In a Season of Change– a Plea to Our New Mayor

Reemergence Meeting-Occupy Oakland

In October and early November Oaklanders look forward to warm weather, beautiful sunsets, and-fires and earthquakes. Oh, and election season.

This time last year I was walking the neighborhoods of West Oakland and Lake Merritt, flyering folks coming out of BART, and staying up late at night strategizing with other campaign staff, or the future mayor herself.

What a difference a year makes. Jean Quan, who I have known for many years-sometimes argued (loudly) with, strategized and broken bread many times with, is now mayor of this wonderful little city.

Jean Quan and her family have a long history of fighting for peace, union rights, ethnic studies, and human rights. They come from immigrant stock and Jean developed her skills against the backdrop of a single mom who couldn’t speak English.

The new mayor spent much of her childhood in public libraries and attended a renowned public university. She had to obtain scholarships even to survive her college years; and then almost didn’t get her degree due to being jailed in defense of ethnic studies.

Last year after the Mehserle verdict was handed down, Jean was accused by the police department of preventing them from dispersing the crowd down the block from City Hall. She had stood arm-in-arm with Rebecca Kaplan to separate protestors from the police in an attempt to defuse the situation.

Now, while she is out-of-town, after a morning in which the police department destroyed the village in Frank Ogawa- Oscar Grant Plaza-tearing up posters, pulling down a library, and arts and crafts and first aid tents, while manhandling sleeping protestors- OPD is in control of our city. The chief just held a press conference with his staff and Council Member de la Fuente was the only elected representative present.

After a blue tornado hits Occupy Oakland

Where is the rest of our governing council? Why did the most hands-on mayor we’ve ever seen let this happen while she was out-of-town? Why did she entrust our city’s fate to a department that may soon be in federal receivership for its cavalier attitude toward human rights?

For those of us who’ve long loved this city, who’ve worked here, raised our kids here, even sent them to school here-we can’t stand aside much longer while the police and their union runs roughshod over our citizens- good, bad  and the rest- just-tryin’-to- make-it folks.

Children at play at Occupy Oakland

And for those of us who walked and phoned day after day for the mayor-to-be…. Well, let me back up–I’ll just speak for me. When I was young, I spent a lot of time demonstrating against a president who turns out to have been one of the best of our time. He brought us civil rights-long overdue, Medicare- the first installment of single payer healthcare and other additions to the New Deal first promised by Franklin Roosevelt.

But Lyndon Johnson chose to listen to his hawkish advisers and follow counsel that he seemed to have known in his heart, was wrong. The country went to war at home as well as abroad and Johnson left office in disgrace.

Maybe that is a false historical analogy-I hope it is. But I see a police department that is out-of-control, and tonight I see a city under martial law. Come home Jean, and take charge.

We were able to build a caring community during your grassroots campaign, so it is no surprise to me that people, young and old, came to City Hall to design and build a new way of life. Oakland has always been a center of activism and experimentation. Your administration needs to honor that hope and nurture that change or you will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Occupy Oakland: There is a There There.

Making music at the Constant Caucus Cafe

Despite millions of dollars and decades of planning, the city center was never vibrant until now-

Occupy Oakland is in its 8th night as I write this. I have visited the site every day since the first rally on October 10th, and every day it grows larger and more complex. If you have not seen it, I don’t believe that the photos do it justice. You must go.

Tonight I met 3 new twenty-somethings pitching their tent. I asked them where they had come from and they said, Berkeley, and kind of laughed-presumably-because it is so near. But, that, of course, is part of the attraction.

Most of the people I’ve talked to are actually from Oakland. Many are daily visitors -working on projects, engaging in discussions, making art or music-not camping out but they are at work on creating community. I can’t tell you how many are camping out, but it must be quite a few, judging by the number of tents on the lawn.

The Tribune tower serves as backdrop for the new village, first week.

Before this, the area beyond the amphitheatre always seemed small to me but I guess it really isn’t. I could never have imagined that so many tents-with a few boardwalks plopped in the middle-could fit into that little area. Most of the tents look comfortable even if they sit cheek to jowl with each other.

I haven’t had the urge to stay over since the balmy evenings of that first week because it has gotten too crowded and even a bit too civilized. I’ve never been much for camping, and the endless negotiating and redesigning of a complex society just seems like lots of work. Still, the scene draws me back every day.

For instance, in the kitchen, the kettle barbecues have been abandoned for large gas-style stoves with giant pots full of stew. There is a food preparation tent alongside shelving for dishes and a dishwashing area. Whole families stop by to donate food and supplies. I have even heard that the city has asked them to stock a fire extinguisher to make this sophisticated arrangement safer.

Kitchen tent, first week.

So now that things are working a bit better-bureaucracy is bound to grow- but if we remember that bureaucracy was designed to bring organization to civilization, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Besides the first aid tent, the crafts and the childcare tents, there is a media and an info tent and a well-stocked library, plus a tent full of dry erase boards with growing activity schedules.

These message boards offer classes and discussion groups almost every hour. There are signs posted, stacked and lying about, and the messages are inspiring or thought provoking.  There is almost always music all along the paths surrounding the encampment.

Zoe and Olivia make art on site, day 7.

Early on, port-a-potties were donated by the Oakland Education Association (OEA), but cleaning them daily is expensive, and an instant fundraiser is scheduled this Sunday to provide a port-a-potty cleaning fund.

