Fire in the Belly: The Hunger Strike in Chicago’s Bronzeville Revitalizes Struggle for Social and Economic Justice


Despite a last-minute decision by the Emanuel administration in Chicago to reopen a neighborhood high school as a privately run arts-themed school, a community based group of public school parents, grandmothers and education activists are continuing a hunger strike to have it reopen as a public global leadership and green technology school.

Members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett have been fighting for five years to keep the Dyett High School open and for a comprehensive plan for education in the historically black Bronzeville neighborhood. However, the group was rebuffed by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials who closed the school last year, intending to close it permanently as a public school. The group began their hunger strike when the CPS asked for privatization proposals without considering the community’s plan, then changed the date of a hearing in order to exclude local activists.

School closings rubberstamped by the CPS board, whose members are not elected but appointed by mayor Rahm Emanuel, have disproportionately affected African American and Latino American neighborhoods. In Bronzeville alone, 19 public schools were closed between 2001 and 2012, often replaced by charter and selective-enrollment schools that admit students from anywhere in the city, further displacing neighborhood students.

According to Jitu Brown, one of the coalition’s leaders, after extensive community consultation the group is calling for the high school to become “the hub for what we call a sustainable community school village. And that means we want feeder schools vertically aligned with Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. We want the curriculum to be vertically aligned. We want parents and Local School Council members to train together. We want to create a network of schools, so that we have not only relevance and we have rigor, but we have relationships. This is a visionary plan. The president of the American Educational Research Association, Jeannie Oakes, said it was a wonderful plan. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, said it was the best academic plan she’s seen in 30 years of teaching.”

But, according to the Chicago Tribune, “By directing CPS to announce a plan for Dyett on Thursday, Emanuel tried to alter the narrative of what’s been a weeks-long pressure point … the proposal allows Emanuel to point to a specific solution in the face of what had become a relentless stream of criticism from protesters. … Twice this week, the activists disrupted Emanuel at public budget hearings, on Wednesday forcing the mayor to leave the stage and end a session prematurely. On Thursday, the organizers staged yet another City Hall sit-in that led to 16 people being ticketed for blocking elevators.”

The campaigners immediately rejected the CPS compromise, which hands the school over to a private operator. However, African American politicians sided with the administration in attempting to defuse the community’s struggle, showing their support for the mayor at a press conference on Thursday. The Chicago Sun-Times reported Congressman Bobby Rush said: “ ‘Eighty percent of that — which I am aware of — they were seeking, they have won’ … Pointing to his own history of activism, Rush said activists sometimes are blinded by their enthusiasm, and ‘we don’t really realize when we have won’.” Bronzeville alderman William Burns, who has routinely rubber-stamped Emanuel’s privatization schemes and school closings, called the compromise “a great day for Bronzeville,” as did state representative Christian Mitchell, who voted for the mayor’s plan to cut state workers’ pensions.

Jitu Brown responded: “Just because it’s a neighborhood school doesn’t mean a lot of people who were on that stage won’t get rich off our children. Why should black people always have to accept less? When do the voices of the people directly impacted matter?”

He told Democracy Now: “At the press conference yesterday with the mayor, there were people—they locked out the people who fought, so they negotiated the deal with them. And there were these African-American individuals, posing as leaders, who stood there and said that they will work on Dyett High School. Now, one of the people was also one of the ministers who led paid protesters into the Dyett hearings in 2012 to close the school, where he went in front of the liquor store and the halfway house and got those of us that were most vulnerable, gave them $25 apiece and told them to—and they held up prefabricated signs saying, ‘You can’t support failure. Close Dyett High School’.”

As Cornel West has pointed out, these leaders are trading on the achievements of the Civil Rights movement that today has been incorporated into the corporately-dominated political system. Their ethnicity enables them to play a particular role in assuaging liberal-political groups and the black working class, while at the same time segregation and racism is reproduced by state policy, economic disintegration, ignorance and disparity of wealth.

In Chicago, African American legislators have been coopted into the Democratic patronage monolith headed by Emanuel. However, following the successful teachers’ strike, new leaderships are emerging from the grassroots to challenge his dominance. Latino Americans, traditionally politically conservative and, according to Latino studies professor Jaime Dominguez, in Chicago more focused on delivering services than political organizing, are being drawn into the same struggle for quality public education and to stop the school board’s push for privatized charter schools. Latino Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in Chicago, and many voted for progressive Jesús “Chuy” Garcia’s in this year’s mayoral contest, forcing an unprecedented run-off election with Emanuel.

Although the complex intersections between race and class make appeals for working class unity in America problematic, there is a convergence between community struggles on housing and school closures, the struggle for immigrant rights, against police violence, and for the $15 minimum wage. This is contributing to a growing opposition to the corporatist Wall Street wing in the Democratic party establishment – like former Obama chief of staff and now Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

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Filed under African Americans, charter schools, chicago schools, chicago teachers, latino americans, privatization

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