Allison Kilkenny | The Nation

Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

Abortion Rights Freedom Ride Departs

Abortion-rights activist and National Organization for Women (NOW) member Erin Matson, right, and others, holds up a signs as anti-abortion demonstrators march towards the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, January 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Groups of abortion rights activists plan to gather in New York City and San Francisco tomorrow to kick off the bicoastal Abortion Rights Freedom Ride (July 24–August 21), a tour that will take the women’s rights protesters to some of the most vehemently anti-abortion areas of the country.

Caravans will travel from both coasts with plans to rally and gather support along the way, arriving in North Dakota before August 1 when new laws are set to shut down the last abortion clinic in the state. SB 2305, which Governor Dalrymple rushed to sign, places unnecessary conditions on providers of safe abortion care in a blatant effort to close the Red River Women’s Clinic, the last remaining provider in the state.

Then the group will travel to Wichita to support the re-opened clinic of Dr. George Tiller following his assassination during a Sunday morning mass by an anti-abortion gunman. Last winter, “wanted”-style fliers appeared in Wichita, listing the home address of the woman who opened the first abortion clinic since her mentor, Dr. Tiller, was killed. Then a pastor purportedly pointed a sign at the woman’s house that read, “Where’s your church?”

Next, the caravans will visit Jackson, Mississippi, where a temporary court injunction is the only provision keeping the last remaining clinic in the state open. In January, clinic officials painted the clinic pink to symbolize women for a variety of reasons, including breast cancer awareness and in support of survivors of domestic abuse.

The group, End Pornography and Patriarchy: The Enslavement and Degradation of Women (StopPatriarchy.org), states it plans to “protest and confront the anti-abortion woman-haters, erect visual displays that tell the truth about abortion and birth control, collect and amplify women’s abortion stories in order to break the silence, defend the clinics and providers most under attack, and meet with people to build lasting organization to DEFEAT the whole war on women.”

Sunsara Taylor, an initiator of End Pornography and Patriarchy and a writer for Revolution newspaper, doesn’t think calling anti-abortion legislation a “war on women” is hyperbolic.

“Abortion rights have been in an increasing state of emergency over recent years,” says Taylor. “In reality, for at least two decades now we have been in a holding pattern where ‘yesterday’s outrage’ becomes today’s ‘compromise position’ and tomorrow’s limit of what can be imagined. Who would have thought even a few years ago that we would be having a national debate over women’s use of birth control?”

Taylor says the group increased mobilization efforts following a slew of abortion restrictions and an increase in the number of states that have only one remaining abortion clinic.

“We planned this several months ago recognizing the utter state of emergency confronting reproductive rights. However, the closer we get to actually launching this Abortion Rights Freedom Ride, the more acute and the more apparent and the more extreme this emergency becomes,” she says.

Taylor cites Texas’s SB5 restriction that could close as many as thirty-seven of the forty-two clinics in the state, legislation introduced in North Carolina that would close four out of five clinics, a new budget in Ohio that could cause multiple clinic closings and the proposed legislation in North Dakota.

“And I could go on for a while about further restrictions,” says Taylor. “The point being, the situation really is escalating and while there are very encouraging and heroic growing signs of mass opposition to this, it is still not on the level that is required.”

Taylor says about twenty people will be on all or major parts of the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride, and there are many people who are stepping forward to join in each local area.

“We anticipate, and have begun hearing from numerous people both around the country and in Canada, and are encouraging people to join with the freedom ride and caravan along in their own vehicles or to join with us at the main stops. Especially in Jackson at the very end, we are building for regional caravans to join us there and have heard from people in parts of Texas and Georgia who are working to build caravans there,” says Taylor.

Taylor views the war against women’s reproductive health as a war against women’s autonomy.

“The fight over abortion has never been about babies, it has always been about the attempt to control women and enslave women to their reproduction. This is revealed, in part, by the fact that none of the major anti-abortion organizations support birth control,” she says, adding that the goal of the ride is to show people there are only two sides in this debate: “Either you think women should be enslaved to their ability to have children, or you recognize that women are full human beings who must have control over their own lives, their own destinies, and their own reproductive decisions. Abortion is not tragic because fetuses are not babies and abortion is not murder,” she says.

A volunteer named K.T. will also be participating in the ride and authored an article entitled “Why I’m Going” for the group:

I was 11 years old the first time I heard the word “abortion.” Ruth, a young woman very close to me, had found out she was pregnant while trapped in an abusive relationship, working two jobs, and taking a full course load at a community college. She stayed with a friend because she did not have a place of her own to live in. This woman got an abortion and it seemed to be the end of the world for everybody but her. People tried to explain to me that Ruth made a “terrible mistake.” My heart raced with fear when they told me what to expect upon seeing her again. “She might die,” they warned, reminding me that she would be eternally distraught and especially prone to suicide. “Could you imagine killing your own child?” they prodded. When I finally gathered the courage to see what I expected to be an emotionally drained and unrecogniwzable woman on her death bed, I was greeted by the same Ruth I had known for so long, smiling with a book positioned close to her face, like always. She explained why she chose to get an abortion and it made a lot of sense to me. At 11 years old the only part about this situation that confused me was why people were treating her with such disdain.

K.T. writes that she is participating in the ride because “the women of North Dakota and South Dakota have heartbeats that matter, the women in Mississippi and Arkansas and Kansas have futures they deserve a say in, and the future of women all across this nation depend on what all of us do to counter these attacks before it is too late. Denying women the right to abortion takes away their right to life.”

Taylor co-authored an article with David Gunn Jr., son of David Gunn Sr., the first abortion doctor to be assassinated in the United States, in which Taylor and Gunn claim the country is in a “state of emergency” concerning the right to abortion.

“If we do not reverse this trajectory now, we will condemn future generations of women and girls to forced motherhood, to lives of open enslavement, terror, and life-crushing shame,” Taylor and Gunn write.

The authors say their echo of the Civil Rights Freedom Rides is “intentional and fitting.”

“Women who cannot decide for themselves if and when they have children are not free,” they write.

Critics have raised concerns that the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride will be too confrontational, too vociferous and may turn off people to the cause. Critics also worry the caraven activists will be viewed as invading outsiders by local areas, that mass political protest distracts from important court cases and that it’s better to rely on officials channels of politics.

Taylor and Gunn write that they view it as a moral obligation to assist women in states where their reproductive rights are under attack.

“It is delusional to think that what happens in states like Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota and Kansas will not come soon to a theater near you. Our futures are bound together and we all share the responsibility to take this on and turn the tide where the attacks are the most severe,” they write.

