Telling My Mom Why I Went to Chicago for the Teachers Strike
I was scrolling down my newsfeed on Facebook yesterday and came across a video of Chicago students speaking out at their Board of Education meeting, shocking the room, and getting pulled out by security. Chills ran up and down my arms and I began to think back on my time in Chicago just a couple of weeks ago, and why the city’s fight over education, even now, feels like my fight.
* * *
“Hey Mom, I’m going to Chicago for a few days.”
“Why? Is it for school?”
“It’s for the schools in Chicago.”
Kissing my mom goodbye, on May 19th, I headed to the Atlantic City airport ready for my first trip to Chicago for the final day of the three-day protest against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed 54 school closings.
* * *
I’m from New Jersey. Why was I going to Chicago?
I can still remember the first time I was moved by the activism in Chicago: the Chicago Teachers Union strike last September. I was sitting on my bed, laptop warming my legs, but getting the chills as the teachers and their allies flooded the streets fighting for justice for their students.
Since then, I knew I had to march alongside them at least once in my life. For me, they redefined what it meant to be a teacher. Being a teacher not only meant aiming to change lives of students inside the classroom, but fighting for your students outside of those four walls too.
So, when I got news of the action against the school closings taking place in May, I knew I had to be a part of it. It seemed to me that the resistance in Chicago was the “coming of the revolution in America’s education system” that I had read about in The Washington Post.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed 54 elementary schools be potentially closed. Every one of those schools predominantly served youth of color. Closing these schools would force youth to cross gang lines. Students would be forced to risk their lives just to get to school everyday.
How can we expect students to care about learning or graduating when they don’t even know if they’re going to live to see the next day?
Furthermore, the Chicago Public Schools’ CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, is from Detroit. Why is this a problem? Just listen to what Asean Johnson, a 3rd grader from Marcus Garvey Elementary School—a Chicago school slated for closure—has to say: “[Rahm] let Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a woman that’s from Detroit who don’t even know the streets of Chicago where I’m from, come in and close these schools.”
Additionally, one of the members of Chicago’s Board of Education—whose members are all appointed by the mayor—tried to claim that the people who disagreed with the Board’s numbers “don’t know economics.” Now, I’m no economist but the fact that the city is going to be donating $55 million to build a new basketball stadium at a private university makes things pretty clear for me.
The money is there. It’s just in the wrong hands.
* * *
So, what was it like actually being there?
It was face-meltingly hot, but the heat wasn’t going to stop anyone. With signs, megaphones, and water bottles in hand, community members from across Chicago—alongside students and organizers from Philadelphia and New York—were ready to conclude the last of three consecutive days of marching.
On this final day, there were two marches: a march starting from the South Side, and another from the West Side (where I started), routed to converge at City Hall by 4:00pm.
We began marching on the sidewalk, then made our way onto the main streets, and almost immediately the cops were ordering us to get back on the sidewalk. Many of the parents weren’t having it and ignored the cops altogether. When our route went back into the neighborhoods, one parent commented:
“See, cops are always ready to protect the white people streets. But the second we go into the hood, they’re nowhere to be found. They don’t care what happens here.”
About two hours into the march, we stopped to rehydrate. I texted a few organizers marching on the south side and checked up on social media.
Israel Munoz, a student organizer from Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS), let me know that hundreds of high school students had boycotted school and joined the march—as part of a boycott organized by the CSOSOS.
They boycotted despite the fact that Barbara Byrd-Bennett had warned students the night before not to participate via a school-wide email. On Instagram, I saw photos of cops surrounding an elementary school. This school was put on emergency lockdown and surrounded by cops to prevent students from walking out to join the march. Facebook showed images of twenty-six teachers and community organizers getting arrested for occupying City Hall.
It was clear that Chicago activists weren’t going down without a fight.
Five hours passed, and under the scorching sun, we came together in front of City Hall, taking our once individual chants and combining them as one. We yelled, “Whose streets? Our streets!”
Some two-dozen cops tried to corral us back onto the sidewalks by building a wall with their bicycles. But we were too many. At this moment, we were unstoppable. At this very moment, I felt a part of Chicago.
* * *
The Chicago Board of Education spared 4 schools, but voted for 50 schools to be closed. How did Chicago students, teachers, parents, and community organizers’ respond? By declaring that the fight isn’t over.
Students have already held another action in response to their vote. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and parents have filed their third lawsuit. A documentary is being created to show the effects of these closings. Multiple articles have been published in outlets like The Washington Post, Huffington Post, and The New York Times. Someone has even conjured up a photo response to TIME’s decision to glorify Rahm on the front page of their newest issue.
But one of the biggest next steps has been working to get Rahm out of office during the 2015 mayoral election. Soon after the vote, the CTU launched a series of voter registration workshops in order to provide training to those who were interested in becoming deputy voter registrars.
* * *
As I sat in the airport waiting for my plane back to New Jersey, I couldn’t help but wish I could stay in Chicago to continue fighting against the school closings. Having been granted the opportunity to march side-by-side with Chicagoans, getting to know them, has convinced me they have all of the characteristics of a potentially victorious movement—and how could I want to leave that?
However, I reminded myself that I don’t have to physically be in Chicago to continue helping their fight. I reminded myself that the battle for educational justice isn’t just Chicago’s fight but a fight that plays out all across the country. As much as I wanted to stay, I knew I had to take the inspiration they instilled in me and bring that back home.
This wasn’t just Chicago’s fight, but our fight.