Fight for $15: Breaking the silence about suburban poverty

“As a 44-year-old man, making $8.25, living paycheck to paycheck and barely being able to survive just isn’t right. I love to cook. I love what I do for a living. That’s why we’re calling for fair wages for fast food workers in Chicago’s suburbs. From Oak Park to Cicero, to Sauk Village to Barrington Hills, we need this. That’s why we’re standing together in the suburbs and calling for $15. Suburban workers are struggling and we need higher wages so that we too can be part of the American dream.”—-Anthony Kemp, Oak Park IL KFC worker

Silence can be a powerful way to communicate a message. That was certainly true at the September 28 meeting of the Oak Park Illinois Village Board.After hearing 5 speakers representing the Fight for $15 movement speak about the importance of passing a Living Wage Ordinance in the town and the need for a $15 a hour minimum wage throughout Chicagoland, their heartfelt words were met with a perfunctory almost expressionless,”We really thank you for your thoughts,” from the Mayor and silence from the rest of the Village Board.

The Oak Park Village Board would not even summon up a few pious platitudes of encouragement to the workers and community allies who filled the meeting while their representatives took to the podium.

Oak Park Village Board

Fight for $15 at the Oak Park IL Village Board: Sept 28 2015

Read more

November 6, 2015 by · Comments Off on Fight for $15: Breaking the silence about suburban poverty
Filed under: Race and gender, Society and Economy, Unions 


No more daydreaming…

A reflection on Daydream Sunset: The Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies by Ron Jacobs: Counterpunch Press 2015

Jefferson Airplane circa 1970

Jefferson Airplane circa 1970


“Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution! Got to revolution!
Hey I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution! Got to revolution!”

The lyrics to the Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” boomed out of the oversized speakers set in the 2nd floor window of the 6th Sense Boutique in College Park, Maryland. Below were rows of grim faced police in riot gear facing thousands of University of Maryland students occupying Route 1, the main road through College Park.

It was May 1970 and blocking Route 1 into Washington DC was becoming a favorite tactic to protest the cruel barbarism of the USA’s Southeast Asia War.

Soon the lyrics of this popular song calling for revolution were drowned out by cries of both pain and defiance as a fog of tear gas rolled in, not on the little cat’s feet of the Sandburg poem, but with loud explosions and the tramping sound of heavy boots hitting pavement as the police charged, swinging their riot clubs with obvious enthusiasm. The resulting battle raged far into the night. I know this because I was there. Similar scenes were happening across the nation as the forces of repression tried to crush the largest anti-war student strike in US history.

Welcome to the 1970s.

Reading Daydream Sunset: The Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies by Ron Jacobs reminded me of the growing disquiet I felt during the period he describes in the book. Something important and beautiful was slipping away. Written and organized in a casual episodic style, the book integrates the personal experiences of the author with a social analysis of the times.

Author Ron Jacobs entered the University of Maryland in 1974, just 4 years after the historic student strike and came to know a number of the participants. He experienced that period when the dreams of the 1960s were being battered by heavy handed repression, while the dreamers themselves were beset by their own confusion and missteps. As the sun set on the 1970s, the darkness of the Reagan years lay ahead, itself a reaction to the USA’s radical social movements.

Capitalism was in a period of transition from the social democratic New Deal-Great Society version to the beginnings of the neo-liberal austerity we endure today.

Jacobs views this transitional period through the lens of the counterculture. The counterculture was that largely white phenomenon that rebelled in schools, communities and workplaces against the soul crushing conformity and social alienation of the 1950s. Labeled hippies, freaks and later punks, they tried to build community even as they strived for individuality, a dialectic that produced a wide variety of perplexing social contradictions.

Jefferson Airplane described the counterculture in 1969 with the song “We Can Be Together”:

We are all outlaws in the eyes of America
In order to survive we steal cheat lie forge fuck hide and deal
We are obscene lawless hideous dangerous dirty violent and young
But we should be together
Come on all you people standing around
Our life’s too fine to let it die and
We can be together…

 …We are forces of chaos and anarchy
Everything they say we are we are
And we are very
Proud of ourselves
Up against the wall
Up against the wall motherfucker
Tear down the walls
Tear down the walls…

Jefferson Airplane had been closely identified with Haight Ashbury and the 1967 Summer of Love with its image of gentle flower children. But by 1969 when the Volunteers album was released, the group had changed their tune.  Seemingly endless war abroad combined with mounting racism and repression at home created a sense of desperation among many who identified with the counterculture.

Jacobs places the origins of the counterculture in the white middle class though it spread rapidly into the white working class as anyone who worked in the blue collar world of the time can attest. At a warehouse where I labored in the early 1970s, the older workers would retreat to the coffee machine area during breaks, while the younger white workers were on the roof passing joints and talking about the latest rock concert to hit town — as well as the horrors of the Southeast Asia War and the sordid revelations of the Watergate investigation.

Much of the book concerns the music of the counterculture. Jacobs explains why:

This is because the culture it is discussing identified itself largely through the music it performed, danced and listened to, referred to and consumed.

The music of the 60’s counterculture covered the spectrum from bleak pessimism to bouncy optimism. Barry McGuire’s 1965 hit “Eve of Destruction” was a terrifying view of a world gripped by war, hate and racial violence “…where even the Jordan River has bodies floatin.'”

5th Dimension performing "Aquarius"

5th Dimension performing “Aquarius”

 That contrasted sharply with the 5th Dimension’s 1969  hit version of “Aquarius” from the musical Hair which foretold a future when “…peace would guide the planet and love would steer the stars.”

Other musical artists expressed the uncertainty that many in the 60s counterculture felt. Jesse Colin Young in his peace song “Get Together” sang the words, “Everybody get together, TRY to love one another right now.” According to John Lennon, all he and Yoko were saying was, “Give peace a CHANCE.” These artists knew there was no guarantee of success.

Ron Jacobs was able to experience the counterculture both in the USA and in Europe as his dad was in the military. He often attended rock festivals on both continents where the music could be a collective experience of liberation for some, a bad trip for others and a successful financial investment for a few.

