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Chicago Public Schools Memo Instructs on How to Handle Civil Disobedience Against School Closings

Students and parents from Lafayette School protest school closing (Creative Commons-licensed Photo by chicagopublicmedia)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) currently intend to close fifty-four schools before the year is over. This means Chicago is likely to have the largest number of school closures in any city in America this year.

President of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Karen Lewis, has declared, “Closing 50 of our neighborhood schools is outrageous and no society that claims to care about its children can sit back and allow this to happen to them. There is no way people of conscience will stand by and allow these people to shut down nearly a third of our school district without putting up a fight. Most of these campuses are in the Black community. Since 2001 88% of students impacted by CPS School Actions are African-American. And this is by design. ”

She added, “These actions unnecessarily expose our students to gang violence, turf wars and peer-to-peer conflict. Some of our students have been seriously injured as a result of school closings. One died. Putting thousands of small children in harm’s way is not laudatory.”

A major demonstration is planned for downtown Chicago tomorrow. The streets may look like they did back in September when CTU went on strike.

CPS has “figured out” there might be acts of civil disobedience at schools in order to save schools from being shut down. A memo that Catalyst Chicago obtained, which was written for “network chiefs” (CEOs of school networks in the school system) warns of the potential for civil disobedience and instructs them on how to handle protests and civil disobedience actions.

It states, “There may be those who wish to disrupt the education of our children. While we respect the right of those who wish to peacefully protest and express themselves, this cannot be at the expense of our children’s future.”

Closing a child’s school is far more likely to disrupt that child’s education than civil disobedience. In fact, it is inarguable that a child will learn more engaging in civil disobedience than he or she will being removed and transplanted to another school because a mayor and his city’s board of education will not continue to fund them. But, don’t expect CPS to grasp the irony in this warning.

Under “CPS Guide to Civil Disobedience,” it reads, “Protestors often explain away their acts of disruption based on “1st Amendment rights”, but then go far beyond those rights in their acts.” It is true that protestors did not technically enjoy a “First Amendment right” to engage in civil disobedience, but then, again, individuals engaged in civil disobedience understand there is a potential they will be arrested for disobeying the law. They are doing so on purpose to call attention to something unjust and hopefully bring it to a halt.

A section, “Rights and Restrictions of Protestors,” suggests “incitement,” which is speech “intended and likely to cause imminent law breaking,” would not be permitted. This is a clear misunderstanding of the First Amendment. As articulated, it could be used to target and punish anyone in schools, who is suspected or caught discussing planned acts of civil disobedience because that would, to CPS, be “law-breaking.”

The section also claims “true threats,” which are words “directed against a particular person who would reasonably perceive in the message a danger of violence,” and “fighting words,” which are words “directed at a particular person, face-to-face, which might provoke an ordinary reasonable person to violence,” are prohibited. But, aren’t children supposed to tell people who say not nice things about them they don’t like those not nice things instead of hitting people? Yet, CPS, which must be staffed with individuals suffering from anger management issues, says “fighting words” might lead a “reasonable person” to engage in violence, as if it would ever be “reasonable” to violently attack someone for merely saying something combative to them.

It asserts, “Protesters do not have a right to block pedestrian or vehicle traffic, or to prevent entry and exit from buildings,” and, also, “Protesters do not have a right to harass other members of the public.” Who determines what is harassment and what is the consequence if caught “harassing” someone from the “public”? (Note: Further down in the memo it says people using “true threats” or “fighting words” may be “escorted away.”)

It goes on to list “Overall Guidelines for the Prevention of Civil Disobedience”:

  • Be approachable and supportive to feelings of unrest, anxiety or dissatisfaction
  • Focus Climate and Culture on maintaining a focus on learning and removing anxiety
  • Support school administration in the prevention and mitigation of protests
  • Observe and report all information regarding possible protestors, locations, date and times
  • Be careful of who is being allowed in the building and for what reasons they are coming in
  • Ensure that proper ID and purpose of visit is screened at the perimeter of the school

Basically, further transform schools into totalitarian places and, if students are anxious, dissatisfied or appear to want to to stick it to the man, confront them.

It does not say what to do with students or teachers that might be planning to engage in protests or civil disobedience. Are they to be disciplined?

Some suggestions are given on what to do with students, who might be intent on raising their voice by engaging in sit-ins, walk-outs or other acts of protest. “Beware of larger-than-normal steady traffic of people,” “Increase patrols around egresses to prevent loitering and doors from being propped open,” and, the one that is by far the best, “Positively motivate all students to remain in the building for their safety.”

If civil disobedience happens, it says the “names and information of all teachers and students who left the building” are to be documented. In case the situation gets really “dangerous”—because running throughout this memo is the hyping of some threat, “teachers, adults and students with parental consent are permitted to leave.”

Finally, it instructs “network chiefs” to call police if there are emergencies or serious incidents involving civil disobedience. Chiefs are to document the type of civil disobedience:

“Lock down” is not a type of civil disobedience at all. It is an administrative or security response to “Occupy,” a civil disobedience action. One would imagine a “lock down” would go into effect if a sit-in or walk-out occurred. Also, “exterior protest” is not “civil disobedience” and would be clearly protected by the First Amendment. In fact, CPS seems to acknowledge this much when noting, “Peaceful demonstrations outside CPS property cannot be restricted.”

Chiefs are also to document what media is there covering the action, which may be to prevent them from returning or to aid in efforts at damage control and perception management, because that is really what this memo is all about: ensuring protests do not reach critical mass leading Chicagoans to think there is wide opposition to school closings.

In conclusion, CPS recognizes it has struck a nerve by choosing to close over fifty schools. It understands it is going to bear the brunt of great protest and resistance in the coming days and is prepared to engage in tactics of counterinsurgency to stymie the efforts of teachers, parents and students, who want to take a stand to save their schools.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."