enough why police and city officials would want to change the subject from Laquan McDonald to Page May. The political fallout over the release of the video showing McDonald being riddled with police bullets--and then the December shooting of 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier and his neighbor Bettie Jones--sent Emanuel's popularity plummeting to the lowest of any mayor in the modern area.

The resulting crisis exposed to the world what Black Chicago has long lived with--what a panel investigating the CPD just this week admitted was "decades" of "racism and maltreatment at the hands of the police."

That's putting it very mildly. The Chicago police have long history of repressing working people and labor organizations, going back to the Haymarket martyrs and the big strikes of the 19th century.

African Americans came to endure the brunt of police violence. In 1969, Chicago cops murdered Black Panther leader Fred Hampton as he lay in his bed. In the 1970s and 1980s, Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge oversaw a torture ring that specialized in coercing confessions out of suspects, resulting in dozens of African American men being sent to prison, including death row, for crimes they didn't commit.

Incredibly, the new acting police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, himself a Black man, claims that in 27 years on the force, he never saw any misconduct by Chicago cops. Meanwhile, the FOP, while trying to whip up a frenzy about Page May, gave a job to Jason Van Dyke, the cop who murdered Laquan McDonald, after the CPD suspended him.

THIS IS the context for Page May's speech at the April 1 rally.

Before she came to the microphone, CTU President Karen Lewis spoke. During her remarks, she was heckled by some activists about the issue of police violence and responded by saying, "The police are not our enemy." She went on to criticize police brutality and talk about the need to "educate" the police.

May, speaking as a representative of Assata's Daughters, came next. Seemingly responding to Lewis, May said she was "angry" that the turnout for the rally was bigger than support demonstrations for the hunger strikers who fought last year to keep Dyett High School on the South Side from closing, or the protests later in the year over the murder of Laquan McDonald.

At the end of her speech, she said: "And the last thing I want to say while I have all y'alls attention is fuck the police...Fuck the police and everybody fuck with them."

May's words were an expression of anger at the reality of life for Black youth facing, among so many other forms of oppression, the threat of deadly violence from police. For them, the police can't be seen as anything but an enemy. And as those involved in Black Lives Matter protests around the country have learned, the only way we can hope to curb their violence is by protest, not "educating" individual officers.

But I think May's speech didn't help move the struggle in the direction of greater protest. She seemed to treat the huge crowd as if it was divided between those who stood up to police violence and those who accepted it. Her slogans did little to convince anyone who wasn't already convinced--and likely alienated teachers and others who sympathize with the Black Lives Matter struggle, but aren't convinced that the police, as an institution, need be abolished.

It is important to think through all the implications of this controversy. May's speech has convinced some teachers that we, as a union, shouldn't be dealing with broader political issues, but should be focused instead on our contract alone. Meanwhile, some involved in the Black Lives Matter movement seem to have accepted that the CTU isn't supportive of the struggle. This is a setback for both teachers and the anti-racist movement.

CERTAINLY MAY is more than justified in criticizing the countless Chicago politicians and institutions that have either been silent on racism and police violence, if not effectively supported it. But this is not true of the CTU.

Since 2010, when a new left-wing leadership won office, the union has made anti-racism central to its political and organizing agenda. It denounced the system of "apartheid schools" in Chicago, for example, in a union-funded 2012 study of racial segregation, poverty and underfunding that played a role in building for the nine-day teachers' strike that year.

The union took the lead in organizing against school closings that have come almost entirely in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Following the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson in 2014, the CTU sent a bus of members to join in the protests.

The CTU agrees with the call to get cops out of schools and has demanded more counselors, social workers and support staff instead. We have marched alongside other organizations to stop the school-to-prison pipeline and demanded restorative justice to replace the punitive measures that make Black youth the disproportionate target of disciplinary policies in Chicago schools.

This is as one might expect, given that the CTU has always had many people of color among its members and leaders--and still does today, though the school board's attack on teachers has fallen especially hard on African Americans. The CTU has taken steps to defend Black teachers and fought policies to push them out as schools are closed in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Late last year, when protests erupted over Laquan McDonald's murder, the union not only endorsed the call for a Black Friday protest in the city's main downtown shopping strip, but it made a recorded call to every member on Thanksgiving Day to boost turnout for the event. In other words, the teachers in the crowd at the State of Illinois building were more likely to have been at a protest against police murder, not less.

