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Occupy Oakland: Striking Questions

I spent yesterday back in Oakland, participating in the Occupy Oakland general strike. Several hundred Oakland teachers were there as well, part of a crowd that swelled to around ten thousand in the afternoon. Below are photos and a video that capture some of the spirit of the day. And some thoughts about how the Occupation Movement is shifting the debate, and creating space for some new questions to be asked about how our schools are working.

Oakland became notorious last week after city officials carried out a poorly conceived pre-dawn eviction of the downtown occupation. The operation was military-style, complete with pepper spray and flash grenades. This cost the city in excess of a million dollars, and resulted in the serious injury to Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, who remains hospitalized with a fractured skull. oakland4.jpg

But yesterday the police were scarcely to be seen as a festive and peaceful crowd gathered at the heart of downtown Oakland. Broadway was crammed with people of all ages. A children's tent with toys had children scrambling around, and children were busy painting signs and expressing themselves in interviews with local media. Several hundred members of my union local, the Oakland Education Association, marched by Oakland District headquarters to protest school closures before coming to the main rally downtown. In the late afternoon, marchers headed over to the Port of Oakland, and managed to block the entrances, effectively shutting the facility down for the day. oakland9.jpg

The energy was high, as people reveled in their ability to convert public space normally dominated by traffic and commerce into a place where the norm is to challenge the way things are.

I wrote about my support for Occupy Wall Street almost a month ago. The signs at the event were diverse and creative. Many made reference to schools, to student loans, to teacher layoffs and budget cuts. There was a very clear sense of outrage at the concentration of wealth, and the way our political system has been captured by those with the money to buy influence. The alternatives were less clear, which perhaps reflects the newness of this movement. People know they want a far greater degree of what might be termed economic and social justice. They are clearly against corporate "personhood," but as has been pointed out, there is not a common platform of demands.oakland12.jpg

And I think that is just fine. For the past decade educators have been largely on the defensive, responding to one attack after another -- on our profession, our right to collectively bargain, our schools and the students we serve. Perhaps the Occupation Movement will allow us to ask some questions that have been largely shoved aside up until now. Here are some I would like to start with:oakland13.jpg

  • How can we collectively be "broke" as many politicians and media representatives insist, when some are continuing to rake in -- and sit high atop -- huge piles of money? How can the wealthiest not afford a small increase in their taxes to support much needed services, such as our schools?
  • How can we continue to waste money and lives on wars overseas, when our own country is crumbling? How can we hope to inspire democracy abroad when our own system has become corrupted by legalized bribery?
  • A new report has come out that shows the ranks of the poorest Americans at ever higher levels. And poverty is spreading to the suburbs, and to previously comfortable neighborhoods. Can we continue to pretend that we can, as a society, ignore this, and expect education to magically solve this problem?
  • Student loan debt will exceed a trillion dollars this year, surpassing what Americans owe on their credit cards! Many students are graduating tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Can we continue to pretend that a college education is some kind of ticket to future employability and security?
  • What is the degree of corporate influence over the ever-more powerful education non-profit organizations? Groups that were grassroots a few years ago suddenly have their staffs growing, budgets swelled by large corporate donations. How does this influence their advocacy?
  • How are our Latino and other immigrant children being affected by laws and policies that target immigrants, such as has been implemented recently in Alabama?
  • oakland15.jpg
  • What is the role of more direct corporate involvement in the drafting of education "reform" legislation, through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)?
  • How is the largely corporate media covering education issues across the country? How are teachers and our unions portrayed? Are grassroots groups that raise critical questions given any airtime at all to present their perspectives?
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The latest NAEP data tells us once again that a decade of No Child Left Behind has done little to close the achievement gap. The Department of Education has flogged this horse past exhaustion. It is time for us to recognize the challenge history has placed before us. The corporations that have brought us our current economic and ecological crises are not going to be the sources for answers. Corporations are by law and nature the epitome of selfishness. We need to look to one another and to ourselves for solutions. And the solutions will only come when the right questions have been asked.

What questions do YOU think should be asked?

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