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Review of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity by Micah Uetricht

8 Mar

Strike_for_AmericaThis is a book review submitted by my friend Dennis Gravey from Portland.  It is especially timely considering that the group Social Equality Educators in Seattle is currently running a slate of candidates for office in the Seattle Education Association, our local teachers’ union. As far as I can tell, they are inspired by the strategy pursued by CORE in Chicago.   Gravey assesses the strengths and weaknesses of that strategy.   I have some disagreements with his assessments and am skeptical of focusing on building union caucuses, as I had laid out here.  If I have time I’ll write a response to Gravey and Uetricht and post it on this blog.

Micah Uetricht’s new book on the Chicago Teachers Union and their historic 2012 strike, Strike for America, out from Verso Press with a Jacobin Press imprint, offers a useful and intelligent reflection on an event that has become a cornerstone of labor activists’ sense of recent history. It offers a number of useful analyses and accounts, and will hopefully become a tool both for activists within education and the left movement more broadly.  In addition, it poses some interesting and current theoretical and strategic questions that help us think through some of the toughest intellectual tasks of our time.

 

The book is organized around two essays first about the rise of CORE (the Caucus of Rank and File Educators), of which the CTU strike leadership were members, and one on the strike itself.  These two are then followed by an extended reflection on the future, both of the CTU and the labor movement more broadly. On the rise and model of CORE the book offers a number of thoughts about strategies for rank and file renewal of existing unions and in particular the role of radicals in that project including strategies both once in leadership and for gaining power.

 

Uetricht counterposes two models for an organized radical force, boring-from-within, where radical elements attempt to influence existing leadership (pg. 30) and seizing control, where an organized faction takes power and makes unified decisions. Uetricht account of CORE’s model describes a subtly different path of an organization whose members assumed leadership, but maintained an autonomous ideological and organizational pole not only where strategy can be developed, but where dissent and education can take place. He explains that, “the caucus brought an insurgent leadership into power, but has acted independently of it” (pg. 42). This allowed the caucus to hold its leadership accountable, remain rooted in the rank and file, and become a pole for dissident rank-and-filers to gather organically and develop their insurgent potential. Without taking power, this pole would have been drastically less impactful, but without its independence and flexibility it is unlikely the result would have been as dynamic and exciting.

 

Uetricht acknowledges this model is not new, and is very similar to many experiments in rank-and-file organizing by American Left organizations in the 1970s, but it is an inspiring idea as more members of the activist left become engaged in workplace centered political work (the current IWW being a prime example of this). The rewards in this case are obvious, but the challenge will be figuring out how to continue the work of building a left pole outside of specific, if significant, institutions.

CTU organizer Brandon Johnson passes out leaflets and petitions to canvassers at Lewis Elementary.  Photo from http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=3899

CTU organizer Brandon Johnson passes out leaflets and petitions to canvassers at Lewis Elementary. Photo from http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=3899

Beyond the basic terms of strategy, CORE also offers an interesting example of a path to power. Rather than forming explicitly as rank-and-filers, and basing their organizing around the bread and butter interests of union membership, they formed around the more diffuse struggle regarding public education in Chicago. The roots of CORE lie not in previous union reform efforts, but in the struggle around school closings where leaders like Jackson Potter and Jesse Sharkey became recognized a leaders of a struggle largely driven by parents and students. Their identities as teachers was strategically useful in this context, but was not the main driving force for their involvement. Uetricht’s description shows an organization that initially had more focus on broader issues and ideological development, like reading Shock Doctrine together, and only subsequently moved to take union leadership after it became clear this was the only way to further the struggle for public education.

 

Discourse around union democracy and the political struggle in unions often centers on whether or not leadership serves the rank-and-files interests as workers, and imagines the project of union renewal as a project of forming better unions. CORE poses a serious challenge to this model in that it demonstrates that union renewal can, and maybe can only happen through a broader activation of workers’ sentiments for a better world and by forming organizations around ideological affinity, uniting around political vision and critiques, rather than bread-and-butter economism, i.e. following narrowly defined lines of economic interests as the foundation of union building. Of course there’s an argument to be made that teachers are more open to these more abstract forms than other workers, but there’s also an argument that economistic mobilizations actually tail more class-wide projects.  Indeed history casts severe doubt on the idea that one moves linearly from concrete, practical economic demands like wages to the more abstract, lofty demands for a radically transformed world.  We have to start seeing a more dynamic relationship between utopian dreaming, explicitly revolutionary activity, and the everyday bread and butter concerns that structure so much social tension and struggle, and this is what Uetricht’s account helps us do.

 

The idea that the project of reviving unions is centered outside the bread and butter, is deepened by Uetricht’s account of the strike itself and particularly the everyday solidarity present throughout Chicago during the strike. Not only did polls consistently show strong support for the teachers, Uetricht includes personal accounts that are difficult to fathom, receiving a free pastry and words of support from non-union baristas and even a free bus ride, all for merely wearing his union t-shirt. He implies that the real meaning of the CTU strike was not the struggle of workers against their employers, or even material effects of effective industrial action, but the work that the strike did on the class consciousness and collective sense of workers in Chicago.

 

Building off of CORE’s more ideological roots, the strike did more than create an effective union, it created an effective example of class struggle and helped build a sense of solidarity throughout the city and even activate sectors of the class seemingly far from their rank-and-file membership (though one of the unique aspects of public teachers are their embeddedness in the lives of working class families). Today it’s rare to see a union strategy so explicitly aimed at developing class consciousness and changing the collective sense of workers. Even more rare is this strategy being paired with effective, well organized, and dramatic action rather than the abortive or weak efforts at fomenting mass struggle like SEIU’s fast food organizing, UFCW’s Our Walmart campaign, or numerous IWW efforts.

 

Uetricht highlights that the overall result of this process was a destabilization of the ruling coalition of the Democratic Party. This offers an important question for Lefitsts: what is the relationship between this coalition and our revolutionary project? In some ways this is a fancy way of asking how relevant electoral politics are, but I want to highlight the lesson that Uetricht gestures at, which is that substance of this coalition is not which organizations do what and who gets in office, but how these movements affect the ideas, sentiments and activity of masses of people. The problem for the Democratic coalition posed by the CTU is not that it loses a funding source, which can easily be made up for from Wall Street, but that it loses the legitimacy among Chicagoans and poses a serious challenge to the possibility of an Emmanuel machine. The question is, what do we do with that lost legitimacy, do we run candidates, or do we build alternative power, and if we do run and win candidates, what will they be capable of? Uetricht cites the Teamster rebellion of 1934 in Minneapolis, which was helped along by the relatively sympathetic Farm Labor Party regime in Minnesota, but it was ultimately not those elected officials, but the strikers in the street that made one of the most important events of the American working class struggle.

 

Uetricht interlaces this account of union strategy with political and historical framing of the efforts to dismantle public education in Chicago. He identifies a “neoliberal” project of “privatizing” or “corporatizing” public education, through charters, philanthropic investment, school closing, and most centrally to the CTU, the attempts to break the teachers union. These strategies are in place throughout the country and have a great deal of unified coordination nationally through DC policy makers, ideologues, and monied foundations. The materialist core the analysis seems to be that Capital is using the financial crisis of 2008 to motivate a cycle of primitive accumulation over the public sector and use privatization of public enterprises as a new source of profit.

 

This analysis seems plausible, but I think falls short, just as the idea of the Prison-Industrial-Complex as a source of cheap labor fails to understand the real dynamics of social control as well as numerically not being substantiated (See the work by Loic Wacquant for a more developed account of this). It’s unclear if the potential profits garnered through this strategy are a viable way out of the accumulation crisis faced by Capital, and what’s more it tends to falls into a false narrative that counterposes privately held capital as “capitalist” and publicly held enterprises are more “socialist,” and ones that therefore might work to undermine capitalist hegemony. More than seeking profit, Leftists must ask why Capital sees it as advantageous to restructure public education when the system in place over the last three decades has been roughly successful at maintaining mass docility and a relatively easily exploitable labor supply. Austerity likely has more to do with shifting strategies of white supremacy, so called “surplus populations,” which are no longer useful to capital accumulations as either workers or consumers, and changing needs of the labor market due to automation than with a direct effort by Capital to use a formerly public sector as new grounds for profits.