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The authors cite the direct action strategies implemented by the LGBT community as a way to affectively, and aggressively, educate the masses about their political message:

History has proven that directly confronting oppressive social norms can be disruptive and scary; yet, it is a necessary and uplifting part of making any significant positive change. Many argued that it was wiser for LGBT people to stay closeted until society was more accepting; others counseled against the Civil Rights Freedom Rides out of fear that it would only rile up the opposition, but it was only when people took that risk and got ‘in your face’ that broader public opinion and actions began to change.

What role did white womanhood play in the trial of George Zimmerman?

Trayvon Martin Rallies Are Held Across the Country After the George Zimmerman Verdict

J’hiana Jlapion, 4, at a protest of George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict in Atlanta on July 15, 2013. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Rallies for slain teenager Trayvon Martin continued across the country on Monday, the third consecutive night of such protests following the acquittal of George Zimmerman. While the media at times seemed to be hoping for race riots, these gatherings have been overwhelmingly peaceful, and supporters of the Martin family say they have planned future demonstrations.

Media pundits like Bill O’Reilly made breathless predictions that America would erupt in race riots following a not-guilty verdict, but that never happened—but sadly, the media probably would have devoted much more coverage to the vigils if they had turned bloody and violent. All the baseless speculation about black people running out to “cause trouble,” in the words of O’Reilly, does have a lasting effect in one sense: it conflates peaceful protest with crime.

Now, a group of black people gathering to do no more than share their grief concerning a murdered teenager are viewed as inherently suspicious—even if they’re totally peaceful—partly because O’Reilly and company have droned on endlessly about the coming race war (that never came).

Demonstrators flooded New York City’s Times Square, blocked a freeway and other streets in Los Angeles and set fire to a flag in Oakland during this week’s protests. Strangely, the Los Angeles Times writes that other protests around the country were “largely peaceful,” but gathering in Times Square isn’t a crime or particularly un-peaceful and burning the flag is a form of protest protected by the First Amendment. While blocking traffic might frustrate commuters, a large part of civil disobedience entails disrupting the normal flow of every day life. Otherwise, what’s the point of protesting if no one even notices the activists are there?

It’s important the media not conflate overwhelmingly peaceful protests with bloody riots so the real acts of violence, say the murder of a 17-year-old teenager, stand apart as the horrendous acts they are.

Rather than anger, many who attended the rallies expressed sorrow and fatigue with a justice system that remains rigged against people of color.

In Minneapolis, thousands packed the People’s Square outside the Government Center.

Kyle Mason, 22, told CBS that outcomes like that of the Zimmerman criminal trial seem all too familiar in the African-American experience.

“The recent events of Trayvon Martin really bothered me but they don’t surprise me, which makes it even more bothersome,” Mason said.

Mason says people of color in the United States are accustomed to being judged or criminalized because of the color of their skin.

“It’s painful but it’s nothing new, you know. It’s a tired, old story,” he said.

More than 200 people gathered Monday night near Kansas City’s Freedom Fountain.

“We’re not here just for Trayvon,” said Saundra McFadden-Weaver, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a former city councilwoman. “We’re here for fairness. We’re here for justice. We’re here for freedom, and we’re here for peace. And we’ve got to start right now.”

Hundreds marched peacefully in Chicago in response to the verdict.

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that among that crowd was Airicka Gordon Taylor, the cousin of Emmett Till, whose murder in Mississippi in 1955 helped spark the civil rights movement. Taylor described the verdict as a sign that “we need a new civil rights movement.”

“I believe this is the case that will…anger black America to do what’s necessary to obtain those rights that we’re being stripped of, just like when Emmett Till was murdered and there was a movement and we made progress,” Taylor told the paper.

“We know driving while black, walking while black, Trayvon Martin was killed because he was existing while black,” demonstrator Marilena Marchetti told Fox Chicago.

The Rev. Al Sharpton announced on the Today show that his organization is planning a 100-city vigil for Trayvon Martin that will take place in front of federal buildings across the country on Saturday. One such vigil will take place outside the Detroit and Flint offices of the Department of Justice led by Rev. Charles Williams II, head of the Detroit chapter of the National Action Network and senior pastor at Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit.

“We are looking for justice,” Rev. Williams told the Detroit Free Press.

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Rev. David Bullock, pastor of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park and the director of an activist group called Change Agent Consortium, added that the not-guilty verdict “could potentially authorize that this is hunting season on African-American males in America.”

Arnold Reed, a junior at the University of Michigan, and the Black Student Union helped organize a forum and candlelight vigil Monday night at the university. When speaking with the Detroit Free Press, Reed described the plethora of emotions experienced by Martin’s supporters.

“From anger to sadness to blind fury, there is a whole spectrum of emotions,” Reed said. People want “to make sure events like this don’t happen again.”

The protests and vigils held around the country in Trayvon Martin’s honor helped turn a devastating event into a rallying cry. Read Mychal Denzel Smith’s account here.

Sixty-Four Arrested at 'Moral Monday' Abortion Access Protest in North Carolina

A woman is arrested as protesters rally during “Moral Monday” demonstrations at the General Assembly in Raleigh, North Carolina, Monday, July 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

For the past two months, activists in North Carolina have been protesting a bill that could limit abortion access, and more than 700 people have been arrested in the weekly “Moral Monday” protests against the state’s first Republican-led government in more than a century. This Monday, 2,000 people flooded the state capitol in Raleigh, and sixty-four protesters were arrested after refusing to leave the legislative chambers. Those arrested included Janet Colm, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina.

The bill passed last week by the State Senate required abortion clinics to conform to the same safety standards as ambulatory survey centers, a requirement currently met by only one of the state’s clinics. Opponents say this will limit access to safe abortions.

Moral Monday participants come from all backgrounds and walks of life.

Megan Katsaounis was born and raised in North Carolina, and while she’s always been highly critical of mainstream Democratic officials, she’s grown concerned watching “horrible bills” pass through the Republican-controlled Senate.

“Every week, there’s something new to be outraged about. They repealed the Racial Justice Act. We’re now the first state to be disqualified from receiving federal funds for the long-term unemployed. The list of grievances goes on and on,” she said.

Katsaounis wanted to participate in Moral Monday since she first heard about the protests, but as a mom, “childcare is always a hurdle.” Finally, when the infamous anti–Sharia Law omni-bill was being debated in the senate, Katsaounis got so angry she skipped work to go witness it.

Last week, North Carolina lawmakers voted to add a series of sweeping anti-abortion regulations to a measure to ban the “application of foreign law” in family courts, an “anti-Sharia Law” bill that many opponents say is a thinly veiled attempt at stoking anti-Muslim sentiment in the state.

“I think that was a rallying point for a lot of people,” Katsaounis said. “That night, my parents asked what I wanted for my birthday and I said, ‘I want you to babysit so I can go to Moral Monday.’”

