Over one hundred people gathered at Splash Pad Park on Sunday for a “Celebration and Convergence for Public Education” concert and rally hosted by the supporters of the Lakeview sit-in and People’s School for Public Education. The park became a home for the People’s School after the volunteer-run program, and the tent city it served, were raided at Lakeview Elementary School in early July.
The encampment was an effort to protest the district’s decision to close five elementary schools —Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell and Sante Fe—and keep all neighborhood schools open. Sunday’s concert and rally were meant to galvanize support for continued actions, raise money for the school and thank people for contributing to the protest. (The People’s School held its final classes at Splash Pad Park last week, but protesters say they will set it up again at a new site.) The day’s events were mostly peaceful, although some protesters got into a verbal confrontation with school district police officers near the end of the evening.
The concert included performances by Miko Tolliver, Digital Martyrs, Dregs One, Jabari Shaw, and Boots Riley of The Coup and the Street Sweeper Social Club, a musician who has been involved in social movements in Oakland for more than a decade.
“We’re here to say thank you today: for all the amazing support from the businesses, from the community, from the parents, from the teachers that stepped up and actually did something and improved, in my opinion, our community by coming together,” said Joel Velasquez, a protest leader whose son attended Lakeview, to the energized crowd on Sunday. “We’re just warming up and we want everyone to understand that we’re just warming up.”
Protesters brought in several speakers, including teachers, parents, a candidate for the school board elections in November and former Oakland Education Association (OEA) executive board members. The speakers voiced calls to action urging attendees to mobilize house meetings, print thousands of newsletters, get involved in the school board election and sign a petition for a picket line that would prevent unionized school workers—including electricians, custodial and clerical staff—from entering Lakeview, which the district plans to turn into administrative offices. (You can read more about the proposed picket line here).
District officials say there are too many schools in Oakland for the number of students enrolled, necessitating the closure of the five elementary schools. In a recent bulletin, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) 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.
But protesters say that school closures happen in low-income neighborhoods that serve a high percentage of minority students, and where families have limited transportation options when forced to find schools outside of their neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of problems with Oakland Unified School District—having too many schools is not one of them,” said Jessie Meldoon, a teacher at Oakland High School, before the first performers kicked off the rally. Her daughter attends Manzanita SEED Elementary School in Fruitvale. “The problem isn’t too many schools—the problem is that there’s money that goes to consultants, millions of dollars that goes to testing every year. The problem isn’t too many neighborhood schools—really every student should have a school in their neighborhood that’s safe and fully-funded to attend.”
The concert, set up between the park’s two fountains, featured a home-made stage and dance floor that formed when people huddled together in the open space. There were information booths, food areas, and space to sprawl out on a slightly higher grassy hill. The Occupy Oakland Kitchen and Food Not Bombs have been supplying food to protesters since the early days of the encampment. Hungry spectators, many of them taking part in a Lakeview protest for the fist time, ate everything the food station had to offer: homemade lasagna, corn on the cob, salad, sausage, fresh fried chicken, beans and rice, and cinnamon brown sugar chips. Nearby Arizmendi Bakery donated fifteen pizzas as the day wore on. The children were the first-served for scoops of vanilla ice cream.
“I feel like there’s a need for it,” said Ed Biow of the food he’s supplied—80 pounds of chicken at one point during the previous weeks’ protests. “Occupiers and politically-involved people tend to be real grateful, but the random street people are grabby, kind of selfish and leave a mess I try to clean up afterwards. That doesn’t make me feel that great. But I meet so many amazing people from Occupy Oakland and the Lakeview struggles, people motivated by the greater good.”
While the crowd danced—doing shoulder leans, two-steps and head bobbing—and spooned up mouthfuls of food, people watched Slingshot Hip-Hop, “a Palestinian rabbit,” raise his paw in solidarity. The rabbit has been a regular attendee at Lakeview protests, accompanied by his owner Beverly Dove, and can often be seen in the crowd appearing to raise his arm in a power salute. “Fist in the air against oppression, middle finger to the police,” said Dove of her rabbit’s political edge. “He likes to get out. He likes the open-air, as we all do. He wants the air to be clean and open spaces and he cares about folks. He doesn’t want to hold nobody in captivity—no cages. He is not for the prison industrial complex. He is militant, but not in the military.”
Michelle Simon, a financial aid advisor, made sure she was a part of the bustling crowd “because it’s in my neighborhood,” she said while sitting next to her boyfriend’s Chihuahua, Winnie. “I don’t have any kids or anything, but it’s right around the corner from where I live and I think education is really important. …. Kids should be able to go to school in their own neighborhoods.”
In November, four school board seats will be up for election, and several campaigners made visits to protesters during the encampment. Mike Hutchinson, who’s running for District 5, was the only visible candidate during Sunday’s rally. He use to work at Santa Fe and Maxwell Park elementary schools, two of the campuses the district slated for closure. “My response is to run for school board so we don’t have to go through this anymore,” Hutchinson said from behind a campaign table covered by take-with-you flyers. “If people get involved now and take a look at who’s running, we have a good chance of being able to change the course of direction the district is heading—which isn’t too positive right now.”
