Monthly Archives: February 2012

Goodman reports on the occupation of Piccolo elementary school in Humboldt Park

Last night (Friday, Feb 17) at approximately 8:00 pm, I received an alert notifying me that parents, teachers, and students at Brian Piccolo Elementary School in Humboldt Park, a predominantly lower-income Puerto Rican and African American neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, had occupied their school in order to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plans to “turn around” Piccolo Elementary by firing all current staff (not only teachers and Piccolo’s new less-than-a-year-old principal, but also all custodial, security and cafeteria staff) and handing the school over to the controversial Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a Chicago-based charter school corporation founded by venture capitalist Martin J. Koldyke in 2001.

After quickly stopping in Bridgeport in order to pick up some colleagues, I proceeded to Humboldt Park in order to observe the school occupation and talk to the local community about the situation at Piccolo Elementary.

At approximately 9:15 pm, en rout to Piccolo by car but still several blocks away, my colleagues and I pulled over to the side of the road in order to make way for roughly ten police cars as they blazed past us, sirens blaring, also headed to the elementary school. Sirens could be heard approaching the area from a number of directions.

A block away from the school, we were prevented from driving any closer by a police blockade. As I exited the car (which my colleagues went on to park several blocks away) a police officer threatened to ticket me for obstructing traffic. There was no traffic to obstruct, and in any event, the police blockade itself was providing a much more effective and permanent obstruction to traffic than the five seconds it took me to get out of our car. As I continued to approach Piccolo on foot, a second officer attempted to dissuade me from proceeding any closer by explaining, “This is an unsafe neighborhood and you don’t belong here.” I responded, “If that’s the case, then I’d better stick close to you guys”, before continuing on my way.

When I reached Piccolo Elementary, I found a group of approximately sixty demonstrators standing in front of the entrance to the school, blocking the police from entering. Approximately twenty police officers stood directly across the sidewalk facing the demonstrators, while many more officers stood further away, surrounding the area and blockading the surrounding streets. Many of these demonstrators standing outside were not themselves directly affiliated with Piccolo Elementary, but had come to show solidarity with the parents, teachers, and students of Piccolo, as well as several local religious and community leaders, most of whom were then inside of the school. One of the demonstrators, an articulate woman in her mid-twenties, explained to me in great detail that she was in Humboldt Park that evening because she was well acquainted with AUSL and the Chicago charter school initiative more generally, and believed that the privatization of Chicago’s public schools (which has been well-demonstrated to be ineffective in actually improving the educational performance of students) amounted to nothing more than an effort by the Mayor’s office to pay back corporate campaign contributors, at the same time weakening the position of school labor by requiring school workers to work longer hours for less money in an anti-union environment: “These school turn-arounds aren’t about education. They’re about politics, and they’re about money.”

While most of the Piccolo parents, teachers and students were inside of the school, which they had locked down in order to prevent the police from entering, a few parents and community members remained outside to answer questions. I interviewed Willie Williams, a sixty year-old Humboldt Park resident whose children had attendedPiccolo Elementary, and whose grandchildren now attended the school and were presently occupying it with their parents from the inside. According to Willie, parents and teachers from several other local elementary schools also facing “turn around” were then also occupying Piccolo. Willie explained to me that the Piccolo community was angry with the Mayor because he had ordered the “turn around” of the school based on purely statistical data without ever once visiting the school or neighborhood itself in order to ask the Piccolo community what they thought about their school and its teachers. The occupiers’ single demand was that Mayor Rahm Emanuel come to the school in person in order to speak to the local community before firing all of Piccolo’s workers and handing the school over to AUSL. “This community knows its teachers and loves its teachers, and we want the Mayor to know that. Come and ask the parents. Come and ask the students. They don’t want their teachers going anywhere.” Willie also asked what the logic was behind firing Piccolo’s less-than-a-year-old principal, explaining that Piccolo students and parents felt very good about their new principal, and that she herself should be given at least a year or two turn Piccolo around before losing her job.

Willie, whose wife used to work as a custodian at Piccolo, also pointed out the absurdity of AUSL’s policy of firing all non-teacher employees in the name of improving educational performance: “What does a janitor have to do with educational performance? What does a lunch lady have to do with educational performance? These people are from our community. These people are our community. Taking away their jobs doesn’t help our community. It makes people lose their homes and apartments. If these people try to get their jobs back, AUSL will only make them work more hours for less money.”