“I wish I was in a position to be arrested. A lot of us are angry at the direction our state is going and we’re feeling very helpless right now. Being hauled away in handcuffs seems like a very tangible way of taking a stand, and I love how volunteers support the arrestees, providing meals for everyone upon release. It’s inspiring,” she added.

Amy McKee joined the protests for the first time on Monday.

“I’m very concerned about the laws that are being presented that limit women’s rights and access to birth control and abortion,” McKee said. “I have daughters. I’m really concerned about their future.”

The last time Rev. Frederick Battle was arrested was in 1962’s historic Woolworth’s department store sit-in in Greensboro, a pivotal moment in the US civil rights movement. He was among those arrested on Monday.

“What scares me about today is that I see similarities that we are going back to those days, back to the ’60’s,” Battle told WRAL.

Self-proclaimed “soccer mom” Christine Lang also joined the protests.

“When we start to restrict these rights, we’re going back hundreds of years in this country and it scares me for my daughter and myself, actually.”

Rev. William Barber II, head of the state branch of the NAACP, leads the Moral Monday protests.

“We see what we are doing here in North Carolina as a model for other Southern states,” Barber said. “History tells us you only win, particularly in the South, when you find a way to bring people together around common constitutional values and common moral values.”

GOP-controlled state legislatures have attempted to depict concerned citizens as unruly mobs in need of arrest and jailing. In Texas, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst warned that protesters who caused a disruption in the gallery while lawmakers considered that state’s abortion bill would be removed and may face forty-eight hours in prison.

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Observers in North Carolina say some of those handcuffed and charged with misdemeanours in recent weeks were simply exercising their First Amendment rights.

House Democratic Leader Larry Hall said last week that many were handcuffed for “petty citations” and shouldn’t have been sent to jail.

“I believe we have a great police force here,” said Rep. Hall, a lawyer from Durham. “Now, who do they work for? They work for whoever is in the majority in the House and the Senate, who are responsible for the messages sent to them from the top.”

Squashing democratic dissent is in keeping with lawmakers’ recent behavior. For example, the State Senate quickly voted on Tuesday night to pass a package of anti-abortion amendments attached to a bill that would ban Sharia law even though Republican Governor Pat McCrory had raised concerns that the Senate had unfairly rushed the amendments through.

“When the Democrats were in power, this is the way they did business,” McCrory said in a statement on House Bill 695. “It was not right then and it is not right now. Regardless of what party is in charge or what important issue is being discussed, the process must be appropriate and thorough.”

All of this raises the question: What’s the point of living in a democracy with a First Amendment if lawmakers are going to sneak legislation through in the middle of the night and have concerned citizens arrested when they try to object?

Take Action: Thank and Support Moral Mondays

BART Strike: Another Instance of Media Portraying Workers as Greedy

Riders walk from a Muni bus near the 24th Street Mission Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in San Francisco, Monday, July 1, 2013. Early Monday, July 1, 2013, two of San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit’s largest unions went on strike after weekend talks with management failed to produce a new contract. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

When teachers in Chicago went on strike last year, their demands sounded very reasonable. After just nine days on strike, CTU fought for and won a contract that included hiring more than 600 additional teachers in art, music and physical education, making textbooks available on the first day of school and bringing in the percentage of teacher evaluations that are decided by standardized test scores down to the legal minimum of 30 percent.

Yet the media presented both CTU and union president Karen Lewis as shrill, unreasonable, greedy forces more interested in razing the earth than rationally negotiating. The spin that the strike was really about greedy teachers hellbent on hurting kids quickly infiltrated the media’s vernacular.

The same thing is happening now as workers for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) strike while negotiating for a new contract. This is BART’s first strike in sixteen years.

Workers are asking for a wage increase (they haven’t received one in five years) and improved safety measures (bullet-proof glass in station booths, better lighting in tunnels, etc.). The union is asking for a 23 percent raise over four years, and BART countered with an offer of an 8 percent raise over four years, but the union says this offer falls below cost of living increases.

A BART spokesperson called the safety issues a “smoke screen” even though BART police have reported more than 2,400 serious crimes at just five stations in the last three years—crimes serious enough to require reporting to the FBI.

The union is also upset about a proposal for workers to pay more into their healthcare benefits.

Dr. Steven Pitts, a union expert at the UC-Berkeley Labor Relations Center, says that rising healthcare and retirement costs have affected everyone in the Bay Area, but BART is unusual in that it had a revenue surplus this year. Since BART employees endured wage stagnation during the recession, they expect more now.

“The unions have the capacity that says we helped you out in the past, and now we need you to pay us back,” Pitts said.

Antonnette Bryant, President of ATU 1555, says it’s difficult to negotiate with people who “deliberately distort the truth.”

BART does not have a “deficit,” as the Board says. BART faces a massive budget surplus of more than $1.2 billion over the next 10 years. And we don’t make half what they say we make. I’ve worked for BART for 22 years. My salary is $63,000 a year. If I were to retire today, I would get a pension of $2,100 a month—and we don’t get Social Security, just our pensions.

BART workers haven’t had a raise in 4 years, since BART imposed a hiring freeze in 2009. We also face a mounting wave of violence on the job. BART police have reported more than 2,400 serious crimes at just five stations in the last three years—crimes serious enough to require reporting to the FBI. Yet BART refuses to even discuss the issue of safety for workers and riders in negotiations.

All we want is a fair wage and a safe workplace. We don’t think that’s too much to ask. Please tell the BART of Directors to sit down and work out a contract that’s fair, equitable and honest, and gets this great system up and running.

For perspective on salaries, consider a family of four living in the Bay Area needs roughly $74,341 a year to get by compared to $62,517 in 2008. BART officials have released inflated salary figures of BART train operators and station agents, adding fuel to the greedy workers myth. The officials claim these workers make an average of $71,000 annually when in fact the San Francisco Examiner reports they make a maximum of $62,000 annually.

That might seem like an easy thing to fact check by talking to real-life workers, but then that would require reporters not taking officials at their word—a response many mainstream outlets seem to have trouble adopting.

The typical media consumer would have to do a lot of digging in order to find the union’s demands because the media is presenting the story as Greedy Workers Versus Hardworking Americans.

Here’s just a sample of some headlines:

BART strike has transit, commuters scrambling,” “BART Strike Hits Commuters; No Word On Service Resumption,” “BART strike: Commuters find creative ways to get to work,” “BART strike: What are my commute options?

In all of these instances, the striking workers are presented as a nefarious force fixated on disrupting other workers’ commute for… some reason. Probably greedy motives. Usually, these kinds of articles open with a profile of some poor unsuspecting sucker who can’t figure out how they’re going to get to and from work because of the evil BART employees.

