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Strike | Occupied Stories

Tag Archive | "strike"

Always Low Wages


Black Friday is always day of resistance for me, at least it has been in recent years. Last year I remember Occupy said it was “Buy Nothing Day” and I didn’t really do much, other than sitting around my house. This time I didn’t want to sit around. I heard about the Wal-Mart Strikers and so my whole family got in the car and drove the nearest plaza with a Wal-Mart. Happy with glee, I found there were protesters.

My family and I climbed the hill, where at the top there were 20 protesters with signs in solidarity with the workers. My mom left after asking a few people and determining that there were no workers there. Instead, my dad and I stayed up there, and looking around one could see people of all colors and creeds. I took a sign they had and stood there on the corner as I held the flimsy sign blowing in the wind. I felt such solidarity standing there with others, on that corner. People were sitting up on a white-painted wall, as others stood by the curb side, while cars honked in support of workers. Then, after about an hour, I and my dad left, saying we’d return.

After a series of delays and such, we came back about two hours later. But the other protesters were gone. We engaged in what one would call vigilante activism. We protested on the corner, as I sat up on the wall with a sign that said “HONK IN SUPPORT OF WAL-MART WORKERS” while my dad had a sign that said “WAL-MART=ALWAYS LOW WAGES,” a sign I had made earlier but used again. I ended up taking the major role, sitting on the wall as people honked for workers (probably about 100 honks), and my dad yelled out at cars. It was exhilarating no doubt, sitting on that white-painted wall, thanking people for honking in support of workers. It was a two-man show, but that was okay because we were standing for the workers. This action seemed to follow these thoughts in my head, of Charlie Chaplin leading a march in Modern Times, and when I walked around before with a sign against Israel’s war of aggression in Gaza. Then it all ended. My mom came in a car, calling from the parking lot below. Then she came to the hill where we were, my dad and I taped up a sign that said to honk for Wal-Mart workers, and it was over. But I knew this time wouldn’t be the last time I would stand for justice in the world.

-Burkley Hermann-

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Post-strike. Post-modern. Post-mortem.


1.

After just one day, the strike seems like some strange, hazy thing that happened to other people. The scope and size and sizzle of it, the drumming singing dancing chanting rally cry, the physicality of it, the get in the streets aggressive civil disobedience of it, and the white lightning energy of the thing, it all seems like some rogue spirit of the 1960s that possessed us all for a few days and then floated on back to the historical ether.

I wake up at 5. I stretch, read, make breakfast porridge and drink coffee. Simone sits on my lap for a few minutes and we watch the sky lighten out the back windows. I brush my teeth, bike to work in a chilly wind that resists my pedaling the whole way.

The students are not resentful or angry. They’re happy. The parents don’t yell or throw things at us or even give us dirty faces. They say hello and wave and offer up big smiles. They’re happy, too.

I ascend the stairs to the library and shoot up the shades. A few things seem out of place, some of the chairs have been moved, but otherwise the library is unchanged.

The staff meets in front of the school, everyone wearing red. The idea was to re-begin the year with solidarity in our hearts. I’m late, and sort of half walk in with everyone else.

And just like that—as if the strike hadn’t happened—we’re back.

2.

I wanted to end my rambling essay on the strike with some killer writing, the same lived in attention to detail that consumed my thoughts during the strike.

But I can’t offer up the same minute to minute details, the conversations, my own drifting thoughts. I’m too tired, I’m preoccupied with my return to work, and the expositional needs of the wrap-up are many. Thousands of other writers can do this sort of thing better than me, but I lived through it, I’m up on the issues, and I’ve read much of the commentary, both before, during and after.

So here goes. The post-strike post-modern post mortem. Hold on to your butts.

The problems in Chicago’s public school system haven’t been fixed. The worst schools remain in the poorest neighborhoods. These are the schools that will, if the mayor gets his way and I have no reason to believe he won’t, be shut down. Charter schools will move in—often placed in the same building the old public school used to operate in—and the mayor can wash his hands of the whole affair.

Charter schools are held to lower standards; they often game the system by ejecting lower performing students and therefore appearing to do better than they actually do; and they are staffed almost uniformly by non-union teachers.

So the lowest educational areas in the city, which correspond to the poorest areas in the city, will have their children taught by teachers being paid less, in schools with less scrutiny, less support, and less state and federal funding.

