A report by Advance the Struggle on the movement in Oakland's school system following the Ferguson Uprising, from Viewpoint Magazine's "Strategy After Ferguson" collection.
Contribution from Advance the Struggle
Advance the Struggle is a communist collective that has participated in a variety of social movement and workplace organizing initiatives. From anti-austerity student movement on university campuses to anti-police brutality movements, we have focused on bridging social movements and workplace organizing, particularly in Oakland’s public schools.
November and December in Oakland
Oakland was an exciting place to be, again, during the hot winter weeks of late November and early December 2014. Protests raged nightly, and so many of us found ourselves marching together through the streets, evading cops, and blocking freeways and BART stations wherever was possible. Walking down Broadway, turning right on 7th street and heading toward the West Oakland BART station. Stopping midway and having debates about which direction to go - toward 980? Back toward the 880? Piedmont? The chaotic discussions we had brought that familiar feeling of ungovernability back to our lives. Our militant and disorderly activities were creative and generative to the extent that we got practice in challenging the infrastructure of Bay Area capitalism, attempting to block flows of traffic in ways that at least felt like we were disrupting flows of capital. Celebrating militancy is important, but perhaps more important is pointing out some of the limitations of our courageous actions.
There are three key limits that we want to highlight here.
First, the series of protest marches and traffic disruptions that so many of us participated in during those weeks last year were absent any public spaces of political discussion. We were certainly discussing tactics, strategies, and politics in our collectives, affinity groups, and informal organizing spaces. But where did this leave all the people who were participating in these actions for the first time? Where did it leave all those people who were watching from their televisions and phones? The lack of a public space for political and strategic discussion meant that whole layers of people who were on the verge of participating in this political moment were inadvertently sidelined, left as spectators rather than incorporated into the planning process.
Second, the majority of the nighttime protests that we participated in felt strangely silent much of the time. We were militant and courageous in the face of the direct police in front of us, as well as in the face of the general anti-black police state that was increasingly exposed on a national scale, but this courage and determination lacked explicit expression, we didn’t have specific demands that we wanted to win, nor did we even have political slogans and messages that we were attempting to spread. Our lack of demands and slogans, beyond the important, powerful and general Black Lives Matter, represents a lack in specific focus that might help us win concessions from the state. And yes, we do think that winning concessions on the basis of militancy and revolutionary ideas is important in this time period.
Third, the shutdown tactics that we carried out – at intersections, BART stations, and freeways – brought us together as people from various walks of life. Many of our friends have pointed out that the fact that we don’t work in large factories or workplaces that bring us together as working class people – rather, we find ourselves dispersed in small workplaces that we stick around at until we find a better gig to take somewhere else. This can lead us to conclude that it’s more strategic to come together to fight capitalism in the streets, rather than focus on fighting capital in our workplaces. We agree that this is a sign of our times: many, many more of us are excluded from the types of jobs that would allow us to see our workplaces as strategic sites of struggle. However, we’d be going too far if we drew the conclusion that the streets are the only place where we can make our social power felt, where our collective agency can find a productive and anti-systemic expression. Instead, we propose that we consider the sites of social reproduction that still exist, still bring many of us together, and still hold the potential to become bases of revolutionary discussion, activity and creative disruption.
Creating a space for planning and politics
On the evening of December 10th, 75 of us gathered in a large meeting room in downtown Oakland. 50 of those present were high school students from both public and charter high schools throughout the city, while the other 25 of us were adults, educators of some sort whether teachers, after-school workers, or non-profit workers employed in schools. Not one of the many, many youth activist organizations called for the meeting; rather, it was called for by a group of us who had been organizing against austerity and privatization in the Oakland Unified School District for the past few years. Networks of educators and students that we cultivated throughout multiple rounds of battle against the OUSD’s administrative bureaucracy brought us together numerous times before, so a level of understanding and trust was present. However, despite the fact that some of us knew one another, the majority of the people present at the meeting were gathering together for the first time, coming together as a result of the desire to participate directly in the emerging movement against police terror and anti-black racism.