 

As a final thought I want to discuss one of Uetricht’s boldest claims, that the CTU strike was a qualitative leap forward from previous movements like Occupy and the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol building. He writes that, “it was the CTU strike that first identified that rising tide in the form of an angry union membership and channeled it into an effective, militant political form, winning real gains and building power both for education workers and the communities they serve” (12). This will likely ruffle some feathers and I have sympathy with both the claim and the ruffle. I think it’s an idea that must be handled with care.

 

There’s a danger in thinking that the ultimate success of a cycle of struggle lies in the way it transforms the leadership and activity of specific institutions, and Uetricht comes dangerously close to implying that the upsurges of 2011 are significant only insofar as they impact the halls of power. In contrast to this, the reading I’m trying to pull out from this book, albeit a bit against the grain, is that the ultimate arbiter of the significance of both the less coherently organized formations in 2011, and the more coherently organized CTU strike, is the relationship they have to the broader and more diffuse sentiments, ideas and activity of masses of people throughout society, within and without protest movements or the specific organizations. What matters is not the specific organized acts but the way these acts reconfigure the balance of social forces through changing the apparently unorganized activity of millions of people.

 

In this light the CTU strike offers and important lesson on the relationship between spontaneity and organization. The debate is not: organization good v. spontaneity good; or: material impact more important v. material impact less important. Rather, it must be about how specific forms of organization express and transform the activity of millions of people in such a way that it advances a revolutionary process. What’s important about the CTU strike is not that it made more material headway in combatting neoliberalism, and could have only done so by being an organized, institutional force. But rather, that as an organized, institutional force that was able to make material headway against neoliberalism, it had unique power and potential to transform mass activity outside of institutions and specific organizational wills, activity that in a conventional sense appears as unorganized. This dynamic played itself out again in Portland where the potential (though unactualized) teachers strike allowed the students and other sectors of the activist left to become activated in ways they were apparently incapable of doing outside the context of the organized institutional movement of the teachers. Many leftists are rightfully skeptical of the radical potential of the existing institutions, but then throw the baby out with the bathwater when they use this as an reason to refuse to actively engage in shaping the activity of these institutions. While their ultimate potential is highly limited, their actions may open many unique opportunities for things to appear, even if sideways and behind the back of their movement. The Unions, non-profits, and the like will be the first to be left behind by the masses, but this leaving behind might only be possible after these institutions themselves move. In this context CORE’s independence from the union leadership is a powerful positive example, and the last minute deal calling off the Portland strike is a powerful negative one.

 

At this point is should be clear what the true test is of Uetricht’s book: How will it relate to the broader sentiments, ideas and actions of thousands (maybe indirectly millions) and help develop the left as a pole within society. In the week leading up to the potential Portland teachers strike I saw my roommate, a young teacher relatively new to politics read Uetricht’s book with relish and become more engaged afterwards, the husband of a striking teacher mention CLASS Action (another Jacobin project Uetricht also contributed to) at a solidarity campaign meeting, and teachers, parents and students discuss how the dynamics playing out in Portland are part of a national attack on public education. All of these are small, but bode well for the daunting project of rebuilding a left in the U.S. that is mass, popular and actually capable of ending capitalism. This book is a small tool in that project, and hopefully folks can figure out how to use it.

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Bill Gates’ Pipelines to Hell: Reflections on the 2012 Education Policy Throwdown

10 Feb

On March 1, 2012, uplifted by the spirit of Occupy, a group of us picked a fight with the largest private foundation on the planet.   

Two years later, we are now facing the very real possibility that in addition to reproducing the education pipelines that lead to prison, precarious labor, or privilege, Bill Gates is encouraging his fellow billionaires to railroad highly explosive Bakken shale oil and Tar Sands bitumen through the middle of our city.

“The 99% Challenges the Gates Foundation to an Education Policy Throwdown”

Back in 2012, we challenged the education policy experts at the Gates Foundation to a street-style debate as part of a coordinated National Day of Action for Public Education.  (We even delivered a fancy engraved invitation .)

We joined together to protest the outsized influence that the Gates Foundation wields to push its neoliberal education model.  To our amazement, their staff actually came out to debate with us when about 300 or so of us descended on their palatial headquarters in Seattle.

 

Frankly, considering that this was their full time job, the Gates Foundation policy experts were woefully unimpressive in this General Assembly style interaction.  The parents and teachers in our crowd gave them quite a drubbing over some key issues that these “experts” are clearly getting wrong:

  • Standardized Testing and Teacher Pay – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to tie teacher pay to standardized test results.  A member of the crowd (an editor at Rethinking Schools magazine) nailed them over the numerous studies that showed the volatility of test scores from year to year.  Teachers with stellar scores one year are painted as failures the next.  Gates Foundation experts sheepishly agreed.

  • Racist Origins of Standardized Testing  – Another participant stumped them completely by asking about the origin of standardized testing.  The Gates Foundation experts were not aware that the tools they promote were originally designed by the Eugenics movement to apply assembly line models to classrooms in attempt to prove the ‘genetic superiority’ of whites.   Standardized tests continue to do what they were designed to do — maintain a system of racially segregated education.

  • Charter Schools – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to advance charter schools.  As we have pointed out repeatedly in words and actions, the public schools are failing youth of color and working class youth.  It is understandable that many parents, communities, and progressive teachers will want to build alternative schools that have some degree of autonomy – ability to develop their own curriculum, to set their own schedules, etc.  Many people start charter schools thinking that they will offer such freedom; Bill Gates, on the other hand, wants charters in order to help take capitalism to a whole new level.

The charter movement may have started with good intentions but it has rapidly become a tool of corporate privatization rather than a viable laboratory where new forms of teaching can blossom and spread throughout the public system.   Charter schools become just as bureaucratic and authoritarian as public schools – some even more so, because charter-ization often paves the way for military academies or militaristic, heavily disciplined forms of teaching.   Many charter schools have admissions requirements, which makes it easier for elitist schools to maintain class and race segregation; this can also lead to discrimination against students with disabilities, which federal public education legislation was designed to prevent (whether it actually does that effectively is another whole conversation, but charters can make it worse).

Many charters are non-union, which means their teachers are more stressed out due to longer hours and lower pay. This can make it harder for them to focus on building relationships with students.  It can also mean the teachers have less academic freedom and can be fired more easily for teaching something that the administration doesn’t like.

When Bill Gates and his foundation push for charter schools they are not pushing for the dream of parents and teachers who want to opt out of an oppressive public school system.  They are pushing for their own dream – a corporate controlled education system with fewer public roadblocks in the way of billionaires who want to fashion education to suit their own goals.

The crowd made these criticisms of charter schools perfectly clear to the Gates Foundation.

People over Experts

At the “Education Policy Throwdown” we learned firsthand that what these “experts” are doing is not driven by observation or science.  They are paid pseudo-scientists who are paid to go find facts that support the preconceived ideology of Bill Gates.   They manipulate public policy behind the scenes by selective funding of research and by creating an atmosphere where everyone in academia is afraid to point out that the 800-pound gorilla has no clothes.

We also learned that they are vulnerable.  When called out into the streets to actually explain themselves to the public that they foist these policies upon, the Gates Foundation is simply defenseless.  

Gates’ Policies Are Still a Train Wreck

So, what else have they gotten wrong regarding education?

  • Small Schools Initiative:  The Gates Foundation spent over $2B convincing school districts to break their large schools into smaller “academies”.  Gates later admitted that the results were “disappointing” AFTER districts spent their OWN capital dollars physically re-architecting their campuses around a rich guy’s baseless hunch.  (BTW, ask the folks at Seattle’s Cleveland High School about this one.)

  • Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project:  The Gates Foundation spent years trying to validate their preconceived belief that teacher effectiveness can be scientifically measured.   They were wrong.  According to the National Education Policy Center, their “…results do not settle disagreements about what makes an effective teacher and offer little guidance about how to design real-world teacher evaluation systems”.  (This study even won the NEPC’s 2013 Bunkum Awards, recognizing lowlights in educational research).

Bill Gates and his foundation get it wrong because their policies are based on the neoliberal belief that the most important dimension of a human being is their contribution to the economy.   This ingrained belief expresses itself in systems that make the role of education to simply prepare workers for the labor market.  

In fact, this is the explicitly stated goal of their post-secondary education program:  “Our goal — to ensure that all low-income young adults have affordable access to a quality postsecondary education that is tailored to their individual needs and educational goals and leads to timely completion of a degree or certificate with labor-market value.”