These festivals although capitalist enterprises desiring to make a profit often became what would be known by the 1990s as temporary autonomous zones. The sheer presence of so many people bent on enjoying the music and each other’s company suspended traditional societal restrictions enforced by police, family and church.

Besides the music there was a lot of sex and an abundance of recreational drugs in those temporary communities. But not everyone came with good intentions. There were bad trips, rapes and at the Altamont festival, a killing. By the mid 1970’s the authorities succeeded in ending the short-lived rock festival tradition. Jacobs thinks the main motivation was crushing the freedom the festivals represented rather than concern over the bad behavior of the few.

Communes and cooperatives were another way that the counterculture sought community, as well as an escape from the excesses of rampant capitalism and social alienation. There were urban communes centered on radical media, political organizing, anti-war protest and direct social services. These declined in number as radicalism retreated and neighborhoods became gentrified.

The counterculture also moved to the countryside setting up rural communes based on farming and related support services. Jacobs writes extensively about 1970s Vermont where communes and co-ops became an important political force, along with businesses that espoused varying degrees of social responsibility. I recall one of my Vermont aunts speaking approvingly of the nice people moving into the valley. As a native Vermonter with left wing views, she saw the “hippies” as reinforcements.

Vermont’s harsh climate and a changing economy took a toll on these efforts, but a young man named Bernie Sanders was among the urban refugees who exchanged the hi-rise canyons of the big city for the green hills of Vermont.

Food co-ops were among the most enduring of the counterculture institutions. Jacobs, as a former student at the University of Maryland at College Park, explains how its food co-op grew out of a movement spearheaded by an alliance of radical and counterculture students.

Fed up with the grim looking and nutritionally suspect food delivered by the Marriott Corporation, students began selling sandwiches in front of the student union. The administration sent the cops to confiscate the sandwiches and harass their sellers. As protest grew on campus, the administration backed off and a food co-op was established supported by student funds. It still exists.

All through the period there was a complex and often contradictory relationship between the counterculture and radical left. Within the Students for a Democratic  Society (SDS) the largest student radical group of the 1960s, members from Communist Party and Progressive Labor Party backgrounds favored clothing and hairstyles that were quite conservative while the hippie types favored cast-off military fatigues, colorful psychedelia and lots of hair.

When SDS shattered into political fragments in 1969, some of the pieces became self-described Marxist-Leninist “vanguard” formations who joined the blue collar working class to organize for revolution. They urged their members to give up the “hippie look” to fit in. Ironically this came at a time when many working class youth were adopting not only the countercultural “look” but its spirit of social rebellion as well.

But the confusion over fashion statements was only one of the dilemmas facing the counterculture. Acid trips, peace signs, musical innovation, appeals to love one another and organic farms could not stop the depredations of US imperialism nor could they end racial, class and gender oppression here at home.

The term “revolution” was often tossed in the headiest days of the counterculture, though there was little agreement on what the word meant. Did it mean a spiritual revolution of human values in a new Age of Aquarius? Or a socio-political revolution resulting in a humane democratic socialism, one very unlike the repressive conformity demanded by the Soviet Union.

But whatever the definition of the term, those who participate in any revolution carry within them deep imprints of the society that they are rebelling against, limiting their ability to build new liberating institutions. They also are restricted by the socio-economics of the time as utopia crashes up against actually existing material conditions.

The counterculture proved to be no exception.

The counterculture did rebel against the puritanical sexual restrictions of US society, but often in ways that reinforced patriarchy and homophobia. Jacobs quotes extensively from Robin Morgan’s “Good Bye to All That”, a 1970 piece she wrote for the countercultural NYC publication The RAT after the women briefly took over the publication:

Goodbye to Hip culture and the so-called Sexual Revolution, which has functioned toward women’s freedom as did the Reconstruction toward former slaves — reinstituting oppression by another name. Goodbye to the assumption that Hugh Romney is safe in his cultural revolution, safe enough to refer to our women, who make all our clothes without somebody not forgiving that…Goodbye to the idea that Hugh Hefner is groovy ‘cause he lets Conspirators come to parties at the Playboy Mansion — goodbye to Hefner’s dream of a ripe old age. Goodbye to Tuli and the Fugs and all the boys in the front room — who always knew they hated the women they loved. Goodbye to the notion that good ol’ Abbie is any different from any other up-and-coming movie star who ditches the first wife and kids, good enough for the old days but awkward once you’re Making It. Goodbye to his hypocritical double standard that reeks through the tattered charm.

Jacobs also discusses how the counterculture was  plagued by racism. One example was the reaction Neil Young got for his song “Southern Man” which criticized slavery and racism. Neil Young was answered by southern rockers Lynard Skinnard who basically told Young to mind his own business with their song “Sweet Home Alabama.” Lynard Skinnard was famous not only for its music but for the large Confederate flags that appeared at their concerts.

Jacobs also writes about Eric Clapton who began his career as a guitar virtuoso through an intensive study of American Black music, but started making statements supporting British racist leader Enoch Powell, triggering a mass British movement calling itself Rock and Against Racism. Headed up by bands like The Clash and Steel Pulse, it inspired a smaller Rock Against Racism movement here in the USA. Racism within counterculture music was a bitter irony. Rock music would not have existed without decades of African American blues and R&B.

In fact, without the Black freedom movement it is doubtful the counterculture could even have existed. Joel Geier of the International Socialist Organization, and a participant in the Berkeley Free Speech movement among many others, once told me that it was the sit-ins and the freedom rides of the civil rights movement that shattered McCarthyism. I think he was on to something. As the toxic effects of the Red Scare receded so did the mind-numbing fear and conformity of the 1950s. And while the counterculture may have popularized the ideal of “peace and love”, Dr. Martin Luther King was there first.

