Whittier Sit-In: Potential or Negation?

Becca & Xloi

“The indirect reason, which is certainly related, is that without a plausible collective vision that goes beyond immediate constituencies and narrow demands, there is an inevitable pressure towards 'winning victories' in an implicitly or explicitly reformist perspective, an approach resulting in some 'victories' that are outweighed by immediate costs and some that are only different in that their transformation into obstacles happens somewhere down the road.” -Don Hammerquist (11/13/10)

The above response is from the aftermath of a discussion based on the Whittier Elementary school sit-in in Chicago and its potential. Even if the demands at Whittier appeared to be narrow and easily reconciled within the state, the resistance at Whittier Elementary went beyond even its particular immediate goals. “We” cannot predict the outcomes of such seeds and where they will lead. However, the Whittier Elementary school sit-in demonstrates a situation where resistance sparked further movement in Chicago, (and perhaps elsewhere), but also made the Chicago public school system appear more legitimate and acceptable than even before.

In Chicago, October 27, 2010, was the 43rd and last day of the Whittier sit-in. A group of mothers, children and community members resisted the demolition of the Whittier school field house. Located in Pilsen, (a historically Mexican and immigrant neighborhood) the field house served as a hub for the community. Supporters of Whittier resisted The Chicago Public Schools, (CPS) who was scheduled to spend $300,000 to demolish the field house. A nearby private school wanted to loan the lot from CPS to create a soccer field for its students. The mothers and community took over the building, created a rotating security system and a chart that accounted for leadership every hour throughout the day.

When the parents and children of Whittier elementary took over the field house in Pilsen, Chicagoans from all across the city to came out to show support. Black leaders from the south side, anarchists from Pilsen, members of the anti-eviction campaign, the ISO, the Latino Union, Four Star Anarchist Organization and others all came out.

After the 43rd day of the sit-in, the CPS negotiated with the community. A deal was cut with the mothers, who have since formed a non-profit, called the Whittier Parents Committee. The Committee met with CPS to negotiate terms to end the sit-in. Since then, the upkeep and maintenance of the field house is in the hands of CPS in negotiation with the Whittier Parents Committee. To our knowledge there will be no private soccer field.

This “win” could be written as a victory or as an element of state co-optation. The news of this outcome spread throughout the country. Even though the demands were never, “liberatory” nor were they generalized outside the confines of a particular struggle; people took power. For 43 days many Pilsen residents and supporters demanded access to public space and backed the demands to fight the demolition of the field house. This resistance sparked conversations throughout communities in Chicago around what was possible and stretched the boundaries of organizing.

For example, in an anti-eviction campaign meeting on Chicago’s North side and at a separate meeting inside Cabrini Green regarding what to do about tenants risking eviction, there were mentions of the possibility of waging a sit-in. In both cases, the Whittier sit-in was used as a call for folks in the room to take over political space. Since then, the anti-eviction campaign staged an eviction blockade in the north side of Chicago. According to a press release distributed by the Anti-Eviction Campaign, “The family will use their occupation--much like the workers from Republic Windows, and the mothers and students at Whittier--as leverage to get the banks to negotiate.”
The Whittier parents did not go, “beyond immediate constituencies and narrow demands.” Nor was it their intention. Their intention was to take control over a field house that was going to be demolished. What ended up happening was that Whittier Parents became a non-profit and have since been working with CPS, (its former enemy). Perhaps by cutting a deal with CPS, the mothers who were enraged the night before, are now working within the belly of the beast.

This brings into question just how far the state is willing to go to meet “our” demands. The state has actual interests in such negotiations, not simply to silence the uproar of the people, but to create new agents for its legitimacy. Xtn comments about this,“given the real inability for that struggle to go much further, it would seem likely that we will be facing a period in which social struggles contain both the radical elements as well as tendencies that seek to draw support form the left leaning but still social democratic established political machine.” The state has an interest in making radical elements believe that their demands can be met without its destruction.

The CPS did not simply smash the sit-in. Rather it absorbed it into its sphere. While Whittier incited resistance in pockets across Chicago, we are still left with the question of what it looks like in 2010 to make demands that ultimately cannot be met by the state.