When I asked Willie about Piccolo’s low performance on test scores, he responded, “Of course our students are failing. Our school can’t even afford to buy textbooks for our students. How are students supposed to succeed if they don’t have books? The Mayor is buying ipads for students in rich neighborhoods, but he’s leaving Piccolo to die. The Mayor wants Piccolo to fail so that he can hand it over to his friends at AUSL.” Willie suggested that the Mayor should provide adequate funding for Piccolo and other failing Humboldt Park public schools and provide them with an opportunity to turn themselves around before shutting them down.

Willie also had a few words to say about the Mayor’s general attitude toward low-income neighborhoods like Humboldt Park and the City’s disregard for Humboldt Park residents and their efforts to participate in the governance of their neighborhood: “They think we’re stupid. They think we’re ignorant. They don’t listen to us because they think we don’t know anything. But we know a whole lot more about Humboldt Park than they do. We know a whole lot more about Piccolo Elementary than they do. This is our neighborhood. This is our home. This is our school. Why won’t the City ask us what we think?” Willie also complained, “Rich people say that our schools and communities are failing because the parents don’t care. They don’t just blame the teachers. They blame the parents, and they say we’re lazy and we don’t care about getting our children a good education. But we have a hundred parents here tonight who care enough about their childrens’ education and their communities to get arrested. When we try to show them we care, they just ignore us.” When I asked Willie if he had a personal message for the Mayor, he responded, “If AUSL schools are so great, why doesn’t the Mayor put his own children in an AUSL school?”


Greg Goodman is a graduate student in history and a tenacious activist. For more lovely, local INDEPENDENT MEDIA, see the Occupied Chicago Tribune , featuring an article interviewing teachers in an AUSL school.

Note: The occupation has ended after CPS agreed to meet with community members. 500  marched on Mayor Emanuel’s home Monday. His kids went to University of Chicago Laboratory School.

Well, from Humboldt Park to Hyde Park, the Chicago Spring may be sprouting through the cracks.


Into the Abyss

In Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (2011) Werner Herzog brings his flair, creativity, and sensitivity to a bleak story about two men convicted of a triple-homicide in Texas – one serving life, the other on death row. The film opens in a state graveyard where the crosses on the graves have no names, only numbers. Herzog is interviewing a chaplain who guides people through their executions – like so many moments in the film, the chaplain fights off tears as he struggles to come to terms with the way he is implicated in state killing, averring his belief that things are right in the Lord’s world while he clearly cannot quite handle it. We then settle into the seeping, drawn out shock of watching Michael Perry talk to Herzog, 8 days before his execution by the state of Texas on July 1, 2010. He is bright-eyed, believes he is innocent, and that he is going to be with his god.

Over a sparse and stirring, yet sometimes slightly overbearing soundtrack of wailing strings and droning bass, Herzog follows a police lieutenant to the scenes of murder, where Perry and Jason Burkett allegedly killed a woman and then two other young men (they were around 18 at the time) for a red Chevy Camaro. Herzog seems to find a common language with his subjects to describe it: “she died for a car,”; “they died for what?” Somewhere between his interviewees’ Christian faith and their rural American poverty, Herzog raises the specter of a death for something, which thus means something – a martyrdom – only it turns out to be for nothing. As he has commented in a radio interview, he was “fascinated by the senselessness of the the crime.” Young boys, unemployed and alienated, kill for a car that they drive for less than 72 hours.

But it is not just these boys who are hopeless, who kill, are killed, and incarcerated. The film broadens into a snapshot of a population in which males are structurally in trouble with the law, killing, being killed, going to jail. This first jumps out when Herzog asks the brother of one of the victims to describe where he was at the time. We find out the brother himself had just gotten out of jail. He skipped bond to attend his brother’s funeral – “he was my best friend,” he cries – and was arrested at the funeral by 6 officers. “Can I at least stay for my brother’s funeral?” he reports having asked. He couldn’t. The father of the other defendant, Jason Burkett, is himself in jail, not for the first time. From a privileged island in the Southside of Chicago, it sounds familiar: public housing assistance, food stamps, failed education, and people who tell you that several of the most important men in their life are or were in prison. While here in Chicago I associate this kind of crisis with disproportionately black and latino communities, in Conroe, Texas similar dynamics play out on a white population — which clearly bothered a few of the UChicago students in the audience, who couldn’t muffle their laughs at the mannerisms of one of the interviewees, a young white man with a goatee who had himself been in jail, was illiterate until adulthood, was nearly killed by Michael Perry several years earlier, and turned away from Herzog to spit on the ground whenever something unsavory came up. The laughs: cultural and class condescension, stripped of the niceties we have somehow evolved for the colored population our system disenfranchises right here in our global city.

