Hungry For Justice

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

This post was co-authored by Transformative Spaces author Kelly Hayes and Chicago Public School teacher Katie Osgood. Katie is an education activist and special education teacher in a Chicago Public School on the South Side of Chicago. She has taught at one of the Dyett High School feeder elementary schools.

Why is there a hunger strike generating headlines on the South Side of Chicago?

Why are parents and community members starving themselves to the point of collapse and being hospitalized?

Why are bureaucrats unmoved by their plight – with some failing to so much as halt a meeting when an ailing community member is carried out on a stretcher?

There’s no explanation that anyone should be able to live with, but here’s a brief breakdown, for anyone who doesn’t understand:

This is how it works in Chicago. A 23-year old white woman rides her bicycle to the Board of Education and asks for a green technology and global citizenship-themed school. The powers that be rubber stamp the proposal before you can blink. Today, the Academy for Global Citizenship Charter School steals space and resources from an existing neighborhood school like a growing cancer. This cancer is looking to spread onto nearby land, which once held a whole community of public housing—LeClaire Courts. It’s now leveled. An empty lot where only the whisper of the promise “right of return” can be heard on the wind.

This is how it works in Chicago. A community group made up of Black residents of the historic Bronzeville neighborhood go to the Board of Education to ask for a green technology and global citizenship themed school. The powers that be ignore that proposal, just as they have ignored the people of this community for years. For decades. Forever.

Prudence, one of the hunger strikers rests on day four of the hunger strike. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
Prudence, one of the hunger strikers rests on day four of the hunger strike. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

The Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) – the group at the core of the fight for Dyett High School – has been fighting for the schools in their neighborhood for over 50 years. They fought when the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) tried to change their local neighborhood high school into a selective enrollment school that would only serve a limited number of students from the community. They fought to turn Dyett, at one time a local middle school, to be turned into an open enrollment high school that would serve all children in the area. They fought when the Board of Ed began a mass program of school closures following the wake of public housing demolition called Renaissance 2010 2010, which eventually closed 20 schools in the Bronzeville area. They fought as CPS gave incentives to privately-run, undemocratic, outsider charter operators to throw up shiny new privately-run charter schools in a failed attempt to attract a new middle class of gentrifiers and to push out the undesirable low-income residents. They fought when CPS attempted to sabotage Dyett High School from the very beginning with lack of funding, constant churn, and threat of closure. And they fought when CPS finally voted to close the school in a slow-death fade-out over three years.

The members of KOCO have done everything in their power to save this school, the last open enrollment high school that serves their community. They have spoken at the Board of Education numerous times. They have partnered with researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago to produce reports on the destabilization of Dyett. They have held press conferences. They have run the former head of KOCO to become the State Representative of the area. They mobilized the youth to speak out powerfully about their right to a quality education. They have marched alongside the Chicago Teachers Union to save all schools facing closure. KOCO helped organize for an Elected Representative School Board in Chicago, instead of our current biased mayoral appointed corporate Board. They have been on television and radio and media more times than you can count. They have partnered with organizations across the country fighting school closures and racist school policy in a “Journey for Justice,” visiting places like New Orleans, Detroit, and Washington DC. They held sit-ins outside the local alderman’s office. They held sit-ins outside the mayor’s office. They have been arrested. But every time, their voices were ignored.

When CPS announced that Dyett would finally be phased-out, the community came together and created a proposal for it to be reopened. That was never part of CPS’ plan. But the people fighting for Dyett were so unstoppably determined, CPS agreed to a “Request For Proposals” (RFP) process instead. RFPs are typically a way to turn over public control of a school to private operators. CPS has used this faux “community input” model as a way to pretend at democracy with the outcome predetermined numerous times. The Dyett folks were outraged that CPS was once again silencing them, this time threatening for outsiders and private entities to come in and take over the school they had fought for over 15 years to reclaim for the community. So KOCO and the newly-formed Coalition for the Revitalization of Dyett High School fought on.

They jumped through the hoops CPS put up and created a clearer vision for the school calling it the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. In order to improve their proposal, they arranged partnerships with UIC’s education department, Chicago Botanic Gardens, and the nearby DuSable Museum. They used their strong community connections to build relationships with all of Dyett’s feeder elementary schools to ensure the curriculum was aligned-naming that network the Bronzeville Global Achievers Village. It was clearly the best proposal.

