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A New Chicago Freedom Ride | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

A New Chicago Freedom Ride


Alderman Bob Fioretti speaks in front of an condemned building along the new route schoolchildren will walk. (Rick Perlstein.)

Yesterday morning twelve-year-old Jasmine Murphy, a red fabric flower woven into her hair, stood in front of a bus full of reporters, TV news correspondents and their cameramen, Chicago Teachers Union officials and other activists, congressmen and aldermen, and told them what it was like when the school she loved was closed. "It was emotional for me. If we were struggling during class, we had tutoring .... We had our teachers' numbers. Home numbers, cell numbers, we could call them any time, no matter when it was—one o'clock in the morning—and they would help us with our work."

She pauses, and now she is crying. "I just really miss it."

When the Chicago Public Schools' former CEO Jean-Claude Brizard asked the school board to close Guggenheim Elementary in 2011 he called it one of the system's schools that are "so far gone that you cannot save them." That doesn't seem to have been Jasmine Murphy's experience: educated at Guggenheim since kindergarten, she maxed out on the state's standardized test, and was accepted for next year at a high school with a rigorous International Baccalaureat program. Brizard's claim, in fact, speaks to one of the biggest reasons so many parents here in nation's third largest city so distrust their school system: the shifting rationales for the bewildering, whiplash-inducing destabilizations it insists on visiting upon their children, at some schools literally every other year, in the name of "reform." For today, the explanation (sold to the Chicago public via TV commercials paid for by the Walton Foundation) for the biggest one-time school closing in the history of the United States—fifty-three schools—is the statistically dubious one about "underutilization" of school buildings.

The Guggenheim closing speaks to another reason people don't trust the Chicago Board of Education. Here's Jasmine, toughing it out through tears: "I live right across the street from Guggenheim, so it was easy for me to attend." That meant she was safe. Now she attends a school a considerable distance away. Her mom Sherri drives her there and back every day. "But not everyone has a ride," Sherri points out. She addresses her next remark to Mayor Emanuel—angrily: "You didn't think about safety. And you didn't think about the harm to our community." New kids from closed schools, you see, are stigmatized as stupid and harassed; this in addition to the issue of crossing gang lines I discussed here. That's one of the reasons that, Jasmine's mother observes, at her next school, her formerly voluble daughter "sat in class and didn't talk to anyone."

And at that observation, the media bus tour convened by the Chicago's Teachers Union continues on past blocks of classic Southwest Chicago bungalows, just the sort of blocks Martin Luther King led marches past in 1966 to win African-Americans the right to purchase those bungalows. (He had a rock thrown at him, and famously said, "I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”) Now the African-Americans who populate these blocks find their destabilization aided and abetted by the city, in the dismantling of their anchoring institutions. Eighty percent of the students effected by the closings are black, though only forty percent of the students in the system are black. When the bus unloads at Mahalia Jackson Elementary on 88th Street—closing; though, as a parent there points out, the school board had recently made considerable capital investments in the building to make it a model of disability access—Congressman Bobby Rush tells a circle of reporters this is "devastation of communities by design."

Another scrum forms across the street around Alderman Bob Fioretti, a leader in making school closings the first issue to truly loosen Rahm's vice-hold on the loyalty of his city council. (Fioretti got thirty-two of a possible fifty votes for a resolution demanding public hearings on the school closing plan; compare that to a more typical vote, a year and a half ago, that resolved 50-0 in favor of Emanuel's half-baked plan to lengthen Chicago's school day.) A reporter asked Fioretti how the city could not afford massive school closings, given the system's reported billion dollar deficit. Fioretti's response rammed home just how badly trust in this mayor has been breaking down. "I'm not sure the deficit is real," he said. "This is a manufactured crisis."