Bill Gates is also wrong because he is a hypocrite.  He brags about the quality of his own relevant and relationship-based education at Lakeside, yet funnels everyone else into the pipeline that creates worker bots.
Preach One Thing, Invest in Another

Hypocrisy, or something darker, must motivate the investment portfolio of the Gates Foundation.  According to an analysis of their 2012 tax returns by Mother Jones Magazine:

  • They preach nutrition, but invest billions in MacDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Burger King, etc.

  • They preach support for the working poor, but invest billions in Walmart

  • They preach about fighting climate change, but invest billions in fossil fuels like Exxon Mobile, Arch Coal, Peabody Coal, Baker Hughes, etc.

  • WORST OF ALL, they preach that they will not invest in companies with “egregious corporate activities”, but invest in private prison companies like GEO Group and G4S Corporation, which operates 19 juvenile prisons in the US.   (GEO Group publicly stated that their profits would suffer from “reductions in crime rates” that “could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences,” along with immigration reform and the decriminalization of drugs.)

The Gates Foundation directly profits from maintaining the School to Prison Pipeline and from maintaining the dysfunctional economic status quo.

However, as we have written about on this blog before — our struggle is not JUST against the School To Prison Pipeline, but against ALL of the pipelines that systemically strip people of power and possibilities.  The pipelines to prison, to precarious employment, to overworked technology labor, or even to the stressed managerial class* are ALL BAD for the people in them.  (*Note that suicide now kills more 40-60 year old white males than car accidents).

Next Target, Higher Education

Bill Gates and his foundation continue to build the pipelines that perpetuate privilege for some and prison for others. Their latest target is now the university system, which they seek to destroy and rebuild in their own techno-capitalist vision.

The Chronicle of Higher Education released a detailed report that sharply criticized their new approach, which they state is “designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology, and…narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability.”

One structural change promoted by the Gates Foundation is the channeling of Federal Student Financial Aid toward schools that do not require ‘credit hours’, instead allowing students to demonstrate competency by completing online training.

According to the Chronicle’s report, the tremendous financial power wielded by the Gates Foundation creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the administration of colleges and universities.   Few are willing to speak out against Gates’ vision of education as job preparation.  If schools follow this vision, we all lose the many other critical roles that colleges have played in society.  The university will no longer be a place for reflection on the meaning of human existence (or other such “non-productive” activities).

Automation and Education in the Era of Robots

The Gates Foundation goals are shaped by Gates’ plans for the next era of capitalist accumulation.  As Gates, Jeff Bezos at Amazon.com, and other tech company titans push for increasing automation of the workforce, more and more workers will be replaced by robots.  As this happens, society could be increasingly divided into new classes – those who own the robots, those who manage them, those who serve these two groups, and everyone else who is deemed a “surplus population” and targeted for mass incarceration and other forms of social destruction.

If this stratification proceeds, the corporate owners would need to reproduce it in the schools.  Since charter schools make the  education system more flexible, their presence might help speed up this process.   Gates and his technocrats might push for elite, holistic, creative schools for the future robot owners, heavy STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) schools for the future robot operators, discipline-based job training programs for the future servants, and prison-like schools for everyone else. Some teachers might become highly-paid professionals training the global elite and their programmers and engineers.  Others might become low-paid service industry workers who deploy automated “teacher-proof” online curriculum, punishing students who don’t pay attention to what Bill Gates wants them to see on the screen in front of them.   

The Gates Foundation is already deploying electronic bracelets on students’ arms that measure their arousal levels in the classroom;  they could use this data to help automate teaching, creating online and cybernetic technologies to replace teachers.  This might seem far-fetched, and it is admittedly decades away at least.  But the world we live in today would seem extremely far-fetched to early 20th century auto workers.  Little did they know that the time-study researchers watching them do their jobs would use this data to  replace them with robots.

Bill Gates Might Just  Blow Us All to Hell

Clearly Bill Gates has been wrong about many things before and will be again.

However, one his miscalculations may cause immediate searing and painful death to some and will likely accelerate the death of all of us through climate change.

You see, according to Forbes Magazine, Bill Gates is the person that convinced his friend Warren Buffet and his investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, to invest in Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) and Canadian Railway (CN).   

Bill is pretty clever, and he saw that all of that Tar Sands and Bakken Shale Oil might not be able to get to market in China, ESPECIALLY if the Keystone XL pipeline was not approved by the Obama administration.  So, Berkshire Hathaway invested heavily to increase the capacity of these rail systems so that they could carry more of these petroleum products.

The cruel irony is that last month, the State Department ruled that Keystone XL will have no impact on CO2 emissions because, even if it not approved, the oil/tar in the ground would get to the market anyways via the newly expanded rail capacity.   The result is that the staggering amounts of Canadian Tar Sands will now be strip-mined and sold overseas, accelerating the pace at which the planet will become a climate-ravaged hellscape.

The Gates Foundation holds more than $10B worth of Berkshire Hathaway.  They took a minimal risk in the railway investment — even though the rail lines may have profited more without Keystone XL, they win.  They can afford to take risks and lose a few.

 However, folks in the pathway of their rail cars filled with these highly explosive materials are not so lucky.  Perhaps Bill Gates should have educated himself on one of the key themes of Greek literature – Hubris.  His unwarranted self-confidence puts our schools, our communities, and our climate at extreme risk.   

Workshop And March Tomorrow: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline

19 Jan
info graphic from SuspensionStories.com

info graphic from SuspensionStories.com

where:  Garfield High School, 400 23rd Ave, Seattle, WA 98122

when: Mon, Jan 20th, workshop from 9:30 – 11:00 AM

march begins at 12:30 –  if you want to march with us, we’ll be meeting right across the street from Ezell’s Chicken.

what: The workshop will expose and analyze how the system stratifies the population through a set of “pipelines”. While some students are channeled into futures in management and the professions, and some into a working class, however insecure, still others are left to expect the least opportunities plus the threat of incarceration in the largest prison system in history.

Teachers, students, former inmates, and activists, will share how this is all fitting into a pattern of especially insidious racism, as well as other forms of discrimination.

You are invited to discuss these perspectives, and your own, with us. We will also discuss how we can inform, agitate, and organize together, to undo and overcome this oppression.

This workshop is one of many that will be held as part of the larger, annual Martin Luther King Day event at Garfield High School.

We will be marching together in the larger march, with posters and chants against the school to prison pipeline.  Look out for us across from Ezells at 12:30 if you want to march with us.

A free-standing isolation booth, now banned in Oregon.  (Source: KATU News, posted on http://www.policestateusa.com)

A free-standing isolation booth, (Source: KATU News, posted on http://www.policestateusa.com)

One of the teachers speaking in the workshop is the author of this piece, about how she and her students turned the isolation room in their classroom into an art project.

Here is the Facebook event page for tomorrow.  Please invite your friends.

The workshop is being  organized by a really dynamic coalition of people, including  folks from Africatown/ More4Mann, some of the organizers of the Youth For Justice rally this summer, folks from Free Us All (the prison hunger strike support committee), artists/writers from  High Gods Entertainment, Creativity Not Control, and folks from Washington Incarceration Stops Here (the group organizing against the new juvenile detention center in Seattle.)

Check out the links for more information, and check out those groups or others if you’d like get involved in struggles against the school to prison pipeline here in Seattle. There are lots of ways to get involved, from organizing and fighting back,  to educating and creating art and music on the subject.  We’ll see you out there!

Breaking News: SPS “Hearing” Today vs. More4Mann / Africatown Arrestees

12 Dec

The following is  a press statement released yesterday from the More4Mann Coalition. It concerns a public hearing today, Dec. 12th, at 3 PM.  Readers of this blog are encouraged to attend as supporters and witnesses.

 According to the press release, organizers expect that they will encounter a talking-to, not a genuine hearing.  Have the district officials already made up their minds to approach their so-called “community partners” with coercive discipline  instead of genuine dialogue?  Have they already decided to expel these activists from district buildings without due process?

If that’s the road they choose to go down, all I can say is that they will have chosen to treat parents, teachers, and community activists the way their schools all too often treat Black students. And that would simply highlight the importance of the More4Mann coalition’s original demands, the demands that folks were arrested while trying to make.  It would also highlight the need to resume the culturally responsive programming that the coalition was doing in the Horace Mann building before they were interrupted by the arrests.