And this is supposed to be a good thing.

It’s some type of bizarre shell game where everyone knows it’s rigged, but no one can quite figure out how the barker keeps up the con. Everyone knows this privatization thing is racist, but no one is quite sure how. It’s difficult to see through the murk. The “reforms” sound good, because if we call it reform—reform’s a good thing, right?—then we can ignore the racism made manifest by the mayor’s policies.

To his credit, the mayor I’m sure (mostly) believes that charter schools are the answer. But this is the scaffold—the howling crazy ghosts in the psychological sub-basement—that he’s bought into to protect his psyche from self-harm. (Mitt Romney has a similar scaffold in place, the idea that capitol should morally be taxed at a lower rate than labor. The fact that this moral good accrues millions of extra dollars a year to his bank account is simply a collateral benefit. His philosophy just happens to benefit him.)

But Rahm’s good intentions, and I’m being supremely generous here, mean nothing in the face of his hurtful policies.

He has powerful allies in this education reform movement, including the world’s richest man.

These bad guys rooting around in public education are a deep-pocketed and influential bunch. There are two major strands to these “reformers.” The first is the privatize everything people, such as the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. These subscribers to the libertarian philosophy have a simple answer to all the world’s problems: privatize and let the free market do its moral magic. They cherry pick from history for examples of success, and totally ignore their horrifying, misery-inducing failures (Chile, Argentina, Zambia, Indonesia, the list goes on and on). Their answer to the problems of public education in the U.S.? Shockingly, privatize and let the free market do its moral magic. They want universal private school choice. They want nothing less than the total dismantling of public education. They want to plunge us even further into a corporate mindset, where everything runs on (a deeply flawed) cost/benefit analysis, everything except their own profits.

And they are called reformers.

The second group is the anti-union people, like StudentsFirst, led by Michelle Rhee. They are a well-funded lobbying group strangely obsessed with teacher tenure, seeing it as the major obstacle to students doing well. As opposed to smaller class sizes, access to cutting edge materials, or even pushing for teaching to be a professional advanced degree. Nope, just tenure. Get rid of it, pay teachers less, and the quality of education will improve. Dispose of tenure and pollution will decrease, worldwide unemployment will disappear and people will begin to read novels again.

3.

Back to Rahm, and his ease with the knock-around politics. The day we went back to school he began running ads saying that, because of the new contract, 100 to 150 neighborhood schools would have to close to pay for it. This is a cynical and disingenuous claim. One of the major reasons we went on strike in the first place was to protest the closing of neighborhood schools. (We used the aegis of teacher recall—where highly rated teachers from closed schools would have first crack at new job openings—as a way of addressing this issue. Like so many other things, we’re not allowed to strike over school closings.)

We expect cynicism from our politicians, but goddamn, this is extreme. Rahm is laying the blame on the teachers for bringing about the thing he’s been promising to do since elected. It’s heinous, and he should be lambasted for it. Plus, the money being spent on this tacky, public victory lap could pay for some of the very things we went on strike for to begin with.

“He won. He won. I love him,” C. says as we stand outside waiting for the official start time. The students know the drill. They stand near their lineup areas and listen to music through their handhelds, rap, pass gossip, flirt, inhabit the awkward end of adolescence with gaudy aplomb. A few wave, but most of the eighth graders try their best to look insouciant and uncaring.

C. is our security guard. He’s conservative politically but in an unpredictable way. Two weeks earlier he confessed to me that he hated the mayor. That he said “screw you,” to him at some Puerto Rican fundraiser. So this newfound love is a put-on, a gag, a dig. He loves to watch me get annoyed when he says a bunch of nonsense. “He’s going to close all those schools,” C. says.

“You don’t even like Rahm,” I say as Daryl laughs.

“I love him,” C. says. “He won. He beat the teachers. Ha!”

“Those neighborhoods will have to organize and protest,” I say. “We can’t use the strike to save them all. It’s too large and unwieldy a weapon.”

“You guys should have kept the strike going,” C. says, in a moment of rare candor. “Maybe you could have helped keep those schools open.”

“Maybe,” I say.

4.

