October 12, 2012
A year ago, Brian Jones and other education activists crowded into a standing-room-only auditorium where city Department of Education officials were supposed to present new curriculum standards to parents.
Just moments after Chancellor Dennis Walcott began to deliver his opening remarks one member of the crowd stood up.
“Mic check,” he called out.
So began the first offensive of Occupy the DOE, an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement intended to wrest authority over the city’s schools out of the hands of the “1 percent” and into the “99 percent” of education stakeholders who are teachers, families, and students.
Minutes after the first interruption, Walcott and the other officials called off the meeting, retreating to smaller sessions in other parts of the building.
Supporters of the movement hailed the disruption as a victory and would soon stage protests at meetings througout the winter. But the demographic profile of the activists and their raucous tactics also alienated groups that had similar gripes about the city’s education policies.
A year later, the broader Occupy movement is in disarray, but the Department of Education is largely unchanged. Walcott remains in charge, mayoral control is still in place, and tests geared to the new standards are in development. But even though Occupy the DOE’s website has not been updated since May, activists say that, for better or worse, the movement has had a lasting impact on education advocacy in the city.
One lesson learned, Jones said, is that protest doesn’t have to be confined to the steps of Tweed Courthouse, the Department of Education’s headquarters and a popular location for education rallies. Instead, activism can travel to the very people it is meant to push back against.
“It was a really simple idea,” said Jones, a public school teacher and doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, about the first Occupy the DOE rally. “We were the first group to use the mic check as a disruptive power to challenge people of authority at their own events.”
By disrupting city meetings, Occupy the DOE was able to put parent, teacher, and student voices on the record, and in turn to “bring democracy to education,” said Kelley Wolcott, a Brooklyn teacher who was one of the founding organizers of Occupy the DOE.
“Organizations already existed” to represent teachers and parents, Jones said. “Occupy Wall Street gave them a shot in the arm, some specific tactics to try.”
Perhaps the most significant effect that persists today is the expanded activist base that turns out to education-related events. When a group of teachers called a rally to support striking colleagues in Chicago last month, Occupy-affiliated protesters represented a significant portion of the participants, according to teachers who participated.
Yet the ongoing influence of Occupy could turn out to be “a double-edged sword” for education activism, said John Elfrank-Dana, a teacher and union leader at Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan.
He said Occupy’s rowdy tactics and aggressive demands — not to mention the “colorful characters” who commanded media coverage of the movement — turned off more moderate teachers at his school.
“The average teacher didn’t go down and participate in what was going on,” Elfrank-Dana said. “They recognized it as generally positive but not necessarily something they would join or identify with.”
The alienation extended to community members who were already active in education issues but objected to some of Occupy the DOE’s tactics. Ocynthia Williams, a community organizer in the Bronx for the Coalition for Educational Justice, said the mic checks at a February Department of Education meeting about school closures didn’t just inconvenience city officials. They also kept other activists from being heard, she said.
“The leaders of the movement took control of the meeting, putting their speakers upfront using the human mic, denying other group leaders the chance to use the actual microphones set up,” she said.
Williams said students from the schools proposed for closure, which were largely located in poor neighborhoods, suffered the most.
“It made a chaotic and confused meeting, especially for the young people who thought they would speak first and have the microphones to be heard clearly,” she said.
Williams said she thought people of color were underrepresented in Occupy the DOE, especially among the leadership.
“It reflected the overall movement of middle-class folks who were feeling the effects of the economy and felt the need to speak out,” she said.
But Wolcott said Occupy the DOE was actually more diverse than the broader Occupy movement.
“We had a professor from Columbia, principals from Queens, teachers from all over the city, and student groups working with closing schools — Occupy the DOE had a broader representation of gender, race, and even age,” she said.
Wolcott said the movement is alive but refocused after going dormant when its participants scattered for the summer. But she said this year’s version of Occupy the DOE won’t look like last year’s, and it also won’t have the same name.
“Occupy Wall Street was having an identity crisis, so rather than identify with Occupy we decided to continue to the vision we had and work toward it on the local level, the way Occupy was at the beginning of the movement,” she said.
This year, Wolcott said, New Yorkers can expect the teacher groups that fueled Occupy the DOE — including the Grassroots Educational Movement, Teachers Unite, and New York Coalition of Radical Educators — to continue working together. And they are joined by the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, a new party within the teachers union that aims to attract a wide range of teachers.
Their fights — against high-stakes testing, mayoral control, and school closures —will feel familiar to those who saw Occupy the DOE in action, because little has changed since last year.
“Certainly if you look at the score sheet the victories are few,” said Jones. “But we raided the consciousness and understanding of a wider and wider circle of people to the mayor’s agenda, and this year as schools come up to be closed we won’t have to reinvent our ideas.”