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Activist Who Confronted Mayor Emanuel On School Closings: Response 'Overwhelming'

By Jon Graef in News on Jan 25, 2014 7:15PM

AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

She had to say something. That's the urgency with which Sarah Simmons, of public education activist group Parents 4 Teachers, describes her decision to confront Mayor Rahm Emanuel about his closure and privatization of Chicago Public Schools: "Felt obliged to confront the mayor today."

In a widely shared Facebook post, Simmons described how she heckled Rahm Emanuel at an invitation-only breakfast last week honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here's more background, via the Reader:

To make her protest, Simmons—a midwife by profession—dropped in on the 28th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Breakfast, an invitation-only event held last Friday at the Hilton on South Michigan Avenue.

She came with two friends who stood outside the hotel holding a banner that read "School closings are racist."

The interfaith breakfast is a command performances for civic Chicago that's sponsored by BMO, Walmart, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, United Airlines, and several other corporate titans.

Simmons wrote that the mayor was honoring the legacy of the iconic civil rights leader by saying "everyone at the invitation-only breakfast [had] 'made it' and [that] it is their obligation reach those on the 'other side' to pull them up to success."

It goes without saying that, in between closing schools, mental health clinics, and libraries for the poor, the mayor has a unique sense of achieving that goal.

It's then that Simmons asked a question that would be on most people's minds at this point.

While [Mayor Emanuel] was uttering platitudes about Martin Luther King ... I simply asked him how Dr. King was honored by closing 50 public schools in black and brown neighborhoods, and then opening 31 privatized schools. For some reason, security led me out and Chicago cops greeted me at the door to tell me I would be arrested if I re-entered the hotel. Mission accomplished. Hope some of the guests think twice about Rahm's hypocrisy.

The original post has been shared 116 times on Facebook. After her story took off, Simmons took to Facebook again to explain her actions.

"Clearly, all we need is a candidate because I have not heard anyone defend Rahm or his henchmen," Simmons wrote in a follow-up. "I find you can go anywhere if you walk with purpose and look down at your cell without making eye contact with security."

Simmons spoke to NBCChicago's Ward Room column and the Chicago Reader's Ben Joravsky, who drolly noted that the cops who threatened to arrest Simmons if she re-entered were the only two police officers in the city not pissed at the mayor for trying to take their pensions.

Simmons followed up her action by also calling for a protest on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, according to Catalyst Chicago.

Chicagoist got a hold of Simmons, who agreed to talk with us and graciously gave us permission to quote her Facebook posts. Simmons told Chicagoist that while few people attended Monday's protest, she felt positively about the day anyway.

"It was too cold, too early, and too short of notice, so only 2 others came. But I think the day was rather successful anyway," Simmons said to Chicagoist through social media.

Simmons was much more enthusiastic about the response to her act of civil disobedience.

"The media and Facebook response to this action has been overwhelming. 150 positive FB responses; many comments on the NBCChicago ward room article; [an article] in the Reader. If we can harness this energy we can unseat Rahm!!!," Simmons said to Chicagoist.

Which raises a question: unseat Rahm and replace him with whom? Simmons volunteered Toni Preckwinkle and David Orr as examples, but otherwise said people were cautiously waiting for a candidate to emerge.

"Everybody seems to be sitting tight, waiting to see if they have a solid base. Based on this little action, I'd say yes, there is a solid base and it just needs to be organized," Simmons said to Chicagoist.

But again, organized around whom? While more schools are approved for privatization, a candidate against the mayor has yet to emerge. Once they do, they're likely to be crushed by the mayor's war chest, which almost amounts to tens of millions of dollars. The politicians in the progressive caucus, for instance, have good ideas, but seem to be outnumbered and outgunned. [Perhaps such analysis is premature, though, given the next mayoral election isn't for a little while now.]

At any rate, while Simmons did crash a private event, she did so in the name of civil disobedience. She also displayed the kind of journalistic temerity that few published journalists, yours truly included, actually practice today. For this, her actions should be rightly celebrated.

The mayor's office has yet to respond to Chicagoist's requests for comment.