Chicago bulldozes 'La Casita' three years after 43 day sit-in saved the vital community center and library.
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. In Chicago on Saturday morning, despite community protests and ten arrests, bulldozers razed a community center known as La Casita, located on the campus of Whittier dual language elementary school. Chicago Public Schools had attempted a similar move in 2010, and the community responded with a 43-day long sit-in, carried out by mostly mothers and their children. Local residents had long used the field house as a community center and during the occupation decided to make it into a library to highlight the fact that Whittier, a dual language elementary school that serves many students learning English, is one of 160 Chicago public schools without a library. They received book donations from all over the world.
This is part of a story I filed in 2010 for Democracy Now! about the occupation at La Casita.
NOOR: Daniella Mencia is a fifth-grader at Whittier.
DANIELLA MENCIA, FIFTH GRADE STUDENT, WHITTIER DUAL LANGUAGE SCHOOL: We normally call it La Casita, the little house. We do a lot of things here. Some--the moms know--they learn their GEDs, they earn them. They know--they teach them how to sew. They teach them how to make bracelets. And this Casita is really powerful, 'cause they use it for lots of things.
NOOR: Eager to preserve the building they call La Casita, community members launched a campaign to remake the La Casita into a library. Again, this is ten-year-old Daniella Mencia.
MENCIA: When I heard that they were going to knock it down, but the moms wanted to make it to a library, I knew that this was my fight.
NOOR: According to The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Public Schools said the building's structural problems made it unsafe and it needed to come down right away.
Joining us now to talk about the latest from La Casita and its impact on the community is Gabriel Cortez. He's an assistant professor at the College of Education at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, as well as an activist. His research focuses on school-community relations and grassroots participation in public school policy.
Thank you so much for joining us, Gabriel.
PROF. GABRIEL CORTEZ, NORTHEASTERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY: Thank you for having me, Jaisal.
NOOR: So, Gabe, you weren't actually present during the destruction of La Casita, but you've been involved in this struggle for many years now and you were close with a lot of the activists who were there at the time. Can you talk about what happened and what the impact has been on the community?
CORTEZ: Yeah. Well, I've been involved ever since day two of the occupation back in 2010, in the fall back then, in September.
But what has happened--what happened this past weekend was--it was a total surprise. Community members, parents, students have been using the field house almost every day. From what I've been told--I wasn't there when they demolished the field house, La Casita, but police, construction workers came through, a demolition crew came by, while [incompr.] group was setting up to practice at the field house, and they told them they had to leave the space immediately because they were going to search around and prepare for demolition.
Obviously, community members were horrified. They were disappointed. They were scared. Community members came out in support, you know, for La Casita and reminding the police officers and the construction workers that there was a promise made by CPS Alderman Daniel Solis, who's the alderman of Pilsen, one of the aldermen, who said that they were going to keep up with the promise of keeping the space for the community members. So that did not happen.
People feel, you know, there's no trust. Who can we go to in terms of leadership, right? So there's a lot of questions that are being asked. So although people are disappointed and scared of these tactics, now that the space is gone, what the new strategy is: well, let's turn that space into a new building. If CPS and the aldermen agree that that building, you know, was in poor conditions, well, now is the perfect chance to build a building that was widely used, much-needed, you know, at least, by community members and students. And why not build a new space? You know, instead what their plans are: to build a soccer field, an athletic field that more likely will be used by private high schools down the street.
NOOR: And the media often portrays these type of events, which are actually pretty common in Chicago and other places around the country, as kind of happening in a vacuum. They don't often discuss how this fits into the much larger picture of the struggle for public education in Chicago. So, you know, just in the last 20 years, there's been massive protests. You saw the teachers strike last year, and even a little more than ten years ago there was a hunger strike in the neighboring community of Little Village, where people went on hunger strike just to get a school built in their community. There was massive protests in the '80s to get local school councils. And a lot of people don't know that Chicago is the only urban school district where parents and community members and teachers have direct democracy in how their school is run. So, Gabe, can you talk about how this really does fit into a much larger picture of community resistance and the fight for public education in Chicago?
