School Closures, Wages Drive Thousands of Activists to Chicago Rally

Last week, thousands of union workers, community activists and politicians joined together for a “Take Back Chicago” rally and town hall meeting at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum. The activists are calling the administration to pay attention to the minimum wage, affordable housing, a fair tax system, school closures and healthcare issues.

The activists wanted to send a message to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his “corporate, greedy, elitist friends,” according to John Byrne and Monique Garcia of Chicago Tribune.

Kari Lydersen writes in In These Times that a wave of recent cuts has closed almost 50 Chicago public schools, six mental-health clinics and thousands of public workers without jobs.

Emanuel spoke to a crowd of about 600 people at a Chicago Ideas Week event to discuss politics and the state of the union. The Chicago Ideas Week was sponsored by a private equity firm:

The two events offered a clear study in contrasts in Chicago politics: like-minded folks meeting in a controlled setting to see a self-styled reform mayor engage in political repartee versus a raucous gathering of activists promoting a populist, anti-administration agenda. It also offered a potential early blueprint of the opposition platform to the mayor in 2015, assuming a contender emerges to take on a highly skilled politician who had $5.1 million in his campaign fund to start October.

Brandon Johnson, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, spoke to a rally crowd at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum. Johnson said 35 union and neighborhood groups were there to send a message to “the mayor of this city and his corporate, greedy elitist friends that this city belongs to the people in this room, including black people, brown people, poor people, working-class people.”

Speakers including Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn promoted a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a graduated state income tax with higher rates for wealthy people. They delivered populist themes that are familiar for Quinn — currently seeking re-election — who repeated his vow to raise the state’s minimum wage and recounted his days as an organizer when he founded the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer watchdog group.

“You don’t get changes from the big shots on top of the power heap,” Quinn said. “It bubbles up from grass-roots community leaders, everyday people banding together for a cause they believe in.”

At the rally, speakers also called for having the Chicago Public Schools board elected by the public rather than appointed by the mayor. Video footage of last year’s Chicago Teachers Union strike was met with cheers from the crowd.

At the Cadillac Palace Theatre, Emanuel was joined by David Gregory, who hosts NBC’s “Meet the Press”, to discuss politics one-on-one. The crowd was serenaded by thumping pop tunes and political demographic multiple-choice trivia questions on a screen as they waited for the mayor to emerge.

During the 30-minute interview, Emanuel found a receptive crowd and received applause when he mentioned his push for tougher gun laws and the city’s program to give young people summer jobs.