On a day when Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the time for negotiations on school closings was over, the Chicago Teachers Union led hundreds of supporters in a highly orchestrated downtown rally and march as part of its continuing efforts to derail the district's plan to shut 53 elementary schools.
CTU President Karen Lewis was cheered when she took the microphone at Daley Plaza late Wednesday afternoon and repeated her argument that the Chicago Public Schools' decision to close schools with predominantly African-American enrollments is racist.
"Let's not pretend that when you close schools on the South and West sides, the children affected aren't black," Lewis said. "Let's not pretend that's not racist."
In an event rife with political symbolism, the size of the crowd was anybody's guess. The official police estimate was 700 to 900 people, according to the department's news affairs office. A CTU spokeswoman said the union was "appalled" by the department's number, saying between 5,000 and 6,500 were on hand.
Those at the protest were loud but disciplined, sticking to a script the CTU provided earlier in the day in a news release. Most of the vitriol was aimed at Emanuel, with protesters carrying signs that included "Rahm's brain is underutilized" and "School Closings = One Term Mayor."
David Kaplan, a ninth-grade biology teacher at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center on the Northwest Side, said many teachers at the rally came even though their schools, like Von Steuben, are not on the closings list.
"I'm a lifelong Chicagoan, so I have friends who've gone to schools that are going to be closed," Kaplan said. "When you take out a school from a neighborhood, you're taking out the heart and soul of that community."
After gathering at Daley Plaza, protesters started a march that included a sit-in by about 150 people in the southbound lanes of LaSalle Street outside City Hall. Many were led away by police peacefully, their hands behind their backs but not handcuffed. CTU had earlier written in its news release that the protesters would "risk arrest," but police made a point of noting that 127 people were issued tickets on site, not arrested.
The school closing issue has been controversial for months. After hearings that the district said were attended by more than 20,000 people, CPS last week unveiled a plan to shut down 53 elementary schools and one high school program.
The district said it needs to close underenrolled schools to deal with a looming $1 billion budget deficit.
The long-awaited announcement of how many schools the district wants to close fueled a fresh round of opposition from aldermen and community leaders. The CTU, which wants a moratorium on closings, has been preparing parents and community groups for civil disobedience acts like the sit-in on LaSalle.
Earlier Wednesday, in comments to reporters during an unrelated news conference, Emanuel said he's moving forward on the closings plan and negotiations were over.
Emanuel said he and Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett "met yesterday, and we'll be meeting also as we do regularly, and go through now the implementation process that's necessary to make sure that the 54 schools are ready and we are living up to the pledges we've made."
Byrd-Bennett said in a statement Wednesday that she supports the community's right to express its opinion — but she said the school district's decision was "putting children first."
"Consolidating underutilized schools will allow us to safely move these children to a higher-performing welcoming school near their home with all investments they need to thrive in the classroom," she said.
CPS still has to hold three meetings for each school it plans to close before the Board of Education votes on the plan in late May.
A group of a dozen African-American ministers came to Emanuel's office Wednesday morning with a letter urging him to put a moratorium on closings. They asked about the point of additional hearings if Emanuel has already made up his mind.
"If nobody is going to be heard at the hearings, what's the use of having the hearings?" said the Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Church in West Garfield Park. "If it's a done deal, then stop wasting everybody's time."
At the rally, Lewis chided the mayor and CPS officials for not communicating more effectively with the affected communities. "This is a mayor that refuses to have a conversation with the people who really do the work," Lewis said.
Lewis said she heard the decision on closing the schools was a done deal and questioned the "sham" of hearings at the schools.
"It's not over, brothers and sisters, until you say it's over," Lewis said.
During its seven-day strike in September, the union virtually shut down the Loop during rush-hour protests that drew thousands of red-shirted teachers and supporters.
Wednesday's event was no match for those massive demonstrations. Police on foot, bikes, horseback and in cars blocked off streets along the march and were able to keep traffic moving at a relatively normal pace during the protest.
In addition to teachers and members of other unions, many parents came with their children. Shelley Barnard, 44, attended the rally with her two daughters, Sandy, 17, and Sarah, 10.
Barnard said her son attended Raymond Elementary when it closed in 2004 for "underutilization."
"School closings have been handled so poorly in the past by CPS," Barnard said. "I don't think CPS is ready for 54 schools to close."
Rochelle Ingram, a 28-year CPS veteran, is a second-grade teacher at Delano Elementary, one of the schools slated to be closed. It would be taken over by Melody Elementary, which is slated move into Delano's building on the West Side. She repeated one of the key fears of school closing opponents, that the plan will jeopardize student safety.
"Melody's in another gang territory and they're going to make our kids intermix," Ingram said. "It's cruel."
Among those who were sitting on LaSalle Street in front of City Hall hoping to be arrested in an act of civil disobedience was Tom Balanoff, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1. He said he was demonstrating to show that massive school closings are "not the right direction. This is not the way to really solve the problem in education."
Balanoff said he had been arrested in acts of civil disobedience "many times over the years."
"It's as American as apple pie," he said.
Tribune reporters Hal Dardick and John Byrne contributed.