Here’s the Los Angeles Times showing how it’s done:

Wayne Phillips did everything but swim as he struggled to get to his tech job in this city’s Financial District on Monday morning.

His usual smooth ride on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train was derailed by the system’s first strike in 16 years. So Phillips drove from the East Bay city of Concord to Oakland. He stood in a “quarter-mile-long” line for a ferry. Then he gave up and jumped on his own boat, a 30-foot Bayliner named Lovin’ Life.

Oh no! Poor Wayne! The reader is left feeling angry at those terrible BART workers who are on strike for… some reason. Probably for more gold chalices.

Eventually, the LA Times gets around to exploring the actual strike—something about a broken-down negotiation—without casting any blame or exploring the details.

That’s not to say the commuter side of events shouldn’t be covered, but by fixating on that one aspect of the story, readers never really hear from workers themselves. Furthermore, as Mother Jones points out, the BART strike is having a ripple effect across the region:

City of Oakland employees joined BART workers on the picket line Monday for a one-day protest. Union leaders rallied a crowd in front of city hall by saying they had made concessions during the recession and that they deserved better compensation now that the economy was improving.

AC Transit—a massive bus network which services cities east of San Francisco—had earlier threatened to strike as well once their contract expired on Sunday. Since AC Transit’s trans-Bay service shouldered much of the burden left by the BART strike Monday, the additional strike could have been disastrous. (The agency’s union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192, announced Monday morning they would continue negotiating instead.) Workers for the East Bay Regional Park District say they are planning to walk out over the Fourth of July weekend, and, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported yesterday, three unions representing University of California employees are also planning protests this week.

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Now, either all of these workers are greedy demons, or they have valid grievances and striking is their only means of recourse. It’s one thing for commuters to be angry about the strike. After all, it’s a natural human impulse to lose the ability to empathize once one is inconvenienced, but when the media joins in on the mob mentality, it skews the story into an unfair depiction of striking workers as history’s greatest monsters.

The impulse to villianize workers is another sign of a societal divide between those who run our buses and trains and teach our children and the people who believe organizing in the workplace and going on strike isn’t something for them. Movements like the BART strike shouldn’t make us question why workers would struggle for a living wage—they should make us wonder why this kind of organizing isn’t happening everywhere.

Non-union, federally contracted workers are also striking today in Washington, DC. Will they succeed in pressuring President Obama into enforcing higher labor standards?

'A Slow-Motion Train Wreck': The Real Consequences of the Sequester

Myrlande Eustache picks up her four-year-old son Garvens from Action for Boston Community Development's (ABCD) Head Start program in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts March 5, 2013. Reuters/Brian Snyder 

The Republican-led House voted to eliminate $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending through 2022 during the much-publicized sequester, causing widespread pain and havoc through American communities, the effects of which we’re starting to see. In some cases, these cuts are stripping the clothes from children’s backs and taking food and shelter from the needy.

In Kentucky and Southern Indiana regions, tens of thousands of individuals are receiving smaller emergency unemployment checks, while thousands of elderly will be receiving fewer meals from federal assistance programs.

The Courier-Journal reports that federal probation offices that cover Louisville and Western Kentucky have let go of some support staff, and families who hoped to enroll their children in Head Start in Jeffersonville, Indiana, this summer have to make the plans.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said in a statement last week that he is “disgusted” by federal lawmakers’ inability to stave off the cuts, which he estimates total about $81.2 million in Kentucky.

“Sequestration carries real and negative impacts for Kentucky families, including serious cuts to Kentucky’s classrooms,” he said in a statement. “Our families are paying the price for the petty political antics of the privileged few in Washington.”

At least thirty-three families in Kansas City, Missouri, recently faced eviction because of cuts to federal hosing programs. In total, some 125,000 families could lose assistance from the housing choice voucher program because of the cuts, according to the White House.

Michigan eliminated a program that provided 21,000 schoolchildren across the state with a $137 clothing allowance each August. Governor Rick Snyder has made clear that help would not be coming from the state, adding that he believes in targeted cuts. “We’ve said from the start that Michigan would not be replacing lost federal dollars with state dollars due to sequestration and that still holds true,” he said in a release. “We support getting the nation’s fiscal house in order, though across-the-board cuts like this are not the way to go about it.”

The Miami Herald describes a “ripple effect” of austerity that extends beyond inconveniencing travellers at airports, detailing cuts to social services, including $730,000 in stipends to help the poor pay their utility bills and $25,000 for the county’s victims-assistance office.

Miami-Dade initially estimated a $89,000 cut from Alliance for Aging, a local organization charged with distributing federal dollars earmarked for elderly care, amounting to a reduction of about 15,000 meals served at senior centers and other gathering places and about 1,800 meals delivered to seniors’ homes. However, Max Rothman, president of the Alliance for Aging, said the county was notified that roughly half of the money will be restored for Miami-Dade.

Still, Rothman says the damage is significant. Even with the reductions being smaller than anticipated, Rothman said the agencies that rely on Alliance dollars to cover food costs have few options but to rollback service. “When something like this happens and you’re not particularly prepared for it,’’ he said, “you can’t make it up.”

In St. Louis, scientific research took a massive hit during the sequester when lawmakers voted to gut the annual $140 billion program. St. Louis Public Radio spoke with Rachel Delston, who formerly worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Washington University, but is now employed at Confluence Life Sciences, a drug-discovery company.

“I was working on breast cancer,” Delston said. “And I was really trying to answer one of the biggest questions in cancer research today.” That is, which genetic mutations drive the formation of tumors—and could be good targets for anti-cancer drugs. Delston says her research was going great. She was about two and half years into what was supposed to be a five-year project. “So you’re really just at the heart of the project, right in the middle of it, right in the thick of it,” Delston said. “And it was a real shock to get laid off.”

Her former boss, Washington University cancer biologist Jason Weber, blames the sequestration for the loss of funding. “I had to let go of some folks, and I had to let go of some science,” Weber said. Six months ago, Weber’s lab supported about a dozen researchers and graduate students. Now he’s down to fewer than half that. He says Delston’s research was just hitting its stride. They were getting ready to test some of her findings in cancer patients and were working with a pharmaceutical company on a potential new treatment. “Now we can’t do any of that,” Weber said. “She’s gone, and the science is gone because I don’t have anybody to work on it.”

An ABC News/Washington Post poll in May found that 37 percent of Americans say they’ve been negatively affected by the sequester, up from 25 percent in March. And 18 percent say they’ve felt a “major impact.” Naturally, those who feel the brunt of the cuts oppose them. About 80 percent of those who say they’ve felt a “major impact” oppose the austerity measure.

In West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, at least one Head Start classroom will be eliminated in the next school year because the region is losing $230,000 in federal funding. In concrete terms, this means at least fifteen preschoolers who would normally have been eligible for Head Start in this region will not have a spot in the program.

