This past Wednesday, in a victory for Oakland-based civil disobedience, activists took over the Oakland Unified School Board meeting in protest over the closing of five Oakland elementary schools. The OUSD had planned to vote that night on converting Lazear Elementary School into a charter school, but instead had to cancel the remainder of the meeting under pressure from the vocal – read as “loud” – group of protesters.
“The board took hours and hours, and people were chanting, ‘Our schools are not for sale,’” said Tania Kapner, co-founder of the BAMN coalition and one of the ten activists arrested that night. “We were demanding that [the board] come back and take a re-vote [on the school closures]. They freaked out, took a recess, came back, and we chanted again. Basically, we camped out.”
The ten protesters who went to jail in Oakland included two teachers, two attorneys, and one Oakland high school student. Their court date is 9:00 a.m. on Monday, April 30th at Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse on Washington and 6th Street.
Wednesday’s disruption of the board’s scheduled meeting brings protesters one step closer in their campaign to force OUSD to keep the five elementary schools open and funded. Kapner is quick to point out that as long as the 2011-2012 school year is still in session, the board can reverse their decision to close the five schools.
“This is not business as usual. We cannot politely listen and let this happen,” said Kapner. “[OUSD Superintendent] Tony Smith has announced that these schools are fiscally sound. We feel like the money is there to keep the schools open.”
There is evidence that campaigns of this nature can work. At the very beginning of this school year, OUSD told the Hintil Kuu Early Childhood Center that the board would shut down their school. The teachers and parents at the Redwood Heights-area school refused to accept the news, and continued to show up each day. Despite the district’s announcement that the school no longer existed, the community carried on undaunted.
“They kept opening the door, and kept having classes. Pretty soon, the district ‘found’ the money somehow,” said Kapner.
She cites the Hintil Kuu example as one to follow for the campuses of other endangered schools. If concerned parents, teachers and community members take this fight to the grounds of the five schools – Lazear, Lakeview, Santa Fe, Maxwell Park, and Thurgood Marshall – she says they stand a much better chance of their resistance making an impact.
BAMN contends that the common element to each of these elementary schools is strategic location. Each school is a prime real estate area. Lazear Elementary, located in a Latino community, is surrounded on three of four sides by a shopping center that contains a Lucky supermarket, Boston Market, Autozone, Office Depot and other national chain stores. Lakeview Elementary, slated to become the new OUSD district office, is in the valuable commercial district right near the Grand-Lakeshore I-580 exit.
Some of these schools are rooted in long and storied Oakland tradition. Maxwell Park International Academy has been open for more than 80 years. Many students currently enrolled at Maxwell Park are able to say that their parents and grandparents attended the same elementary school. Maxwell Park has a four-star community rating on GreatSchools.org.
According to Kapner, a key to a successful defense for these schools is to unite the whole city to fight for all five of the campuses.
“We’re talking with parents from the different schools, and we’re standing for all the schools to stay open. We’re getting the black and Latino populations united to fight together for this,” said Kapner. “It’s not about money. It’s the racist privatization and gentrification of Oakland. Throughout this privatization effort, there’s so much disrespect for the community.”
The next Oakland Unified School District meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, April 25th at the district offices, which are located at 1025 2nd Avenue, between E. 10th and E. 11th Streets.
In the meantime, organizers are meeting every Saturday at 2:00 p.m. in the Golden Gate Branch Library at 5606 San Pablo Avenue in Oakland.
BAMN, whose full name is the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary, has taken a leading role in applying pressure to the Oakland school board. The national BAMN organization began in California during the 1995-‘96 school year, and was founded to stop the attack on affirmative action at the University of California campuses. At the time, the group convinced the UC Regents to reverse their “SP1 and SP2” rulings that squelched affirmative action, but not before the state had voted for Proposition 209. BAMN’s Detroit chapter took their fight all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled on the case of Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003.