BY Maudlyne Ihejirika - Chicago Sun Times | http://bit.ly/dmcC2E
Pilsen residents cheer Friday after police removed barricades at Whittier Elementary School after several protesters pushed past them. CPS officials left the area. (Al Podgorski/Sun-Times)
September 18, 2010 -- On its third day, a sit-in by parents demanding a library for a Pilsen elementary school took several twists and turns -- with police at one point threatening arrests, then abruptly leaving after more than 100 parents, students and teachers pushed past barricades to support the protesters.
"Just because we live in an economically challenged neighborhood doesn't mean we shouldn't have the right to the same resources as anyone else," community activist Gema Gaete told Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Monique Bond in one of many heated exchanges during the six-hour standoff at Whittier Elementary, 1900 W. 23rd.
Pilsen residents protest
Parents, community activists and students had commandeered the school's adjacent field house on Wednesday in protest over CPS' plans this month to raze the building it says is structurally unsafe, and replace it with an athletic field.
The protesters say the school, which has neither a library in-house nor in the community, needs one more than it needs a field, and claim the district is reneging on an earlier commitment not to demolish the field house. They want about $354,000 currently budgeted for demolition to instead be used toward the building's repair and renovation into a library.
"It would probably cost two or three times that amount to renovate, and with the current budget constraints, we have no funding sources right now that we can count on," Bond said, pleading with the parents to vacate the building.
"We have a structural engineer's report which states that the building is unsafe and recommends that it not be occupied," Bond said.
The parents countered with their own report by a structural engineer that found the building in need primarily of a roof replacement, but salvageable with minimal investment. The group also has garnered the support of their state legislators, with state Rep. Edward Acevedo promising to help find the rehab funds.
CPS officials arrived Friday morning with a cavalry of police blocking off the street. Bond persuaded the parents to evacuate all children from the building, where protesters had spent the last two nights.
The two sides then reached an hourslong impasse over the protesters' demand for a meeting with schools CEO Ron Huberman and his commitment to save the building. As the day wore on, Bond eventually gave Huberman's commitment to meet with the group next week, and a promise not to demolish until the two sides met.
But then the protesters asked for it in writing. That, Bond said, she could not do. Then leave, the parents countered, they would not do. Pronouncing it a stalemate, Bond left.
Officials swept in to tack "No Trespassing" signs all over the building. And police moved in. The group was given a 2:45 p.m. deadline to leave or be arrested. But just as the deadline passed, school let out, and a sea of parents, students and teachers pushed past the street barricades shouting, "Si Puedo!" They pushed past police, some fighting their way into the field house. And when it seemed the crowd was out of control, police and CPS officials suddenly broke camp and left. Shouts of, "We won!" went out.
"We stuck together and won!" pronounced community member Evelin Santos. "We're going to stay here until we get our letter of commitment!"