It’s late and a school night and instead of reading or writing or watching a movie I foolishly begin reading various news agency’s response to the strike. It is a profound waste of time. Very few people seem to understand the core issues. Numbers are misrepresented. The union gave huge concessions on some issues that people outside of education don’t understand. For instance, we can now only bank up to 40 sick days. After that, we aren’t paid for them, they just disappear. This is fine, but if a teacher misses a day, the system has to pay a substitute to do the job. Even strong substitute teachers—not so rare but not so common either—create a disruption in the classroom.

So a teacher missing a day costs the city extra money and hurts the students, if only in small ways. So teachers should be encouraged not to take sick days. The old way had problems, too, I admit; some teachers would save up a year’s worth of sick days and then take the payout of those days at their retirement, at a much higher rate. I don’t advocate this, either. My point is now teachers have to use them or lose them. CPS has incentivized teachers into taking their sick days, instead of offering a reward to teachers who don’t take them. And the hidden costs of substitute teachers—not figured into any budget that I know of—is real.

The union also signed on to a health initiative. Every month I have to click a button on a website that says I’m physically active. If I forget, I get fined fifty bucks. This applies to Beth, too, as she’s on my insurance, and will apply to Simone at some point. We were given the opportunity to opt out of this health initiative—I don’t know why they don’t call it what it is, a monthly fine—for a flat rate of $600.

We also fought for textbooks for the students on the first day of school and smaller class sizes, both of which, incidentally, make students learn better. Are we praised for our attempts to help our students? No. In fact, the web chatter holds this against us, too, saying that we don’t really care about the students, we just put this language in there as window dressing.

We took merit pay off the table, thank god. We also reduced the evaluative power of standardized test scores. “Reformers” see the testing as a metric to see if a teacher is effective. Teachers see the testing as a biased and unreliable waste of time. It can only gauge a narrow range of things, and even these it does poorly. Finally, merit pay necessarily punishes teachers who choose to work in tougher areas of the city. Even testing student growth in some part of the city, where students experience immense regression over the summers, is biased and unfair.

Anyway, here’s a roundup of the first blast of critics, bloviators, and blowhards.

Stuffed shirt James Warren—of Newsweek (a magazine which, as I wrote in an earlier post, used far-right National Review editor Rob Long! to write about the teachers’ strike), and the Daily Beast— hides beneath a measured tone while giving a skewered view of the strike fallout. He calls the union “change-resistant.” He says that “reform” groups, and there’s that word again, were disappointed with the contract. He argues that the system has to shrink else it isn’t sustainable. He provides arguments that appear to be logical, but they aren’t. He is echoing Emanuel. The city is broke, the school system is too expensive, the teachers should feel lucky they have jobs. He reveals his hand, however, when he promulgates the bright and shining lie with this whopper: “The teachers, who now average about $74,000 a year and cost the system in the vicinity of $100,000 with benefits, will continue to ravenously suck up most of the system’s cash.”

My God, the horror.

First off, this number is flawed. It involves the pension pickup—imagine if someone factored in some of your future social security as part of your pay (and most Chicago teachers know that the pension money won’t all be there in twenty years)—and is still inflated. We should make this much, but most teachers don’t. I’ve heard the reason this number is so high is CPS is gaming its own system by including administrators who have teaching degrees into the average teacher pay. (They earn much higher salaries, in the $125,000+ range.) In fact, the average pay being reported is sneaking up. Two separate sources yesterday said that the average teacher salary in Chicago, under the new contract, will be $100,000. I wish someone would tell my bank account.

Second, and when sober Warren would admit as much—if he could pause from kissing his own rectum for a few seconds to open his syphilitic eyes—public school teachers are not rich. Most teachers work a second job in the summer or teach summer school. Many (I’m tempted to say most, at least at my school this is the case) teachers have to augment their salaries with after school tutoring. How many people in the city of Chicago, making $76,000, have to work a second job?

Warren’s line of thinking is hugely problematic, but I’ll only focus in on this. The city offers tax breaks to enormously wealth businesses—as well as tif money legally skimmed off the public education tax money, the real vacuum ravenously sucking up the system’s cash—to stay in Chicago, but gripes over modest pay raises for teachers working at advanced degrees within their profession. Utter madness. It’s blame the teachers all over again, ignoring the fact that the worst schools are in the bad neighborhoods, and the schools in the wealthier areas rank up as some of the best in the state.

