At first, Sarah Simmons didn't realize she would be one of the surprisingly few Chicagoans who would ever have the chance to confront Mayor Rahm Emanuel directly about his education policies. In fact, she said, the opportunity came simply because she was in the right place at the right time.
Simmons, 55, created something of a stir Friday morning when she attended the city’s annual breakfast honoring Martin Luther King at a downtown hotel without an invitation. Amid a gathering of elite corporate, civic and religious leaders, the mother of three stood up and confronted the mayor about what she saw as the gap between professing to honor the work of the slain civil rights leader while working against the interest of disadvantaged communities across the city.
“I wanted to draw attention to the hypocrisy I felt of Rahm wanting to honor MLK while turning around and shutting all these schools in black and brown neighborhoods,” Simmons told Ward Room.
Hearing that there was to be a gathering in honor of Dr. King put on by the city, Simmons, who has engaged in activism around education in Chicago in the past and who has a daughter attending a CPS school, tried to mobilize like-minded folks for a protest outside of the event’s hotel on Michigan Avenue.
When that didn't work, she decided basically to attend on her own. That’s when she realized how easy it would be to slip in, uninvited but unnoticed.
“I probably looked pretty out of place, but not enough so that anyone stopped me,” she said. “I had a CORE [Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators] button on and knee-high rubber boots, so it was probably clear I didn’t belong.”
At the event, the Mayor gave longtime civil rights activist the Rev. Willie Barrow, who worked with King, the city’s Champion of Freedom award. It was during his own remarks, however, that Simmons' resolve to say something grew.
“His talk was clearly geared to [the assembled] corporate and civic leaders,” she said. “Basically, the gist was ‘we’ve made it, and now the people at this breakfast have a duty to reach out their hands to others who are struggling and help them up.’ And then he made some comments about how important education is and there should be a quality education for everyone.”
After the mayor finished speaking, Simmons rose to call the mayor out.
“I stood up and asked ‘Mr. Mayor, how does it honor Dr. King to close 50 schools in black and brown neighborhoods and open 31 privatized schools?’ ”
It didn't last long. As soon as Simmons spoke, the emcee on stage tried to silence her, people around her looked away embarrassed and security arrived to escort her out of the building. On the street, she was met by two uniformed Chicago police officers who informed her if she tried to go back in, she would be arrested.
And that was that.
Simmons says her outburst was just one Chicago parent’s response to concerns citywide about Emanuel’s education policies and how the mayor is conducting business in Chicago.
“I think the mayor has been very elitist, and disregards the people in this city who are struggling,” she said. “The fact that he’s willing to close 50 schools without any significant community input says to me he doesn’t really care about those communities. And for him to stand up there and talk about [the work of Dr. King] is hugely hypocritical.”
Does Simmons see any problem with essentially sneaking into and disrupting an invitation-only event? Not so much.
“The mayor closes himself off from the people of Chicago so much, there are so few opportunities to have any contact with him,” she said. “[He’s] pretty good at protecting himself from public scrutiny, and I saw it as an opportunity I couldn’t let go by.”
“Sometimes you have to do what it takes to be heard.”
Note: The original story was amended to reflect factual errors concerning the number of Ms. Simmons' children and the acronym CORE.