Rent A Protest stories getting into Chicago's corporate media
As the final barrage of hearings on the schools closings and turnarounds begins taking place during the week of January 23, 2012 (with a major emphasis on the Board of Education's January 25 meeting at 125 S. Clark St.), Chicago's education reporters are taking a more active interest in the "Rent A Protest" story Substance began covering with Rahm Emanuel's Preacher Breakfast at Sox Park on August 25, 2011. WGN TV ran a lengthy story about the Rent A Protest, focusing on the protesters who showed up at the hearings on the closing of Dyett High School on January 20, the snowy night when many people thought the hearings had been cancelled because CPS had cancelled everything else. The URL for the WGN story for those who can't access a hotlink is http://www.wgntv.com/news/wgntv-cps-protestors-cps-official-deny-use-of-rentaprotester--20120124,0,340019.storyOn Tuesday evening, January 24, 2012, Chicago's
On the morning of January 24, 2012, the Chicago Sun-Times touted its own "exclusive" story on the Rent A Protests with a front page photograph of one of the protesters, a young man who had commented two weeks earlier revealing the price of the protests at Substance. The Sun-Times "exclusive" caught the attention of many readers, and featured the Rev. Roosevelt Watkins, who was named in the Substance coverage of the Crane High School hearings from January 6. Watkins was the person who organized the buses that brought the Rent A Protesters to Crane that night. The URL for the Sun-Times story is: http://www.suntimes.com/10140605-417/two-say-they-got-paid-to-protest-back-closing-chicago-schools.html
SUMMARY OF THE WGN STORY (JANUARY 24, 2012) IS BELOW HERE:
Mark Suppelsa, Reporter; Marsha Bartel, Producer; WGN News. 8:51 p.m. CST, January 24, 2012
The Chicago Board of Education held a series of public hearings to listen to the community’s concerns over the mayor’s school reform plan. What we wanted to know is who is going to those gatherings. While we found some parents and teachers arguing to keep their local school open, we also found some community pastors busing in protestors to shut them down. We call it rent-a-protester. There were folks who didn’t know what they were protesting, didn’t know the name of the school, and didn’t want to talk at all.
George Schmidt, a consultant for the Chicago Teachers union and reporter for Substance News says he has been documenting the school protests since summer. He says some of the protesters were paid 25 dollars to hold up signs in support of the mayor’s reform.
Chicago Public Schools told us there is no money or public support for what the pastors are doing at these hearings. CPS chalked it up to their longstanding interest in education reform. Neither Pastors Barrett nor Watkins returned our calls. The teacher's union is now calling on an inspector general investigation into the rent-a-protesters.
COMPLETE JANUARY 24 SUN-TIMES STORY IS BELOW HERE:
Two say they got paid to protest, back closing Chicago schools. BY ROSALIND ROSSI Education Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org January 24, 2012 12:06AM
Thaddeus Scott poses for a photograph outside the HOPE organization, 6921 S. Halsted, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times. Updated: January 24, 2012 8:42PM Always contentious hearings on whether to close failing Chicago schools have taken a bizarre twist this year with charges that cash-strapped residents were hired as “rent-a-protesters” and given pre-made signs and pre-crafted scripts to support school shakeups.
Two men told the Chicago Sun-Times they showed up to apply for financial help with their energy bills at the Englewood office of the HOPE Organization headed by Rev. Roosevelt Watkins III, only to be offered money to attend school-related “rallies” held Jan. 6. Watkins denies they were paid to protest, saying money paid was for training.
Both protesters said they didn’t realize until the last minute that they were supposed to support school closings. One said he was promised $50 to speak at a rally “for schools,” but was stiffed $25 after Watkins complained he had publicly revealed at the hearing he was “compensated” for speaking.
“I don’t want the $25 he owes me,” Thaddeus Scott, 35, told the Sun-Times. “He can keep his dirty money. You can quote that.
“Why am I speaking out? Because I am in support of Crane [the high school whose closure he says he was supposed to support]. . . .
“They thought for a few dollars they could get us to say whatever they want. . . . We were preyed upon.”
Stipends for ‘training’
Watkins, pastor of Bethlehem Star M.B. Church and founder of Pastors United for Change, acknowledged he organized busloads of people to attend the Jan. 6 school closing hearings.
Yellow buses delivered people from 69th and Halsted, where HOPE’s Englewood office is, to at least three closing hearings on that date. The hearings concerned Crane High, Guggenheim Elementary and Reed Elementary, hearing participants told the Sun-Times.
Scott said he was offered $50 to speak at a hearing from what turned out to be scripted remarks.