By the early 1970s, counterculture adherents were only one group in the USA where rebellion, much of it inspired by the Black freedom movement, seemed to be rising up everywhere: Gays, women, Latinos, American Indians, Asian-Americans, prison inmates and others. The first Earth Day was held on April 22 1970. There were working class revolts in auto plants, coal mines, lettuce fields and public service institutions.

The ruling class responded with a massive propaganda campaign often based on racism and sexism, that was aimed at “the silent majority,”  those who either feared or misunderstood the revolts taking place. This was accompanied by a ferocious repression including mass arrests, beatings, imprisonment, assassination and the infamous COINTELPRO program.

While the repression fell most heavily on people of color, the counterculture was not exempt. After the killings at Kent State I heard a Black Panther say, “My god, now they’re killing their own children.” Jacobs writes about the largest mass arrest in US history during May 1971 when 12,000 anti-war demonstrators were swept up when they attempted to shut down the government in DC through civil disobedience. I witnessed lot of pot and cheap wine consumed by the May Day protesters as they assembled at their encampment on the Mall before the action. The scene could have passed for Woodstock but without the rain.

Along with the repression came genuine internal disagreements and strategy differences within social movements especially as hopes for any kind of revolution faded. It was not at all clear what to do next and despairing people often turned on each other in ugly ways. When the Temptations sang that our world was a “Ball of Confusion,” they weren’t kidding.

Once again, the counterculture was not exempt. Some of the hippies who set up small counterculture businesses were starting to make real money in the 1970s. Jacobs quotes from Jello Biafra of the punk band Dead Kennedys about the results:

In many ways, I have no idea what would have become of me if punk hadn’t happened, because the ’70s turned out to be so stale, and so boring, and so backward compared to what had come just before. We were too young to have fully experienced the ’60s and the fervor of the anti-war movement. And some of the people who had caused so much trouble for what used to be called the establishment were opening overpriced hanging plant stores on the downtown mall and becoming the early versions of hippie capitalists.

Other early counterculture capitalists include a couple of guys named Steve who started something called Apple Computer and John Mackey and Renee Lawson Hardy who were largely responsible for Whole Foods.

In 1969 Jefferson Airplane sang that, “All your private property is target for your enemy. And your enemy is we.” But as the high tide of the social movements receded, the “we” grew smaller and smaller and the “me” got bigger and bigger. Individualism was kicking the ass of community. Jacobs links this to the stagnation that hit US capitalism and the worsening of the economy:

The age of prosperity was over for the regular folks in the US of A. With the minimum wage barely increasing at all over the decade, the prospects for the unskilled young were not good and becoming worse. Furthermore, the corporate transfer of better paid, usually union, jobs to non-union countries was underway. The counterculture dream of a meaningful yet idyllic life was further away for the young working class Americans than at any time since the early 1960s. The streets were back to being places one hung out after work or if they couldn’t find a job. Unlike the not-so-long-ago streets of their hippie predecessors, they were no longer places young adults went to live in out of choice while trying to create a new world.

In his conclusions Jacobs states that it is not in his nature, “… to make grand generalizations about history, especially when the history being considered is relatively recent.” Nevertheless he does draw the conclusion that a society based on peace, love and a decent material standard of living runs counter to the brutal economics of capitalism.

As it turned out the counterculture was no match for either the repression that worked to crush it or the corporatization that worked to absorb it. Yet not every hippie freak turned into a bitter cynic or a Wall Street stockbroker. You can see the gray thinning hair of those who didn’t at any decent-size protest today.

In 1968 during the French student-worker revolt someone coined the phrase, “Be realistic. Demand the impossible.” The counterculture did not bring about a revolution as it grappled with creating a balance between individualism and collectivity. But who knows what is truly possible during any period of social revolt? And what may prove be impossible at the moment, could become a reality for the unwritten future, as the spirit of revolution is passed down to new generations.

 This reflection was first published in Red Wedge magazine
October 28, 2015 by · Comments Off on No more daydreaming…
Filed under: Media, Society and Economy 


Increase the Harvest is feeding hungry children in Chicago’s Austin community

It was an unseasonably warm late October afternoon in the  Austin neighborhood of West Side Chicago. A steady stream of school children and their parents stepped into the office of Increase the Harvest at 221 S. Central Ave to pick up their box lunches.

It was the first day of the organization’s after school food distribution program for children. The box lunches are provided through a Chicago Public Schools program. Increase the Harvest volunteers completed a 6 hour training program so it could  become a certified vendor.

Michelle Young, the president of Increase the Harvest, explained one of the reasons for the food program,” Right now we are feeding the children after school box lunches because perhaps a lot of them may not even have enough to eat when they get home.”

As a largely African American community, Austin has been hurt by disinvestment as businesses and non-profit organizations have abandoned the community. It was hit hard by the school closings of 2013. Unemployment and underemployment are high. Crime and violence including police brutality are serious problems.

As Increase the Harvest volunteer Zerlina Smith, an Austin resident often says,” When I walk out my door, that is not the vision I want to see.”

Increase The Harvest

Yolanda Hoskins and Carolyn Hinkgaines of Increase the Harvest with Austin school children

Read more

October 24, 2015 by · Comments Off on Increase the Harvest is feeding hungry children in Chicago’s Austin community
Filed under: Race and gender, Society and Economy 


The hunger strike ends. The fight for Dyett will go on

“And this hunger strike has taught people that we don’t have to fight by other peoples’ rules. And we can make the decision…if you could please repeat after me…make the decision…that you will not bow down to people that don’t love your children.”
— Jitu Brown speaking at Rainbow PUSH

IT WAS an emotional moment for the Dyett hunger strikers at the weekly Rainbow PUSH Coalition livestream TV broadcast on Saturday, September 19. Joined by Rainbow PUSH leaders and other hunger strikers, Jitu Brown made the announcement that the hunger strike was coming to an end after 34 days. Brown pledged, however, that the struggle to create the Walter Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School would go on.

