PI Original Ashlee Rezin Wednesday March 27th, 2013, 11:22pm

Thousands Take To Downtown Chicago Streets In Protest Against CPS School Closures (VIDEO)

More than 7,000 protesters descended upon downtown Chicago today in protest of school closures and related actions by the Chicago Public Schools system. Progress Illinois was there for the action.

More than 7,000 protesters descended upon downtown Chicago today in protest of school closures and related actions by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system.

“When our schools are under attack, what do we do,” asked Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), to which the booming voice of the massive crowd responded, “fight back!”

In the wake of CPS' announcement last week that 54 schools will be closed and 11 others will be consolidated, union members, supporters, teachers, parents, politicians and students gathered today for a 4 p.m. rally in Daley Plaza followed by a march to CPS headquarters.

“Let me tell you what you’re going to do, on your first day of school, you show up at your real school,” said Lewis, who called the school closures “racist” and called for action by supporters.

Majority of the school closures are slated for Chicago’s South and West Sides. Approximately 80 percent of students affected are African American.

When asked later if calling on students and staff to go to a shuttered school was disruptive, Lewis countered that “closing schools is disruptive and stealing communities is disruptive — we didn’t start this fight.”

She accused the Chicago Board of Education and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who received “boos” from the crowd when his name was mentioned, of not listening to the community residents who would be impacted most by school closures.

Here’s more from Lewis, who formerly called Emanuel the "murder mayor":

CPS officials say the wave of school closures is a cost-cutting initiative. According to district officials, CPS is targeting low-performing and underutilized schools as it faces a $1 billion deficit. The actions will allegedly save the district $560 million over the next decade.

But CTU argues that the closure and consolidation plan with cost the district almost as much as the deficit it claims to have, according to a release by the union:

Based on estimates from the CPS budget and the CIP, it will cost the district approximately $750 million—$15 million per school—to provide 50 schools with computer education, counseling and social work, additional safety and security, and renovations. This figure includes $129 million in CIP costs for pre-kindergarten, students living with disabilities, libraries, play lots, air conditioning and computer labs.

Safety and security is an overwhelming concern for the CTU and the thousands of families who will have children uprooted and traversing gang territories en route to receiving schools. CPS has promised an approximately $676,000 per school to bolster safety programs and add additional security guards and Chicago police support, despite concerns from some alderman that police resources are already stretched thin on the city’s South and West sides.

CPS held that more than $550 million was needed to repair the buildings that housed the schools on its hit list, which supposedly made the structures too costly to manage. But a question remains of how the district can expect to sell or repurpose the buildings without making hundreds of millions in repairs—expenses that are in addition to the resources it says it will provide for thousands of transferred children.

“CPS is making all of these promises of how it will support these students and their schools, but once again, they’re lying just to make families sympathetic to what they’re doing,” says CTU President Karen GJ Lewis. “They’re promising students all of these things which will cost a billion dollars, which is the same amount of money they’ve claimed not to have.”

Carrying signs and chanting “no school closures,” protesters from the rally also heard from UNITE HERE Local 1 President Henry Tamarin, SEIU* Local 1 President Tom Balanoff, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“We’re here because of the tragedy and the travesty reaped upon our neighborhoods by the Chicago Board of Education, what they are doing is destroying fragile communities, the education of our children, centers of our neighborhoods and thousands of badly needed decent jobs,” said Tamarin. “This is wrong.”

After the rally, protesters were led by Lewis, Jackson and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D, IL-1) in a march around City Hall where several hundred protesters participated in an act of non-violent civil disobedience that amounted to 127 people getting arrested, including SEIU President Balanoff.

“They’ve said they have a $1 billion deficit, that’s because they took $1 billion out of our property taxes to put it in a TIF and develop downtown,” said Balanoff. “It’s time to develop our communities, that’s what we need.”

Here’s more from Balanoff, just before he got arrested for disrupting traffic:

According to Alfred Nagode, commander of the Chicago Police Department’s central district, everyone arrested today will be charged with blocking traffic.

CTU trained the participants of the civil disobedience demonstrations during two sessions earlier this month. Lewis said teachers and their supporters will “do whatever we have to do to get our voices heard.”

From City Hall, the march surged toward CPS Headquarters, located at 125 S. Clark St.

Here’s a look at the march:

Once protesters reached CTU headquarters, Jackson and Lewis joined a member from the newly-organized Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS) for closing remarks.

“Rahm Emanuel, what do I look like? Do I look like a criminal? Do I look like just another black man? Or do I look like the next Obama, saying I’m proud of my schools,” asked Brian Stirgus, a senior at Paul Robeson High School in Chicago’s South Side Englewood nighborhood. “I think I look like a student.”

Stirgus is a graduate of Benjamin Banneker Elementary School, which is slated to be merged with Benjamin E. Mays Elementary Academy.

On Monday, he and approximately 20 other CPS high school students delivered a letter to Emanuel’s office calling for a moratorium on school closings and demanding an elected school board.

Following today’s protest, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett issued a statement saying she and the Board of Education continue to be committed to the school closures.

“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,” her statement read. “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. Consolidating underutilized schools will allow us to safely move these children to a higher-performing welcoming school near their home with all investments they need to thrive in the classroom. That's my commitment and it's one we will keep when school starts this fall.”

Participating in today’s demonstration were representatives from Jean D. Lafayette Elementary School, in Chicago’s West Side neighborhood of Humboldt Park. As reported by the Huffington Post, the school is home to an after-school music program that has grown to be one of the largest string orchestras groups in the city.

Three generations from Rousemary Vega’s family attended Lafayette; her father graduated from there, she is an alumni, and three of her four children still attend the neighborhood elementary school. 

“We need this school, it’s an institution in my neighborhood,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

Here’s more from Vega:

Lewis vows that the fight over the school closures has begun, saying “it’s not over brothers and sisters until we say it’s over.”

“We’ll file the lawsuits, we’ll talk to our elected officials, we will lobby them, we will do our best, but we can not do it by ourselves,” she said. “We need to be in the streets, the suites, the courts, wherever else you think you need to be. But brothers and sisters do not let this moment pass you by."

Here's a slideshow of some of the sights seen at today's rally against the CPS school closings:

You can view full video of the protest here.

* The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this web site.

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