Young people in Chicago spoke out against the "school-to-prison pipeline" Monday evening and demanded more investments in education as part of a national week of action against youth incarceration.
Toting signs reading "Educate, Don't Hate," a few hundred Chicago youths and their allies rallied outside the now-shuttered Paderewski Elementary Learning Academy in South Lawndale before marching more than two miles to the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) at 1100 S. Hamilton Ave.
Monday's action, co-sponsored by more than 30 local organizations such as Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools, the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance and the Immigrant Youth Justice League, was meant to highlight the need for more public investment in schools, job training and youth programs, various health services and community-based alternatives to incarceration.
At Paderewski, which closed last year as part of the massive round of 50 Chicago public school closings, activists recited poetry, shared their personal stories and put padlocks on the school's fence to symbolize their feelings of being "locked out" of the educational system. Police later escorted the marchers on their trek to the juvenile dentention facility, where members of the Chicago Light Brigade held large, illuminated signs that read "Locked Up and Out."
"Somebody once told me when you close a school, you open a prison," said Malcolm London with the Chicago chapter of the Black Youth Project 100, a national group of young activists working to "mobilize communities of color beyond electoral politics."
"When you close a school [and] you open a prison, a lot of people who particularly don't look like me make a lot of money off of that. The plan and the design is real. You don't close 50 schools in black and brown neighborhoods ... You don't do that and then [plan to] open a new Barack Obama school on the grave of Cabrini Green. You don't do that and watch young people die and continue to keep a [South Side] trauma center closed. To me, that's very real, and the design is very clear what the elite folks in this city are trying to do."
Last year, 4,267 youths were admitted to the Cook County JTDC, according to a recent report by the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, an initiative of Project NIA. The organization, which co-sponsored Monday's event, is a Chicago-based nonprofit that works to promote community-focused solutions to youth violence and crime. More than 85 percent of the young people admitted last year to the JTDC, which primarily serves as a pre-trial detention center for juveniles, were black. The JTDC has, however, seen an 17.7 percent decrease in overall youth entries from 2011 to 2013, according to the report.
At the state level, there were 1,835 youths admitted to Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice youth prisons in fiscal year 2013, according to the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project's report. The average annual cost to house one incarcerated youth in state prison was $86,861 in 2012, the report states.
"Because incarceration is expensive, traumatic, disruptive and ineffective, exploring alternative strategies for working with youth in conflict with the law offers rich opportunities to promote community well-being while saving money," the report reads. "Carefully implemented, alternatives to detention/incarceration can reduce harm in communities, promote youth development, contain costs, enhance safety, protect human rights, and build a stronger society."
Jenine Wehbeh, education justice coordinator with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, said communities across the country are participating in actions this week against the incarceration of young people "who are not just the future leaders, but are the current leaders of our movement."
"Today, we take a united stand against the continuous creation of otherness in this country," she said. "Today, we are not only black, brown, indigenous and queer, we are one people pushing back. We are here to take back our communities and our schools."
Here's more from Wehbeh, plus scenes from the protest and comments from Nidalis Burgos, a sophomore at Lincoln Park High School and leader with the Chicago Students Union:
Burgos, who previously attended the Humboldt Park neighborhood's Jean D. Lafayette Elementary School, which closed last year, said students in the city have been "belittled."
"Every student (at this protest) is either brown or black, and that's because we're being belittled the most," she said. "We get pushed to the side or right off the bat they look at us like, 'Oh, they're some type of trouble.' We need to stop ... taking our students from our classrooms and putting them into a jail because that's not going to help our future by making us seem like we're worth nothing. The only way to make us feel like we're important is by pushing us above, showing us that we can conquer all, not by putting us in a cell or telling us that we're not important enough just because we're not the right color or we don't have the right amount of money."
Babur Balos with the Chicago Light Brigade said he took part in Monday's rally to "demand investments in our communities."
"Every time they say 'we don't have the money,' we have the money," he stressed. "They closed 50 schools and now they want to turn around more schools. These school closings mostly affect communities of color and poor neighborhoods."
Frederick Dennis, a 19 year-old from North Lawndale, shared his story about being housed for two-and-a-half years at the JTDC. At age 15, Dennis faced adult charges of attempted murder and was detained at the Cook County juvenile facility while his case was pending. A judge eventually dismissed his case and the charges were dropped.
Dennis said being temporarily detained "opened my eyes up to the juvenile system in general, and how it's trying to set me up for failure. I wasn't going to allow that to be me."
Dennis completed high school after getting out of the juvenile facility and currently attends Northern Illinois University where he is studying industrial engineering.
"Less prisons and more schools could make a change; because if I did it, there's no doubt anybody else can do it," he said. "More schools means less violence in the communities."
Chicago Light Brigade 'Locked Up & Out' Image: Aaron Cynic, All Other Images: Ellyn Fortino