More than 100 demonstrators taking part in mass civil disobedience were arrested in Chicago on Wednesday as several thousand people marched against the largest proposed round of school closings in recent memory.
Many carried placards proclaiming "Strong Schools, Strong Neighbourhoods" and "Protect Our Children" while chanting "Whose Schools, Our Schools" and calling for mayor Rahm Emmanuel's resignation.
"We're signalling that there is going to be a large and determined movement that will use the tactics of civil disobedience and direct action in order to keep these schools open," said Chicago Teachers Union vice-president Jesse Sharkey, who was arrested outside City Hall, one of 131 detained by police. "We see this event as kicking off an extended campaign this spring and we think it was a great success."
The city last week announced plans to close 54 schools affecting more than 30,000 students, primarily in low-income black and Latino areas. The proposals – which had already sparked huge, rowdy protests at hearings throughout the city prior to the announcement – mark Emmanuel's second major confrontation over education in less than six months following the teachers' strike in late August.
"People have a right to the neighbourhoods in which they live," said CTU leader Karen Lewis at the rally. "Children have the right to a safe, nurturing, loving environment."
CTU has laid down the gauntlet:
"In the same time these school closings have been taking place over the past decade, the city has opened about 100 charter schools in the very neighbourhoods where they're now closing schools through under-utilisation," said Sharkey. "Meanwhile supports of charter schools have been very open ideologically about making school competition part of the larger picture.
"We have not yet won the argument with the people of Chicago that this is a critical moment to be active. But this was a good start. Four or five thousand people and lots of different schools represented today. The argument can and will be won."
The CTU emerged with considerable public support after it blunted Emmanuel's attempts to tie teachers' pay to test scores last year. It has pledged to continue the campaign of non-violent disobedience. "People who work in the schools and rely on public schools will oppose the mass closings by any and all peaceful means," Sharkey has told union members. "[School closings] are not something we are prepared to accept without a fight ... We're going to take this fight as far as we have to, to defend our community schools."
Jesse Jackson was there.
Randi Weingarten was not.
She must have been paling around with her friend Bill Gates, finding new ways to use technology to evaluate teachers via test scores.
Thankfully Lewis, Sharkey, CTU and thousands of parents and concerned citizens from around Chicago did show up to fight this massive privatization of the city's school system.
It's going to be a long, hard fight.
And as Sharkey said, they haven't gotten all the people in Chicago up in arms that this is critical moment to fight back.
But at the very least, they're trying to do just that.