October 20, 2015

I-House forum considers impact of Obama Library

A forum at I-House this Saturday discussed issues including the transfer of parkland to build the Obama Presidential library and changes to the Chicago public schools system.

The talk centered on the University’s and the city government’s appropriation of common goods for private interests. It was sponsored by the Seminary Co-Op, I-House, and The Baffler, a national magazine of cultural criticism.

Rick Perlstein, an editor for the magazine, elaborated on an article he wrote for its most recent issue. The piece looked at the history of the bid to put the Obama Presidential Library in either Washington or Jackson Park.

Perlstein questioned why the University invested so much into a bid for a library to which it would not have any formal connection.

“[The library] was the latest in University of Chicago’s some 60-year-old campaign to colonize not merely Hyde Park but Kenwood, Woodlawn, and in the case of the Obama Library, the Washington Park neighborhood,” he said.

“The people who were going to be uplifted by [the Obama Presidential Library] are going to be gentrified out of the neighborhood,” Perlstein said. “What was so brilliant, and what my article ultimately argued, was the University has been able to use the arts of public relations to get the community to cheer its own dispossession.”

Perlstein then handed the conversation over to Jitu Brown, an activist who led a hunger strike over the summer to try to keep Walter Henri Dyett Academic Center operated by CPS as opposed to a private contractor. Brown was critical of city leadership, especially fourth ward alderman Will Burns, head of the Chicago school board David Vitale, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“We made a conscious decision to come out of the hunger strike, brothers and sisters, because we knew Rahm Emanuel would watch us die. I’m not being dramatic. I want you to know that in Costco, on the 32nd day of the hunger strike, I fainted. You’re looking at a man that used to be able to bench over 400 pounds,” Brown said.

Baffler senior editor Chris Lehmann spoke next about the influence of wealthy individuals on education policy. Lehmann talked about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s 100 million dollar donation to Newark public schools and compared the situation in Newark to the situation in Chicago. Mass closings of traditional schools in Chicago have coincided with a push to establish charter schools, which receive public funding but are run by private organizations.

“Rahm Emanuel doesn’t have to rely on a single 20-something billionaire donor—he has a whole Daley-bred political machine to unilaterally impose change. But you still see the same chatter of millennial excellence and how the charter school movement is going to basically alchemically produce knowledge out of money,” Lehmann said.

Labor and civil rights lawyer Tom Geoghegan closed the event by discussing his attempts to use the law to reinforce the position of the public in the face of efforts to dispossess public property. He specifically discussed a case his firm is taking on behalf of Friends of the Parks against the city regarding plans to build the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts in parkland along the lake shore.

“One of the things we said is that as trustee… [the city] has a fiduciary duty to hold [the park land] for us. And the city’s answer is ‘we have no fiduciary duty.’ And that is not legally correct, but I think it’s a pretty good description of how the city feels about the rest of us,” Geoghegan said.

By the end of Geoghegan’s talk, the event had run well past its scheduled end time, and Perlstein was told to leave the I-House Assembly Hall almost immediately. Regardless, several members of the audience took up the microphone to respond, speaking against white supremacy and for continued organization against the current Presidential Library site, among other issues.

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