Occupy the Department of Education: Just What Education Activists Were Looking for

On behalf of the people of New York City, the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) assembled on the evening of February 9. On behalf of the people of New York City, it deliberated the closure of 23 city schools. And on behalf of the people of New York City, it ignored the thousands of parents, students, teachers and taxpayers who had come to protest and axed the schools anyway. Democracy in action.

Apart from the balcony, the Brooklyn Technical High School auditorium (which seats 3,100) was packed when I arrived. The security detail roaming the aisles dutifully dispensed their pro forma pleas that those in the aisle find a seat, but they knew their task was Sisyphean: no one had a seat. Virtually everyone was standing, chanting, holding signs, condemning the proceedings by way of the people's mike and roundly booing each of the panel's suits for silence.

These were the only indication the panel gave those in attendance that they even knew a protest was in progress. For the most part, they proceeded through the minutiae of the event, droning on over the amplification system, charging inexorably toward what everyone knew was a foregone conclusion. That this whole hearing was proceeding patently without the consent of the governed seemed more or less irrelevant to the panel, which never bothered to identify the counter-constituency, New Yorkers against the closing down of the schools. Amid the unrelenting din, one panelist, called on to testify, replied, “I'm sorry, I can't hear anything,” to which the exasperated chairman responded, “Welcome to the club!”

The lack of acknowledgement was mutual, protesters deciding that they would hold their own – legitimate – people's panel, what Occupy The DOE (Department of Education) organizer Justin Wedes termed “a powerful, peaceful show of public discontent” with “what should be a public two-way discourse but has, instead, turned into a rubber stamp puppet show of corporate-bureaucracy.” At one point, the audience raised a massive cheer and waved hundreds of green cards in the air, indicating a no-confidence vote in the PEP.

Just when the opposition looked as though it had come to a head, reinforcements arrived, hundreds of attendees of the United Federation of Teachers outdoor press conference flooded the balcony. The union, initially reluctant to join the more radical Occupy The DOE protest, brought some political heft with them in the figure of elected representatives. The officials on the agenda for the evening to plead with the panel not to close the schools, took to their designated microphone. This elicited injunctions from the chanting throng to “Use the people's mike!” Their message was clear – don't legitimize this sham; address the people using the people's form of communication. This was a new era, and the old methods of dissent were no longer satisfactory.

City Council member Jumaane Williams, a regular at Occupy protests, struck a compromise and shouted, “Mic check” into the panel's microphone. The protesters echoed. Williams' colleague, Ydanis Rodriguez, who has been beaten and jailed and led an 11-mile march in service to the Occupy movement, declined the compromise approach, electing instead to go acoustic. The panel repeatedly implored him to address his remarks into the microphone it had provided, eventually threatening to skip his place on the docket and making good on that threat.

I caught up with Jane Hirschmann, a veteran education reform organizer (“real reform,” she clarified, “not the kind of reform the Republicans and Obama talk about”) to ask her about her impressions of the action.

“Many of us have been working around education for years,” she said, “and many of us have radical notions.” But the political will to protest radically was elusive before Occupy Wall Street, said Hirschmann: “I've been wanting to occupy the Board of Regents around high-stakes testing. Six months ago, people would have laughed at me.” Thanks to Occupy Wall Street, “you can push the envelope a little further,” she said. “You might want to take some more risks rather than just letter writing or phone calling or petitions.” Hirschmann noted that, several years ago, New York's progressive education activist community performed an action similar to “Occupy PEP,” but since “We didn't say 'Mic check,'” coverage was much more difficult to come by. “We didn't call it Occupy, we just went in to shut them down.”

Many of those same activists are a part of Occupy The DOE, Wedes wrote in an email: “Occupy The DOE grew organically out of the work of the NYC General Assembly, since many of the early organizers were teachers or students or parents already involved in the grassroots education movement here. We represent a broad cross-section of different working groups, from the Education and Empowerment Working Group to Media Working Group to PR to the various student assemblies, which work to grow the movement in schools and colleges. I also work with a group of activists on a project called Occupy High, which will foster the growth of HS Student General Assemblies all over the city and, eventually, the country!”

Wedes elaborated on the “symbiotic relationship building between OWS and the Ed movement” in response to “the mayor's true aim: to privatize and corporatize the resources and management of public education in NYC. The struggle of education advocates who have seen the arc of ed policy under Bloomberg curve more and more away from true local control of schools and empowerment of teachers, students, parents and – I would even argue – principals is one with the struggle of occupiers to reclaim public space and fight back against an increasingly-corporate system of governance. In other words, there is a kind of shared empathy between occupiers evicted from public space and school communities evicted from their buildings. And the root cause of both seems to me to be one and the same.”

Hirschmann said she was grateful that Occupy Wall Street had pointed out this shared root cause of many different struggles, a number of which she had helped organize. “Education's a part of the whole 99% fight,” she said, “and that's crucial, because it really was never seen that way. You had the anti-war movement, you had the housing movement, you had a lot of movements, but what Occupy has done is connect them all with an economic thread right through it.”

Wedes, in his email, expressed optimism regarding Occupy The DOE's prospects moving forward in an alliance with longtime progressive education advocates like Hirschmann. “There is a lot of overlap in these groups,” he wrote. “It may be too early to call it a coalition, but I think we are getting there.”