If you want to throw up in your mouth, read it here.

The BBC gets much closer to the reasons behind the strike, placing the whole thing in an international context. Check it out.

Slate is right on the money as to why Chicago’s system is struggling, and if you’re only going to read one article, read this one.

And the Socialist Worker, which I never read, delivers up a hearty humming pump your first in the air victory lap on the strike here.

And after reading these articles and more, after a bout of angry dyspepsia and a spike in my blood pressure, after getting the taste of self-righteous blood in my mouth, I was no better informed, nor was I happier, so around midnight I had to let the whole thing go and try to drift off to sleep.

5.

One thing I learned from the strike is that we are, as a country, starved for causes to fight for. There’s a notion that all the worthwhile battles have been won. This with systematic voter disenfranchisement and the re-segregation of our public schools happening right out in front of our eyes and out in the open.

We haven’t progressed. We’ve regressed.

We’re backsliding. We’re teetering. We’re fragmenting. We’re fighting battles we thought were won back in the 1950s.

We’ve tricked ourselves into thinking the world is a better place. The technological bells and whistles have consistently blinded us to the misery most of the world lives with every day. Worse, the technological bread and circuses have blinded us to the blight and poverty and destitution in our own country, in our own backyards.

We’ve confused entertainment with quality of life.

We have Dwight Eisenhower reincarnate as the president and his challenger paints him as some fire-breathing Marxist.

A sensible healthcare overall, where individual risk can be sublimated and shared by everyone and save money in the process, is libeled with death panels and socialism.

After the worst oil spill in history blankets the Gulf Coast with toxic oil, people living in these ruined coastal towns call for less regulations.

Briefly, the strike awakened the community-minded little radical that lives in my chest. (He fights with the tiny libertarian who hammers away at my spleen.) Every teacher I spoke with saw the strike in terms of inequality and civil rights. In the streets and on the picket lines, we felt like we could change the world. The marching and the rallies and the political social economic arguing and the process felt so vibrant and alive.

I just don’t know if the civic awareness of the strike, the progressive spirit, can be replicated. I’m too busy, we’re all too busy, there’s so little time to sit and think.

6.

It’s night and Beth knocks over a half-full bottle of olive oil onto the kitchen floor. The crash startles Simone. Beth cannot pick up the glass without first cleaning up the olive oil; its slick, viscosity makes it almost impossible to sweep up the shards of glass. But she cannot clean the olive oil up until she has removed all the glass; the glass is sharp, and cuts one of her fingers. She leans over the lime green pool of liquid creeping towards the wall. The situation seems hopeless.

“Mommy, why’d you knock that over? Come on, mommy,” Simone says.

Beth gingerly wipes at the spill with old rags. She then tosses them into a large black plastic bag. It’s arduous work, and Beth soon is angry. Simone keeps saying, “Mommy, why’d you do that? That wasn’t smart.” I’m holding the black plastic bag, waiting, trying not to laugh at Simone’s commentary while Beth grows more and more annoyed. I offer to help but Beth wants to clean it up herself. I understand, but I’m forced to watch, and listen to Simone gripe about the mess.

We can’t fix the school system until we fix poverty. And we can’t fix poverty, without first fixing the (poorer schools in the) school system. It’s the chicken and the egg. The oil and the glass. There isn’t an easy solution, there can’t be. People saying otherwise haven’t worked at the frontline, in the classrooms.

Like healthcare, we have two public school systems in our country. One is top notch, the best in the world, churning out the best and brightest, super-educated people to the top schools in the country who go on to become professors and writers and scientists and experts and lawyers and bankers and the like. The other is squalid and miserable, a failed social experiment that loses students to the streets and graduates others at excruciatingly low reading levels and doesn’t have textbooks or computers or even enough desks and it’s a simple containment system in the worst schools, the students are being sent to keep them from committing crimes in nicer neighborhoods, and the explanation for this tiered system is the explanation for everything bad in this country, the soul-destroying condition of poverty.

To speak of the failures of Chicago public schools without discussing poverty and racism is to deal with the effects while ignoring the cause.

7.

It’s now eight days after the strike and I’m still holding onto the anger. The mayor continues to run his attack ads blaming us for the strike and for the upcoming school closings. The papers continue to inflate our salaries and deflate our accomplishments. If the trend continues, soon our average salary will be $250,000. Every public school teacher has a company car, unlimited paid passage on international flights, a new designer wardrobe every six months.