Speaking at Rainbow PUSH, Jitu Brown announced the end of hunger strike


The Chicago Board of Education was forced by the pressure of the hunger strike to reopen the now-closed Dyett high school, located in the historic African American neighborhood of Bronzeville. But instead of accepting the proposal that the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett had submitted for a global leadership-green technology school, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) insisted it would reopen Dyett as an arts-focused school, with a technology component.

Dyett Hunger Strike

Hunger striker Jeanette Rahmann-Taylor embraces a supporter


Forest Claypool announced the hastily cobbled together “plan” 15 minutes after informing Coalition spokesperson Jitu Brown that there would be no further negotiations. Coalition members were excluded from the September 3 press conference. So the hunger strike continued.On the September 9 Chicago Tonight show with Carol Marin, Brown explained why green technology was such an important part of the Coalition proposal for a community-based neighborhood school:

Why did we settle on Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School? Number one, Dyett sits in the heart of Washington Park. There’s a wildlife observatory there, there’s a fully functional pond where people go fishing, there’s a thriving youth-run farm and, most importantly, green technology is the number one growth industry in the U.S. So when the mayor imposed an arts school on the community, it was insulting, and that’s why we didn’t stop.Because what’s the number one industry for unemployment? The arts. We are not opposed to a strong arts program in our school, but we just want to see a school that prepares our young people to be the next scientists, the next civic leaders and the next doctors.

At the core of the Coalition’s green technology plan is organic urban agriculture. A 2013 United Nation report stated that small-scale organic farms are the best way to ensure that humanity has an adequate food supply while also improving the quality of the planetary biosphere. Dyett students could even participate in researching this through their own urban farming projects, especially when coupled with the global leadership component.In addition to its global leadership green-technology focus, the rest of the Coalition’s proposal envisions a rich, full curriculum, with democratic school governance and deep-rooted community involvement that could make Dyett one of the best schools in the city.

Since the Dyett proposal’s neighborhood school model could be adapted to areas of concentration besides global leadership and green technology, it could become a blueprint for revitalizing public education in Chicago. That makes it a threat to the school privatization efforts favored by Emanuel and the city elite.

Talks with the Chicago Board of Education which Brown characterized as “conversations” rather than “negotiations” continue.

A city-wide rally is planned for 5:30 PM Tuesday September 29 at the Thompson Center in Chicago: 100 West Randolph.  The struggle for the Walter Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School is not over.

Below is the speech, edited and lightly excerpted for publication, that Jitu Brown, surrounded by hunger strikers, gave at Rainbow PUSH announcing the end of the hunger strike and the beginning of a new phase of the struggle. You can download a copy of the original Coalition to Revitalize Dyett proposal here.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Speech by Jitu Brown at Operation PUSH

“FIRST, BEFORE we make some statements, I want to give a heartfelt thank you to Rainbow PUSH Coalition. For us, it’s truly been Dr. King’s workshop. This has truly been freedom’s house. For many weeks, we slept here at night, right up on this stage. And whatever we needed, Reverend Wilson and Reverend Jackson and Brother Jonathan Jackson were steadfast in making sure we had that support. So we really want to say thank you.I would just like to say that the stereotype is that parents don’t care and communities don’t care, but the reality is that we’re not welcome. As we have been fighting for Dyett High School since 2009, my personal learning has taught me that the same thing happening in Chicago is happening in Philadelphia. It’s happening in Detroit. It’s happening in New Orleans. It’s happening in Baltimore. It’s happening in Oakland. And it’s the destruction of public education as we’re being removed from those cities.

So we had talked to every bureaucrat. We had jumped through every hoop. We had been nice. We realized that at some point, our voices weren’t valued because at the same time that we were struggling just to have a neighborhood school, other communities that didn’t even want resources were being flooded with resources.

So as we began to do this hunger strike (because we want folks to know a little chronology), Chicago Public Schools last year didn’t want to reopen Dyett High School, and as a result of consistent advocacy and pressure from the people behind me and also from the community, we won that school being reopened last year.

This year, we stopped it from being privatized. So it will be a public school, a neighborhood school. And now, we are working diligently to make sure that we are part of the vision and the development of that school from the ground up. We are committed to that process. But also, we want you to know that the fight for Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School continues.

It does not stop.

But we realize, unfortunately, that when African American people have a strong show of self-determination that goes against the public narrative. That goes against what people expect us to be. So we began to realize that they will let us die. They will watch us waste away.

This is the 34th day of our hunger strike. We don’t want a charter school. We don’t want a contract [school]. We don’t want to be insiders. We just want the district to do the same thing for the children in Bronzeville that they do for children in Lincoln Park. So the fight for the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School only intensifies.

So we want to announce here today that we are ending our hunger strike. We are going to feed our bodies so that we can rest, take a deep breath, do some pushups and come out swinging. But the most important thing I want to say to you is that what I’ve learned with these brothers and sisters that are with me is that there should be not one more school closed in this city.

And this hunger strike has taught people that we don’t have to fight by other peoples’ rules. And we can make the decision…if you could please repeat after me…make the decision…that you will not bow down to people that don’t love your children. Make the decision…make the decision… that justice is worth being uncomfortable for.

Because through this hunger strike, we have seen in a hyper-segregated city like Chicago, we have seen emotional commitment from around the city. I want to give love and thanks to Teachers for Social Justice: Dr. Pauline Lipman, Dr. Rico Gutstein, Asif Wilson who is standing behind me, Monique Redeaux and the rest of TSJ. They have been brothers and sisters in the struggle. I want to say thank you to every organization: Parents for Teachers Northside Action for Justice and every organization in this city that have come together across race and say, “I’m going to fight with you.”

When does that happen in Chicago?

So we maintain…even though we are going to get a sandwich…eventually, we’ll get that together, we maintain that the fight for education justice has forever been changed. And we are proud to make that contribution. Thank you once again. We really appreciate you, Reverend Wilson, and just thank you very much and that’s it.”

