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Chicago Board of Education officials continue to lie as standoff moves into second week

Susan Notes:

The spirit and determination of these Chicago parents is awesome. . . . May it inspire teachers to do what's right for children.

[Editor's Note: The following report covers the situation at Chicago's Whittier Elementary School through September 22, 2010. On the evening of September 21, 2010, an anonymous caller called Substance and others claiming that the demolition crew was going to move against La Casita during the morning of September 22, 2010, while the people were at the monthly meeting of the Chicago Board of Education downtown. When the called refused to identify himself, Substance terminated the call. On the morning of September 22, Substance reporters verified that the demolition crew had not arrived at Whittier, while the Board of Education went into its meeting. When Carolina Gaete took the microphone to translate from one of the Whittier parents, Board President Mary Richardson Lowry tried to stop Gaete, sister of Gema Gaete, who had spoken the previous month. Richardson-Lowry's hostility toward the Whittier protesters will be visible to everyone unless the Board cuts the exchange from the TV version of the Board meeting when it is broadcast on Chicago Cable TV Saturday].

by Joseph Guzman

On September 17th, 2010, Substance was present on-site during the afternoon police blockade, with this reporter inside the Whittier field house, observing and recording authorities physically preventing any persons from entering or exiting the building. Shades of 1968.

While conducting interviews inside the field house, it was apparent that the atmosphere was charged with anxiety and uncertainly from both sides - from the parents on watch and from the CPS and police. It was noticed while inside, that food was being stacked for the long potential siege and bedding provided for the overnight shifts.

Streets were blocked off in two directions, preventing automobile and foot traffic to the immediate area. CPS officials were present, offering pat statements that the building would not be demolished, yet the parents would not accept their word at face value and wanted a written commitment, at which they balked. CPS officials were on cell phones, police were at strategic points around the building and children all over the area.

Around 2:45 p.m., while talking with a parent close to the door, supporters either were allowed, (or most likely), slipped by the police tape ¼ of a block away and came with provisions, ranging from pizzas, to bags of groceries, water and other necessities. More and more arrived at the door, some entering "La Casita" (Little house, as the Whittier field house is being referred to.) Shouts of approval and encouragement were expressed by the organizers. Smiles, hugs and bonding were exchanged, as the food pile got bigger. This apparently alarmed the CPS and a order by someone in authority to prevent anymore from entering the building was called â with CPS security and police blocking the door â preventing anyone from entering or exiting. They attempted to close the door behind them, but the parents and organizers forcibly kept it open, using a folding table as a wedge to keep it open. CPS and police wrestled it away and threatened arrest.

Shouts of protest from the organizers -- both trapped inside and those blocked outside --crowded the doorway. The anxiety and tension of the situation, sparked by the show of force by CPS security and police, prompted chants of liberty and justice -- ("Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!" Here we are and we will stay!)â¦asking CPS why were they blocking the door â it's not necessary -- and to please allow passage. A police sergeant at the door, physically had to keep those from exiting, threatening those who touched him with arrest. The faces of the Bd of Ed security were stressed, but kept the blockade.

For a few minutes, it could have gone either way, with parents shouting to get out to their kids who were left outside, some tearing with anger, others trying to calm those on the outside down through the windows and a few leaders attempting to discuss the situation with their captors. Some were scrambling to open windows and other doors to allow the people in, but were stopped by police. The organizers allowed me to photograph and document the situation as it unfoldedâ¦staying by the front door and for a short time there, got very heated.

Some were at windows, calming their kids, others at different windows were talking with reporters, and yet other were chanting Spanish slogans through the window bars...but it felt as if we were all trapped and imprisoned. Not a good feeling of goodwill and trust.

The police passed a "negotiator" in. Nobody knew who he was, nor did he identify himself as affiliated with any group, yet all he said he wanted to help settle the situation. He was Latino, spoke Spanish well and wore a jacket on a relatively warm day - with badly scuffed shoes and not trusted...very apparent. He sought to talk to somebody, carrying on an air of authority and bravado, but the main leaders were busy in unblocking the door, no time for the stranger. He settled on talking with a sole -- only Spanish speaking -- Mother, but it was the same diatribe and nothing was accomplished. He vanished outside and the order to unblock the door was given.

With that, the tension released, people rushed in, others out...and some cried reunited with their children and in relief that it did not escalate.

After 4:00 pm, CPS security and police left the area, leaving the protesters to discuss what happened and rallied. In the side room, each person was allowed to vent, express emotion and encourage the protest, on this...only the second day of the vigil.