Multiply the effect in that one region across the country. The National Head Start Association estimates the cuts will eventually keep some 70,000—mostly low-income—children out of the Head Start programs.

Poor people who wind up in federal court and need legal representation are waiting longer for trials, because so many public defenders are being forced to stay home unpaid, federal public defender Lisa Peebles of Syracuse, New York, told CNN’s Jennifer Liberto. Her staff is taking twenty days off, some of the longest furloughs among federal employees.

The dire consequences of furloughing public defenders becomes all the more apparent when one considers there are only 15,000 of them in the entire country.

The Washington Post reports public defenders have seen a 10 percent cut to their budget—and a 12 percent cut in salaries. By one estimate, some 2,000 judiciary workers will be laid off or furloughed this year between March 1 and September 30. Two federal judges on the US District Court for the District of Columbia recently expressed worry that the cuts pose “an existential threat to the right of indigent defendants to have publicly funded legal representation.”

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“These are the things low income people need: Legal representation, health care, child care,” said Professor Tim Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “The more inequality grows, the more they’ll need the exact programs we’re cutting,”

Some of the on-the-ground consequences of the sequester were initially hidden because giant safety-net programs like Medicaid and food stamps, as well as aid programs funded by the Veterans Administration, remained intact.

However, CNN’s Liberto reports agencies and programs that are thinly funded and lack the ability to shuffle money around have been hit extremely hard by the sequester. Steven Bell, senior economic policy director at the Bipartisan Policy Center, says that includes programs that spend their budget allocation on the sick and poor and labor.

“As time goes, you will see more of a cumulative impact,” Bell said. “We call it a slow-motion train wreck.”

Can one California town survive after the sequester has severed its lifeblood? Gabriel Thompson reports

Guitar Center: Prices So Low, Employees Can't Survive on Wages

Guitars on display at Guitar Center. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Stephen Cummings. Licensed under Creative Commons.)

At the end of May, employees at Guitar Center’s flagship store in Manhattan overwhelmingly voted to form a union of its fifty-seven retail workers. The national Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) organized the win, marking what the union hoped would be the first of many such votes around New York City and the rest of the country.

Brendon Clark, 28, was one of the workers who voted to unionize. Clark has been working at Guitar Center for four years.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Clark. “Our grievances have been at play for at least six or seven years, the main thing being how we’re paid and our compensation. No one ever considered a union, and a lot of that is because of how the company has not necessarily blocked unions, but just kind of blocked any way for employees to maybe press on the issue.”

Clark was hired about a year after Bain Capital bought Guitar Center in 2007, and he says a regular sales person at the store used to have a lot of autonomy, but things started to go awry when Internet sales for guitars and other equipment boosted and workers suddenly had to compete with giant online retailers like Amazon.com. Guitar Center tailored its marketing and discounting to represent the way the market was turning, and workers like Clark say their hourly wage and commission structure have been slashed since the investment firm took over.

“What they started to do was offer sale prices all the time, price-matching Amazon, and basically doing whatever they can to make sure the customer leaves satisfied at the lowest price possible, but with the company doing that, in order for that demand to be met, they have to cut away at pricing, which cuts away at profit, which ultimately cuts away at our pay check because we’re 100 percent commission employees,” he says.

“We’re paid on a pay structure that existed before the Internet existed. The company has modified their strategy in marketing and their web presence, and just about every way they do business, except for how they pay their employees,” said Clark.

Within the past three years, Guitar Center has rapidly expanded. Four years ago, the chain had 200 stores and it was very rare for the company to open another one. Within the past six months alone, it has opened ten stores.

“We’ve seen more stores open, we’ve seen more emphasis on dot com sales, and they were neglecting existing stores and existing markets that were profitable, and the number-one profiting store is Manhattan, and it was falling by the wayside,” Clark says.

Guitar Center management was less enthusiastic about the vote.

“We always want to have a working environment that our folks love, and it’s unfortunate that we now have a third party involved,” says Dennis Haffeman, executive vice president of human resources for Guitar Center, a $2.1 billion retail chain owned by Bain Capital. “We’re constantly listening to our employees’ needs so that Guitar Center can be the best work environment in the music industry and, quite frankly, the best in retail.”

But workers don’t seem to love the working environment at all, which is why they called for the vote. RWDSU started working with workers in late 2012 after workers approached the union complaining of worsening compensation.

Clark describes a payment system called “fading,” which he calls “a way for the company to get away with paying us less without it making it seem like they do.”

Workers at Guitar Center make the legal minimum wage plus commission, but they aren’t paid that commission until they sell a certain amount of product against their base pay.

“Where that becomes an issue is during slower months, like this month for example, or if a sales person has a bad month, which everyone eventually does. Sometimes you don’t sell enough product and you ultimately don’t make enough money for the company to cover minimum wage, even though you’ve worked full-time and you’ve showed up to work on time and did your job to its fullest, you’re making minimum wage that month,” he says.

That’s problematic for a number of reasons. All the money workers make in heavily trafficked months, they hang on to in preparation for months ahead. There’s never a consistent pay check. They’re never fully sure if what they receive in pay is going to cover their bills, because minimum wage in New York City is extremely low.

“We’re in this gray area where we have solid jobs, which are hard to get in New York, and we have benefits, but at the same time, we’re not making enough money to survive, and a lot of us end up selling our instruments to make rent and living off of credit cards.”

And the problem isn’t just in New York.

“There were many weeks where I only ate one meal a day, sometimes none, due to low wages,” said another Guitar Center employee in a Southern state who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their job. “Some brands pay more than others. Successful sales people sell what makes money, not what is truly needed.”

“It’s a mistake to just focus on Amazon. It’s also Sweetwater, Musician’s Friend, owned by Guitar Center, Direct Factory Sales, and now even Best Buy is selling gear. There is no Internet tax either, so sometimes you have to reduce the price of the product by the tax rate to match your own website. This can often be the entire commission,” the employee added, saying Guitar Center staff are increasingly treated like free consultants.

“Sometimes people buy products on Ebay and then pose as potential buyers, just to get educated.”

The customers come in, ask about a mixer they bought online, get advice from staff, and then leave.

“It’s a dying art and the business is cut-throat.”

“The commission-only model has been a struggle for many of the workers. Some workers make as little as $800 a month while living in New York City, one the most expensive cities to live in,” says RWDSU’s Janna Pea. “Also, with the commission-only model, it creates loopholes for the company. If you have an eight-hour shift, but you spend three of those hours teaching a class, you’re losing money because you’re not on the floor selling products. It’s a tough situation for someone to have to depend on a commission-only wage.”