But then came the final straw. CPS would not even do its own RPF process honestly. They stalled and pushed back the hearing dates again and again, with seemingly no intention of going through with the deal.

So twelve brave members of the Dyett Coalition began the most radical strategy yet. They stopped eating, a hunger strike of protest against this twisted, racist system that has denied their children an equitable education for too long. These parents, grandparents, Local School Council representatives, teachers, and activists decided to put their own health at risk to save Dyett.

The Dyett Twelve have not stayed silent in their protest. Every day, huddled in chairs outside the school, they hold “teach-ins” where the hunger strikers along with a growing number of supporters speak truth to power. They have spoken loud and clear about the racism of the treatment of black citizens by the Board of Education. The Dyett Twelve have shouted out the injustices happening in schools serving black and brown children in this city. They have looked to their elders, who were fighting for better schools sixty years ago and asked, “How is it 2015 and we are still forced to put our bodies on the line to get an education for our children?” They have gone to the Board hungry and weak and told the glaring truth: that they have not been granted this proposal because they “made the mistake of being born black.”

People all over the globe have responded to this hunger strike with outpourings of support. Places like South Africa, Chile, and Puerto Rico are sending solidarity photos. Twitter and Facebook are alight with the hashtags #FightForDyett and #WeAreDyett, which are topping the trending charts. But the hunger strikers are becoming dangerously ill. Three members have already been rushed to the hospital.

On Thursday, a letter signed by 17 doctors and nurses, including a retired chief medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, was delivered to Rahm Emanuel’s office. The letter urged him to take action to end the hunger strike, saying in part, “We consider the current situation to be a deepening health emergency in our city. It is one you can abate by reaching out to the strikers, entertaining their grievances and accepting their proposal.”

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Emanuel’s only response thus far has been to stress how underutilized the area’s schools are. Under-utilization is a familiar refrain in Chicago, where the Emanuel administration has repeated the same talking point in the face of countless pleas from community members, begging not to lose their schools and clinics. The argument is often taken at face value by those who aren’t aware that efforts to drive people away from public resources and community hubs, such as schools and public clinics, are fueled by a city-wide push toward privatization. The “new Chicago” that Emanuel has long claimed to be building caters to private interests, even as residents who’ve lost their clinics fall through the cracks, and perish, just as they warned they would. Children lose their music and art programs, their teachers and their school librarians – and finally their schools, which have long been the beating hearts of their communities. Emanuel’s response today has thus far been no different than it was when mental health clinic patient Helen Morley warned him, “You’re killing us!” in 2012.

Morley later died after losing her clinic, just as she predicted.

Once again, the mayor’s efforts to shuffle community members through his reimagined, profit driven Chicago have become a matter of life and death. Once again, a struggle for dignity, survival and community itself is playing out in the public eye, garnering headlines and prompting widespread pleas that the mayor rethink his position. But the great question remains: how far will Rahm Emanuel and his unelected school board go to deny this community a fully public, democratic school? Will CPS continue to force these justice seekers to put their lives on the line in order to complete the neoliberal takeover of prime Lakefront property? When will CPS do what is right and approve the Coalition for the Revitalization of Dyett High School proposal? This is how it works in Chicago. The powerful try to crush the people. And the people resist.

Hiroshima and the Safety of Historical Distance

Today is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb as an act of warfare. It wasn’t the first time the United States had leveled entire Japanese cities during the second World War, but on August 6, 1945, the United States took a historic step forward in humanity’s death spiral by proving it could kill hundreds of thousands of human beings with one punch.

So what have we learned in the last 70 years?

Nine countries currently possess over 15,000 nuclear weapons. Our worldwide stalemate of mass destruction does nothing to prevent us from letting loose any number of other horrors aimed at bringing governments, and indeed entire nations to their knees. We engage in interventionist wars in a global game of monopoly, destroying most of what we touch.

And we have never once admitted that we were wrong to snuff out hundreds of thousands of lives in an act that distinctly embodied the shadow side of human potential – a darkness that could put out every light, and extinguish every human hope the world over.

Pandora’s box swung open 70 years ago today, and as a nation, we still largely argue that it was for the best.

