From the belly of the beast: Protests spread against US education cutbacks

A March 4 “day of action” brought out tens of thousands against cuts to education in California schools, from kindergarten through to university postgraduate studies. Tuition has been raised sharply in the two state university systems, the University of California and California State University, which were originally set up to be tuition-free for working-class families. Tuition at UC now is over US$10,000 a year, out of reach of many, especially black and Latino people. Cutbacks for public university workers and truly drastic cuts to public elementary and high school education have already occurred, and more are planned.

The actions were significantly broader than those in late 2009. The largest was in San Francisco, at the park in front of City Hall, where some 10,000 to 20,000 gathered. The participants ranged from 8 year olds with their parents and teachers to university students. There also were university workers facing cutbacks and firings. The crowd was a cross-section of all races and included a majority of women.

The youngest knew exactly why they were there — “to keep our schools and teachers” — in interviews on TV news. There were feeder marches to the rally from many primary, high school and college campuses that first held their own demonstrations. The largest collected some 5000, who marched down Mission Street, through the main Latino district, according to Liberation, the newspaper of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. “A majority … were K-12 [kindergarten through high school] students, teachers and parents.”

Local actions

TV news showed many demonstrations at primary and high schools that did not join in the main rallies. Parents, teachers and students stood outside the schools with signs. Some were 15 people, some a few hundred. Most of these schools had never seen such actions before.

One account by Dana Blanchard, a teacher at a primary school in Berkeley, was printed in Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization (ISO): “My fifth grade had plans to walk over for the noon rally at [University of California] Berkeley, but permission was withdrawn at the last minute. My students were very disappointed, so we decided instead to have our own afternoon march in the neighborhood near our school. We spent the afternoon making signs and then marched … to the cheers and honking of many car horns.”

Some 2000 rallied at UC Berkeley, and then 1500 marched eight kilometres to a rally in Oakland. The Oakland rally itself drew in feeder marches from the surrounding area. At San Francisco State University, a street rally organised by the California Faculty Association was joined by students, followed by a march to a rally of 800 at Malcolm X Plaza. A noon rally of 300 was held at City College of San Francisco. Buses to this rally were organised at De Anza College. Other protests in the San Francisco Bay Area occurred in San Jose, Cupertino, Pleasanton, Pacifica and Pleasant Hill.

Police rampage

A group of about 100 broke away from a march after the Oakland rally and went up an off-ramp of a major freeway, blocking traffic during the evening rush hour. A police rampage followed, with merciless clubbings. The cops initially blamed “professional agitators”, but this proved to be a lie, as most participants didn’t know each other and were the same cross-section of teachers, parents and students as in other actions. Ordinarily, one would expect the thousands of backed-up drivers to be furious, but that was not the case. One driver’s account (not an ISO member), a public school teacher, was posted on the Socialist Worker web site: “Here’s what I observed when I was parked on the freeway for 40 minutes on March 4 at 5 in the afternoon.

“First, the other motorists did not appear upset about the delay. After all, we had a front row, drive-in-movie view of an empty freeway and riot police a few hundred yards ahead, engaged in some mysterious activity. And how refreshing to be parked on the freeway, walking around socializing with the people who only moments ago I was trying to maneuver around at 60 miles per hour! After 40 minutes of speculating, listening to the radio, calling friends and craning our necks, a long parade of handcuffed protesters was escorted down the … off ramp.

“Many drivers watched silently from the guardrail. Others, after several moments, began cheering. To my surprise, even more began cheering. A little girl who was with her mom and sister yelled, ‘Education!’ some protesters waved and cheered back to us. Then I heard someone yell my name. Looking more closely, I noticed one of my teacher colleagues was one of the protesters. I ecstatically waved back. I would like to add that she is one of the most committed, professional, hard-working teachers at our public elementary school …”

Big actions occurred throughout California. At UC Santa Cruz, the campus was shut down completely, the only one to do so. ISO member James Illingworth wrote how this was done: “We had all participated in the militant and inspiring actions on November 18-22 at UCSC, when hundreds of students occupied and held two campus buildings for several days. But we emerged from those actions with a sense that the protesters remained somewhat isolated from the wider body of students, faculty and workers, and that we had a lot of work to do if we were going to bring more people into the movement for March 4.

“… [W]e would have to agitate among students and workers on campus on a much larger scale than before. We had progressed past the stage where small, militant actions could inspire people — we needed to go out and organize people. Part of our preparation was political, theoretical and educational. We organized a series of study groups called ‘How to win a Strike,’ in which we read about and discussed mass struggles like the Minneapolis Teamster Rebellion of 1934 and the Oaxaca teachers’ strike of 2006. Socialists from different political traditions, anarchists and unaffiliated radicals came together in these study groups to assess and learn from past struggles …

“The Strike Committee built relationships with campus unions. From the beginning, members and staff from American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2199, which represents lecturers and librarians on campus, and United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, which represents graduate student teaching assistants, actively participated in the Committee.

