On a sunny Saturday this past May, far down on the city’s Black South Side where corner stores house their cashiers behind bulletproof plexiglass, about 150 activists assembled at Jesse Owens Community Academy. In just a few days, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed Board of Education would vote on the largest simultaneous school closing in recent history. Owens, along with fifty-three other public schools, was on the chopping block. A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN poll found that more than 60 percent of Chicago citizens opposed the closings, and a healthy cross section of them had turned out for the first of three straight days of marches in protest.
Women in red Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) T-shirts registered participants; a vanload of purple-shirted SEIU marchers lingered in excited anticipation; an activist from the city’s Anti-Eviction Campaign, which breaks into and takes over foreclosed houses, donned a parade marshal’s orange vest; two street medics from the Occupy-associated Chicago Action Medical checked on some elderly marchers who arrived in a church bus. The music teacher at Owens, a former minister, asked rhetorically, “Will I have a job on Monday?” She answers her own question: “That’s OK.” A White, middle-class mother with two kids in the system, who traveled almost 100 blocks to be here, told me that she is a Republican but that “people on the right don’t like being pushed around by overbearing government.”
There were signs representing Jobs With Justice and the community-labor umbrella group Grassroots Collaborative. Another sign snarked: if rahm and his unelected school board ever set foot in a CPS school perhaps their math wouldn’t be so bad. The president of Michigan’s American Federation of Teachers spoke. Then a parent mocked public schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s recent invocation of Martin Luther King at a City Club of Chicago speech: “How can you call this a civil rights movement when you resegregate our schools, decimate our teacher corps and destabilize our neighborhoods?”