Even the red Camaro, the commodity whose luster caused death, remains incarcerated – or, impounded by the police – sitting and decaying in a fenced-in lot. Herzog goes to see it alongside other cars shot up by bullets and otherwise falling apart. “3 people died for this car,” he says to the officer, who adds matter-of-factly that a tree took root right underneath the middle of the car and grew up through the floor, making it very hard to move. Later, in the section “Time and Emptiness,” Herzog speaks with Jason Burkett’s father, apparently in his 60s, who is also in jail. The older Burkett looks back to the anticipatory moment of his life – when he was on a football scholarship at U of T – and then made decisions that took him onto a course of drug abuse and crime. The dad blames his own failings for Jason’s failings, and recounts how he testified to this in court, that he had been “trash” of a father – a testimony compelling enough that it narrowly got Jason out of a death sentence. During the trial was the last time they saw each other and touched – father and son chained together on a prison bus – “I never would have thought that would happen,” says the father. And now Jason will get out in 31 years – “that’s 1941,” he says. “You’re a century behind,” Herzog tells him, amused but contrite. It takes the aging man a few minutes. “Oh, 2041, that’s right.” “Yes, I guess time is different in here,” says Herzog. As the once lustrous Camaro, the fleeting object of desire, decays in the police lot, the man who coveted the object grows old under police watch, and so does his father. The commodities and the men are all locked up and decaying: a quintessentially American nightmare.

Most of the people Herzog talks to have heard traumatic news over the phone that makes their “knees go weak,” or perpetrated the acts that ripped loved ones out of the worlds of those who loved them. These people are dealing with traumatic death close at hand, and they share a range of coping mechanisms: embracing a wholehearted Christian faith, or shutting down, cutting themselves off from others, suppressing emotions, and, before the camera, suppressing tears.

Herzog’s most striking interviewee is a former perpetrator of murder – not independent, but state-sanctioned. (Herzog has a post-Nazi German sensitivity to state killing as such, as he’s noted in a radio interview, but also to the humanity of perpetrators. Even Perry and Burkett – not entirely remorseful – are human beings, not monsters, Herzog has insisted in the same radio interview. Herzog attempts to disrupt the idea of murderers as monsters – which Foucault identified as a key discourse in the production of a category of the “abnormal” in modern European societies, which helped prepare the ground for Nazi racism itself.) In the last act, “A Glimmer of Hope,” we meet Fred Allen, the captain of an execution team at Huntsville death row for many years.  Allen describes how he helped carry out over 100 executions, and “it was difficult,” but he left his emotions behind. Then, one time – it was the first time he executed a woman – the emotions came pouring back. He didn’t know what was happening, as his knees went weak. And he could no longer do it. He quit his job and lost his pension, says Herzog’s implicitly endorsing text on the screen. Out of a shockingly bleak collage of lives and deaths comes something like a redeemer for Herzog. He is no activist, he simply quit.

Herzog’s own ethics here are principled: as he says repeatedly to his interviewees, he thinks it is wrong on principle to execute another human being, plain and simple. In contrast, Fred’s ethics compels because it is practiced. He doesn’t understand why, but he no longer can methodically execute people, and that is why he now opposes the death penalty. And Fred’s situated, immediate generation of an ethics in the face of death more readily translates to our experience viewing this film. We don’t sit through a principled lecture on why we should abolish capital punishment, notwithstanding Herzog’s occasional comments. His brilliance is to hint at at the policy critique only obliquely, by creating an unsettling encounter with particular wrecked lives on unfamiliar territory, shot at eccentric angles, with an unlikely “hero” in Fred. We would do well to see in this aesthetic brilliance an opening for political allegory, which is potentially efficacious because Herzog resists the intellectual urge to induce to or draw on general principles. Rather, he throws us head-on, through testimony, up against the trauma and bleakness not only of the small, exceptional world of the execution cell – but of a contemporary rural America where, like our cities, large portions of the population live in poverty, sometimes fighting and killing for what they don’t have, an America in which a father and his son sit at this moment – apart – in prison.