The FOP's attack on the CTU since April 1 isn't the first. It criticized the CTU endorsement of the Black Friday protest and has been trying to drive a wedge to separate it from anti-racist demonstrations. Far from the union being "too easy" on the cops, as May's supporters have claimed on social media, the organization that speaks for police thinks the CTU is far too critical.

NOW THE issues of racism and police violence are being magnified. Budget cuts for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and for state universities threaten to totally dismantle public education, while public services are being slashed and police brutality continues to terrorize Black and Brown neighborhoods.

The question being asked is: How do we fight back against the attacks?

Certainly, it can be frustrating that the movements are not larger. May's statement--"Quite honestly, I am angry that there are more people here now than there were marching for Dyett or Laquan"--is a reflection of this frustration.

But rather than see an opportunity to get even more teachers and other activists to future protests against police violence, her speech shamed the crowd for not coming out before, whether that was true or not.

I think, by contrast, that the alliances organized for the April 1 day of action began to answer the question of how an anti-racist, working-class movement can be built.

When my fellow teachers and I walked out on a one-day political strike to demand funding for public schools, we were joined by tens of thousands of other parents, students, workers and organizers. This was a recognition that our individual successes in winning a contract or stopping budget cuts is bound together with other struggles. We're stronger when we take action together.

From the stage at the main downtown rally, anti-racism and anti-austerity demands were front and center. Speakers spoke eloquently about their own battles and the need to fight together. The banners at the front of the march afterward showed the intertwined messages, with slogans like "Fund Education, Tax the Rich," "Fund Black Futures" and "Community Control: Elected School and Police Boards Now."

This solidarity wasn't automatic. In the lead-up to April 1, there were countless conversations among CTU members--and undoubtedly among activists in other organizations--about why solidarity is necessary.

The CTU made a big turn over the past couple months as it became clear that we would need to take up political demands around funding to even begin to fight for a fair contract--and that we would need to further highlight the interconnectedness of the struggles for education justice and against racism by building alliances with an array of groups.

Through patient conversations and debate, more and more of my fellow union members became convinced of this perspective, even if many still think that police brutality is just because of a few bad apples.

I agree with May and all anti-police brutality organizations that the police have no place in our schools, and that police "unions" have no place in the labor movement. But many other teachers in my union agree with the gist of Karen Lewis' statements at the rally that police in general are not our enemy, and the killer cops are exceptions to the rule.

But it is important to recognize that CTU members have moved on a number of issues, including recognizing the importance of the Black Lives Matter struggle, over the past several months, and we have every reason to believe that they can--and will--move further.

THE APRIL 1 rally showed the potential for further organizing on the basis of working-class solidarity and anti-racism. Many of the speakers from the front were effective in using the platform to describe their own struggles, to voice their support for other organizations and to draw connections between the different fights that were represented there.

Charles Preston, who spoke as a student representative from Chicago State University (CSU), as well as a member of Black Youth Project 100, explained to the crowd about the organizing he and others have been doing to try to save CSU, which is located on the South Side of the city and primarily Black students, many of them graduates of CPS.

At the end of his speech, he explained why he was wearing a sweatshirt that said "Unapologetically Black":

I say I'm "Unapologetically Black" because this state has shown that they expect me to apologize for my Blackness. They expect me to apologize for my existence. I will not. I will continue to fight. I will continue to stand with CSU. I will continue to stand with CTU.

There are many reasons why teachers should oppose the police and stand in solidarity with anti-racist activism and the Black Lives Matter struggle. The police terrorize our students, who are overwhelmingly African American and Latino. Our union brothers and sisters who are Black and Brown face the threat of violence on a daily basis. And while the City of Chicago claims to be too broke to fully fund public schools, the Chicago Police Department takes in 38 percent of the city's general operating fund.

Moreover, the demonstrations last November following the release of the Laquan McDonald video put Emanuel on the defensive, and that strengthened every struggle for our side.

In order to win, we need to continue to connect the struggle against racism with both the struggle against austerity and the efforts of teachers and all working people to get the pay and the dignity they deserve.

Brian Bean, Anthony Cappetta, Kim Goldbaum, Kirstin Roberts and Lee Sustar contributed to this article.

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