Read more

September 25, 2015 by · Comments Off on The hunger strike ends. The fight for Dyett will go on
Filed under: Education, Environment, Global issues, Race and gender 


On Hunger Strike until Victory is Won

The words of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” echoed down Drexel Ave on Chicago’s South Side the mild summer evening of September 8, 2015.  Down the street from the Chicago home of President Obama, the Dyett hunger strikers and their supporters, holding candles in the deepening darkness, shared this song that is often called the Black National Anthem:

“Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
let our rejoicing rise,
high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea
sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won. ”

It was an opportunity for the hunger strikers  and their supporters to reflect on the centuries-old African American struggle for freedom and their role in the struggle—Day 23 of the hunger strike to create the Walter Dyett High School for Global Leadership and Green Technology at the now closed Dyett High School building in Chicago’s Washington Park.The hunger strike is now at Day 28 as of this writing and the Chicago Board of Education has finally opened talks with the strikers. There is a cautious optimism that perhaps the Dyett struggle, which in one form or another has been going on for at least 6 years, will reach a milestone in its journey toward education justice.


Candlelight vigil

Hunger strikers and supporters hold a candlelight vigil near the Chicago home of President Obama

When Dyett was closed earlier in 2015, there were no more open enrollment neighborhood high schools left in the South Side Bronzeville neighborhood it once served.

The hunger strikers have been willing to put their lives on the line for quality education, an African American tradition that goes back to slavery times.

“Even when we were in slavery black people fought for schools. And our ancestors evacuated the South to come here, to find a better life for their children…. The institution that our ancestors fought for and won—we’ve got to reclaim it.” —- Jitu Brown a hunger striker and member of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization( KOCO) and the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett.

Jitu Brown with hunger striker Irene Robinson(left)

KOCO plays a key role in the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett (which I will refer as the Coalition for the rest of this article), the organization that is out to transform the now closed Dyett High School into a 21st century freedom school. These are their demands for reopening the school:
1. Green Technology in school name and in school curriculum.
2. Global leadership/ world studies curriculum
3. Duane Turner as the school principal, who was selected by Coalition to Revitalize Dyett
4. Fully elected local school council in year 1.
5. Coalition to Revitalize Dyett represented on design/planning team with 6 members in prominent positions. Those who paid protesters to support closing Dyett cannot be on planning team.
6. The school must retain the name Walter H. Dyett.
7. Vertical curricular alignment with the 6 feeder schools identified in the Coalition proposal.
8. Community school (open till 8pm daily, with programs and resources for parents, students and the community)These demands grew out of the struggle to save Dyett High School and  the detailed proposal the Coalition  wrote to meet the educational needs of an African American community living in what Mayor Rahm Emanuel likes to tout as a global city.

The proposal envisions a rich full curriculum of the humanities, the arts, math, music, world languages, science and physical education as well as green technology and  the development of leadership skills.  The governance of the school would be based upon a participatory model that includes  parents, teachers, students and staff. There would be close collaboration with the community at large.

As Coalition member Pauline Lipman said at a speak-out supporting the hunger strikers, the proposal could serve as a model for working class education throughout the city.

“School closings are a hate crime.”—- Irene Robinson, Dyett hunger striker.

Years before being closed at the end of the 2014-15 school year, Dyett had been a highly regarded neighborhood middle school where parents from around the city also sent their children. Dyett is located in Bronzeville, a historically African American neighborhood that has become contested terrain because of its location between the glittering towers of downtown Chicago and affluent Hyde Park where the University of Chicago is located.

Gentrification efforts were stepped up in Bronzeville in the late 1990s and resulted in a wave of Bronzeville elementary school closings. Bronzeville became a living laboratory for the city elite on how to do school closings, resulting in the infamous 50 school closings of 2013. Most of those affected have been Black and Brown students.

“I live in a city where the only mistake of me and my children is being black. I live in a city where the mayor and alderman don’t respect working families, no matter which way you try to say it.” —- Hunger striker Jeanette Taylor Ramann

Jeanette Taylor Ramann

Jeanette Taylor-Ramann

According Jitu Brown,  the problems for Dyett began in 1999 when against the wishes of its local school council, it was changed to a high school, but without the necessary resources. Dyett was to be starved into destruction. In 2011 CPS announced that Dyett would phased out.The last handful of students were reduced to taking courses like art and PE online.

The practice of starving neighborhood schools in Black and Brown working class neighborhoods, labeling them “failing” and then opening up charter, contract and turnaround schools to replace them is part of an overall privatization drive closely linked to a general disinvestment in local businesses and social services necessary for strong and positive social relations.

“We’re not just seeing school closings here, we’ve seen the closings of hospitals and trauma centers, the elimination of grocery stores and more. We’re looking at a systematic disinvestment in our families, our youth, our elders, our communities.”- Jitu Brown

School closings are designed to destabilize working class communities. Neighborhood schools are part of a complex set of intergenerational human relationships that help hold communities together that under siege from outside forces. As people leave the neighborhood in desperation, this opens the way for profitable city-subsidized redevelopment schemes that push out remaining working class residents (mostly people of color) in favor of mostly white affluent newcomers.

School closings are part of the general disinvestment that fuels violence and social alienation, especially among young people. In an interview with hunger striker Irene Robinson she said this to me:

“Children naturally want to love. But this society has inflicted so much hate on Black and Brown communities that the violence you see stems from that. It’s manufactured… Dyett was our school. It had been there for 30 years. There was so much love and memories there. They didn’t just close a school, the closed the doors on the future of our children. They killed so much memory .They can never pay us back for what they have done to our children.”—- Dyett hunger striker Irene Robinson

Irene Robinson

It is class and ethnic cleansing by economic means— but communities do not go down without a fight. Led by KOCO, community residents came up with a plan to save Dyett. Eve L. Ewing  a Harvard PhD student writing her thesis on South Side Chicago school closings, focusing particularly on Bronzeville explains:

“After CPS’s plan to close Dyett was announced four years ago [2011], a coalition of community members led by KOCO created a proposal for it to reopen as what they have called a “global village academy,” an open-enrollment neighborhood high school where teachers, parents, and local school council members would work together with educators from the local elementary schools to share resources to create a continuous educational pipeline for students from preschool to twelfth grade. The district ignored the idea.”

