Twelve Chicago residents, who have been on a hunger strike for more than two weeks to protest the closing of their neighborhood high school, plan to confront Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a second time Wednesday night at a public forum on the city’s budget. Emanuel on Monday met privately with the strikers, who said the meeting accomplished little.
"He asked us to come off the hunger strike, and of course we said the only way we will is if we get what we want," said Rev. Robert Jones, one of the protesters, who has been drinking juice and water, but has had no solid food for 17 days.
Jones said that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Forrest Claypool did most of the talking during the meeting with Emanuel. "The mayor did not give much of a response personally," Jones added. "They did say they wanted to have this resolved in a couple days. So we will see."
By repeating their demands at the budget meeting, the strikers aim to put more public pressure on the mayor to act.
“We’re going to make it uncomfortable for him, and he’ll come to the table. He can only take so much public embarrassment,” said hunger striker Jeanette Taylor-Ramann, 40.
Ramann’s daughter Mikiya Coley, 13, recently graduated from Irvin C. Mollison Elementary School in the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago’s south side, a 20-minute walk from Walter H. Dyett High School, which the city closed in June. With the closest high school now closed, Coley will have to travel 16 miles to her new school this fall. That long journey worries Taylor-Ramann, particularly after this summer’s spike in violent crime in the city.
“I would have to purchase her a cell phone I can’t afford,” said Taylor-Ramann. “I would have to get her some sort of protection because she’ll take a train and two buses to school.”
The 12 protesters are holding their strike on a lawn outside the high school. Sitting on folding chairs during a late-summer heat wave, at least one of the strikers, Anna Jones, required a trip to the hospital, she told Al Jazeera. The protesters say they have not eaten any solid food since Aug. 17, staying hydrated by drinking juice and water.
Although he doesn’t have a child who attended Dyett, Robert Jones, a pastor at Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, is also participating in the hunger strike. “My spirit feels good, but my body is weak,” Jones told Al Jazeera. “I’ve got some headache, but I’m keeping really hydrated. I’ve done some fasting in the past, but I’ve never done anything this long.”
The hunger strike is the latest chapter in a bitter feud between advocates for Chicago parents and the administration of Emanuel, who has battled budget woes by closing 50 schools since he took office in 2011.
The mayor “is committed to an open dialogue with community stakeholders as CPS works toward a final decision on this issue. Everyone deserves to have their voice heard,” CPS spokeswoman Kelly Quinn said in a statement. She added, in the statement, "It's why he has met with community leaders regarding Dyett in the past, and it's why city leaders from the mayor's office and CPS will continue to have an open dialogue on this issue moving forward."
The city says schools such as Dyett don’t have enough students attending for it to make financial sense to keep them open. Strikers and the Chicago Teachers Union say the low enrollment at Dyett is due to rule changes imposed by city hall that prevented students from enrolling there.
“It was set up for failure,” Jones said.
Charter schools have replaced many of the schools Emanuel closed, a move that the CTU has criticized as the privatization of the public education system.
It's not yet clear whether the city will convert Dyett into a charter school.
The protesters want Dyett to remain an open enrollment school. Unlike some charter schools, open enrollment schools don’t require tests or specific talents to attend. Their proposal calls for the creation of the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.
Brandon Johnson, CTU’s political director, said that the mayor’s office has taken a paternalistic and condescending attitude towards the demands of black and Hispanic Chicagoans. "Folks have decided to go without food because we’re not respected and we’re not listened to," Johnson said.