Inside the schools, we bustle about with the demands of the job and an internal, self-righteous ire. Outside, we move through a constant harangue, with resentment in our hearts.

I started yelling on the sidewalk today, yelling at people who were agreeing with me. The political undercurrents of the strike damaged one very close relationship and put a strain on half a dozen others. Most of my family and friends stayed quiet on the issue, leaving me alone. A wise decision.

“I’m glad I’m on your side,” my neighbor says, and moves along.

And again I’m slowly pulled back into the rancorous web ether. One article after another misrepresents the teachers’ union. Now we’ve ruined the city. Now we’ve bankrupted the state. Now we’ve quadrupled the national debt. Now we’ve assassinated half of the United Nations and dumped arsenic into Canada’s water supply. Now we’ve detonated a nuclear weapon in the New York subway system. Now we’ve released some anti-life sickness into the Milky Way and negated all of existence.

Time to put the thing to bed. I’ve written enough about politics. My dark imagination wants to run rampant, untethered by facts. (I’d make a good politician.) I don’t like it, I don’t like the factual demands. It’s elongated my anger. I’ve been too preoccupied to do the type of writing that makes me feel alive.

So my coverage of the Chicago teachers’ strike hath ended.

Go now and weep no more.

The strike is over. Long live the strike.

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Day Six of the CTU Strike: Narrating My Own Life


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared at Simone and the Silver Surfer.

1.

I awake at 7:45 to Simone saying, “Knock, knock. Who’s there? It’s daddy!” and flinging the pillow off of my face.

The day feels rushed from the start. Simone has a birthday party to go to, Beth wants to work out and clean the house, Pearl won’t nap and everything feels condensed, agitated, exacerbated. Before I know it, the clock reads 11 and I soon need to leave.

“I don’t want our kids to say fifteen years from now, ‘Mom, you missed out on history to clean the kitchen?’” Beth says.

I call Jonathan, see if he wants to meet. He can’t; he’s doing the school thing. We chat for a minute about books and the ennui and he says he feels the same perennial self-dislike I wrote about two weeks ago. I say I feel frustration with the human race. “Our brains are ninety percent chimp,” he says.

I want to take Simone but I’d literally have to turn around and come right back. I vacillate. I waffle. Maybe I should skip. Spend some time with my family. What difference does one person make?

“You should go,” Beth says. “Just go. Go. Go.”

Simone has no pants on. I leave her behind. She cries as I shut the door.

On the platform, the day is warm. I’m taking notes. I can’t think of how to spell “exacerbate.” I entertain the notion I’ve had a mini-stroke.

People discuss college football. I want to yell, “Don’t you know what’s going on? Don’t you know what’s at stake?”

Black shirts and baseball caps. Baby strollers—anger isn’t our main obstacle; apathy is.

Sports television bubble gum Coors Light and holding hands in a grassy park and brunch and lunch and dinner and the bright glowing wondrous banal spectrum of living without the burden of other people’s problems.

The train arrives. I get on. The trip is uneventful. I can’t read or write on the train else I get a headache so I let my thoughts drift. I’m antsy. Visions of a riot, police in riot gear sobbing while dousing protestors with tear gas. I save two dozen small children, meet the president, become a folk hero. Someone like Josh Ritter writes a song. Where do my thoughts come from?

I exit at Washington/Wells, cross under the tracks. Five years in Chicago and I’ve never been on the pink line. I sit on a metal bench. Someone has written in black letters on the seat: “Are there any pimps left?”

Other teachers, other red shirts. A ten-year-old wears a blue shirt that reads only, “Love.”

I wish Simone were here with me. I’m glad she’s not. I wait glum and unshaven. At least it isn’t hot. I’m not hungry but I want to eat. I don’t smoke but I crave a cigarette. I’m struggling with the sublimation process. How to let go of all this frustration in the air? How do I find the courage not to hate?

2.

Union Park is huge. I enter through the wrought-iron gates. Fifty aqua-blue portolets line the edges of the park. Two dozen people stand in line to buy hot dogs. An enormous crimson crescent of people encircle a stage. I make my way over. It’s hard to gauge how many people are here. Thousands, yes, but maybe not tens of thousands. It’s a Saturday. The contract negotiation appears to be over. The sense of historical importance has faded just a touch.

