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Two say they got paid to protest, back closing Chicago schools

Thaddeus Scott poses for photograph outside HOPE organizati6921 S. Halsted Friday Jan. 20 2012 Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Thaddeus Scott poses for a photograph outside the HOPE organization, 6921 S. Halsted, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 25, 2012 8:07AM



Always contentious hearings on whether to close failing Chicago schools have taken a bizarre twist this year with charges that cash-strapped residents were hired as “rent-a-protesters” and given pre-made signs and pre-crafted scripts to support school shakeups.

Two men told the Chicago Sun-Times they showed up to apply for financial help with their energy bills at the Englewood office of the HOPE Organization headed by Rev. Roosevelt Watkins III, only to be offered money to attend school-related “rallies” held Jan. 6. Watkins denies they were paid to protest, saying money paid was for training.

Both protesters said they didn’t realize until the last minute that they were supposed to support school closings. One said he was promised $50 to speak at a rally “for schools,” but was stiffed $25 after Watkins complained he had publicly revealed at the hearing he was “compensated” for speaking.

“I don’t want the $25 he owes me,” Thaddeus Scott, 35, told the Sun-Times. “He can keep his dirty money. You can quote that.

“Why am I speaking out? Because I am in support of Crane [the high school whose closure he says he was supposed to support]. . . .

“They thought for a few dollars they could get us to say whatever they want. . . . We were preyed upon.”

Stipends for ‘training’

Watkins, pastor of Bethlehem Star M.B. Church and founder of Pastors United for Change, acknowledged he organized busloads of people to attend the Jan. 6 school closing hearings.

Yellow buses delivered people from 69th and Halsted, where HOPE’s Englewood office is, to at least three closing hearings on that date. The hearings concerned Crane High, Guggenheim Elementary and Reed Elementary, hearing participants told the Sun-Times.

Scott said he was offered $50 to speak at a hearing from what turned out to be scripted remarks.

But Watkins said protesters were supposed to be paid to attend “training” first on “community organizing” and how “to be aware of what’s taking place in the community.”

“What we do — so you can hear it from the horse’s mouth — we provide training because we engage community activists to participate in things such as health care, affordable housing, education, safety. Those things. So we do training on community organizing,” Watkins said.

A “small stipend” helps “offset their car fare” or “babysitting,” Watkins said.

Of the Jan. 6 protesters, Watkins said, “Those that did not receive the training should not have received a stipend.”

A day after the Sun-Times asked Watkins about the payments, at least one protester said he received a call from organizers asking him to attend a meeting first if he wanted to attend the next rally.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey called the busloads of hearing participants “rent-a-protesters.” He likened them to “paid stooges” who “make a mockery of what public participation is about.”

Said Sharkey: “It’s a new low.”

Cash-filled envelopes

Scott and a second man, a Guggenheim Elementary alum, said they were paid after the Jan. 6 hearings at the HOPE Englewood office by a woman who pulled envelopes holding $25 in cash from a container full of envelopes. Scott said Watkins was in the room when the woman told him he had done them a “disservice” and handed him half the promised amount, but Watkins insisted he was not there. Watkins also denied he ever chided anyone for using the word “compensated” at the hearings.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “There are people saying we pay them. We provide training. We’ve always done this. And they receive a stipend for their time.”

Watkins said he used neither church nor HOPE funds for the stipends. The money came from a “coalition of clergy” who have “money set aside for outreach in the community,’’ he said.

“This is money from clergy. Clergy have money,” Watkins said. “We used private money.”

Initially, Scott said, he thought he would be joining “an act of activism. … They wouldn’t say what the rally was about until we got there.”

Only at the last minute, Scott said, was he asked to choose from a list of prepared remarks and told not to support Crane.

“If he calls that training and that’s what I was paid for, fine, but that’s not training,” Scott said.

The Guggenheim alum also said he received no training before he boarded a bus outside HOPE’s Englewood office at 6921 S. Halsted on Jan. 6. He said he, too, was seeking assistance with energy bills when he was offered $25 to attend a rally.

He said he was told the rally would be about “longer school hours” — an issue pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who announced last year that a long list of ministers supported his stand.

A woman at HOPE’s Community and Economic Development Association outlet for energy assistance “asked me did I want to go to a rally,” the Guggenheim alum recalled. “I said no. She said they will pay $25. She said they were rallying for longer hours in the school day. I said ‘I have no problem with that.’ ”

To his surprise, he said, a bus filled with people delivered him instead to a hearing about closing Guggenheim Elementary, where he had graduated. There, he was given a sign saying “something about ‘I cannot support failing schools.’ ”

“That’s how I knew I was on the wrong side,” he said. “I was on the ‘close’ side. I wanted to be on the ‘open’ side. . . . If I knew it was about closing Guggenheim, I never would have gone because I went to Guggenheim. . . . I never would have been in favor of closing Guggenheim.”

Watkins said people were not paid to take a specific side at the hearings, and if they were reading from scripts, “I’ll check into it.”

“My position is, we want [schools] fixed,” said Watkins, whose HOPE Organization offers after-school programming and won nearly $1.47 million in Chicago Public School contracts since 2010.

“We’re not siding with CPS or the Chicago Teachers Union. . . . We’re siding with the children. We don’t want the message to get faded in this.”



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