But facing more protest, the Board of Education finally agreed to solicit ideas for how to save Dyett, the last open enrollment neighborhood high school in Bronzeville. The Coalition to Save Dyett in close consultation  with parents and community members wrote an ambitious proposal for a global leadership-green technology high school with partners  that included the Chicago Botanic Garden, the University of Illinois and the Chicago Teachers Union. There were proposals from two other groups, neither of which were very inspiring.

The Board promised an answer in August 2015. When they postponed their decision until September, after the start of the school year, the Coalition concluded the fix was in. Drastic action was needed. The hunger strike began with the strikers sitting outside of the Dyett building in a small circle of folding chairs, meeting the media, consulting with their supporters and organizing actions like the non-violent disruption of a Mayoral town hall budget meeting which saw Mayor Emanuel flee out the back door. The strikers have received help from a variety of organizations including the Chicago Teachers Union.

Mayor Townn hall

The hunger strikers lead a protest at a Mayoral town hall

On September 3rd when CPS announced that Dyett would be reopened as an “art and technology” high school, the strikers were not impressed. This so-called “compromise” was engineered with the help of South Side politicians close to the Mayor. It was a patched together public relations scheme with no community involvement; just another hasty back-room deal Chicago-style. The Coalition was not consulted and told flatly by Chicago school chief Forest Claypool that there would be no negotiations. The group was even locked out of the press conference announcing the “compromise”.

This was not what the community had been fighting for. The strike continued. The strikers went on with their protests, rallies and news conferences. Some of the hunger strikers flew to Washington DC to meet with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. They are thinking about taking their case to the United Nations after Chileans who battled school closings in their country told them of the success they had when the UN became involved. The battle had gone international.

Then on the  September 11, the hunger strikers got a call from the Chicago Board of Education saying it was finally ready to talk. The results of the meeting were inconclusive, but the hunger strikers expressed cautious optimism  to their supporters at a meeting held that evening at Operation PUSH.

But what is it about the Dyett high school proposal that is so abhorrent to the Mayor and the city elite?

“Our model is of a sustainable school deeply rooted in the community. This proposal comes from the people of Bronzeville who speak from the heart about a school that lives in a village of tightly interconnected feeder schools, community institutions, local school councils of dedicated and loving adults, relationships, and the meaning of place… This is a model that nurtures leadership, it teaches perseverance, expects the best and supports solidarity. It is a model based on a broad notion of success for the students, their families, neighborhood, city, country and world.”— excerpt from the proposal submitted by the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett

This vision of education runs completely counter to the corporate-driven model favored by the Mayor: with its rigid top-down curricula; its brutal regimen of high stakes testing; its racist allocation of resources; its sneering contempt for Black and Brown people and its privatization of public education. The Mayor’s vision rips communities apart and divides them. It is designed to blunt the intellect and shrink the imaginations of Black and Brown working class youth so they will submit to the demands of austerity capitalism.

As hunger striker Irene Robinson put it,”“They starve our schools. They hurt our children. And they don’t care if we die.”

One afternoon before we marched to President Obama’s home for the candlelight vigil, I sat down for a conversation with Rico Gutstein. Gutstein, a University of Illinois education professor, helped design and coordinate the writing of the proposal for the Walter Dyett High School for Global Leadership and Green Technology. Gutstein emphasized that the ideas came from a carefully conducted community process.

The idea of a sustainable neighborhood school lies at the very heart of the Dyett proposal. Gutstein outlined some of its basic principles:

Principle 1: The curriculum should be based in the culture, traditions, language of the local community. It should use that as starting point for a critical look at what is really going on there and asking profound questions about power and injustice. By addressing these questions in depth students can begin to learn the academic disciplines necessary to advance their own lives and the community in which they live.

Principle 2: There needs to be high quality teaching by teachers who are actually allowed to teach, not simply treated as disposable test monitors and collectors of misleading “data” from the deeply flawed corporate created barrage of  high stakes testing.

Principle 3: The students will have thorough wraparound supports with counselors, social workers and other professionals who can help address their social and emotional needs. But the Coalition wants to go beyond simply the therapeutic model. The Coalition envisions a series of internships, apprenticeships and colloquia that would help students find themselves by giving them actual responsibility as they learn practical skills for navigating human relationships and meeting the challenges of social justice.

These experiences would begin in the 9th grade with a local community organization and change the 10th grade year to an organization dealing with city-wide issues, then an organization that deals with national issues at the 11th grade and finally move to one that has a global focus as seniors. As students grow, mature and discover more about themselves, they also gain understanding of their complex relationship to  a global society.

Principle 4: One of the contradictions of US public education is that while it is supposed to prepare students to live in a democratic society, the actual organization of most schools is based on a totalitarian model of control and management from above.

A sustainable community school seeks to end the adversarial relationship between teachers and administrators, among teachers themselves and between the adults and the youth. This is done through an intense collaboration that emphasizes how all members of the school are part of the same struggle. Gutstein quoted a teacher friend of his who said,” My students don’t resist me because we are too busy resisting the system together.”

Restorative justice would be an important component in rethinking relationships within the school. Although Gutstein did not elaborate on what restorative justice means, here is one definition from the Chicago youth advocacy group Alternatives:

“…peer conferences, restorative conversations, and circles, create non-judgmental spaces for a student who broke a school rule, those affected, and members of the school community to discuss what happened, build accountability, and collaborate to find solutions that will repair the harm caused. This approach empowers students to be leaders in violence prevention, conflict resolution, and school safety.”

Principle 5: Although often derided as a liberal cliche, the term “It takes a village to raise a child” is taken literally in a sustainable community school. Gutstein emphasized how the experience, knowledge and wisdom of the adults in the school community and in the larger community is the foundation upon which one can build parent committees, the local school council and various advisory groups.  Teachers can then learn from parents and people in the community about building the curriculum and shaping the goals of the school. All of this requires parent spaces within the building.

