Hundreds of teachers, activists and students gathered Wednesday outside Cobo Center in a combined effort to protest conditions in Flint and at Detroit Public School buildings.
The crowd carried signs referencing the citywide sickout Wednesday that saw 91 percent of DPS schools closed, as well as calls for Gov. Rick Snyder’s resignation over the Flint water crisis.
The protest outside Cobo came hours before President Barack Obama’s visit to the North American International Auto Show inside the building.
“Snyder out, is a must,” the crowd chanted, led by leaders wielding megaphones. “Detroit won’t go to the back of the bus.”
More action is planned, vowed Steve Conn, the ousted president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union.
Conn said the Detroit Strike to Win Committee plans a 5 p.m. meeting Thursday that will include a vote on “a strike demand that I’m sure will include the removal of (emergency manager Darnell) Early and of all emergency managers.”.
Asked about how many schools he expects will close Thursday, Conn responded: “Close to all.”
Joel Berger, an English teacher at Cass Technical High School, said the citywide sickout and protest stemmed from a grassroots effort by teachers, students and parents. He joined many protesters in directly linking issues in DPS and Flint.
“Teachers, parents and students are just fed up with the injustices that are being done to our students,” Berger said. “It’s about (Darnell) Earley, who was the emergency manager in Flint when they switched their water over, and now he’s being charged with looking over Detroit Public Schools.”
Other protesters insisted the sickout symbolized support for Conn.
Conn had a hearing Wednesday before the national executive committee of the American Federation of Teachers on his bid to overturn his removal from office and expulsion from the union.
“Today we organized a citywide strike, we shut down the schools,” said David Douglass, an organizer with By Any Means Necessary, which is supporting Conn.
“We’re building toward a citywide strike to restore the rights of the people of Detroit now, and to get rid of the (DPS) emergency manager,” he said.
Protesters with BAMN have several demands, including Conn’s reinstatement and the restoration of power to an elected school board, Douglass said.
“It’s clear that the state takeovers and the elimination of democratic control across Michigan cities has only created more destruction in black, Latino and poor communities,” he said. “In Flint, we had Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, who said himself that to save money, they’d switch water from the Detroit water system to the Flint River.”
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, a DPS spokeswoman said 88 of the district’s 97 schools were closed due to the high volume of teacher absences, the latest in a series of sickouts in the state’s largest district.
Wednesday afternoon, the district filed a complaint in the Michigan Court of Claims seeking a restraining order and a preliminary injunction forcing teachers to end the sickouts.
“Closing schools for reasons such as today and on previous dates further jeopardizes the limited resources the district has available to educate its students and address the many challenges it faces,” Earley said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, supporters of Conn clashed with security at the Hilton Garden Inn, streaming into the lobby of the hotel where the American Federation of Teachers national executive council was conducting a hearing on his bid to be reinstated as DFT president.
A melee broke out inside the hotel, with punches being thrown by both sides as security officers tried to keep about 15 protesters out. Police were called to restore order.
During the scuffle, a potted plant was knocked over in the lobby as frightened hotel guests scurried out of the way.
At one point, about 20 squad cars, a Border Patrol car and a fire engine were on the scene.
Detroit Public Schools board member Elena Herrada, who had hoped to get inside the room where Conn’s hearing was taking place, said frustration over state control of the district and other issues is coming to a head.
“I understand the rage and I really am disappointed that there isn’t more standing up against corruption because this is how Flint was allowed to be poisoned,” she said.
The DFT executive board removed Conn from office and expelled him from the union in August after finding him guilty of internal misconduct charges. The AFT will decide whether to overturn Conn’s expulsion and return him to office.
Shanta Driver, Conn’s lawyer, said each side would have three weeks to file briefs in the case, followed by a decision at some point.
A series of sickouts last week closed dozens of schools and drew attention to health and safety problems inside some DPS buildings.
Mayor Mike Duggan toured several schools and announced inspections of all of the district’s buildings, a process that will last into April.
Conn scoffed at Duggan’s response.
“The mayor’s plan is really the governor’s plan,” he said. “They are just trying to divert attention away from the issues.”
Wednesday’s sickout drew condemnation from Michigan House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant.
The speaker said on Twitter, via spokesman Gideon D’Assandro, that “DPS strikers are putting their own wants above the needs of children. It’s despicable.”
Cotter’s remarks reflect Republican criticism of the sickouts, with some lawmakers arguing that they imperil the possibility of a state bailout for the district, which is more than a half-billion dollars in debt.
Duggan called on both leaders in Lansing and teachers in Detroit to do right by students.
“Lansing needs to act. I appreciated the governor’s comments last night, pushing the Legislature to move” on an aid package for DPS, Duggan said Wednesday.
Detroit Public Schools buildings closed on Wednesday, Jan. 20
1. Academy of Americas
2. Adult Education Center - West
3. AL Holmes
4. Ann Arbor Trail
7. Benjamin Carson
14. Burton International
18. Cass Tech
22. Cody APL
23. Cody DIT
24. Cody Medicine
26. Crockett CTC
27. Davis Aerospace
29. DCP @ Northwestern
30. Detroit International Academy
31. Detroit Lions Academy
32. Detroit School of the Arts
33. Diane Banks Williamson
39. Duke Ellington
41. East English Village
44. Fisher Lower
45. Fisher Upper
49. Golightly CTC
55. JR King
56. ML King, Jr. HS
61. Thurgood Marshall
64. Moses Field Center
68. Osborn Evergreen
69. Osborn Math
70. Osborn Prep
71. Palmer Park
75. Renaissance High School
76. Paul Robeson/Malcolm X
77. Ronald Brown
82. Turning Point
83. Mark Twain
85. West Side Academy
86. JL White
87. Charles Wright
88. Coleman Young