Michelle Palencia:

Mrs, Palancia is a parent at Whittier Elementary and present when the police physically blocked the area and the field house . She shares her experience: "Oh my God, I was very very scared when the Police blocked the door. I didn't know at what level of force they were going to use against the parents and supporters. With Police blocking the street from both ends and not letting anybody in to deliver food was very stressful. With a few minor repairs this building can be converted to a library with minimal expense, as we are already hosting after school tutoring and activities.â

Asked about why she is involved, "There are a lot of things that other schools have that we donât and can be done easily. Basic necessities, likeâ¦how about a warm lunch and a library. They are basics, nothing extraordinary. When we heard that they wanted to knock down this place, at $354.000, we all got very very upset, and why not use it to help the kids? And that the new space, (soccer field), is not even for us. We want something from the bottom up and the library should occupy this space."

Carolina Gaete:

"For the last seven years, we have been asking for an expansion to the school. It was rumored that "La Casita" was to be torn down due to "structural concerns," and to make way for a soccer field, but the parents nor the L.S.C was consulted in this. But, Whittier does not have a library and we have books donated already for the desired library and it will be cheaper to renovate than to knock it down."

The parents consulted with an independent building engineer, whose evaluation of the field house was that it is sound and just needed minor repairs...maybe the roof could use replacing. "We approached the Bd of Ed numerous times with our concerns and received no commitments nor results, but with the pat 'we'll get back to you.'"

At 11:00 am on the 17th of September, the police arrived to block anyone from entering the field house. With CPS security and Chicago Police each saying that they were under orders not to allow passage into the field house. We were not intending to start a hunger strike, but it looked like what they were going to force us to do. By doing this, they made us stronger and more united.

Monique Bond came down and with a bad attitude threatening to wait us out. But, parents were willing to get arrested and take this sit in all the way.

Brenda Armenta:

A young community resident, she observed a lot cops blocking the door and not letting anyone in to deliver food to the parents. She feels that a library is necessary and not a proposed soccer field. She will take on the night shifts, in support of the parents, some who are scared, but there is always someone here at the field house 24 hours a day.

Anastacia Hernandez:

In Spanish, Mrs, Hernandez, carried a sign, echoing the chant of "Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!", heard minutes earlier, but had to take a few moments to compose herself as she described why she was there. "We are fighting together so they let us create a library for our children." Asked why she was crying, she says, "I am very sad. Why don't they let us create the library and make us go through all of this?"

Monica Carreo

Also in Spanish, Mrs Carreo has one child attending Whittier in first grade. She says, "It's not an impossible request to create a library for our children and the funds are there to build it."

SEPTEMBER 22, 2010:

On the seventh day of the protest sit-in, Substance revisited the parents and spoke with the protectors of "La Casita."

Manuel Betran:

Betran has four children at Whittier, 7th, 3rd, 2nd and preschool. No change for now and we are still waiting for the results from the politicos, like Alderman Danny Solis (25th), and Mr Huberman. Solis sent a letter to the group that he would not tear down the house, but we want a real letter of commitment that he is going to compromise with us to build a library for the kids. They just make decisions by themselves without consulting the parents or community and there is no communication.

He was with the parents at the field house to protect it from those who would lock it down, but gave his prayers to those who did venture down to the September Bd of Ed meeting.

"We are not gonna back down."

Lisa Angonese:

Mother of two children in 6th & 7th grade at Whittier, who wants a library.

She heard about the decision to tear down the house last week from one of her kids and asked what she could do to help, be it sign a petition, give money etc... Coming to the field house, she was told that the petitions, with 900 signators, already were sent out and ignored. "My children are new here at Whittier and I did not realize that the school had no library." She says. "This house is a perfectly good structure, painted, with homemade curtains and shelves, all made by the Mothers who care. The Board of Ed says it's condemned, but when you go in, you feel so comfortable and at home, you don't want to walk out. I stayed there for two nights and there are two bathrooms, one on each side of the building and there are no leaks in the roof. The building is sound.â

With a independent engineer the parents hired, the report stated that all that the building needed attention to, was the roof, that could be replaced at $25,000. "And yet the Bd of Ed is ok with spending $356,000 to just demolish the building," Angonese adds. "I don't know why they would use all that money for that, while the kids are doubling up in classrooms and lacking materials for study, such as computers, books and a library, and destroying a building that does not have to be demolished. I think it's a delightful building."