Why green technology in Bronzeville?

I asked Rico Gutstein this question directly because I know there are people who wonder about that. His answer was quite direct,”For one thing, it’s a food desert. That’s the starting point.” There are few general supermarkets in working class communities of color and when nutritious organic food is available, it is too expensive for tight working class budgets.

Organic urban agriculture. is at the heart of the Dyett green technology plan. The Windy City Harvest farm is right next to the Dyett Building and along with three other urban farms is a partner in the Coalition. When Dyett High School was open, students worked in the Windy City farm through the school year, but mainly in the summer where they held a weekly farmers’ market.

Windy City Harvest

The Chicago Botanic Garden, a  Coalition partner, would like to create a rooftop garden and also use the atrium spaces to grow food. The Coalition plans to integrate their urban farming concepts into an already existing CPS culinary arts program. Students could not only learn how to work in restaurants and food stores, but could prepare for careers in organic urban agriculture and green urban planning that works with the already existing food distribution infrastructure to transition into creating a new food infrastructure that works for working class communities.

In 2013 the United Nations issued a report saying that we must phase out the current system of industrialized agriculture with its reliance on fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and pesticides if humanity wants to feed itself. The Dyett organic urban agriculture plan is right on time.

In addition to the urban agriculture component, The Coalition would like the Dyett building to be certified as LEED platinum, the highest green building rating. This would be a multi-year process which would involve the students in planning and creating the the ecological systems necessary to achieve this. Energy conservation and renewable energy sources are critical for meeting today’s environmental challenges. Once again, the Dyett vision is right on time.

A future Dyett

Artist’s conception of a future Dyett H.S. with solar panels on roof

It’s important to understand that the Coalition’s vision goes far beyond preparing students for the option of getting green jobs, as important as that is. There is also an all-encompassing philosophical or spiritual component that will go along with everything they plan to do, that the earth is our mother and human consciousness must be in harmony with that basic reality.

Young people as global leaders

“Why are they fighting us so hard about such a good plan? Why don’t they want our children to have a high quality school? Why don’t they want our children to succeed, to feel good about what they are doing in school?”——Irene Robinson

Why indeed? Why on a planet undergoing terrifying climate change, and whose human population still suffers from the twin curses of poverty and violence, would the Mayor and Board of Education oppose a school based on green technology and global leadership?

The Coalition proposal speaks of young people entering the global stage as actors who have studied social and physical reality in depth. Of young people people learning academic and artistic disciplines on behalf of environmental sustainability as well as peace and justice.

Does anyone seriously believe we can achieve environmental sustainability, peace and justice within the confines of our present badly broken racist social system? Either in the community of Bronzeville or in the world at large?

The system may be badly broken for most of us but it works well enough for the corporate elite which is who Mayor Emanuel and the Board of Education truly represent.

The Dyett proposal speaks of young people using their education to become global leaders, transforming their world and bettering the planet.  This is education for liberation and is implicitly revolutionary in its implications. What if other communities began to demand such an education, an education that challenges a corrupt and brutal system of oppression? What then?

Perhaps this answers Irene Robinson’s question,”Why are they fighting us so hard about such a good plan?”

Hunger striker Anna Jones at Operation PUSH

All photos by Bob “BobboSphere” Simpson. More photos HERE
For further reading

Walter Dyett High School for Global Leadership and Green Technology (the proposal submitted to the Chicago Board of Education)

The Dyett Hunger Strike website

Hunger Strike to Save Dyett High School in Bronzeville! by Teachers for Social Justice (blog with the latest Dyett updates.)

Phantoms Playing Double-Dutch: Why the Fight for Dyett is Bigger than One Chicago School Closing by Eve L. Ewing

Chicago Parents Enter Week 2 of Hunger Strike Protesting Corporate Ed Reform and Dyett HS Closure by Yana Kunichoff

A Proposal for Sustainable School Transformation by the Communities for Excellent Public Schools

Read more

September 13, 2015 by · Comments Off on On Hunger Strike until Victory is Won
Filed under: Education, Environment, Global issues, Race and gender, Society and Economy 


The Chicago hunger strike for Dyett High School: Why it matters to us all.

It’s been a tough week for the environment. A chunk of glacier so big it could bury Manhattan in 1000 feet of ice fell into the sea off Greenland. Monstrous forest fires raged in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest with some of those fires weakening the permafrost which protects us from a possible methane apocalypse. Scientists in Europe reported that climate change may be degrading soil quality, threatening a dangerous reduction in the world’s food supply.

And in Chicago’s largely African American Bronzeville, 12 people have been on hunger strike since August 17, demanding a high school in their community that would focus on green technology and global leadership. With humanity facing the greatest environmental crisis in the history of the species we could sure use more green technology and global leadership. Right?

Hunger strikers Jitu Brown and Irene Robinson are joined by
AFT President Randi Weingarten at an August 25 press conference
Well, Mayor Rahm Emanuel sure doesn’t think so. The Coalition to Revitalize Walter H. Dyett School has met nothing but delays and resistance to their proposal to transform the now closed Dyett school building into the Walter H. Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.

Read more

August 30, 2015 by · Comments Off on The Chicago hunger strike for Dyett High School: Why it matters to us all.
Filed under: Education, Environment, Global issues, Society and Economy 


Confederate flags are coming down but denial of racism remains

Chicagoans gathered to honor the dead from the Charleston terrorist attack

After the terrorist attack in Charleston there were ceremonies across the nation to remember the dead and protest the atrocity.  But prominent Republicans and their allies stumbled all over each other denying that race had anything to do with it. Since then some have retreated a bit and asked that Confederate flags be removed from public buildings, but denial of racism is still running strong both in rightwing political circles and in the mass media.

Denial of racism is a characteristic of 21st century US white supremacy. In its roughly 350 year history on this continent,  racism has demonstrated a Darwinian adaptability to changing socio-economic conditions.

