Karen Lewis, center, president of the CTU is joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, left, and United States Representative Bobby Rush, right, during a demonstration and march over the a plan to close fifty-four Chicago Public Schools through Chicago's downtown Wednesday, March 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
On a sunny saturday this past May, far down on the city’s black South Side where corner stores house their cashiers behind bulletproof plexiglass, about 150 activists assembled at Jesse Owens Community Academy. In just a few days, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed Board of Education would vote on the largest simultaneous school closing in recent history. Owens, along with fifty-three other public schools, was on the chopping block. A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN poll found that more than 60 percent of Chicago citizens opposed the closings, and a healthy cross section of them had turned out for the first of three straight days of marches in protest.
There were signs representing Jobs With Justice and the community-labor umbrella group Grassroots Collaborative. Another sign snarked: if rahm and his unelected school board ever set foot in a CPS school perhaps their math wouldn’t be so bad. The president of Michigan’s American Federation of Teachers spoke. Then a parent mocked public schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s recent invocation of Martin Luther King at a City Club of Chicago speech: “How can you call this a civil rights movement when you resegregate our schools, decimate our teacher corps and destabilize our neighborhoods?”
The march stepped off, passing boarded-up houses and auction signs; a CTU staffer called cadence (“I don’t know but it’s been said/ Billionaires on the Board of Ed”). Supporters shouted out in solidarity from front porches. When we passed the first of five closing schools along our seven-mile route, a clutch of 10-year-olds bearing handmade signs joined in and got turns at the bullhorn. I noticed something striking: again and again, when the CTU yell-leader barked out the first half of a new chant (“We need teachers, we need books”), everybody already knew the second line: “We need the money that Rahhhhhhm took!”
They know the words because they’ve been here before. The CTU beat Rahm in a historic strike this past September and hasn’t stopped fighting austerity and privatization since. They probably know the words across town too, where a simultaneous march along an even longer route on the even poorer black West Side was going on.
But it isn’t just CTU members who know the words. The progressive tribes have been gathering in Chicago with force, efficiency, creativity, trust and solidarity, building a bona fide, citywide protest culture. And it’s working. Days before these marches, Mayor Emanuel, who has been talked up in some circles as possibly the first Jewish president, told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I am not running for higher office—ever.” This purring protest infrastructure is one of the major reasons why.
To many national observers, this rebirth of the city’s militant protest culture seemingly came out of nowhere. But it didn’t. It’s the product of years of organizing from sources both expected and surprising. And while the radicalized CTU under the leadership of Karen Lewis has deservedly received much of the credit, the teachers union is just the current tip of the spear in a long and potentially transformative movement.
“I think we have a synergy going on here that is unrivaled in any other city,” says the Rev. C.J. Hawking, “but it could be replicated.” Hawking is originally from the far South Side neighborhood of Mount Greenwood, “where all the firefighters and cops live.” Twenty-nine years ago, she became a United Methodist pastor. Twenty years ago, during a historic strike in the downstate town of Decatur, she began devoting her ministry to labor issues. In 2007, she became executive director of Arise Chicago, a group founded in 1991 by local religious leaders who wanted to mass their voices together in favor of workers and immigrant rights. Arise created a thriving workers center in 2002, and in the fall of 2011, the group was at the center of the Week of Action, one of the most extraordinary protests in any US city in recent memory.
The next day at the Pritzker family’s Hyatt Regency Hotel, sixteen activists from Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation were arrested for occupying the sky bridge between the hotel’s two wings, as hundreds in the streets below cheered them on. A group called Action Now dumped garbage from a vacant foreclosed home outside a Bank of America branch. The rest of the week was filled with similar actions. It was a triumph.
“I never entered a bank before because of my immigration status,” one participant said. “I felt uneasy, but then we became family.” “I was scared,” said another, “but my courage grew.” A third: “I can’t believe I sat in the street! That was my first time. It was great!” A fourth: “I am going to educate my children about what I did and bring them up to do the same.”
Nineteen months later, I asked Hawking how it all came together. The idea sprang from meetings the previous summer of the convening umbrella organization, which eventually became known as Stand Up! Chicago. Twenty groups were at the table: religious groups, a senior citizens group, immigrant groups, community groups and labor unions—a rare convergence in itself. “It was a little awkward at first,” she says. “We always got along. But we were also competing for all those precious grant dollars.”
It turned out to be easier to work together than anyone thought. After testing out a smaller feeder march in June, the groups met in October for an intensive week of planning using an innovative organizing model: they separated into a dozen or so groups of twenty-five. Each group contained members from different organizations; those members planned their own actions, argued together, socialized together and then, when the pivotal moment came, stuck together on the streets.
“People from Arise Chicago, workers who’d had their wages stolen, unionists from Jobs With Justice, people from the Lakeview Action Coalition…I think this [collaboration] is really unique and pivotal to understanding how we’ve been so successful,” says Hawking. “If I get caught and the light turns red, twenty-four other people are going to make sure that I get across the street.”
Stand Up! Chicago dubbed the groups “flying squads” after the Flint, Michigan, General Motors sit-down strikes of 1936–37. “Each flying squad was completely bonded to each other by the end of that week,” says Hawking. At a debriefing after one protest, an experienced activist testified that he rarely felt so free to voice an opinion, to disagree and still feel that he was heard.
I ask Hawking whether she thinks the Week of Action had a direct effect in inspiring the success of the Chicago Teachers Union the following year. “Absolutely. Absolutely,” she answers, before listing a tumult of actions that followed, one feeding into the next: a takeover of the LaSalle Street Bridge over the Chicago River on November 17; 4,000 teachers in their red CTU shirts filling the Auditorium Theatre for a rally that grew into a 10,000-person march in May 2012; the September CTU school strike itself and, three months after that, a meeting of a Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago at the St. James Cathedral, dedicated to fighting for a $15 hourly wage; Black Friday at Walmart; the spread of the fast-food strikes to Chicago; and the latest marches against Rahm’s school closings.
“Organized labor as we know it seems to be struggling,” Hawking says. “And so what did they do in the 1880s and the 1930s? Well, you start building power in the streets.”
Follow us: @thenation on Twitter | TheNationMagazine on Facebook