March 5, 2010

March 4: The Tide Is Rising--A First-Hand Report

Perhaps the most important single protest of the Obama era so far took place yesterday--the national day of action in defense of public education. Despite the huge differences in specifics from pre-K to grad school and from state to state, there were hundreds of protests around the country in response to an initial call, from Cali, the epicenter of the current wave of struggle.

These battles are the most widespread organized resistance to tuition hikes, savage cutbacks and privatization initiatives, all fueled by the economic meltdown. Somehow the "green shoots" the administration and media so like to talk about appear to be unable to push up through the mountainous state and local budget deficits and education is one of the first targets.

Although there's a lot of day after reportage, the build-up took place largely under the media's radar, despite endorsements from the likes of the national AFL-CIO. One noteworthy occurrence suggests real concern and divisions in the ruling clas--that's the feature article published March 3, the day before the protest, in the NY Times, on rebarbative "education reform expert" Diane Ravitch, who is now recanting the pro-privatization, pro-charter school, pro-standardized testing views she had spent decades pushing. Clearly some realize that a total collapse of the US educational system is not in the interests of the ruling class.

Anyhow, I want to get to cases. Here is a inspiring and moving summation of some of what happened in Berkeley, just sent me by Liz, a 'rade of mine who is in grad school there.

It Looked Like Movement To Me!

What I saw yesterday at UC Berkeley looked like "movement" because so many different kinds of people were moving in sync: anarchists who want to shut it down and occupy; students who want to lobby in Sacramento; laid off high-school teachers who want to teach; Asian and Pacific Island students demanding the right to education for immigrants; custodians who want to send their own kids college; 10 year-olds chanting "We want P.E." Black, brown, Asian, and white. Students, parents, teachers, and workers. Movement is when one student who prefers to march and chant, has friends who are shutting down the highway.

The organizing was broad and deep, connecting radical students with identity groups, with unions with faculty and staff, and community groups. It was highly coordinated - centrally democratic and drawing on institutions of student organization and unions. It was also spontaneous and decentralized. Many groups organized their own actions behind their own banners, in their own style, in their own language, choosing their own targets.

We marched in a group of 30 law students through our law school, through the library and the main lecture hall screaming "Whose University? Our University!" and "Join us! Join us!" When we passed our building's custodian in the hallway, she yelled "Si se puede" for us. The librarians chanted quietly. We "took the street" outside the law school, shutting it down for about 10 minutes, and marched to the main campus protest with our banner "Berkeley Law: We Object." It was not radical, but it was a crack in the wall of business class solidarity that holds up conservative law school culture. Chanting in the law library felt a little bit like movement.

The mobilizations at the law school in the fall attracted mostly white students with labor organizing backgrounds, targeting the law school Dean and protesting the law school fee hikes (we're going to pay $8,000 more next year to the education loan industrial complex). This semester women of color leaders organized in advance, taking care to build strong relationships among students, with radical staff at the law school, and with leaders on the undergrad campus. Women of color at the helm focused the message on "We are public education" - what it means to be a school for low-income students, for students of color, and immigrants. Many of the students who joined the mobilizations yesterday were newly politicized, new leaders, and students of color.

The march from UC Berkeley to Oakland was an exodus of students pouring off campus into the city. We were joined along the way by groups of kids and parents. The faces were Black, brown Asian and white. The sight of downtown Oakland filled with the masses was beautiful to all of us. I wasn't there for the protests around Oscar Grant (young black man murdered by police last winter) but people were saying they felt connected to that protests.

Two of the best movement moments of my day happened on the train on my way back to Berkeley. A groups of kids in braces, Asian and white, looking a little bit punk and a little bit like chubby children saw my sign and said "Yeah, money for schools not for war!" They told me they staged a walk-out at their school and they were kind of bummed that only 7 kids walked out. I told them 7 kids was more than ever walked out of my middle school. They agreed that next time there would be more.

On my way out of the train, the operator paused before pulling out of the track to talk to me. She was an older African American woman and she wanted to know how the protest went. She wanted to make sure I knew that slave owners denied education to slaves. She wanted to tell everyone on the train platform that government divests from education in order to suppress political dissent, so that the masses will be poor and helpless and too uneducated to do anything about it. She said we have to fight back, and then moved the train to the next station.

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