The vast majority of students who were present at this organizing meeting had never attended any of the nighttime demonstrations that were happening throughout the city. Despite the fact that they were paying attention to what was erupting on a national scale, they were not able to participate in the demonstrations due to lack of transportation, fear on the part of their parents, or lack of connection to people out in the streets. As a result, conversations between students and educators in schools across the city created the basis for this organizing meeting to be an entrypoint for young people to participate in militant political activity.
There was a certain amount of trust needed, however initial it was in its development, for the educators involved to bring students together. Risk to their jobs and relationships with parents was certainly present given that the sole purpose of the meeting was to organize political action using the strength of our social relationships centered around our schools. The spectre of fear was reinforced by a small minority at the meeting – some employed by the school district – who made statements such as, “I notice that there are no organizers here … maybe it will be better to do a teach-in rather than a disorganized action?” Interestingly enough, those who made these comments were participants in the direct action at the BART station on Black Friday and later at the Oakland federal building on MLK Jr. day. Still, despite these comments, or perhaps against them, the students democratically voted to carry out an action the following week in order to build on the momentum of the national protests rather than delay action into the new year. The process of deliberation, debate and discussion needed to arrive at this conclusion was useful for both the students and the educators in the room, as many had never before participated in this type of political planning.
Once the decision was made to carry out an action, the conversation phased into a discussion of demands. Three demands were discussed and agreed on: the firing of Officer Bhatt, who had murdered 19 year old Raheim Brown some years earlier, the disarming and disbanding of the Oakland Unified School District Police Department, and the rejection of the armored tactical vehicle that the Department of Defense had donated to the OUSD. Given that the majority of people in the room, students and educators alike, had no idea about the existence of the armored vehicle, nor the fact that Officer Bhatt was still on OUSD payroll, simply discussing these demands played a useful role in politically educating the participants in the meeting. Following the discussion, the students and educators decided to make these demands a part of the action.
The following days were spent having organizing meetings on school campuses to discuss the demands, plan march routes and actions, create signs, and spread the call for the action on Instagram. These meetings were held in classrooms across the city on Friday, December 12th, providing a space, within the institution that students and educators attend on a daily basis, for ongoing political education and discussion of tactics.
December 15th walkout
Once Monday, December 15th came, folks were ready to disrupt business as usual. Demonstrators poured into the Fruitvale BART station plaza one school at a time until there was a crowd of about 300 protesters gathered around a group standing on top of a planter ledge with a bullhorn. Walkouts happened at multiple high schools, and one group who walked out of Oakland Tech even reported that the Macarthur BART station temporarily shutdown in order to disrupt their ability to get onto the platform. Other students reported facing intimidation and harassment from school district officials and police as they walked out of their schools, but in the end all of the organized campuses were able to join in the action.
The rally featured speeches and facilitation which was 100% youth led. In addition to providing an opportunity for the young people to take leadership of the facilitation, the rally also provided an opportunity for explicit political points to be made by all who wanted to speak out. The demands were read by the facilitators, prepared speeches were delivered by representatives from each of the schools, and spontaneous words were shared by young folks moved by the energy of the crowd.
Once the rally was over, an unannounced but well coordinated die-in happened in front of the entrance of the BART station where the various AC Transit busses come to pick up passengers. As the die-in occurred, three poets from a nearby high school delivered a poem that they had written earlier that month in preparation for a public performance. The power of the die-in and the poetry went hand in hand with the power of temporarily shutting down not only the AC Transit bus route, but also the Fruitvale BART station as a whole as trains were blocked from stopping while the die-in occurred.
At the end of the die-in, the demonstrators gathered and marched up Fruitvale Ave, taking a left on Foothill Blvd. and marching through East Oakland toward Lake Merritt where they would connect with a vigil that was happening around the lake. The entire march was unpermitted, and the energy of the crowd was determined, militant, and disciplined as it shut down streets and high-fived with cars which had to pull over in order to make way for the protest to move through. The entire experience was the first that the majority of participants had had with such a militant and organized demonstration, and there was a feeling among the crowd that this was the beginning of something that would continue unfolding.