Despite the successful vote at the Manhattan store, it’s difficult to get Guitar Center workers to go on-record about the unionization effort. Clark explained there have been rumors of retribution by management at a Guitar Center in San Francisco where workers voted to unionize.

“It didn’t go through successfully for a number of reasons, but a number of sales staff that were vocal during that vote, about five or six months afterwards, they no longer worked there. The company tells us they weren’t fired for supporting the union, but they were fired for other tedious things,” he says.

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In Manhattan, workers are protected now because they have unionized and they’re in the midst of formulating a contract, so Guitar Center wouldn’t be able to edge out employees without there being some kind of legal repercussions.

But before the vote, Clark said people were scared.

“[Workers] are afraid to be vocal about their concerns in wanting to unionize because they’re afraid that if they were to do that, management would start looking at them for every possible thing that they could do wrong and fire them for those reasons.”

Clark thought it was worth the risk.

“A lot of people have lost sight of the good unions do, mainly building what is now the middle class today,” he says.

Clark did everything he was supposed to do. He graduated college even though it buried him debt. He immediately looked for a job, but couldn’t find a high-paying one in the terrible market that is oversaturated with college graduates.

“Hard-working, educated people have nothing coming their way because capitalism has driven things into either the high end or the low end. When it all comes down to maximizing profit and the bottom line, there’s no protection for the employee at that point. It’s all focused on the company and how much profit they’re drawing. The less they have to pay someone, the more profit they’re going to make, and the more they can grow their business,” he says.

Clark describes an environment at Guitar Center where there is a hard divide between upper management and Bain Capital, where, he says, “my word means nothing at the end of the day.”

“I feel like the only way to be heard is to have an actual support where we can all collectively sit down and talk things out and I have federal protection. Otherwise, there’s nothing for me. There’s nothing that will make my voice heard.”

Mass protests are erupting in Brazil. Read Dave Zirin’s analysis here.

Protesters Worldwide Rally to Support Whistleblower Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden. (Courtesy: Guardiannews.com)

Immediately following the announcement that the source behind The Guardian’s NSA spying revelations is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old NSA contractor, protesters around the world rallied to show support for the whistleblower.

In New York, a group of activists gathered in Union Square amid downpours. Organizer Andy Stepanian called Snowden’s cause “a marginalized story:”

It’s saturating the media right now, but history has shown that when these whistleblowers come forward—whether it be Daniel Ellsberg or it be Bradley Manning—within a short period of time, there are attempts to malign the individual or co-opt the narrative or try to demonize that individual for what they did. Edward Snowden put aside a $200,000/year career, a house in Hawaii and left his loved one to go on the lam to show people the truth, which was that our government was spying on us without warrants under the auspices of the war on terror. And in doing so they violated our Fourth Amendment rights.

In Hong Kong, up to 1,000 Snowden supporters are expected to stage a protest to call on the government to protect him.

The AFP reports that the group, including lawmakers, will march first to the US consulate and then government headquarters to urge the administration of the semi-autonomous territory to not extradite Snowden.

“We should protect him. We are calling on the HK government to defend freedom of speech,” Tom Grundy, a rally spokesman, said Wednesday.

“We don’t know what law he may or may not have broken but if Beijing has a final say, they don’t have to extradite him if he is a political dissident,” he told AFP.

When asked why he chose Hong Kong as a refuge, Snowden cited the city’s “strong tradition of free speech.”

On Wednesday, Snowden told the South China Morning Post: “People who think I made a mistake in picking HK as a location misunderstand my intentions. I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality.”

Several lawmakers have agreed to take part in a discussion forum following the protest, including prominent pro-democracy politician Albert Ho, according to Grundy.

The online community has also rallied behind Snowden, organizing a White House petition demanding a presidential pardon that has already attracted more than 61,000 signatures, while a separate campaign was launched to help pay for Snowden’s expenses.

Facebook employee Dwight Crow donated $1,000 of his own money to help Snowden with legal fees, hotel bills or flight costs. Facebook is one of the companies that has denied links to the NSA’s Prism program.

Crow wrote: “I’d imagine Snowden’s fate is going to be determined by forces larger than legal bills, but have heard he’s stuck in HK with frozen accounts. Figured a little cash might help significantly.”

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Obsession over Snowden’s personal life highlights a major flaw of the establishment media: the tendency to fixate on minute details while completely missing the big picture, namely the US government’s vast spying program.

While the media speculates about Snowden’s motives and allegiances and salary and pontificates about his dancer girlfriend and if she’s feeling lonely, Snowden’s supporters seem to grasp that this story is about something bigger.

“Anyone who uses the internet and expects some privacy should be concerned about what was said in [Snowden’s] interview, so I imagine we will get a good turnout,” said Grundy.

The Senate just passed a farm bill that contains massive cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Read George Zornick’s analysis here.

Occupy Gezi: International Solidarity for Turkey's Uprising

Riot police use tear gas to disperse protesters at Taksim Square. (Reuters/Osman Orsal)

A relatively small protest at Turkey’s Gezi Park to prevent the ripping out of trees to make way for the building of a shopping mall has erupted into an uprising in which over 1,900 people have been arrested and reports of 1,700 more injured. Protesters say the harsh treatment by police, such as shooting tear gas and water cannons at protesters, is just one more symptom of Prime Minister Erdogan’s authoritarian rule.

Iconic images of Turkey’s uprising quickly appeared on the Internet. There was the image of a young woman defiantly kicking back a tear gas canister toward police, and a young man casually strumming his guitar as he approaches a wall of officers. Then there was the incredible photo of another youth standing upon a flattened improvised barricade, waving Turkey’s flag, reminiscent of Enjolras’ last stand.

Occupy Wall Street showed its support when hundreds of protesters gathered at Zuccotti Park, a k a Liberty Park, over the weekend. The “peaceful international solidarity event” is being held “with the goal to direct public attention to Istanbul Gezi Park protests and consequent police brutality of AKP/Erdogan government!” Occupy Wall Street announced.

Photo by @EyeOnTheGround.

Overall, the social media response to the protests has been staggering. Between Friday and Saturday, at least 2 million tweets mentioning hashtags related to the protest (#direngezipark, #occupygezi, #geziparki) were sent. At one point, more than 3,000 tweets about the protest were published every minute.

Even Erdogan weighed in on the Twitter factor, calling the social media tool a “menace.”

“There is now a menace which is called Twitter,” Erdogan said. “The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.”

Making a small concession, Erdogan did admit the police had made “mistakes” in their initial response.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu took to Twitter to warn citizens: “The continuation of these protests…will bring no benefits but will harm the reputation of our country which is admired both in the region and the world.”

What’s clear is that Twitter is certainly a menace to unchecked power, and those who wield that power against citizens.

