Grassroots Occupation: Chicago Parents Sit-In to Save Field House

Grassroots Occupation: Chicago Parents Sit-In to Save Field House

Parents and students in Chicago occupying a school field house to protest its planned demolition have become a symbol of community resistance to blind budget cuts.

More than 50 parents have been staying overnight at the field house, nicknamed “La Casita,” for more than a week, supported by donations of food by the community, and calling for the squat, peeling, two-room structure to be turned into a library instead.

The building currently houses after-school programs for Whittier Dual Language School and the neighborhood’s community center, and has been targeted by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) administration for immediate demolition.

Wiping away tears, Whittier parent Araceli Gonzalez told Truthout the library was essential for the community and she was prepared to continue to fight for it.

“We are basically doing this for the children, to get them a library, space, activities after school,” Gonzalez said. “Let’s take them out of the streets. CPS is like throwing them to the streets.” One of Gonzalez’s children graduated eighth grade from Whittier, and another is in third grade at the school.

Parents at the school in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood had been organizing for seven years, according to Teachers for Social Justice activist and Pilsen resident Gema Gaete, to divert some of the money in Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) fund to their school.

They succeeded in 2009, when Pilsen Alderman Danny Solis allocated $1.3 million in TIF funds to Whittier. Parents only realized that the field house was set for demolition when, in November 2009, they received an itemized budget for the TIF money received.

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Buried within the allocation for a new science lab, among other things, was $356,000 allocated to tearing down the field house. CPS has argued the structure is unsafe, but the parents occupying the school argue that it is cheaper to “repolish, not demolish.”

The week-long sit-in has withstood several visits by the police – at one point they threatened arrests, then abruptly left after more than 100 students, parents and community members pushed past barricades to support the protesters – and one by a demolition crew.

Gonzalez, who has been sleeping at the field house and going home each morning to shower before work, said that though parents started the occupation, it is community support that has sustained it.

“We keep hearing ‘the moms this, the mom that,'” Gonzalez said, referencing the primarily immigrant mothers who have led the fight for the field house. “It is not only us, all these people are coming – they help. Everybody is in it now.”

Volunteers have brought food, mattresses and drinks to sustain the sit-in. People have taken shifts staying outside the house all night in case police visit the field house, and have also taken shifts spending the night.

Evelin Santos, a community member who grew up in Pilsen, called the plan to demolish the field house an “injustice.”

“I know what it is to grow up in the neighborhood,” Santos said of Pilsen, a low-income, Hispanic neighborhood. “We’re not getting respected.”

Individuals and organizations from all over the city have donated books to help build the hoped-for library. The Chicago Underground Library has offered to assist with cataloging and setting up a comprehensive lending system

The letter of solidarity to stop the demolition of the field house has received support from, among others, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators in Chicago, the Community Education Task Force in New York and the ANSWER Coalition.

Just “because I came here from another place, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to fight for my rights,” said Gonzalez, who came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 11, and has lived in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood for 15 years. “This is my life, I live here. This is my future.”