Hutchinson was firm on what he would advocate for if elected to the school board: no more school closures, true community engagement and increasing enrollment in public schools. “I would rather, in a lot of ways, not run for school board,” he said, drawing a bit of attention from people nearby. “I’d rather keep working with young folks. That’s what I really enjoy doing. I saw that there was a dire need—where if I waited another four years to decide to maybe run, there might not be any more public schools left in Oakland.”
The International Socialist Organization (ISO), a political group that identifies with Marxist political tradition, had a station set up, too. On their table books—The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; The Meaning of Marxism; Sexuality and Socialism—gleamed in sunset-colored arrays.
“A lot of our members are teachers, work in education, so we see these school closures as completely unnecessary,” said booth worker Nikolai Smith, a graduate student, of the ISO’s decision to set up shop during the rally. Ten people from the organization, many with kids who attend the People’s School, were at the rally, he said. “California’s the richest state in our county, we have the most amount of millionaires. We could easily tax the rich, tax corporations more. So it’s not a funding problem—it’s a problem of capitalism where they try to underfund education, health care, and social services. So, we’re here to fight with anyone that is struggling against those types of cuts.”
Protesters during the rally said they were thinking about revisiting OUSD Superintendant Tony Smith’s house as they did two weeks ago to protest the eviction of the Lakeview protesters. A retired teacher suggested they do that weekly, or add school board president Jody London (District 1) and other board members who decided to vote for school closures to the list. Others suggested that visiting board members at home is pushing the envelope too far. “We’re just a march of parents and teachers and students standing in front of a home,” Velazquez responded. “I think it’s pushing it far when you close schools in the district and don’t listen at board meetings.”
By 8 p.m. the first Guy Fawkes mask was spotted in the crowd. The almost cartoon-like mask—with high cheekbones, porcelain white skin, a devilishly smiling face and menacing eyes—has become synonymous with the Occupy Oakland and Anonymous protests.
Then a school bus, painted white with black fists etched on the outside of its back emergency door, began gathering people from Splash Pad Park to drive into San Francisco for a planned Monday morning protest aimed at shutting down Muni on the one-year anniversary of the death of Kenneth Harding, a young black man who died after being shot by a San Francisco Police officer after he tried to dodge paying his Muni fare. Bus driver David Easlick, who used the same van during Occupy Oakland’s January 28 attempt to seize the long-closed Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, said 30 people were on the bus before he shifted gears and left.
Meanwhile, several protesters turned their attention to five OUSD police officers across the street who were guarding Lakeview Elementary School behind a mental chain-link fence. Several protesters began to scrutinize one of them, interim school police chief Barhin Bhatt, who was involved in the death of Raheim Brown, a 20-year-old black male, outside of a school dance in January, 2011. According to the school district, when officers patrolling the school approached him, Brown attacked one of them with a screwdriver, and the second officer shot Brown in response. Protesters have opposed Bhatt’s promotion to interim chief, as well as his presence at Lakeview-related events.
Protesters began to yell at Bhatt, demanding an apology to Brown’s family and that he open the gate and let them back onto the school grounds.
“He’s not listening,” a female protester yelled.
“I understand the school is very valuable to the community,” Bhatt said from the other side of the fence.
“Then let us have it,” protesters yelled.
“It’s not a choice for me to make,” Bhatt replied. “You do what you have to do and I’ll do what I have to do.”
“You do what we ask you to do,” said a male protester angrily. “You bow down to us.”
Protesters continued to yell, shaking the fence ferociously, while suggesting that Bhatt give up his uniform.
“I hope you have nightmares at night and say ‘Man, I fucked up,” a protester said, referring to Brown’s death.
“OK,” Bhatt said. “I’m glad you got that out of your system and I will leave by saying I will no longer suffer fools. I bid you goodnight.”
As the group of protesters headed back to Splash Pad Park, Bhatt seemed surprised by the exchange. Protesters had previously voiced their frustrations amongst themselves about his involvement during the Lakeview raid, but outside of a few hecklers, there had never been a direct confrontation, Bhatt said.
“That was the first time that’s happened,” Bhatt said. “That was about the most yelling I’ve heard in the last two to three weeks dealing with anyone related to the Lakeview School. It’s been peaceful. … We’ve disagreed with ideological thoughts, people saying they’re not going to leave with the district wanting them to leave. But there was not any hatred nor any disrespect between us and the folks that were here at Lakeview.”
Later at the event, some of the leaders of the sit-in spoke against the language some protesters used against law enforcement officers. “I can’t say they’re not a part of the movement,” Velazquez said of the protesters who had confronted the officers. Velazquez had arrived at the gate too late to witness the confrontation, but tried to smooth things over with the officers. “People are just really frustrated,” he said.
The remaining people, most of them protesters, started packing up while others rushed to clean the park during the final hour of daylight. Protesters say they are now waiting for the Alameda Central Labor Council to vote on whether it will grant school employees a sanctioned picket line before committing to further plans.
Oakland North will continue to follow this story.