“In turn, representatives of the Strike Committee attended meetings of University Labor United, the coalition of campus unions. We distributed thousands of copies of an open letter to campus workers explaining our goals for March 4. Without the solidarity of the AFT, UAW, AFSCME [American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees], Coalition of University Employees, University Professional and Technical Employees, and the Faculty Association, our strike would not have been possible.

“The Strike Committee also reached out to student organizations. We approached the student government early on and persuaded it to pass a resolution in support of March 4. The student government eventually donated money to support the action.”

The second largest rally in the state was of some 4000 in Los Angeles, drawing primary, high school and college campuses, including UCLA. In San Diego, some 1500 students and campus workers gathered at UCSD, and another 1200 at San Diego State. Later in the day 2000 participated in a rally in March 4 at UCSD came on the heels of two weeks of anti-racist actions on the campus after several racist incidents. These included a fraternity party organised around racist caricatures of African-Americans to ridicule Black History Month, and a campus radio program calling black people “niggers”.

There was a demonstration and march at Cal State Northridge of 2500, which was attacked by police who clubbed and arrested students and teachers. A 73-year-old female professor suffered a broken arm at the hands of the cops. Other important actions occurred throughout the state. There was a march at the state capitol in Sacramento and actions at UC Riverside; CSUs at Bakersfield, the Channel Islands, Chico, Dominguez Hills, Fresno, Fullerton, Humbolt, Long beach, San Bernardino and Monterey Bay; California Maritime Academy; California Poly Pomona and San Luis Obispo; and countless primary and high schools up and down the state.

The struggles against the cuts to education began last year at the University of California. Thus it was natural that California was key on March 4. But there was another aspect of the broadening of the fight. That was the picking up of March 4 in at least 30 other spots across the USA. The capitalist class and its governments are attacking education everywhere.

In mostly black Baltimore, Maryland, 500 high school students marched to the juvenile “justice” centre, to call attention to the fact that last year 4285 young people graduated from high school, while 5876 were locked up. In New York City, a march of 1000 was held. A banner from Students for a Free Palestine read, “Fund Schools, Don’t Bomb Them”. At Portland State University in Oregon, there was a rally of 300 followed by a march to the university president’s office. One faculty member said, “Many of you know about the structural adjustment programs that have devastated developing countries. Well, college debt is a deliberate structural adjustment on our own citizens.”

“Hundreds of students, members of the Service Employees International Union, faculty and community members” rallied at the University of Chicago, reported Liberation. There was a rally outside a budget hearing of the Boston School Committee. The committee proposes to save money by, among other things, turning off the heat in schools. It also wants to cut back on school-bussing, which would further segregate schools. There was also a rally of 100 at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Members of socialist groups helped lead and organise the March 4 events, including the ISO, Solidarity, The Socialist Organizer and Party for Socialism and Liberation.

A huge march demanding rights for immigrants took place in Washington on March 21, involving 100,000-200,000 people, mostly Latinos. The action was reminiscent of similar demonstrations of millions throughout the country in 2006, during the Bush administration.

In the past year the Obama administration has stepped up raids on communities and workplaces where undocumented immigrants are located. Mass deportations followed, often breaking up families. In this atmosphere, it took courage for the many without papers to show up for the protest.

US government policy is to make it very hard for immigrants to obtain papers, while at the same time opening jobs for immigrants. The result is that many cross the border without documents, seeking work. In this catch-22 situation, these workers are forced into backbreaking jobs at low wages.

Their employers know that the workers can’t organise to fight for their rights without the threat of deportation. They are a pool of super-exploited labour. There are some 12 million undocumented workers in the US, many of whom have been working, paying taxes on their meagre wages, for years.

The media downplayed the action, most accounts saying there were only “tens of thousands” of participants, newspapers burying the stories on inside pages. But photographs by the Associated Press, printed alongside the stories, clearly showed at least 100,000, and the whole crowd wasn’t included.

All of the capitalist media featured instead the wrangle in Congress between Democrats and Republicans over health insurance reform. Both parties were committed to bolstering the hold of the insurance companies. The Democratic plan won, and the next day the stocks of the insurance companies soared.

The day before, on March 20, there were anti-war demonstrations in Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles and a few other cities demanding that the troops be brought back immediately from Iraq and Afghanistan. There were also many placards protesting US support of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In total, the anti-war actions were small, something over 5000 nationally. But they were significant, coming after one year of Obama’s continued occupation of Iraq and his escalation of the war against Afghanistan. Many opposed to this war have been demobilised by misguided hopes that the Democrats and Obama will end the war. One of the main antiwar coalitions, United for Peace and Justice, completely closed down in the past year. It didn’t want to be seen as opposed to Obama and the Democrats.

The March 20 actions were called by the ANSWER coalition, which is very narrow and controlled by one group, the Party for Socialism and Liberation. This further weakens the movement. But no other socialist group has proven capable of stepping into the breach. In this situation, it is positive that ANSWER keeps the movement alive and in the streets.

[The title of this regular column, “From the belly of the beast”, was how the great Cuban fighter against US imperialism Jose Marti, signed his letters to friends back in Cuba when he was in the US.]