Chicago teachers hit the streets on their historic strike, September 2012. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)
Chicago officials announced last week that they plan to close fifty-four under-enrolled schools this year in the country’s third-largest district to help close a $1 billion budget deficit. It is the largest mass district closing of schools ever in the United States, and the announcement quickly inspired outrage among teachers, parents and activists.
A teacher I spoke to, who worked at one of the schools marked for closures, expressed concern that the “welcoming schools” students will be transferred to lack social and emotional support systems to aid the students’ transition, and that some of the schools are far across gang territory, making the commute to the new schools more perilous than it already is in a city with infamous gun violence.
President of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Karen Lewis, declared, “Closing 50 of our neighborhood schools is outrageous and no society that claims to care about its children can sit back and allow this to happen to them. There is no way people of conscience will stand by and allow these people to shut down nearly a third of our school district without putting up a fight. Most of these campuses are in the Black community. Since 2001 88% of students impacted by CPS School Actions are African-American. And this is by design.”
Lewis added, “These actions unnecessarily expose our students to gang violence, turf wars and peer-to-peer conflict. Some of our students have been seriously injured as a result of school closings. One died. Putting thousands of small children in harm’s way is not laudatory.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel described the closings as tough, but needed.
“If we don’t make these changes, we haven’t lived up to our responsibility as adults to the children of the city of Chicago. And I did not run for office to shirk my responsibility,” he said.
Emanuel was out of town when schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett made the closures announcement.
Many activists have called the proposal a racist decision that targets black, Latino and low-income communities, since the closures are happening mostly in poor black neighborhoods.
“I don’t see any Caucasians being moved, bussed or murdered in the streets as they travel along gang lines, or stand on the steps of a CPS school,” said activist Wendy Matil Pearson as opponents of the school closing plans protested outside Horatio May Elementary Community Academy in the Austin neighborhood.
Valerie Leonard, co-founder of the Lawndale Alliance, accused the mayor of trying to drive African Americans out of the city.
“He says that he wants to turn around the city of Chicago, make a new Chicago. Does that new Chicago mean no black folks?” she said. “Where are people going to go? They’re not going to stay around in the community if there are no schools!”
The protesters said they don’t buy the mayor’s claim students will get better educations when they are moved out of buildings with low enrollment. The district has said the money saved from closing schools will be used to improve the “welcoming schools” where students are relocated.
“It’s a lie!” protesters repeatedly shouted.
Activists called for a mass rally on Wednesday in response to the closures. Security staff responded by erecting barricades across the Board of Education in downtown Chicago, and authorities sent out a memo to school principals telling them to report on protesters and their actions.
The memo states, “There may be those who wish to disrupt the education of our children. While we respect the right of those who wish to peacefully protest and express themselves, this cannot be at the expense of our children’s future.”
Curiously, the memo doesn’t mention how school closures are far more likely to “disrupt” education than a day of protest.
Perhaps most alarming is the mention of First Amendment rights, surrounded by scare quotes.
“Protestors often explain away their acts of disruption based on ‘1st Amendment rights’, but then go far beyond those rights in their acts.” At Firedoglake, Kevin Gosztola accurately points out that the Chicago Public Schools obviously misunderstand the meaning of the First Amendment.
A section, “Rights and Restrictions of Protestors,” suggests “incitement,” which is speech “intended and likely to cause imminent law breaking,” would not be permitted. This is a clear misunderstanding of the First Amendment. As articulated, it could be used to target and punish anyone in schools, who is suspected or caught discussing planned acts of civil disobedience because that would, to CPS, be “law-breaking.”
The section also claims “true threats,” which are words “directed against a particular person who would reasonably perceive in the message a danger of violence,” and “fighting words,” which are words “directed at a particular person, face-to-face, which might provoke an ordinary reasonable person to violence,” are prohibited. But, aren’t children supposed to tell people who say not nice things about them they don’t like those not nice things instead of hitting people? Yet, CPS, which must be staffed with individuals suffering from anger management issues, says “fighting words” might lead a “reasonable person” to engage in violence, as if it would ever be “reasonable” to violently attack someone for merely saying something combative to them.
It asserts, “Protesters do not have a right to block pedestrian or vehicle traffic, or to prevent entry and exit from buildings,” and, also, “Protesters do not have a right to harass other members of the public.” Who determines what is harassment and what is the consequence if caught “harassing” someone from the “public”? (Note: Further down in the memo it says people using “true threats” or “fighting words” may be “escorted away.”)
The memo appears to be an effort by CPS to transform schools into even more totalitarian places as students, parents and activist allies attempt to fight to maintain access to education.
This has been a month fully of authoritarian actions by the CPS, following the banning of Persepolis, a graphic novel about growing up in Iran amid the Islamic Revolution. The novel was banned due to “graphic language and images,” according to Byrd-Bennett, referring to images of government torture.
Author Marjane Satrapi responded: “These are not photos of torture. It’s a drawing and it’s one frame.”
The document further warns that if civil disobedience does occur, the “names and information of all teachers and students who left the building” are to be documented. It also instructs the reader to document what media is covering the action.
Becoming even more muddled, the memo lists a “lock down” as a form of civil disobedience, which isn’t correct. A lockdown is an administrative or security response to activists occupying a space.
CPS seems much more concerned with managing the public’s perception of the mass closings than in facilitating a space for students, parents and activists to save their schools.
Union-buster par excellence Scott Walker is on the move. Read John Nichols’s take on his new “manifesto.”