CORTEZ: Right. Well, you know, Jaisal, as you know, like, the world is changing right as we speak. Right now, [incompr.] many public services, from education to health care to different types of city services are becoming more privatized, and education is being one of those services. As you mentioned, in the last 30 years [incompr.] further throughout the history of public education, communities have always been advocating for changes in their local schools, from ethnic [incompr.] who wanted Catholic institutions, right, serving their kids back in the early 1900s, to the mid-1900s, where African Americans wanted to learn about their own culture and have African-American administrators in their schools, and boycotts of, like, over 60,000 students, the CPS back in the '60s, during the black power movement. Right? And then in the '70s you have the neighborhoods of Pilsen and Humboldt Park, which were growing Latino populations back then who were advocating for schools that meet their needs and have administrators that understood the Latino culture. And then you have the 1980s, which was really a six-year city-wide campaign to develop the local school councils. And this was under the leadership of the late, great mayor, Harold Washington, right? He really was a different type of leader who really embraced these concerns, who brought in the interest of the different stakeholders of the business, community, the local community, the activist community, and the educated community and brought it together and said, you know what, all you stakeholders need to have accountability, also a vote on how these schools are going to be run, and more importantly, address the needs of the local community. Right? So it took about six to seven years to push that through. After he passed away [incompr.] in Springfield, Illinois [snip] second mayor came into office, he made a point where Chicago is going to become an international city. And we're seeing that today. Neighborhoods that have historically been neighborhoods of migrant communities are now being replaced with young urban professional communities. Right? And this is what's happening in globalization. We have a two-tier economic system. We have people who are getting well-paid working in financial institutions, and you have people who are working class. And if they don't get a high school degree or go to college, you'll be lucky if you have a job that'll help you live a sustainable life. Right? So that's the reality now. We have various situations like [incompr.] the city. More communities are coming together and figuring out ways how we can support each other, right, because this is a fight. I believe dialog between CPS headquarters, the main office [incompr.] downtown and educators throughout the city has been totally detached. Right? There really isn't any communication, decisions are being made, and they're just being enforced throughout the city.
NOOR: So the same time Chicago's been a source of activism and protest, it's also been the testing ground for a lot of these reforms. I remember when I was in La Casita in 2010 when I visited, they were getting support from all around the world, and people were looking for inspiration and guidance from the parents at La Casita. What's the advice that the parents and the community members at La Casita have for other communities that are going through the same struggles? And it's happening all over the country.
CORTEZ: You know, what I've learned from being involved in La Casita--and mind you, I'm there as an ally; there are leaders that are from the Pilsen area who I've learned so much from--is to build a network of allies, be transparent with their decisions, right, democratically made decisions. And one of the most powerful things that I've learned from La Casita, even though it's a predominantly Mexican school, Mexican neighborhood, supporters from all over the city came through to show their support. You had black folks, white folks, you had Latino, you had Asians. Everyone from different socioeconomic backgrounds came through. And they knew that this was an injustice. Right? So building that support really helped sustain, right, this movement of advocating for education and educational resources for this low-income community in Pilsen. Right?
What I can say is that I know [incompr.] throughout the city more and more people learning about healing techniques through restorative justice learning. This is learning about how to heal from the violence that's taken place, how to build from understanding and developing and designing new alternative of how we can educate ourselves, because even though schools are being dismantled, resources are being taken away, we still have to live life and we still have to develop an understanding of what's happening in this society. Right? What I can say is when you learn, when you actually meet with those from La Casita and other activists throughout the city, it's, like, you know, you really cherish and value communication and dialog and learning from each other. What I can say about those individuals who make these decisions and who have power, you know, listen, you know, be in tune with your compassion, because we know what you're doing, and it's hurting so many people. Imagine being the kid from the Pilsen neighborhood and your school is being attacked and your family members, your community members are being criminalized for [incompr.] education. I mean, that's a lot of pain you're inflicting on people, whether you know it or not. If you cannot listen--I asked for those who are in those circles who are around these individuals with so much power to intervene. It really is an addiction. You know, power--absolute power corrupts. And people need to speak up [incompr.] for justice and for the betterment of this world, because right now we're going the opposite direction.
NOOR: Thank you so much for joining us, Gabe.
CORTEZ: Thank you so much, Jaisal, for having me on the show.
NOOR: And as a reminder to our viewers, Chicago is the same city which has now lost La Casita and closed 50 public schools this year and fired thousands of teachers.
Thank you so much for joining us.