October 25, 2011
The possibility of a public comment session evaporated just moments into tonight’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting, after nearly 200 protesters drowned out Department of Education officials.
The panel had convened for a special meeting about the city’s new curriculum standards. But as Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and the standards’ architect, David Coleman, took the stage at Seward Park High School, protesters aligned with the Occupy movement launched a chorus of complaints via “the people’s mic.”
“Mic check!” each protester would call out, commanding the attention of his or her compatriots. Then he or she would call out a statement, pausing after every few words so that others could repeat them, amplifying the statement without the help of a microphone.
“The DOE’s priorities! Are all wrong!” one protester shouted. “We would like! There to be a community conversation! a real community conversation! about the people’s priorities!”
“We want our teachers to be paid more,” yelled a 7-year-old, Anais Richard, who attends P.S. 11 in Brooklyn. “If these things are not done, then we won’t be able to be succeeded.” The people’s mic repeated her statement, complete with the misspoken final word.
Walcott delivered his opening remarks over the shouting. At one point, he said, “We appreciate the activism, and we look forward to having you participate in our discussion.”
But when Walcott turned the microphone over to Coleman, the tone shifted.
Coleman looked out at the half-filled auditorium, turned to Walcott, and asked if the chancellor thought it was time to shift gears. The pair conferred for a moment and then called off the question-and-answer portion of the event, instead ushering attendees to the third floor, where classrooms had been prepared for small-group sessions about the core standards.
Members of the panel, who had not said anything in the auditorium, left the stage with Walcott and Coleman.
The protesters stayed downstairs and continued chanting. Asked why they had not signed up to attend — and potentially disrupt — the small-group sessions, protesters said they had not wanted to raise the ire of more than a dozen police officers stationed in and around the building. Based on the number of people who entered the meeting, Walcott said there would be 14 small-group meetings, but only three went forward.
At about 7:20 p.m., the protesters, whose numbers had dwindled, filed out of the building, but not before they promised another action in the Occupy Public Education movement: a “general assembly” on the steps of Tweed Courthouse, the Department of Education’s headquarters, next month.
To reporters, Walcott said tonight’s meeting had accomplished its goal, even though it hadn’t gone exactly according to plan.
“The event is still taking place and people are still getting information,” he said. “We wanted to have a large group setting where David would talk to the audience and then give them a question an answer session. That couldn’t happen.”