 In any case, this whole situation is far from over.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE! / FROM: THE MORE 4 MANN COALITION

 

SEATTLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS

CONVENES KANGAROO “HEARING”

AGAINST THE MORE 4 MANN ARRESTEES of Historic Africatown

Seattle Public Schools appears to continue doing everything it can to pretend that African Americans in Seattle don’t exist.

For several years now, a broad coalition of Seattle’s African American community and its supporters have been (alongside the Federal Justice Department) calling out this School District for its over-50-year-long record of absolute failure to serve the educational needs of its African American constituents. The More 4 Mann coalition even mobilized volunteers, free of charge, to activate an impressive array of programs in the public Horace Mann School Building, which the District had not used since 2009.

This August, the District claimed that it wanted to embrace and enter into partnership with this pro public education grassroots civil initiative, and engaged the More 4 Mann Coalition in several months of dialogue. The District and the Coalition convened a community task force that issued a progressive set of recommendations in favor of African American inclusion and involvement, both intellectual and manual, in the renovation of the Horace Mann Building, as well as in the curriculum and programming to be provided in that building when its renovation is complete. The task force also recommended a series of mitigating measures to prevent any complete displacement of the Africatown community from that historical address, either during OR after renovation. The District then signed a letter of its intent to adhere to these task force recommendations.

Apparently, an old guard faction within the District then proceeded to reassert power, countermand the pragmatism of the Superintendent from LA, and to dictate his next actual moves as well as those of the Seattle Police. Electricity to the building was unilaterally shut off on November 9th, which interrupted many of our programs. Those programs which managed to continue were then also interrupted on November 19th, when Seattle Police raided the building without eviction notice or search warrant, unilaterally arresting three programmers (including a task force member) and one member of the general public who happened to be visiting the building at the time.

While under arrest, these four were all handed an “Exclusion” flier by a representative of the District, which claims that they are forbidden to attend any School District meeting or set foot on any District property for one year, but that they may appeal this decision to an internal hearing process under “Board procedure F44.01”. This is clearly an attempt to prevent the More 4 Mann Coalition from presenting public grievances to our government, especially as it came only six days after another SPS “Admonishment” flier, which threatened to exclude a More 4 Mann task force member from School Board meetings if he made any more public criticisms of the District´s powerful and influential, but apparently incompetent General Counsel Ron English.

Naturally, our coalition and its attorney have appealed these SPS fliers and demanded a public hearing. The District agreed to set this hearing for3 PM tomorrow, Thursday December 12th, at the John Stanford Building.

However, the District has just informed us this evening, the night before the hearing, that not only have they already, in effect, rendered their decision as to its outcome, but that…

THE PERSON WHO WILL RENDER THIIS HEARING’S DECISION IS THE SAME PERSON WHO AUTHORED AND SIGNED THE SPS FLIERS THAT WE ARE APPEALING!

While we cannot consider this to be a legitimate hearing under such conditions, we shall still attend it to show our respect for civil procedure as community volunteers behind the School District’s stated mission of education and opportunities for all.

We therefore encourage all members of the press and the public at large to show up and witness this kangaroo court in action:

Tomorrow, December 12th, 2013, 3PM

Safety and Secuity conference room on the first floor of the

Seattle Public Schools

John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence

2445 3rd Avenue South

Police arrest SPS “community partners” at Horace Mann during ongoing negotiations

20 Nov
Police making arrests at Horace Mann today; photo by Alex Garland

Police making arrests at Horace Mann today; photo by Alex Garland

Today the Seattle p0lice arrested four members of the Africatown / Central District community in the Horace Mann school building; they also took steps to prevent community members from retaking control of the building. One of the arrestees told me the police arrested them at gunpoint. 

While the mainstream media is presenting these men as “occupiers“, as a violent threat, or as some splinter group, they are, in fact, part of the  broad-based More4Mann movement: a coalition of predominantly Black parents, teachers, students, and community activists who want the Horace Mann building to be a public resource for the Africatown/ Central District neighborhood and for students across the district.  They want to use the building to create a school that can support Black students who are facing disproportionate suspensions and lack of culturally relevant education in the Seattle Public Schools.

As I wrote here, I was worried that the media and school district officials would try to separate the educators in this coalition from the people remaining in the building, splintering the broad-based nature of the movement.  But those divide and conquer tactics didn’t work; the entire coalition held a rally on Nov 8th to support those who remained inside the building after district and police threats had made it unsafe for the educators to continue holding classes there. The coalition put out a unified press release, which you can find at the end of this post.  The media was there interviewing people at the solidarity rally, but they didn’t actually publish what they saw, probably because it looked like this:

kids support More4Mann

And this clearly doesn’t fit with the narrative they’re trying to push.

People inside the building reciprocated this solidarity with their own public statements, like this one:

LET THIS BE KNOWN: I am a More for Mann Coalition Task Force member, seated to discuss the future use of the Horace Mann building with the school district, as are two of my co-workers, Gabriel Prawl and Purnell Mitchell. My two co-workers have asked me to post the following on behalf of all three of us: WE HAVE NOT AGREED TO MOVE, AND WE ARE ANGRY THAT MANY OF OUR TEACHERS HAVE BEEN PUSHED OUT INTO THE COLD BY DISTRICT THREATS AND INTIMIDATION! We don’t think it’s right that they were forced to shut down their classes or face the threat “tresspass” charges from the district. It isn’t right that the school district refused to sign the lease on the interim space it offered them. It isn´t right that the school district hasn´t cleaned the mold, filth and birds nests out of that space. It isn´t right for them top make our teachers teach in the rainy streets. It isn´t even right that the school district attorney Ron English and the board members who listen to him are bullying Superintendent Banda into threatening to throw the cops at our community, and are punishing Banda for even convening our task force at all.

So the mainstream media is either too lazy to investigate or too corrupt to tell the truth. It is crystal clear to anyone paying close attention, that those inside the building and those outside in the community are on the same team.  This means that Seattle Public Schools officials will not be able to make all of this go away by arresting a few people inside  – today’s raid will probably  galvanize the broader coalition to keep fighting against racism in the schools in general, and for community control of the Mann building in particular.

This afternoon, supporters of the movement rallied outside the East Precinct where the people arrested were released. 

 Upon release, they called for everyone to mobilize tomorrow at the school board meeting at the John Stanford Center, 2445 3rd Ave S., Seattle, WA, 98134.  

This could get really interesting, because supporters of the Indian Heritage School and AS1/Pinehurst are already planning on rallying at 3:30 before the board meeting, to prevent the closure of their programs.  On Facebook, leaders of the More4Mann Movement and leaders of the indigenous Idle No More movement have been exchanging statements of solidarity, supporting each others’ causes.   Thinking they just crushed a marginal opposition, school district officials may have just helped consolidate a multi-racial movement against them. 

The media is, as usual, missing all of this context.  By calling the men arrested “occupiers”, they fail to see that trying to use a public building for the purposes of publicly educating youth in your own neighborhood is not an act of occupation.  That’s like saying you are occupying a neighborhood park by allowing your kids to swing on the swingset.  But I guess this is how the pro-gentrification Seattle establishment views the remnant of the Black community in the Central Area – as squatters in their own ‘hood.

And yet, this is the same Seattle whose politicians like to make a public show of engaging in “dialogue” with communities of color.  In fact, the people arrested are part of  the  same exact More4Mann coalition that Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda has been calling “community partners”.  It is the exact same coalition that Banda and his staff are currently negotiating with to lease space in another district building while the district renovates the Mann building.

Contrary to the Seattle Times’s sloppy reporting, the district has not signed this lease yet, for the reasons outlined here. At least they hadn’t by Nov 10th, the date of the last post on More4Mann’s blog. Neither the district nor the movement has announced any finalization of the lease, so my assumption is the Times is going off of outdated promises that Supt. Banda had made publicly but the district never followed through on.  The deal was that the Africatown educators would move out of Horace Mann as long as the programs they were doing in the building continue elsewhere.  But no satisfactory place for these programs was every guaranteed in writing.  Also, the Africatown workers’  demands that Black folks have equal access to the school construction jobs were also not met. These are the reasons why people were still in the building today. 