If you want to help grow this fund, please attend the Port-a-Potty Party this coming Sunday, October 23, from 5 to 7 (appetizers and drinks) at 1633 Channing Way, Berkeley, or send a check to the Oakland Education Association, 272 East 12th Street, Suite C, Oakland, 94606.

At the site, I frequently meet gray-haired friends who are visiting, chatting, and offering support. On Sunday I ran into Robert Reich who was talking to people and engaging them in discussions. He told me that this movement was indicative of the American spirit “rising up”. 

At one gathering I heard a woman older than me say that she had been waiting for this uprising for 70 years and a friend of mine-who dashed off to Target (some irony there, I guess) to buy supply bins for the campers-told me, “I’ve been waiting 50 years for this.”

For the most part, my friends and I have seen this as a young person’s movement that we are willing to support in any way we can. We respect their process and trust that the campers and daily attendees will find a way to move it to the next stage.

The most striking aspect of this for me is how it has changed the conversation in this country and around the world, and that is probably the most significant thing it can do. I go through my day aware of them and their struggles as a generation, and thankful that their statement of rebellion matches my own anger, my own hope.

Tonight by 6 PM, I couldn’t stay away any longer and set out on foot to join them. Along the way I felt a simple kind of joy moving among the runners, strollers, bikes, kids, and dogs passing together along the edges of our beautiful Lake Merritt as the sun went down. As soon as I reached the library, the emptiness of downtown Oakland after 6 PM yawned before me and made me think of turning back. But there it was- the vibrant new village at Oscar Grant Plaza (which is very ironic given how much money the City has spent over the years to revitalize this core area). The General Assembly was just being called to order; so I joined the attentive crowd and listened as so many disparate folks expressed their desire to learn, teach, and share in real community.

Now, when I hear about what is happening in Congress or the presidential race, I think that they have rendered themselves irrelevant. Just months ago, all I could think of was how irrelevant we had become to those bent on destroying our public spaces, our public rights, and our public hopes.

Of course, I know there are still lots of important battles that must be carried on in the political houses of our country. But now, I believe that these houses are also the ones we design and run ourselves in these very public spaces with people who are, it turns out, not apathetic nor politically ignorant, but actively engaged in that task. 

Whatever path the movement chooses, we will not go back to our lives of quiet desperation, isolation and self blame. This time we really will believe in hope and change. We will believe in ourselves.

Oakland Unified Saves Jobs for Adult ED Administrators and Consultants-Few Classes, Fewer Teachers

OEA Decries Union Busting-teachers offered part-time temporary work- two administrators rehired while a former administrator and retired Chevron exec gets top pay to “consult” and students get…. few classes.

This letter was written by James Knebelman, a long time Oakland Adult Ed teacher, with additions and assistance from other laid off Adult Ed teachers.

Oakland’s Adult Ed program, always a part of Oakland Unified School District, has been virtually destroyed. OUSD administrators have authorized only a handful of adult ed classes for 2011-12, compared to over 200 adult ed classes per year in the past. The District has taken almost all of our money ($13 million), which is no longer categorically protected. We’ve been told these cuts are regrettable but necessary. But even within this now tiny budget, the cuts are not being shared equitably.

Classroom teachers – and our students – are bearing the brunt of these cuts.

It is demoralizing for teachers who have served 10, 15, or 30 years in the classroom to have their OEA (Oakland Education Association) contract positions ripped out from under them, and then offered the chance to reapply for hourly positions at a fraction of the pay and benefits. One laid-off teacher calculated that if rehired as a part-time hourly teacher, his paycheck would be less than $800/month and less than 1/5 of his paycheck as an OEA teacher last year.  This situation is especially painful – and unjust – when administrators continue to enjoy high salaries.

Two adult ed administrators will continue to receive $137,000 each (total compensation package) to supervise relatively few teachers. To add insult to injury OUSD, historically top-heavy with consultants, will continue to fund a consultant for this stripped-down program.

The Superintendent and most of the school board believe the District can afford over $274,000 a year for two administrators and yet no money to increase the instructional time, which the community seriously needs.  Such budget decisions violate the obligation of Oakland Unified to serve the community. Oakland desperately needs more ESL, high school diploma and career tech classes if our city is to rebuild its economy.

Only ten OEA positions have been posted in 2011-12 (and five of these are non-teaching positions), out of 48 OEA former positions in 2010-11. Even with a budget of only $2 million – $1 million from the District and nearly $1 million in grants – the District could have retained, and originally proposed to keep, approximately 18 or 20 OEA classroom teachers at only 60% of their original contracts. Oakland’s Adult Ed teachers have been willing to work within these constraints in order to continue serving their students. But when the District deliberately shortens teachers’ hours to limit their contract status, salary, and healthcare coverage, it is hard to believe there is a good faith effort to maintain some semblance of effective programming.

Last spring Board Member David Kakashiba made a proposal to return an additional $1 million to the already slashed Adult Ed program. This motion could have provided additional classes, but Mr. Kakashiba’s proposal lost in a 4 to 3 vote at Superintendent Tony Smith’s urging.

Now, instead of trying to mitigate the effects of these cuts, OUSD has taken a “Shock Doctrine” approach and used this crisis to smash OEA’s Adult Ed bargaining unit. This is union busting, and it hurts all of us – our teachers, our city, and most of all, the students who depend on us.