Protest politics | Bleader

Protest politics

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The downtown school funding protests organized by reverend / state senator James Meeks were actually kind of hard to find Wednesday morning.

Around 11 AM more than a dozen cops were standing along East Randolph outside the Aon Center, one of the downtown sites where parents were scheduled to hold “teach-ins” with public school students. But there were no signs of the demonstrators themselves.

“I haven’t seen them,” said one of the police officers. “We’re here for Oprah.”

He nodded toward the back of Pritzker Pavilion across the street. Inside the pavilion Oprah was leading a celebration for a group of Olympic medalists.

Up the block another police officer pointed me toward the action, as it were: a small gazebo on the Aon Center plaza where six students and even more parents sat reading in a quiet circle. Reverend Ira Acree, one of the protest leaders, said the building management had told them they couldn’t go inside. “They gave us a tour of the outside of the building,” he said.

Meanwhile, other businesses targeted Wednesday were so generous with the accommodations they offered that they basically turned their protesters invisible.

JP Morgan Chase welcomed the students and parents who showed up for a sit-in at Chase Tower—they set up comfortable tables and chairs for them in the lower level of the basement, far out of sight of customers above. One of the teach-in coordinators there, Carolyn Allah, a member of Meeks’s Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, said the only people who’d stopped by to see what was going on were reporters and police officers.

Daley was at the rally with Oprah, but demonstrators at City Hall set up class outside his office on the fifth floor, out of view of people visiting the building for, say, the clerk’s office or any of the city departments. Police officers and city officials provided them with chairs and opened the windows so the hallway wouldn’t be so stuffy.

None of the dozen or so sites was chosen at random—organizers wanted to get the attention of the biggest supporters of Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid, including Boeing, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and Aon, which until August was led by bid committee chairman Patrick Ryan. “If people want to bring a world-class Olympics to Chicago, we’re saying, ‘Why not a world-class education?’” Acree said.

It’s a clear, sensible message, similar to those delivered by other groups trying to use the Olympics as leverage for causes that seemingly should have been addressed years ago, like affordable housing and clean air.

But the trip to the north shore Meeks led just a day earlier had nothing to do with the Olympics or the financial commitments of local businesses—it was meant to highlight school funding disparities from district to district. 

What's the deal? Who or what is the source of the problem here, and how? From the demonstrations, it was hard to say. Either organizers didn’t plan this very carefully, and they’re going to muddle their message and watch their demonstrations peter out; or they’re protesting for the sake of protesting as much as for school funding reform, thinking it’s the best way to get people involved in the broader political movement Meeks has envisioned for some time. My hunch is that it’s some of both. 

Meeks may look like he's all over the place in the style of his mentor, Jesse Jackson; two years ago he called for school reform in a series of ever-louder marches on City Hall, then stopped abruptly after Daley called him in for a chat. He ended up spending 2007 focusing on church ministry and evangelism.

But he shouldn't be underestimated. He's smart and charismatic and capable of shaking things up, and despite his history of on-again, off-again activism, his supporters remain intensely loyal. Several told me Wednesday that they were prepared to keep their kids out of school indefinitely--"as long as pastor tells us," as one put it. 

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