Ricocheting political agency
What unfolded after the December 15th walkout wasn’t exactly expected. During the holiday break, student organizers from the walkout met with educator militants to pull back the lens and discuss the role of students and workers in struggle on a broader scale. We met to study the student and education movements in Mexico, specifically the UNAM strike of ‘99-00, #YoSoy132, and the movement coming out of the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa. Revolutionary students from Mexico City skyped with active students from Oakland to discuss the way in which school assemblies allowed students from different campuses to connect with one another and organize joint actions. Conversations between ourselves and our comrades in Mexico allowed us to think of our own situation in Oakland in new ways.
At the same time that we were meeting to discuss the connection between the December 15th walkout and the Mexican student movement, we heard about the plans that the OUSD was putting forward to potentially privatize five public schools. One of the students that was meeting to study with us was a student from Fremont High School, one of the schools slated for potential privatization and charterization. We discussed the need to connect students and teachers from all of the five schools together much the same way that the Mexican comrade has explained to us.
As soon as school came back into session in early January, we made connections across some of the key schools on the chopping block. Students who organized the December 15th walkout connected with other students who had either participated in the action, or had at least heard about it, from the five schools threatened with closure and privatization. These students planned an action at Fremont High School on the day that the OUSD administration set up a “community engagement” meeting to sell their plans to the community. What happened was incredible. Students read their critique of the entire OUSD privatization process, and then proceeded to takeover the entire OUSD orchestrated event, holding the microphone for extended periods of time and completely disrupting the whole of the official event.
This organizing continued in various forms throughout the rest of the spring semester. But what is interesting for the sake of the story of the organizers of the December 15th walkout is that later that spring some of the core organizers participated in another series of independent political actions. During the initial roll out of the new standardized test in California - the Smarter Balanced Assessment, referred to as the SBAC - students at one of the key schools to orchestrate the walkout initiated a boycott of the standardized test. This crew of students independently spread an opt-out form among themselves and their parents in order to get nearly the entire 11th grade class from their school to stand against the imposition of this new, computerized standardized assessment. While they did not produce literature that was circulated publicly, they did do what almost no other group of young people in Oakland did. In speaking to them about the motivations for their action, they told us that they were empowered by the various protests they had not only participated in attending but had planned themselves, and that they took this empowerment and applied it toward organizing against what seemed to them to be a waste of their educational time. School district officials came down on the school in question, threatening loss of funding for the entire district if there were not enough test taken. However, the students stood strong and opened up conversations with their teachers and parents about why they refused to take the test.
Where to, now?
The political agency that expressed itself through the actions of students and educators in Oakland was unprecedented in recent times. What made this even more interesting was the fact that all of the activity was initiated and sustained through the independent organization of rank and file students and educators. The existing nonprofit and school district machinery dedicated toward co-opting student and educator energy was pushed aside through the December 15th walkout, the anti-privatization activity, and the standardized test boycott. All of the groundwork was carried out by militants that had implanted themselves in a social institution – in this case, the OUSD, the largest employer in Oakland – and created networks through consistent organizing that established a basis for seizing upon the political opening in November and December of 2014.
While all of this represents the particular experience of specific sectors of the working class – students and teachers – in a specific city at a particular time, it provides us with a basis to suggest a few things for consideration.
We agree with our friends who point out that there is power in atomized proletarians coming together to disrupt the flow of capital at specific nodes in supply chains – ports, highways, etc – that is, that there is an importance in proletarian activity not being solely rooted in workplaces, but rather at specific chokepoints in the supply chain of commodities. This has proved to be a powerful tactic in various struggles, particularly here in Oakland, and it has a basis in the material reality of the capitalist economy and working class life.
However, despite the proliferation of casualized labor conditions, small shops and large scale unemployment among the US proletariat, there is still a basis for focusing on the centralizing power of certain social institutions. We propose that we consider institutions such as schools, hospitals and public transportation as social chokepoints, institutional spaces where a diverse range of proletarians come together on a daily basis. Militants should strongly consider the importance of organizing within these spaces. This type of organizing has the potential to reach sectors of the proletariat which might not otherwise participate in the street protests and blockades that are coordinated outside of any particular workplace or institutional space. Organizing where people are at – and where people will continue to be at for the foreseeable future, in the not-so-easily outsourceable centers of labor and social reproduction – can provide the basis to organize a proletarian insurgency that can fight multiple fronts, and provide a contribution toward developing a more organized and experienced assault on capitalism from within its own institutions.