Expanding movement

Pub date March 2, 2010
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionGreen City


When University of California Berkeley students staged building occupations last fall, their furious, brazen response to startling tuition hikes and staff cutbacks captured the attention of the world, recalling the radical actions of earlier generations.

Yet the thrust behind the March 4 Strike and Day of Action, a mass mobilization for public education and services that is reaching into all corners of the state and spreading nationwide, appears to stem from widespread agitation that extends well beyond the flare-ups on college campuses.

"What’s historic about this is that pre-K through PhD has never walked together," said Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, which represents faculty in the California State University system. "We have often been pitted against one another, and I think everyone feels finally, in the end, there is no difference in importance between pre-K and PhD. We need it all."

The historic new alliance faces an uphill climb in an environment characterized by a devastating budget crisis at the state level. California — the world’s eighth-largest economy — hovers around 47th in the nation in terms of per-pupil spending, and the most recent wave of budget rollbacks has cut to the bone.

Students and teachers across the Bay Area argue that with dramatic slashes in funding, the educational system is failing youth. Class sizes are ballooning to claustrophobic levels, students are unable to take their desired courses, fees are going up, bathrooms are getting cleaned less frequently, and staffers are getting stressed by overwhelming workloads. "Classes are jam-packed," Taiz says. "You have kids sitting on the floor. You have students just begging to be allowed in a class."

As University of California students decry a 32 percent hike in fees, the California State University system is suffering from damage inflicted by 2,000 faculty layoffs over the past year. The San Francisco Unified School District, meanwhile, is staring down an estimated $113 million budget deficit over the next two years, and 900 layoff notices recently were issued to teachers, librarians, secretaries, and other school employees to warn them that their jobs could be slashed by the end of the school year.

When San Francisco’s school district faced a gaping budget shortfall during the last budget cycle, it was propped up by a combination of Rainy Day Fund reserve dollars and stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With no such safety nets in place this time around, anxiety levels are higher and the outlook is uncertain.

March 4 is shaping up to be more than an opportunity to vent frustrations to elected leaders. Instead, organizers describe it as a rallying point for a movement to defend public education that has caught on like wildfire, uniting people from different worlds. Pickets and rallies will be staged throughout the region. Thousands are expected to swarm Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco. Students from a handful of East Bay campuses are organizing marches to Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. Students and faculty from Berkeley will be boarding buses to take the message to Sacramento. The Oakland Unified School district will host a districtwide mock "disaster drill" to call attention to the disastrous budget. Even public transit activists opposed to the latest round of Muni service cuts and fare hikes are joining the protests, hoping to expand the discussion to support vital public services (for details on these and other events, see "Alerts" opposite this page).

"We’ve never gotten this level of activism over anything in SF since I’ve been here," says Matthew Hardy, communications director for United Educators of San Francisco. "There’s a growing movement for progressive taxation and budget reform instead of draconian cuts."

Taiz, who teaches history at Cal State Los Angeles, described March 4 as an opportunity to fill a void in leadership. "Historically, in these moments where ordinary people step up to the plate, you end up leading the leaders," she said. "We are kind of shocked, but in truth, we do know what has to be done." Quality education isn’t just important for young people, but for society as a whole, she argued. "I am a baby boomer, and if the folks coming up behind me don’t have really, really good jobs, I’m going to be eating dog food. Because those are the people who pay Social Security and pay the taxes."

In the week preceding March 4, teachers and students throughout the Bay Area were in a frenzy of preparation.

Carlos Baron, a theater professor at SF State, was wondering whether the grand procession of papier-mâché puppets his theater students will unveil on the March 4 Day of Action should take a V-shape or some other form. "The main puppet is the Draculator," explained Baron, a Chilean who directed plays in the Salvador Allende era before he began teaching at SF State in 1978. "It’s a cross between the Terminator-Governor and Dracula. But also it doubles as a banker and a general."

When asked how funding cutbacks affect students, Baron didn’t hesitate. "It impedes the creation of a positive vision for themselves and this society," he said. It stunts "the development of the imagination," he added. "We are trained as individuals to accept our failure and our smallness because we’re familiar with it. They don’t want an educated population, a sensitive population, a dreaming population. Would we select Schwarzenegger?"

Nicole Abreu Shepard, a first-grade teacher at Buena Vista Elementary in San Francisco’s Mission District, was collecting permission slips from parents to take her students to a rally and march down 24th Street. "The entire school is walking out," Abreu Shepherd said. Buena Vista’s art program exists solely because parents volunteer their time, she explained. More than half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and many incoming kindergarteners or preschoolers are new to the English language. Now there are proposals on the table to increase kindergarten class sizes to 25 or possibly even 30 students. "It’s sort of tying their hands behind their back and asking them to teach on one foot," she noted, and worried about the eventual result. "It’s going to be harder and harder to keep parents who could afford private school in a public school system."

Meanwhile, at the UC Berkeley campus, Krystof Cantor was sitting behind a table heaped with piles of radical literature bearing titles such as "After the Fall: Communiques from an Occupied California." Cantor, who earned his PhD in vision science in 2005, was joining student organizers in making one last push to drum up student interest in March 4 events at a multi-faceted event called "Rolling University." Late on the evening of Feb. 26, a dance party on the Berkeley campus morphed into a street riot — replete with ignited Dumpsters — in downtown Berkeley. The incident attracted media attention and drew public criticism from administrative officials.

The radicalized student movement that has erupted on the UC Berkeley campus is "very much about seizing power," Cantor told the Guardian several days before. "It’s been disruptive, it’s been militant, and it’s been creative. That’s very scary," to the administrators the movement is targeting, he added.

That focused pressure on UC administrators sets these students apart from the coalition of UC Berkeley faculty members and student government members and allies who are coordinating bus trips to protest in Sacramento March 4, he explained. "Sacramento’s not innocent, but it’s not like the administrators are just doing what they have to do," he charged, pointing to new construction projects on campus even as workers are hit with layoffs and furloughs, plus an increasing trend of privatizing on-campus jobs and services. "You can save the public sector by pouring money into it. But it won’t work if the people in charge … want to privatize everything."

Jasper Bernes, a graduate student in English who was seated next to Cantor, noted that the occupation tactic is catching on at other campuses. "I have no doubt that March 4 will greet us with news of many occupations," he said.

Baron, the Chilean theater professor, noted that some SF State students had occupied a business school building in protest of budget cuts. "They were pissed," he said. "They wanted to do something radical. They really inconvenienced a lot of people — but they took chances nonetheless. I went there, and I locked arms with them for awhile." At the same time, he wondered about how effective it was, he said.

And for all the months of preparation and visioning, Baron said he also wonders what will ultimately be borne out of the marches, rallies, pickets, and procession of lovingly crafted street puppets he helped breathe life into. For all the hard work and planning, he says, "My problem is not so much March 4. It’s March 5."