After 16 days, the number of tents visible at the encampment at Lakeview Elementary School has doubled and protesters have changed their rules: No one is allowed to know the number of kids or adults who occupy the site in an effort to avoid a police raid.
To celebrate the first two weeks of the sit-in protesting the closure of Oakland elementary schools and the launch of the People’s School of Public Education—a summer school parents and teachers started that focuses on social justice issues—residents of the tent city hosted a community potluck on Sunday, as well as a screening of “The Inconvenient Truth behind Waiting for Superman” in the school building’s auditorium. The documentary was produced by a group of parents and teachers in New York City known as The Grassroots Education Movement who are against their city’s approach to public education. Lakeview parents selected the film because of its counterattack to “Waiting for Superman,” a documentary that argues that teachers’ unions are the main problem with public education and charter schools are the main solution. (You can read Oakland North’s coverage of “Waiting for Superman” here.)
“We see things really differently and are more in line with the film that is a response to ‘Waiting for Supermen,’” said Becca Rozo-Marsh, an outreach organizer for the Lakeview encampment. “Now we’ve been here 16 days—as we go through each day we’re trying to build community, build this into a space where parents, teachers and people who are invested in the struggle for education can get together.”
The sit-in began on Friday, June 15, with parents, teachers, and community activists demanding the district revoke its decision to close five elementary schools—Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell and Sante Fe—and keep all neighborhood schools open. School closures have been a contentions issue in Oakland for the past several months, with parents rallying against the measure. The Oakland Unified School District board voted 5-2 to close the elementary schools and transform or merge several others, in late October last year.
In a recent bulletin, Oakland Unified School District spokesman Troy Flint wrote that the schools’ closure would save the district some $5.7 million (the budget for the closed schools), a figure updated from a preliminary estimate of $2 million circulated last fall. “This year we won’t save that much with the facilities costs involved with the closure of the schools,” said Flint during a phone interview on Monday. “But these are one-time costs, primarily, then those savings will reoccur year after year.”
The OUSD’s administration is following the Lakeview encampment carefully. Although the district has closed it as a school site, it plans to use the facility as an administrative office. “We’ve issued many, many warnings asking the protesters to disperse,” said Flint in a firm voice. “We have a legal right to the property—we haven’t exercised that as of yet, but we do reserve that right and at some point, if they don’t leave on their own accord, we will have to escort them off of the premises. It’s unlawful.”
Flint, who was aware of the screening and potluck, said the district views the protesters letting the public go inside the building as “an escalation,” but he credits them with taking good care of the facility.
Oakland school police officers visit the site everyday—usually in the morning for about 10 minutes—according to protesters and Flint. They check in with the encampment’s police liaison, protesters say, who may give them a tour of the building or walk them up and down the site. There are no longer warning notices, issued by the OUSD, posted on the walls telling protesters to leave the school immediately and not return for 30 days. But people in the camp said they don’t feel it’s safe to share how many people live on the site, which was not an issue during the camp’s early days. “Giving that kind of information helps support them [police] if they were to do a raid or something like that, which is why we’re not making it public,” Rozo-Marsh said.
That was a common sentiment on Sunday night. “Publicly announcing there are 12 kids or 5 kids or 10 kids on a campus outside—we don’t think that’s the best way to be handling this,” said Joel Velasquez, a father with one son who attended Lakeview. “If the district or law enforcement feel they want to move in, knowing that there’s more can be a problem or knowing that there’s less could be a problem. … We control the space very, very well and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Occupy Oakland protesters are still supporting the tent city with food and other resources. It’s been difficult for the encampment not to let the public or Occupy Oakland protesters on campus because “there are so many positive leaders in the Occupy movement and in Oakland,” said Velasquez. “They want to help out more and we’ve almost restricted it. It doesn’t seem fair for us to do that, but because of the summer school program with the children, everyone understands. We are running an actual school here.”
Ann Berlak, a 75-year-old Oakland resident, organized the People’s School was there on Sunday night to watch the film and eat dinner. “A lot of people helped put it together but it was my dream,” she said of the school. Berlak, who retired from teaching at San Francisco State University’s Elementary Education Department, was a volunteer pilot program teacher at Lakeview before it closed down. Around that time she met Velasquez. “We started talking about wanting a summer school,” she said. “I’ve been teaching teachers to teach social justice now for about 40 years and I wanted to create a people’s school for social justice.”
The curriculum aims to prepare kids to be leaders, she said, committed to social justice and critical thinking. “We have a wonderful garden program—with guys teaching about how to do sustainable gardening and what that means in the society,” she said of the classes offered. Berlak has also been teaching kids about homelessness. She started by asking them to imagine a utopian community they would like to live in and what would be there. “We started talking about the 1 percent and the 99 percent,” Berlak said. “Then, what can people do to make this a society that’s happy for everyone?”
Sunday’s potluck and screening marked the second time the public had open access to the site: the first was a march that started at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza—which has become synonymous with the Occupy Oakland protests—and ended at the elementary school encampment. On Sunday, leaders of the tent city allowed people to enter the auditorium from the back of the school, instead of the front door entrance. The documentary—rigged up to speakers—was projected on a large screen provided by the “city’s” residents, protesters said.
A security guard, who goes by the name of Ayr, guarded the back door to the auditorium and holds the same position in front of the People’s School when class is in session, normally seated in a chair above the entry steps. During the screening, the front door of Lakeview was locked from the outside, and was only opened to give the cash box—filled with donations from the community—to its handler.
“I’ve been coming everyday since the first day, sometimes staying the nights,” Ayr said of his role as security guard. “My role has mostly been safety, security, making sure the school grounds are safe—especially during school time. I also help with food, clean up, the custodial stuff.” He has brought a neighbor’s kids and his niece to the encampment three times. “Those days I’m a little more involved in the classes, which is fun,” he said.
The encampment works to have a tight security system. “We use walkie-talkies and post,” Ayr said. “We always have somebody posted at the front, watching the back side, and somebody in between roaming. We’re all looking out for each other.”
The potluck—offering a selection of barbecue beans, hot dogs, potato salad, French baguettes, arugula, fresh cut oranges, peanuts and corn on the cob—brought in a number of “outsiders.” “It seems to be a little more thoughtfully targeted, rather than anybody who wants, ‘Please come join,’” said Miriam Greenberg, a Berkeley resident who took part in the Occupy Oakland protest last fall for three days. “Clearly there are good reasons for making this really kid- and teacher-community focused, rather than open.”
At night, said Francesca Carreras-Velez, a parent sleeping at the encampment, “We sit around the fire and roast marshmallows. We let the kids watch movies. We talk and we play—but there are serious things to. Security that needs to be done.”
But Velasquez said that in an effort to show the school to other kids and parents, they will start giving tours Monday through Friday escorted by people running the People’s School.
“The school’s been really amazing,” he said. “To watch these kids—to hear children laughing and playing and learning here in this school. I’ve had endless moments when I’ve just stopped and watched. I know we’re doing the right thing.”