This is not shocking, even when we review the horrid realities of our attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a nation, we have consistently demonstrated that we are incapable of admitting fault until the power structure has nothing to lose by doing so. If acknowledgement means no significant loss of resource or historical glory – if it does not undermine the narrative of a declining empire who’s identity is grounded in the myth of its inherent greatness – then the progressives of the ruling class have nothing to lose by uttering apologies. But there is always a waiting period, during which most immediate victims of such harms will have faded into the historical footnotes of a nationalist mythology.

When they do occur, such apologies are proudly showcased, to demonstrate the forward thinking character of the speaker. In fact, a leaked cable, revealed by WikiLeaks in 2011, indicated that in 2009, President Obama explored the possibility of apologizing to the Japanese people for using atomic bombs against the country in 1945. That’s right. In 2009, a US president gave the matter some thought, but begged off when Japan declined the gesture (and thus removed the possibility of a showy, progressive moment for the history books during the president’s Hiroshima visit).

This is how accountability functions in the United States.

From the genocide of my people – the native people of this land – to the horrors of slavery, Japanese internment and non consensual human experiments, admissions are only made when those acknowledging such harms can speak at a safe historical distance, and do so without seriously undermining the great American narrative.

In that narrative, native genocide is reduced to a heartfelt “whoops,” with American history teachers racing through perfunctory, reductivist mentions of the damage done, and nearly always prefacing such conversations with some mention of the pre-existence of native violence or the great “progress” that westward expansion brought about.

On  December 19, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Native American Apology Resolution into law. It included a disclaimer specifying that the apology in no way supported or validated any claims or proceedings against the United States government stemming from the mass murder, displacement and abuse of native people. The apology also underwent a predictable political editing process, in which a litany of specific harms – including the Trail of Tears, the Sand Creek Massacre, the massacre at Wounded Knee, the breaking of treaties, and the removal of native children to boarding schools – was cut from the final document.

Slavery, of course, is clearly denounced, but the historical narrative of the Civil War allows the current power structure to denounce those wrongs with an air of self righteousness. After all, the North won the Civil War, and The United States, rather than These United States, claims as a major victory the end of a horrid institution of its own making. And while this historical sleight of hand may seem the equivalent of a sadist kidnapping and torturing a family, and then being hailed as a hero for setting them free after years of abuse, it has nonetheless proven effective.

After all, digging too deeply into US history might undermine the narrative of our country’s inherent greatness, and we can’t have that.

A Google search of a leftist President’s apologies reveals a great deal about this historical tendency.

clinton apologizes for
Of the major apologies that appear in a Google search of “Clinton apologizes for,” the only harm that can be directly linked to Clinton’s own administration is his failure to act on his foreknowledge of the Rwandan genocide. That apology, of course, was delayed until 2013, when his electoral career had long since ended.

The narrative of the Clinton administration, at least in this phase of history, had already been written. And narratives matter.

So on this day when many will acknowledge the unthinkable destruction that the US perpetrated on this day in 1945 – destruction that not only wiped out tens of thousands in the blink of an eye, but also spread devastation that would play out for generations – we will also hear justifications. World War II is held up as an example of American greatness, and it played a key role in our ascension as a leader in world trade (with Europe having given us a significant edge by destroying itself). You will no doubt hear reflections today from pundits, politicians and other media personalities who will showcase our somber awareness of just how much harm was caused, but who will couch such admissions in the great necessity of victory. Some may even utter the equivalent of a heartfelt “whoops.” But the larger narrative of that period, the one that confirms our inherent greatness, will go unquestioned.

We did what we had to do, and the greatest generation built a new world from the rubble of the old.

So, what is a thinking person to do? The answer is the same as it is every day: don’t allow it. Don’t allow the erasure of what the United States unleashed that day. Don’t allow the erasure of those who perished, or those who lingered in the aftermath. Don’t allow the erasure or minimization of what the brutality of a nation confirms about its character and functionality. Don’t allow the practice of distant acknowledgement to dull any awareness of the fact that this country is now what it has always been, and always will be until its racist, genocidal structures are upended, not by the quarreling factions of a power structure, but by those most victimized by it.

Live in opposition to excuses and erasure, and don’t allow those who perpetrate harm the safety of distance. Don’t allow yourself that safety. Be someone who confronts, interrupts and demands a full recognition of where we have been, as individuals, and as a people, so that we might grow and do better.

Demand this country look itself in the mirror, and experience every level of repulsion that it should upon doing so. Because we will never write a new history if we cannot dismantle the mythology of the past.