The US racial caste system evolved from the invention of lifetime African American slavery, while white labor was allowed limited freedom. This was a key feature of colonial capitalism and was codified into law by the early 18th century. It was understood by the ruling classes of the time that racial division was necessary for the survival of capitalism as they knew it.

But as capitalism evolved after the abolition of slavery, the racial caste system changed to a combination of legal and informal segregation with the racial division of labor still basically intact.

Today, thanks to the civil rights movement, the US racial caste system is technically illegal. But enforcement of anti-discrimination laws has been weak and inconsistent. That and concealing racism’s outward manifestations in a cloud of obfuscation and denial helps maintain the essentials of its existence.

I doubt most lower and middle class racism denialists really believe what they are saying, but think the racial caste system must continue to ensure their own socio-economic standing, which has become increasingly precarious. A white skin now offers less and less  protection from the ravages of 21st century austerity capitalism, so they cling to the lies of racism like a drowning person reaching for a scrap of wood after a shipwreck.

Some white people have chosen another path, multi-racial solidarity to change a socio-economic system that still requires  a racial caste system based on melanin content. This is a leap of imagination too great for many white people at this time, fraught as it is with the possibilities of social ostracism, danger and unknown consequences.

Yet we know that human beings are a very adaptable species and today’s racism denialist can be tomorrow’s anti-racist activist, once the cloud of lies and delusions is pierced. I’ve seen it happen, though not often enough. Whence, the mass propaganda campaign of denying that racism is a problem or that it even exists anymore.

Personally, I doubt capitalism could even survive racial equality in this country. But if it did it would be a form of capitalism unrecognizable to anyone living today.

After centuries of struggle, racial equality remains a distant goal, yet less distant than before because of the sacrifices made by our predecessors and by those working for it today. Fannie Lou Hamer once said that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

But she and others like her pushed on anyway, so that yesterday’s Jim Crow-style-in-your-face racism, though hardly extinct as the recent Charleston Massacre demonstrates,  has been forced into a retreat as denial of racism grows in importance.

The future is unwritten and making racial equality a part of that future   continues to be one of the greatest challenges this nation faces.

Denial of racial reality only delays us from reaching that goal.

June 26, 2015 by · Comments Off on Confederate flags are coming down but denial of racism remains
Filed under: Race and gender, Society and Economy, US politics 


When White People Rioted in Baltimore

The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

This is the opening stanza of “Maryland, My Maryland”, the official state song. You can view  the complete lyrics here. The song refers to an 1861 riot in Baltimore when Union troops traveling through the city to defend Washington DC from a possible Confederate attack were assaulted by a pro-slavery mob. The “despot” referred to was President Lincoln.

This song celebrating a riot by white racists goes on for 8 more stanzas exhorting Maryland to secede from the Union. The words were written by James Ryder Randall and set to the tune of “Oh Tannebaum” by two sisters, Hetty and Jennie Cary. The song became a hit throughout the Confederacy and the two sisters joined the high society of the Confederate aristocracy.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee had his army play the song during the 1862 invasion of Maryland which led to the Battle of Antietam and the single bloodiest day in US history. The song had such an emotional impact on the Confederacy that several pro-Union versions were penned in the North, though none achieved the popularity of the original. Read more

May 12, 2015 by · Comments Off on When White People Rioted in Baltimore
Filed under: Media, Race and gender, Society and Economy 


The Chicago election: the electoral revolution that didn’t happen

It was one helluva an election season on the shores of Lake Michigan. Last summer I was brimming with optimism. The Chicago Teachers Union(CTU) had people out canvassing the neighborhoods. CTU President Karen Lewis was polling well in a possible mayoral bid and it looked like Mayor Rahm Emanuel  was on the run.

I foresaw an electoral revolution in the works. As a veteran of the Harold Washington days, I imagined the charismatic Karen Lewis recruiting a working class army of supporters,  including the the working poor and the unemployed. Energetic reform candidates for City Council would emerge. Many of the largely Black and Brown non-voters would finally have something worth voting for—for a change.

 photo Karen.jpg

Karen Lewis at the New Era Windows workers co-op

A multi-racial rainbow coalition would sweep into power on election day and the day after election day, face the combined wrath of the LaSalle Street bankers and hedge fund bunco artists. But we would not only have people in office, we’d have a powerful movement for social and economic justice to back them up.

It didn’t happen. Karen announced that she was seriously ill with a brain tumor and could not run. She is now undergoing treatment.  (BTW Chicagoans love to call their politicians by their first names).

Read more

April 21, 2015 by · Comments Off on The Chicago election: the electoral revolution that didn’t happen
Filed under: Race and gender, Society and Economy, Unions, US politics 


Hair? Who cares? Apparently a lot of people.

Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens gets a lot of hate mail. Not about the words she dutifully turns out, but about her hair. Yes, her hair.

“How could anyone take seriously anything written by an author whose accompanying picture makes her look like a tramp, with greasy, matted, uncombed hair?” said David.

Really David?

“My neighbors and I give you permission to shoot your hairdresser, ” from Karen.

Uh, Karen, shooting hairdressers is illegal. I hope you know that.

For some very unsettling reasons, people, mostly women according to the author, are offended by her hair. To the point of actually writing to her. She prefers to ignore her hair and focus on other things. I know that hair (or the lack of it) is less of a social issue for men. We do live in a deeply sexist society after all.

Personally I just tuck what’s left of mine under a baseball cap and ignore it. Problem solved. But thanks to our repressive cultural norms, not everyone can adopt such simple solutions as hers or mine without a paying a price.

Paying a price? Yep, sometimes a very steep one, like the charge at the salon or the loss of a job. Really America…haven’t you something better to do than hating somebody’s hair?

Read the her article entire article: “Hate mail lesson: Uncombed hair threatens the natural order”

Heidi Stevens

Heidi Stevens

March 25, 2015 by · Comments Off on Hair? Who cares? Apparently a lot of people.
Filed under: Race and gender, Society and Economy 


Next Page »