As CPS hosts star-studded graduation ceremony, hundreds march to demand removal of cops from schools

Oprah Winfrey, Common, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot all address the 2020 graduating class during a virtual ceremony Sunday.

SHARE As CPS hosts star-studded graduation ceremony, hundreds march to demand removal of cops from schools

Activists demanded the removal of Chicago police officers from Chicago Public Schools as they marched from Hyde Park Academy to the CPD’s 3rd District station on Sunday, June 14, 2020.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

As Chicago Public Schools hosted a virtual graduation ceremony Sunday that boasted high-profile speakers like Oprah Winfrey and Common, some graduates chose to forgo the celebration and instead took to the streets to push for the removal of Chicago police officers posted at schools across the city.

During the hour-long virtual event, which was organized by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office and aired on local television and radio stations, some speakers hammered home that the graduating class is coming of age during an unprecedented period in American history.

While Lightfoot urged members of the graduating class to share their vision of the city’s future with her, other CPS students publicly decried the mayor’s current policing policies — and predicted her defeat in the 2023 election.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker credited the seniors for doing their part to social distance throughout the COVID-19 crisis, which ended in-person learning for the school year in mid-March. Other speakers directly invoked George Floyd, the African American man whose death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer set off worldwide protests for criminal and racial justice that have continued for weeks.

“At this moment of protest and dissent, whether we choose to march in the streets or not, we are each being called to reckon with our country’s past and determine a more equitable future for black and brown people, for poor and disenfranchised people,” Winfrey said. “[We are] called to insist that our nation lives up to its ideals and comes to terms with all the ways racism has been written into our laws, embedded in our institutions, imprinted on our culture.”

Winfrey called on graduates to do what they can to fight racism during a watershed moment in American history. Winfrey lauded younger Americans’ fight for change and transformation after watching Floyd’s killing in a video she noted was taken by a teenager.

“I’m hopeful because you, your generation, saw that knee on the neck and not only knew how wrong and vile it was, you took to the streets to stand up and proclaim it so,” she said.

During Lightfoot’s speech, she asked graduates how they would respond to racism and build a better society.

“Nothing about these past three months has been fair, especially not for you,” she said. “Not only has your world been turned upside down by a global pandemic, but we’ve recently experienced the pain and trauma of the murder of George Floyd, which has forced us to reckon with the inequality and injustice that very much is a part of our past and lingers in our present.”

“The question is: How do we stop it from being part of the future, our future, your future?” Lightfoot asked, urging the graduates to ponder what they hope Chicago will look like in 10 years and what role they can play in making that vision a reality.

Minutes before the star-studded graduation ceremony kicked off, Lightfoot was drawing the ire of hundreds of protesters who converged at Hyde Park Academy to push for the removal of Chicago police officers from schools in the district. Donning their caps and gowns, a handful of recent graduates from the school led the group on a peaceful march to the 3rd District police station at 7040 S. Cottage Grove Ave.

As activists continue to urge Lightfoot and other leaders to substantially cut the police budget and reinvest the money in community-based programs, the $33 million security contract CPS holds with the police force has come under increased scrutiny.

“We’re here to tell Lori Lightfoot to cancel the CPD in CPS contract,” said Lanessa Young, a recent graduate of Hyde Park Academy. “We want the police out of schools, and we want them out now.”

Calls to remove officers from schools have been amplified during the ongoing, nationwide protests that erupted in the wake of Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, which is among a handful of major American cities who have since moved to pull cops out of their public schools.

Despite that momentum, Lightfoot has recently made it clear that she doesn’t support removing officers from schools. For Young, the next mayoral election will serve as a referendum on Lightfoot’s policing policies, especially for younger Chicagoans who have recently entered adulthood.

“You ain’t going to be our mayor for very much longer,” said Young, who plans to study political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and eventually run for public office.

“We can vote now,” she added. “And I’m going to vote.”

Ana McCullom, an incoming senior at Kenwood Academy who organizes with Black Lives Matter and Assata’s Daughters, criticized the mayor’s unwillingness to address the concerns of those advocating for changes to the Police Department.

“We’re not asking anymore,” McCullom said. “We’re demanding, and we’re taking.”

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