So by asking the police to raid them, SPS is responsible for a raid on the very same coalition that has been running programming for Black youth in the Mann building for months, programming that Banda and other SPS officials recognized for its cultural relevance and  its alignment with the  district’s strategic goal of overcoming what they call the “achievement gap” between Black students and white students.

In fact, at least one of the people arrested is actually part of the very task force that Supt. Banda set up to negotiate with the Mor4Mann coalition and to work toward this goal. This means that Seattle Public school staff worked with the Seattle Police to arrest at gunpoint someone who they claim to be negotiating with, during ongoing negotiations over a new lease and new partnership. I guess that’s what “dialogue” looks like to them. 

It seems to me like one of two things is going on here.  Either 1)  the district leadership’s behavior is dangerously erratic and it’s policies around racial equality are completely incoherent or  2) the district is sending a clear message to all of its “partners” that negotiating  with politicians might involve them calling a group of people to kidnap you at gunpoint in your own neighborhood during the middle of the negotiation process. What a way to solidify a partnership! 

But all of this is getting obscured by the sensationalist media narratives.   Kiro TV claims that one of the people inside the Mann building called them and suggested they were prepared to snipe cops from the rooftop.  But nowhere does Kiro prove that this call actually represents anyone in the More4Mann coalition, or that it even came from within the building.  According to Seattle Weekly, Omari Tahir Garrett, one of the people arrested today, “claims the call was a prank from someone trying to make them look bad, and vowed to press on.” 

All of us should press on, despite all this negative media and and the police raid.  The issues that MOre4Mann has highlighted are still unresolved.  The community’s refusal to relinquish control of the Mann building has pushed the district  leadership to talk about these issues, but I don’t think we should take their words seriously since they also just coordinated the arrest of someone on their own task force.  

Let’s learn from Africatown, and start taking matters into our own hands.  Let’s organize in all of of our schools and neighborhoods, against racist discipline policies and in favor of culturally responsive education.  We could take direct action, such as campaigns to reinstate students who are unfairly suspended, or efforts to replace aversive discipline policies like isolation rooms.  And, most importantly, we should support Africatown and the Indian Heritage program tomorrow at 3:30 at the school board meeting. 

 

More4Mann press release (Nov 8th 2013, coinciding with a rally outside the Mann building): 

Imminent Eviction of Black Community Education Center by SPD

The Seattle Police Department has issued a notice to the Africatown Center for Education & Innovation to remove this needed community resource from its location at the Horace Mann School as soon as 6pm tonight, November 8, 2013. The Seattle School Board has refused to negotiate in good faith with Seattle’s Black community to preserve necessary programming at Horace Mann, Africatown’s only location, which benefits cross-cultural communities of color in Seattle’s Central District.

The Seattle School District has, in spite of comment from Seattle’s Black community, chosen to return the NOVA Alternative School to Horace Mann. Overwhelming community support in the Central District and among the Black community for continuing ACEI’s mission has been ignored by the Seattle School District’s push to relocate NOVA from its current spacious and sufficient location central to its student body on 20th Ave E.

ACEI has put down roots in reclaiming Horace Mann School *for* the Black community and has brought in cross-cultural programs that benefit many Seattle children, from bilingual Spanish/English education for grade schoolers through the Seattle Amistad School’s summer program at ACEI to fostering shared community responsibility through the Africatown Center Children’s Collective where we bring the proverbial village together to promote an Afrocentric curriculum for young minds.

It is imperative for Seattle’s Black community that we retain this resource and that the School Board speak to us in good faith about discussing future possibilities for Africatown at Horace Mann. We can work with the Seattle School District to create a better, Afrocentric focus for Horace Mann School, a school in the very heart of the Central District and we are more than willing to do so. However, the Seattle School District has given ACEI nothing but bad faith and now impending eviction.

For more information on the programs offered by Africatown Center for Education & Innovation, please see http://www.africatownseattle.org/africatown-center/.

Africatown and the schoolhouse-to-condo pipeline

14 Nov
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Photo by Alex Garland

I’m continually disappointed with the hostility that Melissa Westbrook from Save Seattle Schools blog has shown toward the More4Mann movement and the Africatown Innovation Center at Horace Mann.  As I argue below, if we want to fight privatization and save public school buildings from private use, we should be supporting the efforts in Africatown, not opposing them.

It strikes me that Melissa  is coming from an administrative, building-management perspective, rather than a holistic perspective that puts the students first.   For her, managing public school buildings is concrete, and the majority of her reporting on this story has focused on chiding the district for loosing control of the Mann building when community members refused to leave it.  She goes on and on about the polices around public building management, until  the purpose of public school buildings in the first place – educating students -starts to seem distant and abstract.

If I were an editor at the Onion, I’d write a satirical piece entitled “Education blogger takes on the achievement gap between buildings”.   Truly, it seems like Melissa wants to make sure that no building is left behind.  

This puts her on a collision course with the parents and educators in Africatown who have  focused their efforts around the students themselves and what they need.  They have continued to hold the Mann building because they have concrete plans for how to use it to help their kids – and all kids.  They care about the students enough to risk arrest.  They are impatient with the districts’ hand-wringing about the so-called “achievement gap”. They are not letting red tape stall the efforts necessary to dismantle the oppression Black students face in Seattle Public Schools.

However, I don’t want to dismiss Melissa’s care for buildings entirely.  She is right that there is a history of scandal and corruption in SPS around the mismanagement of public buildings.  Given this, bloggers and the public in general should be vigilant about how the district enforces or fails to enforce its own policies.  She is also right to fight the pro-privatization forces that are clearly attacking public school districts across the nation.  These astro-turf, billionaire funded “community groups” try to throw public officials and employees off balance, creating crises that can be exploited to sell off parts of the public school system at fire sale prices. They also use this chaos as an arena to research, test, and market new management and consulting services.  Diane Ravitch has documented all of this thoroughly in her new book Reign of Error.

The More4Mann Coalition is NOT this kind of group.  They are distrustful of Seattle Public Schools for good reason.  But this does not mean they are part of a corporate privatization agenda.  They have continuously said they want to partner with the public schools, and as a teacher I have experienced nothing but support and solidarity at Africatown events.

They are attempting to create a public educational resource rooted in the Africatown neighborhood, serving the public good in that neighborhood.  As longshore worker Leith Kahl pointed out at the Oct. 5th summit, these kinds of efforts are exactly how public education was founded in the first place.  The Africatown organizers are also committed to transforming public schools across the district through teacher/parent/student organizing and professional development for educators.

Even more concretely, they have an impressive track record of clashing with some of the very people who have been implicated in privatization efforts and corruption.  The article below presents some of the early history of the More4Mann movement, when the Umoja P.E.A.C.E. center, Decolonize / Occupy movement participants, and other  groupings allied to prevent condo developers from gaining control of the Mann building.   This article was originally posted in the comments section of a misleading report by the Stranger.

Please keep this article in mind when you hear people claim that the people in the Mann building are trying to take a public building for their own private reasons.  Also, please remember this when you hear district officials say they need to move Nova back into Mann in order to alleviate the district-wide space crunch.

Let’s ask why that space crunch exists in the first place.  I wonder – if the founders of the More4Mann movement hadn’t started taking direct action at Mann back in 2011, would the district even be trying to return Nova to the building?  Or would they be working with developers like LEXAS  to lay the groundwork for future condos and more gentrification?  

SEATTLE YOUTH RALLY TO PROTECT PUBLIC SCHOOL BUILDING 
FROM PRIVATIZATION AND CONDOS
by Leith Kahl

The downsizing and privatizing of education in the US is a brutally physical process. Perhaps nowhere was this more clear than in Seattle´s Central Area on Veterans Day, when a crowd of young people refused to leave a public meeting about the future of a public school building at 24th and Cherry, which has sat vacant since the end of 2008. Police were called to eject the public from the building, and one youth and one community elder were arrested and charged with “tresspassing” and “disorderly conduct”.

An advertisement in the The Facts Newspaper had clearly invited the general public to this meeting. The meeting called by the leaders of an organization called “Family Life Center”, a ministry of Peoples Institutional Baptist Church, which also sometimes does business under the name “Work It Out”.
This entity was awarded a lease on the building by the Seattle Public School District about a year and a half ago, even though their lease bid was neither the highest bid, nor was it a bid that contained any committment to the school district to use the building for any purpose relating to public education. Their were other bids which did offer such an explicit committment, including one from the nearby Umojafest Peace Center which has a track record of turning blighted buildings into vibrant centers of community programming with almost no budget at all.