Then she learned that dignitaries were going to be at Benito Juarez High School the next day, (September 17th), and the parents were going to march there to protest. Mayor Daley, Huberman, Ald. Solis and others were present, but they all intently ignored the parents, got in their cars and went away. After that situation, Angonese got angry and dug in her heels. They all returned to the field house and all the Mothers were angry at being ignored, trying to get their concerns heard.

She tells Substance that the organized group already has skilled union tradesmen ready to volunteer and work on the building-- which would knock off six figures off the top. "So we figured, what's the problem? Why do we have to wait so long, expend so much energy...and they are still ignoring us, making US look like we are the bad guys. They must have some other motive, be it money, land, politics, they are now affecting hundreds of supporters now, not just the parents. They act like they are afraid of us. We are just parents here. But when they come to talk to us, it is with body guards, security and police. We are in a peaceful gathering. There is no violence, swearing and the children are very well behaved and taken care of here. They have threatened to send the immigration and call DCFS on us, saying we are keeping the children against their will here."

Angonese continues, "One evening, Alderman Solis came here unannounced at 8:00 pm and nobody knew he was going to be here. And told the parents he was going to meet with us here the next day between 9:00 and 10:00 am. He did not show, but instead the demolition crew arrived to survey the building! We felt that this was an insult. We immediately ran inside and locked the doors, keeping the demolition crew out from the building. St John's plumbing, who was contracted by the Bd, was sent to shut off the water, but thank goodness they are a union shop and refused to cross a picket line. During the second day of the protest, Michael Shields, Head of CPS security, barged inside, shoving his way through the parents who wanted to discuss the situation with him -- pushing kids aside, telling them to get out of his way...just like they were flies or something, looking and searching for the electrical panel. He did not say why he was there or say excuse me while shoving his way around. Very rude!" Asked if he eventually found the panel, she laughs and said no. "We wouldn't let him and ushered him out the door. But the kids were stunned at his behavior."

The Bd of Ed has stated that the building must come down, due to unsafe conditions and in its place, a soccer field created, but Angonese challenges this. "The area proposed for the soccer field is not even big enough to be a soccer field and hardly enough room to roll a bowling ball down! It's a third of the size of a regular soccer field, but now after all attention, they say they want to use the area as a green space. They change their stories...it seems daily."

Regarding the police blockade of the 17th of September, she felt as if they were all under a magnifying glass...like they were all there to get them. "We shouldn't feel like they were caged in like that. We trying to protect this place and aren't people supposed to negotiate before trying to take something over? There was no reason for that and all we asked was to meet with them...and this was the result." She adds, "All we got was a letter, one week beforeâ¦stating that a third assessment was approved, but not addressing nor guaranteeing if the field house would be saved or if a library would be forthcoming. We all want in writing that the field house will be used for a library, that's all."

"The vigil will go on until we receive the assurance that the building will be used for the children of Whittier school as a library." she concludes.

She has stayed overnight about two or three nights so far and more nights are scheduled.

Carolina Gaete

(2nd interview)...

Asked about the Bd of Ed monthly meeting that representatives attended and spoke earlier in the day, concentrating on the issues of disrespect and harassment by CPS, especially by Michael Shields, Head of CPS security. "You have demonstrated all this aggressive behavior against the parents and community, but yet produced no proof that the building is not sound, yet we showed documents to the CPS last month, that the building has passed an independent inspection and usable."

With all the attention now on Whittier, one would certainly assume that the Board would respond with some diffusing comment. "No." says Gaete. "The members of the Bd of Ed did not say anything and offered blank faces...oh, and You're time is up!" Although the protesters heard that Monique Bond told the media that -- "the CPS has all the time in the world and will wait it out." She says the parents also have all the time in the world...and the more it goes on, the more we grow, the stronger we get, more support and the truth comes out. We are in it for the long haul!"

The goal for the group Gaete says is a written commitment from CPS that "La Casita" will not be demolished and the demolition contracts offered declared null & void. Water was scheduled to be turned off at 3:00 pm Wednesday afternoon, the 22nd of September, but as mentioned prior, they will not cross a protest line, so they left. But the demolition crew told the field house protectors that the contract had been issued for some time now -- more than a week, contradicting Monique Bond's statement that no demolition contract had been issued as late as Friday, the 17th of September.

Bond was present that Friday "When the CPS declared martial law on us", says Gaete. "She told me personally that there have been no steps taken to demolish the building."

The majority of the Whittier L.S.C. support the protest, save for one Community Representative who is politically aligned and opposed to the sit-in.

— Joseph Guzman



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