The first week of March, 2012, marks the beginning of OccupyEducation. March 1 actions took place across the country, from Philadelphia, to Boulder, Houston, New York City, to Brooklyn, where high school students staged a die-in, to the University of Southern Florida and SDS-Tampa Bay, and to Washington DC, there were teach-ins on school budget cuts and tuition hikes.
California organized local marches and actions as well, and will reconvene for an Occupy the Capital in Sacramento today, March 5.
On the national day of action March 1, 2012, I biked from Berkeley to downtown Oakland for a rally. Two blocks from LeConte Elementary School in Berkeley I saw what first appeared to be a field trip. Kids proceeding in single file led by an adult gesturing dynamically (always a good strategy when venturing en mass out past the school gates, speaking as a teacher of young children myself). I could not quite hear what they were chanting but what caught my eye was that the kids kept on coming. Rounding the corner, they came, getting taller and taller, periodically interspersed with an adult. Finally I heard what they were chanting because I had come closer and they didn't stop.
"We are the 99%!" A continuous rhythm. More kids kept emerging from around the corner, hundreds of them, chanting: "We are the 99%," over and over.
It is tricky to include young kids in organized political actions. For one, they don't necessarily have the nuanced big picture about what is going on. And they expect immediate results. I saw this in 2003 during the heaviest protests against the Iraq War. A meaningful family weekend of protest with 70,000 others left some children in my classroom despondent when our then President Bush did not hear. It left lots of adults despondent too, but the kids' despair felt especially bleak to me.
I thought about this as I watched the children marching the same blocks they probably march for their Halloween costume parade. I decided that education has become so bleak anyway that kids probably should be aware that school could not only have enough Kleenex, but also be a place where they learn by exploring, playing, experimenting, and wondering instead of being tied solely to test scores that measure a fraction of a child's learning experience.
This is why OccupyEducation has erupted. The racial and economic disparity in quality of educational experience is daunting and the remedies are in the hands of foundations run by the wealthy elite who have limited experience and understanding of public eduction but think they know exactly what public schools need .
I continued on my bike. Students, instructors and staff from nearby Laney College and students from UC Berkeley's CalOccupy marched to Oakland's City Hall plaza and were met by San Francisco State students. Arriving to a crowd of about 500, I saw lots of signs:
"Our Dreams Can't Wait." "We are Oakland / Invest in Us." "Occupy the Right to be Educated." "Education is a Right, Not a Privilege." "Do the Right Thing / Save Our Schools."
About 75 demonstrators lined up in front of us for The 99 Mile March for Education and Social Justice to our state capital, Sacramento, northeast of Oakland. The 99 Milers lead us out of the plaza and north on San Pablo Avenue. At an intersection several blocks away, we bade farewell to the 99 Milers, who continued up San Pablo Avenue while the one hundred remaining turned back downtown to Morgan Stanley.
Before the 2008 economic meltdown, Morgan Stanley offered Peralta Community College District an interest rate swap. At the time, this appeared to be helpful though risky, as the District could trade an adjustable rate for a more reasonable and budgetable fixed rate. After our economy tanked, interest rates dropped dramatically. Despite bailout funds to Morgan Stanley, Peralta Community College District is left holding the much higher contracted interest rate with Morgan Stanley, amounting to between $1.4 and $1.6 million dollars annually. Morgan Stanley has so far refused to negotiate an adjustment. With state budget cuts to education, the money Peralta has to pay to Morgan Stanley for the higher interest is money they have had to cut for classes, instructors, and support services for the disabled. OccupyEducation says a renegotiation would restore 360 classes.
Passing a Wells Fargo bank, the chanting became loud and unified: "Banks got bailed out. We got sold out." In front of me someone pushed a Laney College student in a wheelchair. On his lap was what looked like a ten inch stack of manila folders filled with petitions, tied with a wide red ribbon. Organizers said these are just some of the 3000 signatures collected from Peralta Community College District students asking Morgan Stanley to do right by their image as an education supporter for the underprivileged and renegotiate an adjustment of interest for the District.
Morgan Stanley closed early for the day in anticipation of this action. The doors were locked. People held the signs up to the windows. Someone with a bullhorn reassured those inside that "all we want is a rep. We are a peaceful group." Three security guards stared back, then approached the windows to one side of the doors holding up palm-sized video cameras positioned to film faces, not signs. Two protesters blocked the lens sight with a large banner and stood behind it to avoid identification. The crowd behind them laughed, which made the two protesters laugh. We heard a report that someone had called the San Francisco Regional offices of Morgan Stanley to explain the intention to deliver petitions. They were hung up on. Vowing to return, the protesters headed over to the downtown Office of the President of the University of California.
The March 1 action showed Occupy as a training ground in community activism and empowerment. Audio from this event has organizers speaking politely to fellow protesters, thinking on their feet about the victory gained in exposing the position of banks in the education of working class students, and the imperative now for everyone to be teachers in this story.
That day of action and the 99 mile trek to the capital culminates today, when buses and carpools left from UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, City College of San Francisco, Fresno State University, UC Berkeley (Berkeley's Chancellor Birgeneau himself offered buses), UC Riverside, and Modesto Junior College for a mass march of students, parents, teachers and workers and student-sponsored rally. There are plans to march on Wall Street lobbyists from the capitol building. The Capitol may also see an occupy general assembly, according to plans.
Jane P. Perry is an educator, writer and activist in Oakland and Berkeley, California. She blogs at RedRoom.com. If you would like to contribute as a citizen journalist to the Huffington Post's coverage of American political life, please contact us at www.offthebus.com.