suntimes
SPOTTY 
Weather Updates

Protesters block downtown streets over school closings

Updated: April 29, 2013 11:58AM



Ruby Martinez showed up because Lafayette Elementary isn’t just where she works or sends her own kids, it’s her family.

Brandon Lee rode a bus to the rally, angry that his school whose doors are open seven days a week to students like him is closing.

And lunchlady Takeeva Thompson sat on the freezing asphalt of LaSalle Street “because children deserve to know somebody cares.” That is until police removed her.

Protesters descended en masse onto Daley Plaza Wednesday to denounce a historic number of schools closing, mainly on Chicago’s South and West Sides, an act that resulted in more than 100 protesters removed and ticketed.

Last week, schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced she wanted to close 54 schools and 61 school buildings come June. Wednesday morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel held his ground, saying the consolidation is necessary and is going to happen.

The mayor called it intolerable that a school system with a 61 percent graduation rate for all students, graduates just 45 percent of black males.

“I understand and appreciate the difficulty. But, locking kids into a….school that, year-in and year-out, is failing their full potential — is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to those children and unacceptable to this city,” he said.

Wednesday afternoon, thousands of people and several unions said they would not yet give up on the closings that will affect 30,000 students and 1,000 teachers.

As some protesters pounded on drums, hundreds of signs bobbed over heads clad in winter hats.

A Chicago flag with a teacher’s twist — fourred apples instead of stars — fluttered overhead.

One man donned a gas mask because, he said, Emanuel’s decision “really stinks.”

The Bridges family skipped a spring break trip to Lake Geneva to support Betsy Ross Elementary where Aaliyah is a fifth grader and mom Versie volunteers daily. The family hopped a bus to the rally with at least 25 others from Ross and posed for photos before the speakers began, saying not “cheese” but “save our schools.”

Brandon Lee rode with them because he’s angry about losing a safe space where children can play.

“I’m mad,” the 14 year old said. “It’s open on weekends and we can go up and play ball,” he said of Ross, explaining that neighborhood playground courts don’t have rims and it’s been too cold to play outside.

Ciera Wilson lives right near Ross. She’ll have to walk blocks and blocks next year to Dulles for 8th grade.

She’s said she’s afraid what happened to “that girl Hadiyah” could happen to her, referring to the daylight shooting of Hadiyah Pendleton near her school. “My mom is going to be more stressed because I’ll have to walk 12 blocks.”

Elementary education expert and professor Bill Ayers — whose ties to President Obama sparked controversy beacuse of Ayers 1960s radicalism — was in the crowd in support of teachers and kids like his granddaughters who attend CPS schools.

“The assault on public education and abandonment of these communities has to be resisted,” Ayers said. “How can we abandon public education at this point in history and move away from the one thing that’s going to give people hope for the future, and that is a solid powerful education.”

Ruby Martinez is heartbroken about Lafayette Elementary in Humboldt Park, home to more than 100 autistic children.

“It’d be very hard for our autistic students to change environments,” said Martinez, 41, a teacher’s assistant who also has kids at the school. “I’m hoping that Emanuel has a heart and keeps our school open.”

Sharing a stage with several aldermen —Bob Fioretti (2nd), Ricardo Munoz (22nd) and John Arena (45th) — as well as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, CTU president Karen Lewis called the closings “racist.”

“They are closing down schoolswith names of African American icons but he’ll open schools to put a living billionaire on the front,” Lewis said to a roaring crowd that booed every time she mentioned the mayor. Now there is “one set of schools for children who are learning to become greeters, another for children who are learning to rule the world.”

Lewis called on the crowd to show up to their “real” school on the first day in August.

“It’s not over, brothers and sisters, until you say it’s over,”

In the thick of evening rush hour, the protesters began to march. Accompanied by Kelly High School Marching Band musicians, they looped around City Hall and stopped in front of the LaSalle Street entrance.

Some 150 people sat down in the cold street in rows, locking arms, knowing what would come next.

“I don’t want children’s schools to be closed, I don’t want them to be harmed,” said Sandra Stone of Rogers Park Neighbors for Public Schools, her legs straight out in front of her. “They came for our children and we’re not going to let them get away with it.”

A few rows away sat Kohn Elementary lunchlady Takeeva Thompson.

“These children deserve to know that someone cares,” she said, adding that the mayor does not.

“We know he has given up on them and we will not. This is not the end.”

Fifteen minutes after the first protester sat down, police began approaching them one by one in rows. Each was picked up by officers, calmly, and escorted through police lines past a row of officers on horseback to a barricaded area farther south on LaSalle Street. There they were lined up on the sidewalk against a building, parents and lunchladies, clergy members and teachers. Police later said they were ticketed.

By the time the march reached CPS headquarters at 125 S. Clark Wednesday evening, its numbers had dwindled, but Jackson, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and the CTU’s Lewis remained.

“We want schools, not jails,” Jackson said. “Open the schools, close the jails.”

CPS officials remained inside; Chief Transformation Officer Todd Babbitz was briefly visible in the lobby. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was nowhere to be seen. Instead she issued a statement:

“I fully support the rights of individuals to express their opinion and as a former teacher and principal who has lived through school closings, I know this is not easy for our communities,” she wrote. “But as CEO of this district, I need to make decisions that put our children first. For too long, children at underutilized schools have been cheated of the resources they need to succeed.”

By the end, Chicago Police officially put the crowds at 700 to 900 people, though a police department source at the scene estimated it at about 2,000 around the time the crowd began moving to City Hall.

CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin called the official police estimate “ridiculous” and said the union has “low estimates of 5,000 ourselves.” But photographs of the crowd suggest that about 2,000 was the more likely figure.

“We’re very upset that the police are estimating 700 people,” Gadlin said. “It’s part of their massive spin machine.”

Bontemps Elementeray special education teacher Margo Murray was one of the protesters removed from LaSalle Street. She and the others were ticketed in the end for pedestrian failure to exercise due care, and were processed on a CTA bus.

“We wanted to make a statement about our schools closing that people would remember,” the 57-year-old said. “I hope that more people will decide to get involved.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman, Becky Schlikerman, Rosalind Rossi



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.