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Students, teachers assemble at Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza

on March 4, 2010

Taking advantage of the sun, but with the grass on the plaza still muddy from last night’s rain, about 1,500 gathered Thursday afternoon in downtown Oakland’s Frank H. Ogawa Plaza to demonstrate against the cuts to California public schools and higher education.

Young people danced to a spontaneous jam, complete with a drummer pounding out notes on a metal trash can cover and a woman with short, blonde hair shaking out a rhythm on her tambourine.  Meanwhile, speakers decried the cuts to both higher education and K-12 education in California.  Speakers — including students from Laney College and a teacher from Alameda High School — pointed to closed libraries, closing schools, and layoffs as concrete example of the need to increase, not decrease, funding.

Neon green Oakland Education Association (OEA) T-shirts dotted the crowd, denoting Oakland K-12 teachers who had taken the day off to come downtown to show their displeasure with the cuts.  Most teachers in Oakland taught school today, though many who spoke to Oakland North said they planned to attend the rally after school let out.

Four teachers from East Oakland’s Manzanita Community Elementary School, clad in the ubiquitous OEA T-shirts, had been at the plaza since 12:30 p.m.  They said it was not difficult to explain to their students about the motives behind the day’s protests. “The students in the upper grades do understand what we’re fighting for in terms of equity for education,” said Rosa Aguirre.

Added fellow teacher Amy Mo, “In my second grade class, they know that in other cultures, people who are poor can’t go to school.  Here, we believe that everyone has a right to education.”

A group of students from Oakland International High School in North Oakland had come downtown along with their teachers.  They wore green shirts and had decorated their faces with green stickers.  A girl from El Salvador — all students at Oakland International are recent immigrants to the US — said her teachers had taught the students about the importance of protest, and then they had all marched together down Telegraph Avenue.

Four students from Oakland Technical High School, also in North Oakland, said they were missing class to be there but were attending the rally with the permission of their parents and the support of their teachers. “They can’t say that they want us to be here, but they’re doing everything they can to help us be here,” Hope Schwartz, 16, said of her teachers.  Her parents, she said, had written a note giving permission for her absence today.

Another clump of Tech students held a sign that read: “MONEY FOR SCHOOLS, NOT FOR FOOLS!”  These students said they had come of their own accord, but had brought along Lukas Brekke-Miesner, their supervisor at REAL HARD, a program of Kids First Oakland that organizes youth from across the city to lower the high school drop-out rate. “Us youth, we are the future,” said Eric Bagley, 17, a junior at Oakland Tech. “By cutting off the schools, they’re cutting off the future.”

Bagley said he wasn’t sure what California was spending money on instead of schools, but he knew no one had asked for his opinion.  His suggestion?  “The governor should come to every city in California and ask what they want,” he said.

Standing next to him, his friend Janiece Hodge, 16, had an answer.  “They shouldn’t be taking money out of schools and putting it into jails,” she said.  “If they quit making so many jails, not as many people would go.  They can build schools and help youth instead, and then less people would go [to jail].”

Protesters marching from UC Berkeley arrived at the plaza around 3 p.m., preceded by on Oakland police officer on motorcycle.  OPD Lt. Kevin Wiley estimated that about 200 Oakland police officers were present; Wiley himself was in charge of a backup unit of 30 officers.

By 4 p.m. many of the teachers and students were crowding the sidewalk in front of the statehouse waiting for Tony Smith, Superintendent of Oakland Unified schools, to give a press conference.  Also on the speaking roster were Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), and Oakland City Councilmember (and mayoral hopeful) Jean Quan.

Photos by Lillian R. Mongeau and Melanie Mason. 

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