On a recent Sunday morning, Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan and school board president Michael Scott sat down for breakfast with Congressman Danny Davis and state senator Rickey Hendon in the back room of a soul food restaurant on the west side. They must have expected a quiet discussion in the otherwise empty space, but the party was crashed by some activists with a video camera in hand, and the 11-minute tape they made--part Roger and Me, part Punk'd--is now circulating around town as an example of classic behind-closed-doors politicking.
The latest school closings were the reason for the meeting as well as the bust-up. In January the school board proposed shutting down three west-side elementary schools--Frazier, Farren, and Morse--at the end of this school year. It also proposed phasing out Collins High School beginning next year. According to the board's original plan, freshmen would be barred from enrolling at Collins until the fall of 2008. By then most of the current students would be gone and a new Collins--or possibly two or three smaller schools within the old one--would be created.
The ensuing debate echoed those that took place after previous school closings over the last few years. Duncan and Scott argued that they had no choice but to shut down the schools, citing a huge budget deficit and noting that enrollment in the schools to be closed was falling. Residents countered that the board was indifferent to the needs of black children, bouncing them from one school to the next while concentrating resources on pet projects.
Hendon and Davis both denounced the closings. Hendon was particularly critical: at a February 9 board hearing he threatened to use his clout in Springfield to cut off funding for the system if the board closed the schools.
But Derrick Harris, one of the video makers, was skeptical. "It's called fronting," he says: elected officials thunder for the cameras, then become party to the deal. Harris says he got a chance to "expose the charade" when, on February 17, someone tipped him about Duncan's plans to meet with Davis and Hendon at Edna's, a popular soul food restaurant. "On the west side folks know--if the deal's going down you meet at Edna's," Harris says. "As soon as we heard about this we knew they needed a plumber at the board. 'Cause we know some shit was going down."
Harris decided to crash the breakfast. "I want people to know what's going on," he says. "You got Rickey screaming in public, talking about 'You ain't gonna get no more money from me,' then sitting down in the back room? We want to know if what you say in public is different than what you say in private."
How did they find out about the meeting? "Let's just say we have our source," says Harris. "You've heard of Deep Throat? Well, the source of this story is Cut Throat--Miss Cut Throat."
And so on Sunday, February 19, at about ten in the morning, Harris, along with Paul McKinley, Mark Carter, and Beauty Turner, a reporter for Residents' Journal, walked into Edna's and headed toward the private dining room in the back. "We had our camera in a bag," Harris says. "When we got to the back room, we took it out of the bag."
They knocked on the door. Verdell Trice, a west-side businessman, opened it a crack and told them that they couldn't come in. McKinley held the camera as they entered anyway, pushing past Trice and stepping into the room. The video shows Duncan, Scott, Hendon, Davis, and Greg Minniefield, Scott's chief of staff, seated around a table. Except for Davis, they're informally dressed--Scott and Hendon are in baseball caps and Hendon is wearing a sweatshirt.
As they look up from their plates of biscuits, bacon, and eggs their expressions range from surprise to irritation to sheepishness. Then the looks grow steely. They aren't strangers--everybody knows everybody else. Scott grew up on the west side (he still lives in North Lawndale) and has long been one of Mayor Daley's point men there. Davis and Hendon have represented west-side districts for years. Harris is a familiar fixture at rallies and protests. McKinley and Carter are the wild cards. They helped form the Voices of the Ex-Offenders, an activist group, but they're not party regulars--in fact, they endorsed Alan Keyes over Barack Obama in the 2004 senate race. The person who looks most uncomfortable is Duncan, who drinks from his glass of water or looks down at the table whenever the camera turns his way.
"Mr. Scott," says McKinley from behind the camera, "you got anything you want to say?"
"Welcome," says Scott, raising his coffee cup in a toast.
"Mr. Duncan, anything you want to say?"
"Good morning," Duncan mumbles.
"Sellout crew--this about school business here?" McKinley asks.
Davis steps away from the table, pulls out his cell phone, and calls the police.
McKinley starts in on Hendon. "Rickey, you was really upset at the Board of Education. You still gonna cut the money off like you was saying?"
"You can kiss my ass," says Hendon.
"Pull it right down and I'll kiss it," says McKinley.
"Don't fuck with me," Hendon mutters.
"Is that Malcolm X on your shirt, Rickey?" McKinley asks.
"It's Malcolm X in my heart," Hendon says.
McKinley and Carter laugh derisively. "I can't believe that you, Rickey, would come down here and stoop so low and close our schools," says McKinley. "All the rest of them I can see. But I can't believe Rickey."
And so it goes. McKinley asks the politicians how they feel betraying their community. As he talks he zooms in on their faces to capture their reactions. Finally Davis stands again. "I tell you what," the congressman says. "I'm tired of being filmed. Don't film me no more."
He approaches McKinley. He puts his hand over the camera. "Danny, Danny," Hendon cautions.
"Swing it," says McKinley. "I want you to tear the camera up."
From the background comes the voice of an unseen woman: "Can I ask you to leave our place of business?"
With that the activists promptly file out of the room. According to Harris, by the time the police arrived, he and the others were in their cars parked across the street. The video's final shot, taken after the police had left, features Scott in his car outside the restaurant.
"Some people say it's a sellout meeting," McKinley says to Scott.
"People say a lot of things," Scott replies as he drives off. "They say you're ugly, and I agree with them."
On February 22, three days after the encounter at Edna's, Scott and the rest of the board unanimously voted to close the three grade schools and phase out Collins. But they made a concession. Instead of keeping freshmen from entering Collins for two years they voted to bring in freshman in the fall of 2007. According to CPS spokesman Peter Cunningham, the board made this decision after meeting with Davis and Hendon. Cunningham says the board hasn't decided how Collins will look when it opens in 2007. But it probably won't feature a military academy--another concession to Hendon and Davis. "We will reopen it when we have the right proposal," says Cunningham. "There may be a couple of schools in there. Nothing's been decided."
Neither Davis nor Hendon returned calls for comment. But Hendon has dropped his threat to cut off state funding for the schools.
Cunningham says there was nothing even vaguely sinister about the breakfast at Edna's. "They were just talking about neighborhoods and schools," says Cunningham. "Arne and Michael were there to listen." Still, the video's taken on a life of its own. The crashers turned up in Stella Foster's column in the Sun-Times. Copies are being passed around town. It was aired on a public-access television show hosted by McKinley and Carter, who also plan to screen it at a series of meetings on the west side.
"They were fronting," McKinley says. "We want the community to know it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul McKinley.