Community breaks police blockade, 'Camp Whittier' gets a third night to demand a library for the children
It could have been a scene from the blacklisted movie "Salt of the Earth," or from any of a dozen other films that depict the struggles of working people. But it was happening in real time in Chicago in 2010, and once again a group of working people, most of them women and children, broke a police blockade and thwarted attempts by Ron Huberman and the people who rule Chicago's public schools to demolish a simple wooden building just west of the century old Whittier Elementary School on Chicago's Southwest side.
The stage had been set all day, as Chicago police, acting on orders from two Chicago Public Schools officials, CPS Communications Chief Monique Bond and CPS Security Chief Michael Shields, prepared to arrest a small group of protesters, most of them mothers, who had occupied the Whittier Elementary School fieldhouse in the 1900 block of west 23rd St., to stop the demolition of the structure. The community wants the building turned into a library. The Board of Education wants to demolish and turn into a soccer field primarily for the use of a parochial school (Cristo Rey) nearby.
The word had spread at "Camp Whittier" that the Chicago police were going to force the protesters out of the Whitter field house and arrest those who refused to leave. The police all day had been acting under orders from CPS officials, leading to some strange questions about who was in charge of Chicago's understaffed police department. Police officials had made it clear that when CPS officials asked them to clear "CPS property", they would have to do so. They had made it equally clear that the arrests would begin around 2:45 p.m. on September 17, 2010, after the overcrowded Whittier Elementary School had dismissed its students for the day so the little ones wouldn't be watching the eviction of their mothers and neighbors from a public building.
But the "little ones" and many of their parents and siblings had a different idea.
The entire day, the police, which are short staffed on Chicago's streets because of cutbacks in street patrols ordered by Mayor Richard M. Daley's hand picked Police Superintendent, Jody Wiess, had literally created martial law on the two city blocks surrounding the Whittier school building, which sits at 1901 W. 23th St., at the corner of Wolcott and 23rd St. Shortly after ten o'clock in the morning the police began sealing off the block, first refusing to allow people to enter from the west on 23rd St. (at Western Ave.), then sealing off the Wolcott end of the block.
Finally, police sealed the alleys both north and south of 23rd St. as well, creating a restricted zone for the entire block. Police even refused to allow some members of the press to gain access to the Whittier field house where the camp out was taking place. Attorney James Fennerty, who represents the protesters, was also barred from the area directly inside the perimeter. Police told Fennerty that he had the secure permission from CPS Chief Security Officer Michael Shields, and Shields refused throughout the morning to speak with Fennerty, despite numerous attempts by Fenntery to speak with Shields, as observed by this reporter, and others (including members of the press). Shields has continued to treat the press with contempt, and his performance on Friday September 17 was typical of the way he has operated since taking his current $150,000 per year job after being appointed by Ron Huberman in February 2009. (Shields's salary is $35,000 per year more than his predecessor, former Chicago police officer Andres Durbak, who was forced out by Huberman).
Throughout the day, Shields and CPS Communications Chief Monique Bond had tried to orchestrate the event so that CPS remained in control of the message.
Bond even produced a document which claimed that the field house was unsafe for habitation, dated September 16 (the morning after the occupation began) and supposedly from an engineering firm. Bond also told the press that CPS, which has a budget of more than $6 billion, could not afford the less than half a million dollar renovations that the protesters were asking so that the building could become a school library.
At approximately 2:40 p.m., more than 100 protesters who had been confined a block away, behind a police barrier at 23rd and Wolcott, took down the Police Line tape and surged down the block towards the Whittier playlot, on which the field house sits. Ignoring police orders to stay on the sidewalks, dozens of the newly arrived reinforcements jumped a false wrought iron fence (a symbol of the administration of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley) and begin carrying boxes of pizza and water to the protesters in the field house.