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Church Groups With City Contracts Paid For Protesters

By Chris Bentley in News on Jan 27, 2012 5:40PM

Abandoned textbooks. eholubow
The apparent outpouring of community support in favor of school closings seemed fishy to many from the start. In response to reports that those protesters may have been paid to back school closings, Chicago Public Schools inspector general announced Wednesday that he would investigate the matter.

Numerous protesters told reporters they were paid — often $25 or $50 — to join buses full of astroturf protesters in what would appear to be grassroots support for school policies backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration.

WBEZ reported at least one protester thought they were being paid to object to school closings, only to be scolded by another rent-a-protester who would inform the concerned citizen of his position on the issue.

Much of that money appeared to come from church groups. Pastors and church-affiliated groups allegedly organized the scheme, a practice which two ministers publicly decried. The Rev. Roosevelt Watkins found himself at the center of the controversy when he admitted to paying community activists in-training to protest at public meetings.

The Chicago Tribune reports today that Watkins has close ties to City Hall and gets money from Chicago Public Schools. Watkins’ HOPE Organization is one of the faith-based and community groups awarded millions of dollars in shared social service contracts under both Emanuel’s and former Mayor Richard Daley’s administrations.

Watkins released a statement defending the practice of paying community members to protest. But when beneficiaries of city-funded programs say they aren’t acting on behalf of the administration, critics find that hard to reconcile with efforts to drum up support for City Hall’s agenda.

Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) told the Tribune the practice of paying protesters "subverts our democratic process." Paying for transportation and organizing popular support is well within the purview of community groups. But when so much about this particular movement seems off, no one should be surprised that reporters have reacted by following the money.