Striking Teachers and Terror on the Picket Lines
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because education is not just "nice to have." It's a must.
By Mike Friedberg
What began a week and a half earlier as a labor movement of excitement had started to turn ugly. Our strike got launched with us screaming for the essentials that teachers have been needing in Chicago for years: a nurse and social worker in every school, guaranteed nap time for preschoolers, classrooms with fewer than 32 students, affordable housing for our homeless students and families, and basic resources for special education students and English Language Learners.
The polling showed that the public supported the Chicago Teachers Union. But nine days in, the hatred toward us could not be ignored.
The vitriol on social media was not only wrongheaded but had turned lewd and horrific. So by the time we marched downtown, employees of the Chicago Board of Trade had spit on numerous members.
They also were dropping papers that read, “We want teachers, not SJWs with 17 weeks off.”
Suddenly I heard screams and shouts. About 200 feet behind me, I saw a BMW drive through the crowd.
Never mind that we don’t have 17 weeks off. Never mind that we have an hourly wage where we don’t get paid when we don’t work. Never mind that many teachers aren’t given paper at their schools and have to buy their own. Never mind that copies are tracked so that many teachers don’t go over the limit. Never mind that we were advocating for the most marginalized students. Never mind that we would not be getting paid for the days we missed.
In their eyes we were “greedy” and “lazy.” The narrative was pervasive. The facts were ignored.
On the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2019, I gathered with 10,000 other Chicago Public Schools employees in a Chicago park. The plan was to march to a local development, which the city is subsidizing with more than $1 billion. As we marched down North Avenue that morning, the cold rain hit me in my face. I had a stroller with blankets for my 4- and 6-year-old kids, both Chicago Public Schools students. I didn’t want my kids to get sick, so I didn’t plan to stay long.
Suddenly I heard screams and shouts. About 200 feet behind me, I saw a BMW drive through the crowd. I was jolted. Someone could have easily been killed. I promptly turned the stroller around, afraid for my children’s lives.
Many people defended the actions of this sociopath on social media. “Way to show those union thugs!” “My taxpayer dollars didn’t pay for them to block traffic!” and “He’s trying to go to work so he can pay his TAXES, which pay YOUR SALARY!”
Later that day, nine of us were arrested. They were peacefully protesting outside the offices of Sterling Bay, a megadeveloper that’s receiving over $1billion from the city. It was hard to ignore that the majority of those arrested were not white.
Despite the newspapers, the mayor’s office and an onslaught of social media hatred (many from those who are not teachers), there were also many incredible moments. When 30,000 of us marched downtown, we saw students with megaphones leading chants: “Chicago, escucha, estamos en la lucha!”
But this was only the beginning for the youth activism portion of our strike. At Crane High School, students led a press conference, urging the mayor to divest from the Chicago Police Department and invest in our “starving schools.” Many high school students picketed with their teachers. Students protested and chanted inside City Hall and then lead a sit-in around the outside of the building. Several hundred students completely surrounded it, holding signs in protest.
One girl in particular stood out to me. A student at Lindblom Math and Science Academy’s interview went viral on Facebook. The young woman outlined inequities in funding and how they disproportionately affect Black and brown kids, and how she’s fighting for special education students who don’t get the services they deserve. The clip was profound and left me speechless. The youth were taking it to the streets.
The strike made me miss my grandmother immensely. She passed away nearly two years ago. A Holocaust refugee, she was also a political activist dedicated to social justice causes until the day she died. If she were here, I know that she would have called me daily for updates and insisted in joining me in picketing, even though she could barely walk.
She was tougher than the most challenging students I’ve ever taught, and not a day goes by where I don’t miss her. She came annually to share her story of barely escaping the Nazis and coming to America. I watched students nod their heads, cry and hug her.
Cancer may have taken her life, but I witness her spirit live on in tens of thousands of teachers and workers, but most importantly in the young lady interviewed. She epitomized dedication, empathy, courage and critical thinking. The Chicago Teachers Union strike is over, but Anna Nessy Perlberg’s commitment to social justice and fight for equality lives on in the heart and soul of Chicago Public Schools students. Her spirit lives on.
Moreover, it was really wonderful to see my students again when school resumed. I watched them walk through the metal detectors with smiles on their faces. We returned to our project, where students had to design and build a parachute for a washer. I watched their excited adolescent faces as they grabbed stopwatches, meter sticks and their prototypes. They revisited their drawings, made the finishing touches on their prototypes and began testing.
The vitriol and hatred were on mute as the sounds of excited and engaged eighth graders were loud. But I was proud of what we fought for, and I was grateful to be back for the reason I started working as a Chicago Public Schools teacher. For the kids.
- Mike Friedberg, OZY Author Contact Mike Friedberg