Scores of protesters carrying pro-school and anti-mayor slogans poured into the Loop late Wednesday afternoon to oppose the Chicago Public School's plan to shutter 54 schools by June.
Though Mayor Rahm Emanuel had essentially called the negations over, the crowd was resolute. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told the crowd in a pre-march rally, "How about on the first day of school, you show up at your real school!"
Many of the rally speakers — and the signs held by protesters — attacked the school closings as racist, unfairly targeting black and Latino communities the most.
"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."
Families and teachers from schools on the closing list, like Lafayette, showed up to support their school, while students from schools safe from closing showed up in solidarity; Kelly High School students marched in band formation, rallying the crowd with music during the march to City Hall.
Kelly High School senior Israel Munoz, 18, told the Tribune, "I think it's our responsibility to stick up for these younger students and defend the schools we went to."
Families of CPS students were joined by several labor union members, including the Service Employees International Union and members of the steel workers union, as well as clergy and community activists.
The CTU had planned for strong displays of civil disobedience, anticipating up to 150 arrests. After a group of protesters sat down peacefully in the street at the intersection of Washington and LaSalle, Chicago police issued citations for 127 protesters.
'Ma’am, you’re in violation of the law and you’re endangering yourself. This is your last opportunity to leave without being arrested. Will you leave? " an officer asked each protester. "You’re under arrest," he told them.
Police now say the protesters were simply ticketed, not arrested.
Despite chilly temperatures during the district's spring break, organizers estimated turnout was in the thousands. A protest marshall with the Chicago Teachers Union estimated a wide margin of between 4,000 and 6,000. Several police officers on the scene questioned by HuffPost declined to give an estimate. Meanwhile, DNAinfo Chicago, police said the count was "less than 900."
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Stopping in front of City Hall, the protesters chanted "Save our Schools" and called for Emanuel's ouster. More than 100 people who had planned to be arrested sat down in the middle of the street, where they continued chanting until police cleared them from the area and issued citations.
Retired teacher Gloria Warner, 62, was among those sitting arm-in-arm with other protesters in the roadway, which was blocked off to rush hour traffic.
"We need the mayor and CPS to invest in our schools, not take them away," the grandmother of two CPS students said. "We need our schools for the safety of our children."
A group of Chicago ministers also went to City Hall on Wednesday to deliver a letter asking Emanuel to halt the plan.
CPS and the mayor say the closings will save the district $560 million over 10 years in capital costs and an additional $43 million per year in operating costs. About 30,000 students - almost all of them in Kindergarten to eighth grade - would be affected.
At a press conference on an unrelated topic Wednesday, the mayor said he and Byrd-Bennett already are working out how to carry through on a pledge that every child who is moved ends up at a higher quality school. He said the closings already have been delayed too long.
"Keeping open a school that is falling short year-in and year-out means we haven't done what we are responsible for; not what our parents did for us and what we owe every child in the city of Chicago," Emanuel said.
Critics say the closings disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods and will uproot kids who need a stable and familiar environment in which to learn. They also worry that students will have to cross gang lines to get to a new school, and that the vacated buildings will be blight on already struggling communities.
Jonathan Hollingsworth III, a lunchroom manager at CPS, said he's also concerned that the plan will leave hundreds of workers jobless. He said he voted for Emanuel but won't do so again.
"He's downsizing everything in the damn city. It's take it or leave it," Hollingsworth said. "Keep this in mind: Come election time, all of these people will have the last laugh."
Opponents of the plan will get another chance to argue their case at a series of public meetings that will be scheduled in coming weeks, though the Chicago Board of Education - whose members are all appointed by Emanuel - is expected to approve the closings in late May.
The closings would take effect beginning at the start of the 2013-2014 school year.