Many Chicagoans are fighting back against Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public School (CPS) system's move to close 54 'underutilized' schools next year to overcome a nearly $1 billion budget deficit. Wednesday afternoon, around 150 people were arrested in front of city hall for locking arms, chanting and sitting squarely in the middle of La Salle street downtown in protest of what would be the largest mass school closing in U.S. history.
The Chicago Teacher's Union (CTU) was the primary organizer of this act of civil disobedience, and reportedly spent part of this month training members in various protest techniques including disruptions, occupations and arrests. Not all of those arrested were members of the union either; some volunteered to be arrested in an attempt to make their point to city leadership. In preparation for the protests, police erected barricades around the Chicago Board of Education building, and principals were asked to report on the actions of any protesters near their schools.
The situation is particularly tense because all but one of the schools being closed are elementary schools, and the students set to be most affected are African American and Latino. Parents have voiced concern that their children will be forced to make longer walks to get to their new schools. In response, CPS has spent $7.7 million on a "Safe Passage" program aimed at helping students arrive safely at school.
If you heard This American Life's two part story on Harper High School a couple weeks back, it's pretty clear why these parents are so concerned. Gang activity and gun violence are very prevalent in parts of Chicago, and while younger children are not generally the target of such violence, students are most in danger on their trips to and from school. Parents in Chicago have good cause for their concern.
The strength of Chicago's unions are not something to be overlooked either, and if the CTU's actions today are any indication, the protests won't be ending any time soon. Karen Lewis, president of the CTU, even went so far as to suggest that parents and students should show up at their "real school" when new school year starts instead of attending their newly assigned buildings.
At least, unlike the protesters of the Occupy movement, these parents, teachers and students have a discernible goal. Now the question is: Do they have a viable alternative to the school closures that will reduce or eliminate the deficit the system faces?
Emanuel is standing firm though, holding that the closures are necessary and saying "the steps being taken were postponed for years — because of politics." Even so, he will have a tough time holding his ground with committed opponents like Lewis. "It's not over, brothers and sisters, until we say it's over," she said.