The United For Youth Coalition, a coalition of which the Umojafest Peace Center is a member, called upon its members and supporters to attend this public meeting and voice their concerns, which they did. When the “Work It Out” entity reacted to the presence of these youth by first cancelling the meeting, and then asking the Seattle Police Department to eject the public from the building, the Coalition responded by staging a protest on the sidewalk immediately outside of the building. Some members of Occupy Seattle and other local groups also attended both the meeting and the protest which followed it.

In the significant time that has passed since the “Work It Out” entity was awarded the lease on the property by the school district, the impressive building and the grounds around it have continued to sit fenced, empty and vacant, except for a few occasional days when work parties of volunteers organized by the Umojafest Peace Center were allowed into the building by “Work It Out” officers to perform the grunt work of cleaning up the facility. Although the “Work It Out” entity holds the lease and the keys, it has no budget of its own sufficient to pay for the lease that was awarded to it, and is only able to make the payments on this lease by means of a public grant of over $100,000 that it is recieving from the City of Seattle´s Department of Neighborhoods. The “Work It Out” entity has also recently announced in The Facts Newspaper that a religious organization will be moving into the building.

The Seattle Public School District has already established its reputation for privatizing public buildings this year, and for doing so in a manner that has become infamous for intrigue and cronyism. The most well know example was the controversial sale of Martin Luther King elementary school to a private religious organization, which in turn was issued public funds with which to purchase the now vacant and derilect school. (See Seattle Times article June 5th, 2011 “State investigates Seattle district´s sale of MLK school” – seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews…; ).
As a matter of fact, the Seattle Schoold District even has a page on its website dedicated to the “property leasing and sales of closed school buildings”:
http://www.seattleschools.org/modules/cm… . “The Seattle Public Schools leases out portions of operating school buildings, closed buildings, and conducts sales of surplus buildings from time to time”, this website proudly proclaims.

The very idea that a public school district would use the term “surplus” to describe any of its facilities at a time when prisons and detention centers are still being rapidly constructed throughout the country displays a certain degree of contempt for the public trust that has been invested in this school board. The recent financial scandals that have led to the termination of former superintendent Goodlowe Johnson and the arrest of the scam artist Silas Potter further illustrate the school districts contempt for that public trust.

Is this pattern now repeating itself yet again in the case of the Horace Mann school building?

Why would a building leased to a private organization at public expense proceed to sit vacant for over a year and a half? The reason why becomes apparent, even to the amature investigator, when we simply examine who sits on the “Work It Out” project´s steering committee (workitoutseattle.org/staff.html).

This ten person committee nominally claims to include eight members of the Peoples Institutional Baptist Church community, including Jocquelyn Duncan and Charelyn Stennis (daughters of the late Bertha Jinkens), Charisse Cowan Pitre (an associate professor of Teacher Education at Seattle University), Erin Fleeks (a staff member at the Central Area Senior Center), Loris Blue (Vice President of enrollment at SCCC), and local Seattle DJ Guy Davis.

There are, however only two members of this committee who are directly connected to the Seattle ruling class power structure and the investment capital behind it. These two are Kristen M. Link and Sheryl Frisk, Investement Associate and Vice President, respectively, of a real estate investment and trading firm called LEXAS Companies (www.lexascompanies.com).

LEXAS Companies publicly describes itelf as “a private real estate investment company that creates value in quality projects with distinct competitive advantages” organized to “strategically select geographical areas, submarkets, product, and cycle timing to create superior risk adjusted returns”.

The company website goes on to state the following about its “KEY EXECUTIVE TEAM”:
“The LEXAS Companies is lead by Joseph Strobele, a former senior executive of Legacy Partners and Lincoln Property, Co. along with John Midby, also Chairman of The Midby Companies, a Las Vegas developer with over 40 years experience in developing a diverse array of assets. Additionally, our company recruits, develops and retains only the most highly skilled and experienced professionals. Together our long term experience in several geographical markets along with our expertise in the development field has resulted in an array of successful projects in the Puget Sound region and has poised us to expand even further.”

LEXAS Companies describes its Vice President Sheryl Frisk thusly:
“In the capacity of Vice President, Sheryl Frisk is responsible for the acquisition and management of income producing projects for The LEXAS Companies and its subsidiaries. Sheryl manages all phases of operations of the real estate process, from locating and acquiring assets to the repositioning and disposition of investments. Sheryl serves as the key liaison with banks, investors, and Board of Directors on all aspects of the projects she develops. Sheryl is responsible for managing project specific sales teams, construction companies, consultants, and administrative and on site employees.
“Prior to joining The LEXAS Companies, Sheryl worked for the Seattle Monorail Project as the Right of Way Acquisition Manager. She was responsible for development processes including contract negotiation, managing all acquisition, property management and relocation contractors, as well as coordinating with land owners, tenants, and city officials. Sheryl’s background in land acquisition, development, property management, construction and mechanical contracting give her a keen understanding of the acquisitions and development process making her a positive asset to our team.”

LEXAS Companies is clearly not in the business of educating young people. It is in the business of deriving profit from real estate investment transactions.

Peoples Institutional Baptist Church is an old, venerable, and relatively respected institution in the Central Area, but it does not and never has weilded power within the the downtown city machine or within the world of major investment capital. Anyone who thinks that PIBC, on its own, is capable of developing the Horace Mann building is not thinking realistically. In this case, the church is being used as a pawn by LEXAS Companies, a tool with which to occupy a space on the real estate chess board which the school district is either unable or unwilling to protect for the benefit of our children.

In this writer´s opinion, the church will only be useful to LEXAS until the real estate market and the political climate are ripe for LEXAS to make its move to develop the site into high priced and profitable condominiums, just as the Housing Resource Group corporation has done with 90% of the space inside of the old Coleman building, a small corner of which is still laughably touted as the “Northwest African American Museum”. Until then, LEXAS just needs the “Work It Out” steering committee to maintain a pretense in the media that some community activity is taking place under its auspices, while ensuring that the building itself remains empty and fenced off.

That is the reason why the ministers of “Work It Out” believed they needed to summon the Seattle Police to eject members of the public from a publicly advertised public meeting in a public building on Veterans Day of 2011. They are loyally protecting the real estate interests of downtown investors who are unlikely to ever reward them for this favor.

Peoples Instututional Baptist Church can change this course of events by directing its ministry to unite with the Umojafest Peace Center and the United For Youth Coalition to actually produce public programming in this public space for the benefit of the young people who need it most.

In the meantime, people of good moral fibre should continue to support the Umojafest Peace Center and United For Youth Coalition in their efforts to protect this valuable public resource from the opportunistic and creeping acid of private investment capital. The United For Youth Coalition´s position on the matter is excellently presented in a youtube video at the following link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBNrSOUdA… .

Leith Kahl

The struggle for Horace Mann is not over: time to get clear on a few things

8 Nov

Since the summer, members of the historically Black central district community in Seattle have taken back the Horace Mann building from the Seattle Public Schools (SPS). Calling out the district for it’s racially biased suspension rates, lack of culturally relevant curriculum, and general oppression of youth of African descent, they have been running their own educational programs in the building, called the Africatown Innovation and Education Center (AIEC).  Hundreds of Black youth have participated in learning activities there over the course of the summer and fall.

 The school district wants to begin renovations on this building immediately, so that it can be turned over to a majority-white alternative school called Nova (even though many Nova teachers, parents, and students do not want to displace the AEIC).  Africatown residents have refused to move, delaying construction and creating an accelerating political crisis for the SPS leadership.    For background info, click here and here.

Horace Mann is located at 24th and Cherry St., Seattle.  Barring a police raid, there will be a Black labor movie night and disucssion there on Fri at 6 PM.  I encourage everyone to go by and check it out for yourself.

This week, the struggle kicked into high gear. In this post, I’ll attempt to provide an update based on my own observations as a participant in recent movement activities, as well as  info from reliable sources within the movement.  My goal is to provide an orientation for supporters who might be starting to get involved right now.

It’s especially important to orient ourselves because there’s been a wave of negative media attacks on the More4Mann movement  that threaten to sew confusion among supporters.  The movement responded with a powerful press conference on Saturday, and a strong presence at last night’s school board meeting.  As Kiro 7 reports, the board meeting was packed, with people waiting in line to get in.