Al Jazeera reports that what makes this social media phenomenon especially unique is that unlike some other recent uprisings, around 90 percent of all geolocated tweets came from Turkey and about 50 percent from within Istanbul. For comparison, only 30 percent of those tweeting during the Egyptian revolution were actually in the country. Approximately 88 percent of the tweets are in Turkish, suggesting the audience of the tweets are other Turkish citizens and not the international community.

Al Jazeera speculates that Turkish protesters are replacing traditional reporting with crowd-sources accounts of the protest due to being unsatisfied with the local media’s coverage of the uprising.

In addition to being a tool for reporting, Twitter has allowed activists to share information about resisting police brutality. Under the Turkey subcategory on Reddit, a user posted an Occupy Wall Street guide to defending against teargas for Turkish activists.

Over the weekend, numerous countries expressed support for Turkey’s protesters. Turkish nationals gathered in front of the EU Parliament in Brussels to protest against police violence in Turkey, many chanting anti-government protests and holding up banners. Similar rallies took place in London, Egypt, Canada, Helsinki and outside the Turkish Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus.

The ripple effect continued to Amsterdam and Germany, with its significant Turkish population.

“The police were too violent with the demonstrators,” said Hakan Tas, a local councillor. “There is talk of a thousand injured, some seriously. There are unconfirmed reports of deaths. We are here to show our solidarity with the people in Turkey and in Taksim Square, and that is why we are here today in Berlin.”

Overnight in Istanbul, the situation appeared to escalate again in what the BBC called “some of the worst violence since unrest erupted three days ago.”

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Protesters in Besiktas district tore up paving stones in order to build barricades, and police responded with tear gas and water cannons. Mosques, shops and a university in Besiktas have been turned into makeshift hospitals for those injured in demonstrations. Witnesses say the protesters were coughing violently and vomiting after police fired tear gas canisters into the crowd.

Akin, a protester who spoke to Sky News as he camped overnight at Istanbul’s Taksim Square, said, “We are not leaving. The only answer now is for this government to fall. We are tired of this oppressive government constantly putting pressure on us.”

Perhaps offering the best summary of the events of the past few days, he added, “This is no longer about these trees.”

What’s next for Bradley Manning? Read Greg Mitchell’s take.

Cooper Union Occupation Continues Without Media Fanfare

Cooper Union in New York’s East Village. (Flickr/CC, 2.0)

The occupation at Cooper Union has continued for twenty days with little public or media attention—certainly nothing on par with the profiles written on Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011. Part of that lukewarm reception has to do with the Cooper occupation’s modest numbers (the occupation is sustained by a group ranging between fifteen and twenty-five students), and another part with their mission, which is more specific and less sexy than an anti-capitalist revolution. Cooper Union students are protesting the school’s decision to charge undergraduate tuition for the first time in 150 years, and they’re doing so out of the public’s view, between the walls of president Jamshed Bharucha’s office.

The occupiers quickly gained support from nine full-time members of Cooper Union’s art faculty, who signed a petition and released a statement:

Out of deep concern about the direction of the Cooper Union under President Jamshed Bharucha, the full-time faculty of the School of Arts adopts a resolution of a vote of No Confidence in President Jamshed Barucha.

A Village Voice investigation revealed that the board of trustees have been less than forthright about the dire situation at Cooper Union. While alumni trustee Peter Cafiero claimed a shutdown scenario was never taken seriously, the Voice obtained a transcript from a trustee meeting that paints a different picture.

“[A shutdown] is a real option and I will only recommend it if we do not have a constructive, positive way for that particular school, in which case I will say I don’t see a light at the end of this tunnel, let’s begin to close it down,” a trustee said during a meeting in September.

The transcript also shows that trustees reviewed an option to shutter the entire institution for five years with plans to reopen it in 2018 when group rent on the Chrysler building, Cooper Union’s primary asset, would jump.

Former trustee Stanley Lapidus appears indifferent to the idea that a faculty turnover could bust the staff union, calling the jobs “cushy” and “un-economic.”

That casual indifference continues when trustees refer to the process of closing the school, forcing current students to transfer to other schools, as “flushing.”

Check out Democracy Now!’s debate on what caused Cooper Union’s financial woes and whether charging tuition will fix the problem:

Saar Shemesh, a Cooper Union occupier, expressed her and her fellow students’ frustration at the board of trustees when they announced the school would start charging tuition.

“We were beside ourselves,” she writes. “The board of trustees had dropped this big news on students just as the semester was about to end, catching us at the onset of finals (arguably the most stressful point in our semester). We hugged the Foundation building and held a candlelight vigil where we shared memories of a free Cooper Union. But again, we were trudging along, shocked that the administration had finally dared to announce tuition, our worst-case scenario, after we had been campaigning for transparency in Cooper’s operations for the last two years.”

Shemesh describes an initial period of sporadic actions and poor planning by unexperienced protesters that eventually culminated in a cohesive blueprint for resistance:

As an insider, it’s hard to tell what came first: our plans or our actions. As an organizer, I crave particular structures (albeit loose ones) with which to run a campaign, so the smattering of unplanned actions at Cooper would typically worry or frustrate me. However, this style of organizing seems to work for us here, like no other group that I have organized within.

The majority of us are not versed in direct action tactics or organizing strategy, and have somewhat of an allergic reaction to structure-heavy organizing. However, we have a certain type of loose structure that lends itself well to action-heavy organizing, and that has made both the lock-in last semester and the current occupation very successful.

She goes on to describe the formation of a spokescouncil that they hoped would ideally function like that of Occupy Wall Street in which working groups would meet regularly and report back to each other via representatives once a week, or through meetings coordinated on an as-needed basis.

“Good strategy is important to me because without it even well planned actions fall flat. Without some form of escalation, campaign, or action sequencing we don’t build power,” says Shemesh.

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That “good strategy” includes having clear goals (a free, accessible and transparent Cooper Union), identifying allies and constituents, targeting someone who can give protesters what they want (in this case, President Bharucha and the board of trustees), then deploying tactics that can get protesters close to their goals (petitioning the student and faculty bodies for a vote of “no confidence” and an open, rolling occupation).

It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the Cooper Union occupation since, as Shemesh notes, many of the students were hesitant about strategic organizing or even disdainful of it:

Only a few of us have experience from Occupy or other social justice movements. We’re college students who believe in our school and the sanctity of free higher education. And we’re occupying because we think it will help us protect that. But that doesn’t mean that long-term strategic Organizing will come naturally to all of us.

As for their progress, Shemesh notes, “We’ve so far been able to get by on our antics and actions.”

“It took me the better part of a year to adjust to the Cooper ‘style’ of organizing,” she adds, “but I continue to learn more about myself as an organizer (and an Organizer) in the process of helping to sustain, with the rest of my classmates and fellow occupiers, a budding student movement.”