The budget deficit, of course, is another of those rationales for the neutron-bombing of the Chicago Public Schools; the board says the plan will save $50 million a year. But on the bus, Chicago Teachers Union staff coordinator Jackson Potter points to the $250 million surplus in the city's "TIF fund"—the pool of money that the mayor can hand out to developers in supposedly "blighted" neighborhoods (a Hyatt hotel being built on my street, which is not blighted at all, by mayoral and presidential pal Penny Pritzker, who just resigned from Rahm's school board so she can reportedly be tapped as Obama's commerce secretary got $5.2 million). And $40 million of the school budget is tied up in toxic interest rate swaps brokered by investment banks, which Potter points out that Rahm, who's had a bit of pull with investment banks in the past, has not lifted a finger to try to extricated the city from. "That alone could save these schools from their imminent destruction."

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We pass a closed school, bars on its windows—ineffectual bars. The city has promised there will be no charter school expansion in emptied CPS buildings, a sop to CPS critics, but not a very satisfying one. What happens to those buildings instead? An enterprising union staffer snuck into the shell that once housed Crispus Attacks Elementary, armed with a camera. He found what looked for all the world like a crack house: graffiti, crack vials, the metal stripped away to be sold for scrap. They're supposed to try to sell these buildings. Would you buy a property like that? Would you buy a house next to one? "There's a multiplier effect in terms of adjacent property and the value of that property," a CTU official points out—and for an idea that's supposed to save a city money, this sounds pretty damned penny wise but pound foolish. Adds CTU policy researcher Kurt Hilgendorf, "There isn't really a plan to deal with any of these issues."

Our penultimate stop is a school with the pleasing name "Melody." To arrive at our last stop, we are to travel from there on foot. Our destination will be Delano Elementary, the "receiving school" for the students when the Melody building is abandoned. Although, in CPS's typically Kafkaesque manner, it's more complicated than that: Melody's students and staff will be moved to Delano's building and the Deleno students will remain, their teeachers and staff being fired; Delano will be renamed Melody, making it Delano Elementary no more—a prospect that is agonizing the neighborhood. Signs reading things like "I LOVE DELANO" adorn every nearby lamppost. That's also what someone spontaneously cries from a passing car to the tired complement as we approach the Delano/Melody grounds.

Did I mention that we were tired? Very tired. That's because me and the blow-dried local news guys have been by now walking almost a mile. That near-mile that represents the distance that some students will have to walk to get from their formerly neighborhood school to this new one. This is the city's Detroit-like West Side, not its much less (actually) blighted, bungalow-laden South Side. Block after block is strewn with glass, pocked by forlorn vacant dirt lots, dotted with crumbling abandoned buildings marked with the "X" that tells first responders to take supreme caution lest a floor collapse beneath their feet. Congressman Danny Davis, whose district this is, identifies some of the milling young men we pass as drug dealers. Says Christel Williams, a CTU organizer: "Imagine our babies, some of them as young as kindergarten having to walk throug this area." That's staggering. "It reminds me," says Congressman Rush, whose district is on the South Side, "of a Third World country."

The congressmen stand for one more press scrum beside Delano's bustling playground. Bobby Rush is asked about the mayor's claim that this all will improve education. He replies, "I don't have any reason to believe that will happen." Then reportorial eyebrows arch at what he says next: "Parents cannot afford to trust these people to make decisions about their children .... When is one instance where that trust has been fulfilled?"

Three hours earlier, at the caravan's very first stop, he had pointed out that this was April 4—the anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. He recalled the issue on which he first cut his teeth as an activist in the early 1960s: the "Willis Wagons"—parking-lot trailers in which black kids were forced to attend classes because of the racist way the system apportioned students. "And here we are again—on this of all days...we should be ashamed." Back on the bus, he had led the activist contingent in singing a civil rights hymn: "I woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom...." He said, "This is a freedom bus, and we are Freedom Riders." This stuff is news: it is the most aggressive distancing between a major black elected official in Chicago and the mayor that I am aware of. For, if we are the Freedom Riders, isn't he saying that makes Rahm Emanuel the George Wallace?

[Corrected: An earlier version of this post misstated what Jasmine Murphy's mother did for a living.]

The border-patrolling Minutemen can thank CNN and the mainstream media for their oversize influence, Rick Perlstein writes in a post on a new title from Nation Books.

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