The agenda for the Nov 6th board meeting was supposed to include a vote on whether the school district would lease space to the AIEC  to continue the educational programs they had started in the Mann building while Mann is being renovated.  This was part of Superintendent Jose Banda’s public, verbal promise to help facilitate their temporary move to another building, part of the partnership he said he wanted to develop with the AIEC educators to help close the racial achievement gap.  However, SPS legal counsel Ron English later informed him – suspiciously late in the process – that he could not make this sort of deal on his own and that it would have to be put up to a school board vote.  This delayed the negotiations, causing libertarian-minded opponents of  both Africatown AND Banda  to become more and more enraged about how much money is being lost due to delays in renovations at at Mann.

The board was supposed to vote last night, but Banda asked for a delay, using the excuse that he wants  more time to negotiate an effective solution.  I wonder if the real reason might be that he was worried he might loose the vote if it was taken tonight. This would be a problem for him because  he has staked a good deal of his political capital upon presenting himself as someone who can dialogue with activists from communities of color, and if the board prevents him from bringing a deal to the table, then he can’t claim he diffused the crisis and instead the community might just turn up the heat on the district even further.

Two of the board members (Patu and Peasley)  seemed supportive of Banda last night, and another two (Debell and Carr) seemed openly hostile.  The rest seemed on the fence, but I think they’re leaning against Banda because they kept criticizing him for “losing control of the building” and allowing Africatown residents to “occupy” it, violating district policies.   Ron English intervened only once in the meeting, reminding the board that Banda couldn’t just table the vote on the lease- that  the decision to table it would  itself have to be put up to a board vote.  They eventually did vote to table it, but some of us read this as Ron English and his bureaucracy reminding Banda who really calls the shots.

It is important that supporters of Africatown pay attention to these serpentine political twists.  I’m not saying we should have faith in any of the politicians, or see any of them as our allies.  But we should take inspiration from the fact that the actions at Horace Mann have created political tensions among the city’s managerial class, tensions that we could possibly exploit to further push our own agenda.

Banda’s opponents seem particularly angry at him because they think he has been too soft on people who have “broken the law” by holding a building to pressure the district to negotiate.   Lynne  Varner, Seattle Times mouthpeice for the corporate education “reformers”, has this to say in her recent blog post:

“ Banda has the right instincts to listen when people demand attention, particularly when it comes to the long-standing problems around academic disproportionality.  But he should not put up with, nor subject his employees, to bullying, threats and intimidation. At this point, talks about a district-Africatown partnership ought to be off until cooler heads prevail. If the group wants to get serious, get rid of the fringe element  horning in on what could be a promising community partnership.”

Melissa Westbrook  from the  Save Seattle Schools blog is worried that other groups will get the idea that they can also occupy buildings in order to get what they want.  For example, will Pinehurst  / AS 1 families and teachers occupy their school in order to prevent the district from closing it?  As I wrote here , I agree with Melissa that a cascading chain of direct actions is a possibility right now; while she thinks it’s a looming disaster, I think it’s a great idea.  In fact, I think the kind of direct action that Africatown folks have taken is exactly what we all need to do to save Seattle public schools – and transform them to meet our needs.  Black folks in the Reconstruction South took action to create public education in the first place, and it’s no surprise that the attacks on quality, relevant, anti-racist public ed. have focused most viciously on Black communities, from Philly to Chicago to Seattle.  So it’s also no surprise that the fightback is beginning most intensely in Black communities, and the rest of us should spread it into our schools and neighborhoods.

To keep this pressure going, activists at Horace Mann have set up barricades (visible in this news report).  Supt. Banda and Peggy McEvoy announced at the board meeting tonight that they were coordinating with the Seattle Police to forcibly remove people from the building.   Both sides are entrenching, and things are clearly coming to a head.

As a result, people across Seattle, and across the country are paying closer attention to this struggle, and to the much needed conversation that it has provoked about racist practices and policies in Seattle’s schools.  As numerous speakers asked on Sat’s press conference and tonight’s meeting: “would the district even be addressing these issues of racial inequality if people had not refused to leave the Mann building?”

Residents of the Central District/ Africatown, members of the Black community more broadly, veterans of the Occupy movement, and others have been attending events at Mann, and I would not be surprised if a lot of people decide to mobilize in defense of the movement if Banda does call in the cops.

At the same time, racist elements are also showing up.  Last night, a white man came by the Horace Mann building and called several of the people there “racist n*****s” .  At the school board, a man said that Africatown’s anti-gentrification rhetoric is simply designed to manipulate “people who don’t understand the hard work involved in owning property.”

Given these rising tensions, it’s especially important that supporters of the movement seek clear information from More4Mann organizers, and that we don’t trust the distorting narratives that will inevitably be spread by district officials, cops, mainstream media outlets, and hostile social media forces.   Here are some predictable  narratives we should refuse to fall for:

  1. “squatters” vs. “phds”

Tonight at the school board meeting, Superintendent Banda recognized a fact that the movement stressed heavily on the Sat press conference – that the curriculum for the AIC is being developed by highly experienced teachers, professors with PhDs, researchers, and educational consultants.

This is true. But the movement also includes working class parents and students, including folks with a wide range of experiences, from Microsoft tech workers to people who did time in prison.  Movement spokespeople have been stressing the presence of folks with PhDs  so much recently in order to counter a backlash  of distortions coming from folks like Melissa Westbrook and others who have described Africatown as a bunch of squatters with no expertise and no capacity to actually teach students.  These people are putting pressure on Supt. Banda, calling him irresponsible for even negotiating with the More4Mann movement for this reason.  (it’s worth noting that Westbrook is something like a “kingmaker”; she was influential in taking down a previous superintendent, Dr. Goodloe Johnson).

Tonight, it seemed like the Africatown Educators and Supt. Banda were both trying to convince the fence-sitting board members to recognize the expertise that the educators bring to the table, so that the board would sign the lease allowing the educators to rent space from the district (in portables at Mann and possibly at Columbia Annex) where they can run the AIC programs until the Mann building renovations are complete.

This rhetoric of “squatters vs. phds” might be a turn off to those of us who believe that education should not be something that only state-certified teachers can do;  many of are fighting for a future where teaching and learning are infused throughout society instead of enclosed within narrow professions.  We are trying to create a present where teachers, parents, and students all learn from each other.

This rhetoric might also alienate possible supporters from the Occupy or anarchist movements.  Many of them have experience squatting or occupying buildings in order to survive,  and/or because they are trying to take back resources from the system to start building a life worth living.

It’s important to keep in mind that when Africatown educators say “we are not squatters”, this is just a  temporary tactic being used by people who have themselves been taking back a building from the school district in order to build the kind of future they want.  It’s also just one tactic within a broader diversity of tactics that make up the overall strategy the movement is putting forward.

Finally, taking back the building has not just been a bargaining chip in a grand reformist strategy.  People have been serious about creating a free, autonomous zone at Mann, and the building has functioned as a hub where people can meet each other and grow community; in that sense, going there has reminded me of some of the best moments in the Occupy camp (but without some of the problems that came along with Occupy’s majority-white demographic).

Finally, people are rejecting the “occupier” and “squatter” labels because it’s  insulting to be called a squatter in a building that was once a historically Black school in a neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified.  Africatown folks insist they are not occupying the building, they are simply taking it back for their neighborhood, and if the district comes in and takes it over, they will be the ones “occupying” it through the force of their occupying army – the Seattle Police.

2) Responsible activists vs. violent radicals

Tonight Banda introduced another, more divisive element to the mix.  He said that the “responsible” educators he is negotiating with have all left the building, and that those who remain in the building are not part of Africatown and hence are not part of the ongoing negotiations.  Right after Banda said that,  Peggy McEvoy reported how she was working with the Seattle Police and their legal team to prepare to remove these “other people” from the building even as Banda continues to negotiate with the educators.  Banda openly supported this.

 While Lynne Varner is trying to lump the people in the buidling in with the educators in order to shame Banda, Banda is trying to separate the two groups in order to make himself look like someone who only negotiates with what he called “certified community organizations.”  Personally, I don’t trust Banda and I think that most of his attempts to negotiate have been attempts to coopt and diffuse the movement.  But, in the  the face of mounting pressure to his right, he might exchange the carrot for the stick; he might decide that he needs to send in police in order to show his critics that he can take charge of the situation.