Since the students are shielded from the public in the president’s office, their presence is largely online, where the group posts updates on their Twitter feed and Facebook page.

It was there that the occupation announced their plans for a free school and salon to coincide with the college-wide end-of-year show, an open space dedicated to free and accessible education and liberating institutional resources. (Photo via @FreeCooperUnion)

“The exhibition will facilitate open space for dialogue through daily Open Forums and Free University classes visioning and remaining new cooperative structures for higher education in the form of free performances, dialogues, screenings, classes, workshops, and more,” Free Cooper Union announced on its Facebook page.

Walmart workers across the country plan to strike from now until June 7. Read Josh Eidelson’s report.

The Chicago Board of Education Votes This Week Whether to Shut Down Fifty-four Schools

Public school teachers cheer outside the Chicago Board of Education district headquarters on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

Chicago is braced for a critical vote by the Board of Education this week to determine if fifty-four schools will be closed.

Last week, parents of three children, two who have disabilities and a third who is black, filed a lawsuit at the US District Court in Chicago alleging that the school closings violate the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Illinois Civil Rights Act.

A second complaint, filed by the parents of three more children with disabilities, alleged the closings will occur too late in the year and don’t allow sufficient time for those children and their peers to transition to “unfamiliar” schools.


The parents sued on behalf of a proposed class of about 5,000 disabled students they say will be irreparably harmed by a transfer into new schools and for the 23 percent of the city’s black elementary-school children whose rights are allegedly being violated by the plan.…

“Every child in every neighborhood in Chicago deserves access to a high-quality education that prepares them to succeed in life, but for too long, children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed because they are in underutilized, under-resourced schools,” CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett said of the closings plan in a statement issued on March 21.

The announced closings spurred a weekend of protests in which activists claimed children’s lives will be put at risk when they are transferred to new schools, some of which are located in neighborhoods infamous for gun violence.

“There is no way [CPS] can keep people safe walking through this danger zone,” protester Jitu Brown shouted into a megaphone during a protest outside Overton Elementary School in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighbourhood—one of the schools slated for closure.

The Chicago Tribune reports, earlier this month, a man was fatally shot along the route that Overton students might take to their new schools.

The Tribune also found that, for children who aren’t eligible for busing, the average walk to a new school in the coming year will be almost twice as far as it is now, increasing from about a third of a mile to nearly six-tenths of a mile. Almost all the students—92 percent—at thirty-seven of the schools slated to be shut down currently have walks of four blocks or less. Sixty percent of that number walk two blocks or less.

CPS has claimed that 30,000 children will be affected by the school closings, but WBEZ fact-checked that claim and discovered the district’s plan will actually touch more than 46,000 children.

Additionally, WBEZ poked holes in officials’ claim that the City of Chicago lost 145,000 children in the past decade, making the soon-to-be-shuttered schools “under-utilized.” However, a drop in child population does not automatically mean a loss of students in CPS. In fact, WBEZ notes, between 2000 and 2013, actual enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has not decreased dramatically, and since 2000, the proportion of Chicago kids attending public schools has actually increased. For decades, the percent of city kids (ages 5–19) in CPS hovered around 65 percent, but in 2010, that jumped up significantly to 79.7 percent.

District officials calculate how under-used, overcrowded or “efficient” a school is by assuming every school should have thirty students in each homeroom. WBEZ reports that if you apply CPS’s own formula to the fifty-four schools proposed for closing, you find not all are “half-empty.” Fifteen have a utilization rate higher than 50 percent: Buckingham, Canter, Emmet, Ericson, Femi, Goodlow, Key, Mayo, Near North, Overton, Owens, Ryerson, Trumbull, Williams Elementary and Williams Middle.

Activists have challenged that formula. Rod Estvan, education policy analyst for disability advocacy group Access Living, says the utilization rates are “totally wrong” for schools like Trumbull and Lafayette because they have inordinately high proportions of special education students (30 and 28 percent, respectively).

CPS officials have admitted the formula does not take reduced special education class size requirements into account.

Furthermore, there is absolutely zero guarantee that children will be moving on to better schools, despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s claim that the key reason to close schools is about getting children “trapped” in low performing schools to a better place.


In a 2009 study of school closings, the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that between 2001 and 2006, most students whose schools were closed by the district re-enrolled in schools that were academically weak. Consortium researchers found that most students lost academic ground in the year their school was slated for closure. And once they were in their new school, they continued on an academic trajectory that was just like the trajectory of the closed school.

The Tribune recently reported that Ericson Academy on the West Side was targeted for closure by officials who claim it would cost $9.6 million to fix the fifty-one-year-old building, but what they didn’t point out in materials provided to parents is that they planned to spend nearly as much on repairs to Sumner Elementary, where Ericson students are to be reassigned.

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District officials also claimed Calhoun Elementary, another school slated for closure, was being shut down in part because of its lack of air conditioning in every classroom. Yet records that were not part of the district’s presentation on closings show the designated replacement school, Cather Elementary, would require the installation of thirty-three window units to bring cooling in every room, the Tribune reports.

After reviewing documents related to the closings, the Tribune concluded, “In many cases, the district appears to have selectively highlighted data to stress shortcomings at schools to be closed, while not pointing out what was lacking at the receiving schools. In fact, total renovations to several of the schools slated to take in students would cost millions of dollars more than the estimated cost of fixing up the buildings where those children are currently enrolled.”

Chicago Tribune:

Michelle Rose, the grandmother of three students at Ericson, was furious when CPS sent a flier home contending that the school lacked the science and computer labs like ones promised at Sumner. This summer’s work at Sumner is only a start; the district estimates complete renovations will run a total of $24.5 million.

“We have two computer labs, two mobile computer labs, we have a science lab, we have two pre-K classrooms, so I don’t know why no one saw this,” said Rose, a volunteer at the school.

Emanuel and company claim the closings must occur because of budgetary shortfalls, but closing fifty-four schools won’t reduce the $1 billion deficit because all of that cost saving (plus tens of millions of additional dollars adding up to around $233 million) will go straight into receiving schools.

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“We’ve assumed that we’ll have to spend in this first year an investment that we’ll make back over time with the savings that we’ll realize both in operating savings and cost avoidance of capital investment at these closing schools. So that’s the way we’re looking at it,” Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley told reporters on a telephone briefing March 21. (Check out the full WBEZ factcheck list on CPS closings.)

Zenitra Hodges, 23, of West Englewood, is studying psychology at Kentucky State University. She learned about one of the anti-closings marches Sunday morning and decided to join.

“My parents instilled with me the importance of education, but there are tons of kids who go without that,” she said. “So I’m here to help change that.”

Think the situation in Chicago is bad? Check out Allison Kilkenny’s reports about Philadelphia.

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