On Wednesday evening, a crowd of nearly 150 people, many of them parents, kids, and Occupy Oakland protesters, gathered on the concrete steps of Lakeview Elementary School hours after their two-week-old tent city was raided by Oakland Unified School District police and other law enforcement officers. 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.
The raid, which included city police officers as well as those from the Oakland Housing Authority and the California Highway Patrol, woke 15 to 20 parents and their children before ushering them off. Residents of the tent city regrouped, carrying their tents, signs and materials being used for the People’s School of Public Education—a summer school parents and teachers started inside the encampment—to Splash Pad Park, just off Grand Avenue. When lessons were over, protesters set a plan in motion: Hold a rally at 5 p.m. and march to OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith’s home.
While speakers—members of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) and leaders of the encampment—addressed the crowd before the march, several children and protesters burned sage leaves. “The Indians use to burn sage to ward off evil sprits,” said parent Jabari Shaw. His son attends Manzanita SEED and several of his family members are attending the People’s School. “When we’re bringing people together, especially all these kids out here, it helps keep the outsiders away and stops the police from coming in at us. Maybe some of it is more symbolic, but it’s an ancient indigenous belief,” he said.
Ann Berlak, a 75-year-old Oakland resident who helped set up the People’s School, was standing next to the children. “That phase is over for now,” she said of the Lakeview encampment with a bit of dejection as smoke from the sage leaves rose around her. “We had a really beautiful thing going and if it was allowed to grow and flourish it could have been a model across the country. I think it will be resurrected in a different way—but we will be more limited. It was very nice to have a school. School buildings are important, there were resources there. But it can be resurrected and changed just using the public park. We’ll figure it out.”
Berlak said that earlier that day she had watched the districts’ facility workers change the locks and put up a chain link fence around the school and thought “Why?”
“It’s public property,” she said. “Why shouldn’t it be used for the public? That’s exactly what I’ve been teaching the children: What public means, that it’s for the good of everyone.”
Around 6 p.m. the crowd, which had grown considerably, began making its way to Smith’s home. There was no sign of police enforcement in the early stages of the march. The crowd stopped oncoming traffic during the walk, which lasted just over 15 minutes. Protesters commented on how close the superintendent lived to the encampment but complained that he never stopped by and choose not to be present during the raid.
“This is a wonderful development,” said Deirdre Snyder, an OEA Oakland Technical Senior High School site representative who marched with the group, of the decision to give Smith a visit. “They want to close the school—which is totally crazy. They’re going to spend more money moving the kids into portables and taking them away from the school that they have, with their gardens that took ten years to work up. You don’t do that. You don’t do that to kids.”
“It’s a weird feeling to be out of the school,” said Feyi Ajayi-Dopemu, an after-school teacher in Oakland who has been working with the People’s School and protesting at Lakeview, as the crowd turned up a new street. “I think I became really attached to it and the kids. You know, there’s a little bit of grief. But I think because we know were going to keep on the fight no matter what. It’s not disempowering. We expected this. Any time you do any civil disobedience you know you’re taking a risk. But the children and the parents are very clear about what there in the middle of.”
“They say that they have no money, but we need a better solution for how to solve these problems instead of shutting down schools,” said Thearse Pecot, who is running for the school board’s District 1 seat this fall and attended the march. “What about improving education for our children?”
As they marched, the protesters used call-and-response, like worshippers in church, to communicate with each other.
“They say cut back! We say fight back!”
“Re-open or resign! Re-open or resign! Re-open or resign!”
“Ain’t no power like the power of the people because the power of the people don’t stop!”
Once the crowd reached the superintendent’s house—large, stately, and white—there was a moment of silence before the chanting began again: “Re-open or resign! Tony Smith!”
The crowd began placing signs on his lawn, steps, and windowpanes. Several people, most of them children, took turns on his front yard rope swing that hung from a tree. “Are you here today, Tony?” someone yelled. A few children ran up the steps to ring the doorbell.