He had tried cooptation first because he probably knows that violent repression could just create a bigger backlash of anger against him and against the city government.  So if he does opt for the stick over the carrot, then he will probably instruct the police to apply force in a very precise and strategically focused way, in order to shape the political narrative in ways he can control.

Based on my experiences in past movements, the media often assists the police and politicians with this sort of operation, manufacturing the false claim that certain crucial elements of the movement are somehow outside of it, in order to isolate these elements and control the movement as a whole.  We saw this with the whole “good Occupiers” vs “violent anarchists” divide that Dominic Holden and other journalists pushed during Occupy, which helped the police justify some of their repression.   I predict there will be an increasing slew of media reports presenting the people who stay in the Mann building as violent extremists in order to justify a  violent police attack on them, sending a clear message to other movement participants that they will be spared this repression as long as they distance themselves from the people inside.

We should all resist this pressure to distance and isolate them. 

It is important to emphasize that this rhetoric about a split in the movement is Banda’s and the media’s, and is NOT coming from the Africatown educators themselves.

It is true that the Africatown educators are negotiating with Banda and the school board to rent a new space for their programs.  It is also true that they made a tactical decision to move their educational programs out of the Mann building temporarily in order to secure their classes and equipment, leaving other movement participants to secure the building itself.  Folks can certainly debate the pros and cons of this tactic, but we need to be clear on this: it is NOT true that they have given up on trying to take back the Mann building. Noone has publicly renounced that strategic goal which has always been central to the movement.  More importantly, noone has denounced the Africatown residents who continue to hold the building.

According to Brother Preach’s interview with Kiro News , the folks inside are staying there in order to create a place to educate Black youth.  In other words, they continue to reiterate the main, shared goals of the overall movement.

It is unclear to me exactly what the educators are demanding in their negotiations with Banda.  They may be demanding the right to return to Mann  in the fall after renovations, or they may be  demanding a permanent presence during renovations.  At several of the educational summits, spokespeople for Africatown have suggested they want to maintain a presence during renovations, and at the summits, press conference, and school board meeting, several organizers argued  that the portable space offered by the school district negotiators is not adequate.

This statement was just released by people who have remained inside the building, arguing that

“The portable they have offered, and essentially forced upon Africatown educators, is unsafe, unclean, has no bathroom, and is not ADA compliant. Also, there is a birds’ nest in the ceiling. (see attached pic. And, the portable is open for you to see for yourself). More pics to be posted at allpowertothepositive.blogspot.com and elsewhere. The 2nd portable on the property is full of mold and unsafe, as is the Columbia Annex. Because of this, the educators cannot fully move out of Horace Mann and/or do youth programs, since they cannot set up in hose portables in that condition or store their stuff in any of the offered locations!”

One Africatown source said that it may be possible to  continue educational programs in the Mann building itself while the new extension is built, then they could conduct these programs in the extension while the old building is renovated.

Africatown folks will handle all these details in the course of their strategizing and negotiations.  But what all of this adds up to is this: there is no split in the movement, just a diversity of tactics.  The people who remain inside the Mann building right now, behind the barricades, are also part of the More4Mann and Africatown movements, and are also fighting to create a community there, where Black youth can learn and grow.   They are not some radical “break away faction” or “violent extremists” or whatever else the media will want you to believe.   They have the same goals as the educators  and folks with Phds who are trying to negotiate with the district.

3. negotiations vs. direct actions, or “control your people, then we’ll talk”

Significant pressures might be put on the Africatown educators to get the other Africatown residents out of the Mann building. The district and opponents in the media might argue that the none of their demands will be met until they convince people to leave.  Or, the district might offer a barely inhabitable building for their programs, saying “we would have given you more if those people resisting the police eviction hadn’t given you all a bad name”.  It’s kind of like a union negotiation where the bosses say they’ll only give the union leaders what they want if they show they’re able to control the rank and file workers, e.g. sucessfully convincing people to end a strike.  Usually this doesn’t work because it is exactly the threat of disrupting business as usual  that brings the bosses to the table in the first place and when that’s taken away, the bosses can do what they want.

In fact, right now – before any eviction defense actions – the district isn’t offering much; hence, the lovely portable with a birds nest in it.

The best way for the educators to get what they are demanding is for all of us to keep up the pressure, through a variety of tactics focused at Horace Mann and throughout the city. Some people might continue to hold down the Mann building.  Others might provide them with food, water, etc.  Others might engage in social media outreach.  Others might start organizing  direct action campaigns against suspensions or racist discipline on a school-by-school basis.  The key thing is that we all need to remember that the act of refusing to leave Horace Mann is what sparked this movement in the first place.  Without that direct action, everything else we do could easily be brushed back under the rug and ignored.

Finally, it’s important to remember that Africatown is a neighborhood, not an organization.  It is a term that residents of the Central District have given to their neighborhood, signifying their desire to counter gentrification and to create a vibrant cultural hub among people of African decent.  Just like there are many organizations and political tendencies in Chinatowns with different priorities, so too are there different tendencies within Africatown.  The task force of Africatown residents that has been negotiating with Supt. Banda never claimed to represent or govern all of Africatown, and should not be held responsible for everything that people in Africatown or their comrades might choose to do.

It’s an old white supremacist tradition to collectively punish people of African descent for the behaviors of one or two people who the colonial settler judicial system / lynch mob decides are “criminals”.  It’s also an old white supremacist tradition to tell Black leaders that they can only get respect if they separate themselves from the rest of their people.  Non-black supporters must  separate ourselves from the  mob mentality that produces both of these pressures and must confront this bullshit whenever we see and hear it.

4)  white outside agitators

One thing we know for certain is that the power structure is going to move swiftly against both those in Africatown  who move from Mann and those who stay, so long as the Africatown movement keeps effectively developing a specifically pro-African public education project.  As the empire attempts to crush yet another Black renaissance in Seattle, workers and peoples of all nationalities and cultures must decide which side they are on. Trying to be neutral simply means to side with the empire. At the same time, those who aim for the principled course of supporting and defending their Africatown neighbors must realistically expect to be branded as “outside agitators” by media and even by some fellow activists.

This is a predictable tactic that we’ve seen deployed in the Oscar Grant rebellions and the East Flatbush actions against police violence.  By claiming that all direct action is done by  “white anarchists from the suburbs”, the system can try to silence and preempt direct action in communities of color. Ultimately, this claim rests on the racist idea that Black people are too cowardly or too stupid to take action to benefit themselves, and that when they do take action they must be manipulated by white agitators.

In any case, the facts are clear: those who began the action at Horace Mann are people of African descent, and so are the majority of people who continue to hold the building. If you see non-Black people there, this is simply a testament to the broad-mindedness of Africatown organizers who are building a beautiful home and are graciously inviting in guests.  It should also serve as a slap in the face of all the critics who are crying “reverse racism”, claiming that being pro-African means being against every person of European descent.

Here is my advice to those of us who will inevitably be called outside agitators:  it is a lump that can and must be taken in stride, as Seattle’s Black population deals with much worse stress on a daily basis than being called a negative political term. The key is, while not being intimidated by such terms, to also not behave in any ways that said terms would accurately denote. In other words, respect the  self-initiative of folks in Africatown, and its truthful saying that “nothing about us without us is for us”. This doesn’t mean uncritically deferring to every Black person you meet or waiting to take initiative until someone gives you orders.  If you have concerns or disagreements, don’t hide them.  But don’t come in telling people what to do or acting like a condescending savior either.

Note: This is also about equal access for Black workers 

The folks who are staying in the building are also protesting the fact that Black construction workers are not being given clear information about where to apply for the construction jobs at Mann and at other school renovation projects funded by the  BEX levy.  For more info, see the open letter  from members of the African American Longshore Coalition and A. Phillip Randolph Institute, or check out their film series

Conclusion 

I encourage everyone reading this to get involved in the movement.  This is a crucial struggle that will shape Seattle public schools for years to come, and could forge the kinds of solidarity necessary to reverse the attacks on public education and to challenge institutional racism in our schools.  Don’t believe the hype, investigate everything you hear critically, and stay in touch with the Africatown organizers.  There are many ways to take action – choose one and take it as far as you can!