CHICAGO — Thousands of demonstrators poured into Daley Plaza Wednesday afternoon to protest the proposed closings of 54 CPS schools, and 127 people were detained and ticketed by police when they sat down in the street in front of City Hall, officials said.
The protesters — including students, teachers, parents, cafeteria workers, clergy and activists — came in buses from all parts of the city. They stood shoulder to shoulder and chanted in unison against closing schools across Chicago.
Shortly before 5 p.m., as some marched toward Chicago Public Schools Headquarters at 125 S. Clark St., about 150 sat down in the middle of LaSalle Street in front of City Hall. They locked arms and chanted, "Save our children." About 5:15 p.m., police started appearing to make arrests — but no one resisted as they were taken to a city bus.
Officers ticketed and released 127 people who refused to disperse, which police don't consider a "physical arrest," said Chicago Police spokesman Adam Collins.
"It was very peaceful," he said. The tickets were issued for "pedestrian failure to exercise due care."
One man detained said he saw the protest as the beginning of a "long struggle."
"This is a sign of commitment, a witness," said John Thomas, 62, a teacher at Chicago Theological Seminary, before he was taken away by police. "A sign that this is just the beginning of a long struggle."
Bob Simpson, a retired teacher from a South Side school, said civil disobedience has "proven to have made major changes in our society, and that's why I'm here." He was also detained by police.
Estimates of the crowd varied. While organizers said the crowd totaled 4,000, police said the count was less than 900.
Before the arrests, protesters at Daley Plaza screamed, "Hey hey, ho ho, Rahm Emanuel's got to go!" and "Education is a human right. What do we do? Fight! Fight!"
During the rally, which included speeches by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, teachers and a cafeteria worker, the protesters booed any time the mayor's name was mentioned. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis even suggested that familiesd show up to school buildings CPS planned to close when school starts in August.
"It's not over, brothers and sisters, until we say it's over," Lewis said. "On the first day of school, you show up at your real school."
She accused Mayor Rahm Emanuel of closing schools named after African-American legends to open schools named after living billionaires. That's creating "one set of schools for kids who are learning to be greeters, and one for kids who are learning to rule the world," she said.
Emanuel "shouldn't close our schools, he should try and repair them," said Kenneth Sanders, 12, a student at Robert Emmet Elementary School, 5500 W. Madison St., which is supposed to be closed.
"I'll be sad if my school closes because I'll miss my friends and teachers and all the fun we have," Kenneth said.
Sanders' mom, Lettrice Jamison, who is president of the Local School Council at Emmet, worried that the two schools her five kids are expected to attend next year won't be able to handle the influx of new students.
"They talk about overcrowding now? Trust me, it's gonna get a lot worse," Jamison said.
Many students, teachers and community members began boarding buses to head Downtown about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Marlene Espinoza, 22, a 2005 graduate of Peabody School, waited in a hallway with 40 parents, teachers and students, for a bus to arrive.
Espinoza objected to the closing of Peabody, saying she was concerned about students' safety on their walk to their new school, Otis.
"It's important that kids be safe," she said. "At Otis, it is a long walk."
In Bridgeport, parents, students and local activists boarded a bus also heading to Daley Plaza. Though no schools in the Southwest Side neighborhood are closing, Kristina Tendilla, vice chair of Bridgeport Alliance, said all Chicagoans should be speaking out against the proposed closures.
"It's so important to stand up for all schools," Tendilla said. "Every school is our school."
Before the rally, the CTU sent out feelers to see who'd be willing to get arrested.
"The outpouring was phenomenal," said Alexandria Hollet, a CTU delegate who teaches in Albany Park. "It was so big, they had to turn people away.”
Hollet said parents and students feel slighted and ignored, and chose civil disobedience to challenge CPS because their voices haven't been heard at community meetings.
“This is a last-resort type of thing," Hollet said. "We have to do something to get their attention. We have to do something that’s peaceful and nonviolent, but also shows the strength of our resolve.”
Hollet said the closings hit predominantly black and Latino communities the hardest.
"It's a really racist and classist practice that’s being enacted on innocent children," Hollet said. "School closings put a lot of communities in disarray and a lot of students in danger."
"When the education system has unequal results you cannot lock in the status quo," Emanuel said before the protest. "The steps being taken were postponed for years because of politics."
Hollet's school is not on the chopping block, but she said Wednesday afternoon's protest is about solidarity.
“We don’t have a lot of power that is just given to us, and we never have," Hollet said.