But Watkins said protesters were supposed to be paid to attend “training” first on “community organizing” and how “to be aware of what’s taking place in the community.”
“What we do — so you can hear it from the horse’s mouth — we provide training because we engage community activists to participate in things such as health care, affordable housing, education, safety. Those things. So we do training on community organizing,” Watkins said.
A “small stipend” helps “offset their car fare” or “babysitting,” Watkins said.
Of the Jan. 6 protesters, Watkins said, “Those that did not receive the training should not have received a stipend.”
A day after the Sun-Times asked Watkins about the payments, at least one protester said he received a call from organizers asking him to attend a meeting first if he wanted to attend the next rally.
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey called the busloads of hearing participants “rent-a-protesters.” He likened them to “paid stooges” who “make a mockery of what public participation is about.”
Said Sharkey: “It’s a new low.”
Scott and a second man, a Guggenheim Elementary alum, said they were paid after the Jan. 6 hearings at the HOPE Englewood office by a woman who pulled envelopes holding $25 in cash from a container full of envelopes. Scott said Watkins was in the room when the woman told him he had done them a “disservice” and handed him half the promised amount, but Watkins insisted he was not there. Watkins also denied he ever chided anyone for using the word “compensated” at the hearings.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “There are people saying we pay them. We provide training. We’ve always done this. And they receive a stipend for their time.”
Watkins said he used neither church nor HOPE funds for the stipends. The money came from a “coalition of clergy” who have “money set aside for outreach in the community,’’ he said.
“This is money from clergy. Clergy have money,” Watkins said. “We used private money.”
Initially, Scott said, he thought he would be joining “an act of activism. … They wouldn’t say what the rally was about until we got there.”
Only at the last minute, Scott said, was he asked to choose from a list of prepared remarks and told not to support Crane.
“If he calls that training and that’s what I was paid for, fine, but that’s not training,” Scott said.
The Guggenheim alum also said he received no training before he boarded a bus outside HOPE’s Englewood office at 6921 S. Halsted on Jan. 6. He said he, too, was seeking assistance with energy bills when he was offered $25 to attend a rally.
He said he was told the rally would be about “longer school hours” — an issue pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who announced last year that a long list of ministers supported his stand.
A woman at HOPE’s Community and Economic Development Association outlet for energy assistance “asked me did I want to go to a rally,” the Guggenheim alum recalled. “I said no. She said they will pay $25. She said they were rallying for longer hours in the school day. I said ‘I have no problem with that.’ ”
To his surprise, he said, a bus filled with people delivered him instead to a hearing about closing Guggenheim Elementary, where he had graduated. There, he was given a sign saying “something about ‘I cannot support failing schools.’ ”
“That’s how I knew I was on the wrong side,” he said. “I was on the ‘close’ side. I wanted to be on the ‘open’ side. . . . If I knew it was about closing Guggenheim, I never would have gone because I went to Guggenheim. . . . I never would have been in favor of closing Guggenheim.”
Watkins said people were not paid to take a specific side at the hearings, and if they were reading from scripts, “I’ll check into it.”
“My position is, we want [schools] fixed,” said Watkins, whose HOPE Organization offers after-school programming and won nearly $1.47 million in Chicago Public School contracts since 2010.
“We’re not siding with CPS or the Chicago Teachers Union. . . . We’re siding with the children. We don’t want the message to get faded in this.”
SUN-TIMES EDITORIAL ON RENT A PROTESTS BELOW HERE:
Editorial: ‘Rent-a-protesters’ take school battles to new low. Editorials January 25, 2012 6:00PM
Updated: January 26, 2012 2:17AM Outrageous.
There is no other way to describe the practice, revealed by the Sun-Times and other media, of ministers hiring “rent-a-protesters” to advocate for proposed Chicago public school closures.
Reporter Rosalind Rossi on Tuesday told the story of two men who said they were offered $25 to $50 to support the closures of two schools. Both men said they were asked to attend two separate closure hearings this month after they showed up to apply for financial help with their energy bills at the Englewood office of the HOPE Organization.
The Rev. Roosevelt Watkins III, who runs the group, denies they were paid to protest, saying the money paid was for training. The facts say otherwise, including testimony by many who watched the so-called protesters, many of whom switched from pro-closure to anti-closure by the end of the hearings, along with the container of envelopes filled with cash seen at the HOPE office after the hearings. WBEZ profiled a third protester allegedly paid by HOPE and a fourth who said she was among a busload of rent-a-protesters paid at a different hearing by another church.
We hope the outing of these rent-a-protesters will be enough to kill the practice.
