On Thursday, January 21, hundreds of parents, students and teachers protested on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, across the street from where Mayor Bloomberg lives, chanting and holding signs against his proposals to force mass closings of public schools and their takeover by charter schools.
With the help of famed civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, members of this group had earlier sued in federal court to gain the right to protest directly in front of Bloomberg's mansion, on the north side of E. 79 Street.
Though Judge Alvin Hellerstein had concurred that they had such a right, at the last minute the city appealed, and on the morning of the protest, the Federal Circuit Court reversed his decision, forcing us to protest across the street.
So here we were, on the south side of E. 79 Street, adults, youth and children, of all races and ethnicities, peacefully exercising our constitutional right under the First Amendment, urging the mayor to halt his policies, which many of us believe are undermining the strength and stability of our public school system.
Meanwhile, a reporter from the Village Voice named Steven Thrasher caught members of the Police Department on videotape taking photographs from the roof and inside of a private school directly adjacent to the mayor's house. Check out this chilling video.
In 1985, the federal court ruled that it is illegal for the New York City police to take photos of protesters, unless they have cause to believe that a crime may be committed.
The city signed a consent agreement that year, restricting police surveillance according to rules called the Handschu agreement. In the case of this peaceful protest, there was no such cause and these actions of the police were clearly meant to intimidate us, and/or violate our civil rights.
The police responded to inquiries from the press yesterday, by claiming that they were taking pictures for "for crowd control planning purposes," which, on the face of it, is absurd.
This sort of intimidation and surveillance does not occur in a vacuum. In 2007, it was revealed that officials from the city's Department of Education had assigned an employee to tape Diane Ravitch, one of the administration's most articulate critics, and was keeping a dossier on her. They even persuaded Kathy Wylde, head of the NYC Partnership, the city's Chamber of Commerce, to publish an op-ed in the NY Post personally attacking her.
Subsequently, it was revealed that DOE officials also had assigned several employees to closely monitor listservs and blogs where parents, teachers and advocates discussed and criticized their educational policies.
The mayor has consistently attempted to shut out the voices of parents and the community from having any say when it comes to how our children are educated. He has eliminated the powers of community school boards, and the ability of school leadership teams, made of half parents and school staff, to have a say in budgets at the school level. Just last week, he helped block a bill that, while raising the cap on charter schools, would give parents input into where they are sited.
Currently, he is undermining the success of our district public schools by inserting charter schools within their buildings, forcing them to give up their precious classroom space, intervention rooms, and even libraries. Meanwhile, the charter schools enroll far fewer poor, special education, and immigrant children than the communities in which they are located, and are allowed to cap class sizes at lower levels.
Unfortunately, the mayor holds a monopoly of power and is trying to ram this hostile takeover of our public schools through. He controls the majority of members of the Panel for Educational Policy, where these proposals will be voted upon on Tuesday. The only option of parents at this point is to try to make our views known as forcefully as possible, and this is what we were trying to do, in our demonstration across the street from the mayor's house on Thursday.
Here is what Diane Ravitch wrote, after Wylde's attack, and the revelation that the DOE had kept a file on her:
The public schools need involvement by parents and local communities. They need a lively and open public forum in which decisions can be debated before they are finalized. The public should have a voice in what happens to the children of the community. This I promise: I will continue to analyze the facts and the evidence to the best of my ability, without fear or favor. I will not be intimidated.
Neither will we.