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Chicago parents stage occupation to acquire a library for local school, 2010
Pilson, Chicago is home to a large community of Mexican immigrants, and is one of many low-income neighborhoods in Chicago with underfunded schools. In 2011, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) faced a deficit of around $712 million in funding for education, creating what seemed like a void in the resources available for many public schools. At the beginning of the new millennium, Whittier Elementary School was one of more than 150 public schools that lacked basic resources such as an adequate cafeteria, safe and maintained buildings, and a proper library.
Even with the odds against them, in 2002 a small group of parents from Whittier Elementary School took up a campaign to garner more funding for their children’s’ school. By organizing community meetings, collaborating with other parents and pressuring local politicians, the activists (a group made up mostly of Whittier moms) were able to secure $1.4 million in tax increment financing (TIF) funds for their school by the year 2009. This, it was expected, would be put towards much needed repairs and renovations for Whittier, as well as a school library.
Despite this victory, when the Whittier parents analyzed the budget breakdown, they found it to contain $356,000 allotted to demolish the school’s field house to make way for a soccer field. The field house, nicknamed ‘La Casita,’ was a small, ill maintained building on school grounds that was used both as a meeting place for the Whittier parent activists, and a community center during the year. La Casita served as a space where parents could do anything from learning how to sew to studying for their GED. CPS planned to demolish the building because they claimed it was too run down and beyond repair, and a new soccer field could be used by both Whittier and a nearby private school. But to the Whittier parents, La Casita was an important aspect of the school’s community and they had no desire to see it replaced with an athletic field. Dismayed further when they learned that CPS had not actually ordered a formal assessment of La Casita before deciding to demolish it, the parents hired an independent assessor to verify that the building was fundamentally sound. Based on this conclusion, the parents found grounds to argue that it would cost less for CPS to repair the building than it would cost to demolish it.
When their attempted negotiations with the administration proved fruitless, the Whittier parents decided to change their tactics. On September 16, 2010, a small group of eleven parents entered La Casita and staged an occupation in protest of CPS’s order to destroy their community center. Their demands were twofold: They wanted agreement from citywide administrators that CPS rescind the order to destroy the field house and they demanded a library be built for Whittier Elementary School. Almost immediately, news of this bold protest by the Whittier parents spread to other areas of Chicago and reached both outside supporters of the cause and the Chicago Police Department. Later that day, a large crowd of supporters surrounded La Casita joined shortly by the Chicago PD, creating a tense standoff between the authorities and the activists. Although they took no forcible action to try and remove the group from the field house, the Chicago PD announced that they would call immigration authorities to arrest the parents if the group did not disperse. Given the fragile immigration status of many of the activists, the threat of deportation was enough to remove about half of the group, but many parents stayed behind. As the standoff continued, more and more people from the group gathered outside began crossing over to join the parents in La Casita to show their support. Presently the number of activists supporting the La Casita occupation outweighed the number of police officers. With little other choice, the Chicago PD left the site.
The events of September 16 marked the first day of a 43-day occupation in La Casita by both Whittier parents and hundreds of members of the community in defiance of the CPS order to demolish the building. During the occupation, leadership and occupancy shifts were strictly organized by some of the Whittier moms so that the building would be in use 24/7 until CPS agreed to negotiate. Parents, community members, and sometimes even Whittier students spent their nights in La Casita, sharing the weight of the protest by taking respective ‘shifts’. The police made regular appearances but didn’t take much action. On October 4, nineteen days into the occupation, CPS cut off the heat in La Casita in an attempt to drive the parents out. However, this tactic was short lived, as the enormous backlash from the public led to a unanimous decision by authorities that the heat be restored. One day during the protest, a demolition crew showed up with equipment prepared to destroy La Casita, but left after some direct conflict ensued between the crew and the protesters. Although the stand off was reported to be a heated one, no violent action was taken by either party.
As CPS resisted in reaching an agreement with the protesters, the parents decided to take matters into their own hands and begin to build a library themselves. By collecting donations from members of the community and from Chicago Underground Library (CUL), they managed to create a library in La Casita where students could check out books. Still, as parents continued to try and negotiate with CPS, they refused to leave the field house until they had what they wanted in writing. CPS CEO Ron Huberman finally met the demands of the protesters on October 27, 2010, the 43rd day of the protest. It was agreed that La Casita would not be demolished, but instead leased to the Whittier parents for $1 a year. In addition, the CPS would provide Whittier with funding for a school library. The protesters had secured all of their initial demands granted in writing by the CPS simply by staging a well-organized and determined nonviolent occupation. The parents involved in the protest later formed the non-profit organization called The Whittier Parents' Committee which served as a platform for further negotiations with CPS as the slow process of reaching a final agreement unfolded.