It makes a mockery of democracy and is all the more galling because it comes at a time when honest public debate is needed more than ever. The Chicago school system is at a critical juncture, debating whether to take the dramatic step of closing or turning around 14 schools, as well as significantly lengthening the school day.
Thus far, the debate has been mostly shrill, fueled by a flame-throwing Chicago Teachers Union and by a CPS public relations machine singularly focused on its agenda, particularly nothing less than a 7 -hour school day.
It was encouraging at Wednesday’s monthly Board of Education meeting to detect a noticeable cooling off. Board members seemed more open to listening to parents and teachers, while the CTU and its allies made their points in a more reasoned manner, checking the vitriol at the door.
COMPLETE SUN-TIMES STORY (JANUARY 25, 2012) ON POSSIBLE INVESTIGATION BY THE INSPECTOR GENERAL IS BELOW HERE:
School watchdog probes reports of paid protesters. BY ROSALIND ROSSI Education Reporteremail@example.com January 25, 2012 7:54PM
The Chicago Public Schools inspector general said Wednesday he is investigating reports that bused protesters were paid to carry signs or read scripts at school closing hearings.
News of the probe came as Mayor Rahm Emanuel sloughed off questions about whether the practice was appropriate.
Meanwhile, Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) blasted “paid protesters” he said showed up on three buses at Jan. 6 hearings on whether to phase out Crane High School. He urged Chicago Public School officials to omit their comments from the hearing’s record.
Their appearance was “embarrassing” and “subverts our public process ... wherever the money came from,” Fioretti said during the school board’s monthly meeting.
The Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday reported that two men said they were duped by the offer of cash to attend Jan. 6 school hearings while seeking help with their energy bills at the Englewood office of the HOPE Organization, headed by Rev. Roosevelt Watkins of the Bethlehem Star M.B. Church. Both said they didn’t realize until the last minute that they were supposed to side with the phase-out of Crane High or the closure of Guggenheim Elementary — proposals they didn’t support.
Joining a caravan of protesters in buses, one man said he was paid $25 just to show up and then given a pre-made sign; the other said he was promised $50 to speak and given a pre-crafted script.
Watkins has acknowledged he organized busloads of protesters to attend the Jan. 6 hearings but said any “stipends’’ they received were for pre-hearing “training” on “community organizing.” He could not say when that training occurred. Both men insisted they received no training.
The mayor was not concerned.
“The ministers have a right — who have been long involved in school reform, longer school day, turnaround schools, who don’t accept the status quo — to speak up,” Emanuel said Wednesday. “And I’m proud that people are having a discussion about the school system.”
Pressed repeatedly if he had a problem with what critics have called “rent-a-protesters,” Emanuel said “I’m not speaking [about that]. I’m speaking about the fact that ministers care about their schools and care about their community.”
However, Schools Inspector General James Sullivan told the Chicago Sun-Times Wednesday that he is “investigating to see if the allegations are true and, if true, if there’s anything wrong with that.”
Fioretti Wednesday joined a long line of speakers who called on CPS to halt its plans to close, phase out or hand over schools to outside managers. Fioretti said incoming-freshmen in Crane’s attendance area would be absorbed by four “marginal,” low-scoring schools that also are on academic probation. Mixing different populations could trigger the kind of spike in violence that haunted previous similar closings, he said.
The alderman urged CPS to back a Crane-written plan for the school’s own “turnaround” and said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), Ald. Walter Burnett (27), State Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago) and State Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago) also opposed the Crane phase-out.
A group of people fighting the phase out of Dyett High charged CPS had “destabilized” the Bronzeville area with its policies and shakeups. Over the years, King was converted from a neighborhood to a selective enrollment high school; Dyett was changed from a functioning middle school to a high school with only seven books in the library and no honors classes; and Price was changed from an elementary to a middle school, they said.
“How long are you going to disregard us?” an angry Bobbie Townsend asked board members. “Please help us.”
Jitu Brown of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization also warned of spikes in violence if Dyett attendance-area students are routed elsewhere. He urged the board to approve a community-written plan for the area.
“We are looking at your plan and it’s not a done deal,” Board member Mahalia Hines told Brown. “This is not a cookie-cutter board. We do investigate and then make decisions.”
Jackson Potter, chief of staff to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, questioned why the board was scheduled Wednesday to approve millions in renovation funds promised as part of the fresh start of targeted schools, even though those schools’ shakeups aren’t up for a vote for a month. “It gives the appearance they already made up their minds’’ about school shakeups, Potter said.
However, School Board President David Vitale said the renovation budget was “adjustable” and could be changed later.