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9 who tried to save Whittier fieldhouse found not guilty in trespassing trial

Updated: January 8, 2014 6:09AM

Cheers rang out in a normally quiet West Side courtroom Friday after a group of protesters who had tried to save a beloved Pilsen school fieldhouse were found not guilty of trespassing.

The protesters — among them community activists and Chicago Public Schools teachers — were charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass to state-supported land after they camped out in August in a failed attempt to save the Whittier Elementary School fieldhouse, known as La Casita. They were arrested when they tried to stop the demolition, which came without warning and has been compared to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s notorious 2003 unannounced bulldozing of Meigs Field.

On Friday, Cook County Associate Judge Clarence Burch agreed with the protesters’ lawyers when they argued the prosecutor didn’t prove that the fieldhouse, a separate building next to the school, was operated and funded by the government.

The prosecutor argued it “would be a reasonable inference” that the field house was publicly funded and part of the school.

His witnesses, though, didn’t talk about that. The prosecutor called several Chicago Police officers involved in the arrests and a Chicago Public Schools school security employee to testify during the brief trial.

The trial ended with the judge telling the nine protesters standing before him to “Have a nice day.”

“Today’s verdict is a real victory for people who want to stand up for the rights of children,” said former Whittier teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer Norine Gutekanst.

But it won’t bring back the fieldhouse, which served as a community center and library, said Bob Leone, one of the people acquitted Friday and a substitute teacher at Whittier. “I know how much La Casita meant to the community ... They need a new place.”

A playground, a turf field and two basketball courts replaced the razed fieldhouse.


Twitter: @schlikerman

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