“He does have children, so be respectful,” said protester Joel Velasquez, a father with one son who attended Lakeview. “We are all here to have our voices heard and to send the message right where it belongs.”
As the crowd filled the narrow avenue outside of Smith’s house, nearly every nearby home had residents standing on their porch to see what was happening. “I think it’s wild,” said neighbor Lynn Christensen as she looked at the protesters gathered on her block. “I just got home with my dog and my dog’s like ‘What’s going on?’ He’s all freaking out.” She decided to reschedule their stroll and drink a glass of wine.
Another woman, two doors down, was trying to usher a few protesters over for an explanation, without any luck. “It’s interesting but good,” she said after learning the protesters’ modus operandi. “I’m on the phone with my son who lives in Australia and wants me to take a picture so he can see what’s going on.”
At Smith’s house, the lights were off. No one answered the door. Protesters began to hold an open-mike session, rigged up to amplified speakers, so people could talk. Velasquez opened with a speech. “At 3:50 a.m. Tony Smith sent school police onto our campus,” he said.
“Boo!” the crowd replied.
“He kicked out parents, teachers, and kids at 4 a.m. in the morning. I want you to think about that. The person responsible lives right here.” He turned toward the house. “How does it feel when people show up at your home, with smiling children, with parents, with teachers that are doing it the right way?” He turned his words back toward the crowd. “We were using that facility for what? A school, for families who didn’t have anywhere to take their children.”
“Yep!” several people yelled.
“They’re scared of us to make a change—and we will make a change,” he continued. “We have made a change and we’re just warming up. This is the way it’s going to look like. This is the way it’s going to be. People standing up. Taking back their school. Taking back their community and taking back their nation.” He ended his speech to cheers from the crowd, vowing to return to Smith’s house with protesters.
Other people also gave speeches—Pecot about her campaign, OEA members and several children who wanted to know what Smith looked like, one guessing he was watching the NFL. Then it was time to rig up the music and head back to Lakeview.
The music came on wheels, powered with a battery connected to a 2,000-watt invertor, amplifier, and iPod. The protesters danced to Michael Jackson’s “I Want To Dance With You All Night,” while making their way back to the school site. Passing drivers danced to the music in their seats and raised their fists in power salutes. Police cars were present and trailing the march, but the officers did not interact with the protesters. When protesters arrived at Lakeview Elementary they filled an entire Grand Avenue lane, and continued dancing to Michael Jackson numbers.
Protester Tina Siu-Velasquez, who had been camping at Lakeview with Joel and their two daughters, had been wearing 4-inch heels during the entire day’s events. “I did not know we were marching to Smith’s house,” she said looking down at her zebra print pumps. “Of course my feet hurt. I would be lying if I said they weren’t.”
She said the 4 a.m. raid “was emotional and it was unexpected. I know it sounds funny, but it really was. It was heartbreaking.”
By 9 p.m. people were setting up for dinner at Splash Pad Park. Two stations were set up with food—pita bread, beans, popcorn, tofu cashew salad, bagels and cornflakes—and people discussed their next steps under canopies as police officers watched from the school grounds.
Protesters discussed moving the encampment to Splash Pad Park or one of the other schools slated for closure. The problem: how to handle an open space with so many children. Organizers of the initial encampment got help to build and sustain their tent city from Occupy Oakland, but put limits on who could sleep on the site. After the raid, protesters said, more people are expected to get involved and it would be harder to control who could join at an outdoor site.
The district is planning on turning the Lakeview site into administrative offices, and protesters have contacted the Alameda Central Labor Council and several unions in an effort to raise support for an official picket line that would stop the district’s move-in trucks.
Bob Mendel, an OEA executive board member who was marching with Snyder and previously camping at the school site, said the group still had hope of keeping Lakeview open as a school. “We will be taking a series of steps to try and get it reopened. The fact that they kicked us out doesn’t mean that they’ve moved in,” he said. “We’re going to the Central Labor Council to ask them for a sanction for a mass community picket line so that when the trucks arrive moving in the administration, we hope to keep them out.”