On Saturday afternoon nearly 200 protestors showed up for a 1.7 mile march organized by a coalition of community organizers, Occupy Oakland supporters and Lakeview Elementary parents to protest the closure of five Oakland elementary schools by the Oakland Unified School District.
The march, which began at Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland, meandered its way around Lake Merritt before leading to Lakeview Elementary School, one of the schools shut down last week.
Protestors directed their ire at the Oakland Unified School District, calling for Tony Smith, its superintendant, to resign over the closure of the schools. The OUSD earlier this week issued a statement saying that the school closures were necessary due to spiraling costs, cuts in state funding and the effects of declining enrollment.
However, some of the protestors who marched Saturday saw the school closures as part of a broader nationwide trend in which state governments are systematically cutting funding from public schools, leaving vulnerable communities exposed, with speakers like Deesha Moore describing the cuts as an “attack” on the poor.
“Low income does not mean low class. We want our children to have an education here in Oakland, California,” Moore said, adding, “If you can’t afford to transport your children on a road-trip, how can you afford to transport them to schools outside your neighborhood on a daily basis?”
“We have a rationing of education in this country,” said Tim Terry, a Lakeview alum and one of the community organizers who addressed protestors at Frank Ogawa Plaza at the beginning of the march. “This week alone, 1,000 kids were foreclosed on. The five schools closed comprise four African American schools and one Latino school. School closures are affecting the neediest communities.”
Lakeview Elementary has been occupied by community organizers who set up a small tent city here after it closed on June 15, and Saturday’s march gave momentum to ongoing efforts by protestors and parents to establish a new volunteer-run school on the campus, with teachers and parents coming after the protest to sign up to become part of the People’s School for Public Education.
“The police have tried to remove us, but they are really frightened that they are going to create another mess,” said Ann Boulard, one of the volunteer teachers who has been teaching classes at the school since its closure. “The Oakland Unified School District owns the property, but it is a public institution, so this is our school.”
At least 70 students have showed up for classes since the school was reopened, according to Boulard, who has been a teacher for 40 years.
Protestors chanted “You say cut back, we say fight back”, carrying placards reading “Tony Smith runs OUSD” and “Save Oakland Schools” among other slogans, mostly directed at the school district and calling for Oakland Unified School District superintendant Tony Smith to resign.
“We will continue running the public school as long as there is a need,” said Joel Velasquez, a parent and community organizer whose 10-year-old son was among the people leading the march. Occupying the school “is just another way of educating the people about what is going on.”
Velaquez’s son, Zaquiel, 10, who was a Lakeview student before its closure, has been camping at the school with occupiers for a week. Zaquiel had been at Lakeview for 6 years.
“My parents are doing everything they can to keep the school open,” Zaquiel said, adding they were also looking for an alternative school for him to attend next year if the city follows through with its decision to close the school permanently.
Some Oakland residents questioned the community organizers’ decision to march from Frank Ogawa Plaza, the seat of Oakland’s City Council, saying protestors should direct their grievances at the Oakland Unified School District and march to Governor Jerry Brown’s office in Sacramento instead.
“It should be illegal for the state to take away tax dollars from the schools,” said Jason Blackmond, an Oakland resident who works for the city. “These people need to get up and get on Sacramento’s case. The state needs to give our money back and take care of those schools. They should converge on Sacramento and march on Jerry Brown’s office. ”
Velasquez agreed with the criticism, but said the movement to preserve public schools from further cuts and closure would begin from a community level and then move to the state level.
At the end of the day, the crowd of protestors disintegrated into clusters once the speeches at Lakeview were over, as organizers began serving food at a barbeque set up in the playing grounds of the school while parents made inquiries about enrolment and signed their children up for classes.
“I will be bringing my son here because his friends are here,” said Sulailah White Anderson, whose 10-year-old son Jamal White addressed the public at the end of the protest and made a plea against school closures. “I don’t know what to do with myself,” Jamal told the crowd and took a long pause. “The closure of schools means we cannot be with our friends. There is nothing more fun than playing and learning at the same time.”