A church spire slices through the trees. I see two helicopters and a plane. One of the Occupy Rogers Park people says hi. She invites me to the next occupy meeting.

I get a text from Bill. He isn’t coming. He has his wife and their upcoming child to attend to. He’s sent an impassioned little text to all his teacher friends.

I find a patch in the middle that isn’t crowded. I listen to a female speaker with a gut-wrenching voice. She gets right to the heart of it. “It’s time for the working people of Chicago to take back the city that works. . . . We got to stand up to the tactics that are destroying our city. We got to hold every damn body accountable, the teachers, the parents, the mayor, the alderman, every damn body.”

I cheer. I clap. The mood of the gathering is less festive. More resolute. There’s already a touch of grim resolve in the air, not one full week in.

Another speaker. A union organizer and teacher for charter schools. He explains that charter school teachers aren’t the enemy, just the mindset that would allow teachers to work for so little pay. I clap. He explains how hard the charter schools fight any talk of unions at all. I cheer.

More speakers appear but I’m losing interest. I agree with what they are saying, I have my family at home, I’d prefer to march and chat and sing.

I feel a hand on my ass. It’s Jonathan. We catch up. He’s at Hawthorne now. He’s writing an entire curriculum for the upper grades, connecting all the subjects. He’s nuts. Every night, after the marching and chanting and yelling, he goes home to work on a new unit. He has a tambourine and he hits it with what looks like a tiny maraca. He was a union organizer years and years ago. He’s in a rock band. He rules.

Another speaker mentions a teacher strike in Baltimore back in the day. She ends with this: “I used to tell people, if you see me wrestling with a bear, help the bear.” The crowd roars. “We’re fighting the bear, but we don’t need any help.”

Jonathan asks if I want to get a beer, but I can’t. I want to make it home to help with Simone and the birthday party. We hug, I leave out. The rally is subdued but well attended. A coalescing of union people, antiwar people, hippies, and teachers. Teachers haven’t been part of the counter culture for a long time. It feels right.

I climb back up the stairs and wait for the train. The anxiety and sleeplessness and uncertainty of things has left me with weary legs. Two police officers lean on the banister overlooking Union Park. A sea of red. I think of red blood cells. One of the cops has a cigar. They seem amused. We can’t quite make out what the speaker is saying from here.

Two teachers emerge from the train. “Is it over?” they ask.

I feel sheepish. “Oh, no, no, I have two little children at home, else I would . . .”

Everything’s a rush. The American condition. Hurry up and wait. The daily dilemma. One reason I’ve never ridden the pink line is it only seems to run every six hours. I wait. I look at the clock on my cell. An ivy-covered chimney juts out into my view. The train arrives. I board, noticing how clean and new the train feels. I transfer back to the brown line and head north.

3.

An old-timer with his name tattooed on his forearm speaks to me about the strike. He has big teeth and an odd way of speaking. “Is it almost over?” he asks. His name is Don.

“I think so. I hope so,” I say.

“There’s no money.”

“There’s money,” I say, and the whole train is listening, “it’s just a question of priorities. Money for schools or no-interest loans to property developers?”

“People in the suburbs like me are being double-taxed for Chicago public schools.”

I wince inside. “You’re being double taxed?”

He nods. “Cook County.”

“I don’t know about that, but I do know that Chicago has for decades underfunded public education. Some students don’t even have textbooks.”

He’s mad at first, but I just talk with him and soon he isn’t mad at all. He moves over to my side of the train.

He tells me his story. He’s a product of Chicago public schools. He has severe dyslexia, so severe he still can’t read. “But I own my own business, I’m doing just fine.” He has a little window washing company that cleans the windows of every Dunkin Donuts downtown. “The teachers then knew I wouldn’t pass any tests, so instead they taught me how to cook, how to use my memory, how to fix things.”

I explain that people like him—smart people with learning disabilities—are precisely the ones who are most harmed by the always-be-testing mindset.

He goes on. “Every Friday, back when I was in school, two teachers and they would rotate, two teachers would donate their time to run a dance. They would pat each person down, make sure there were no weapons or anything, and then we would have a dance. It was great. The kids, we all knew that the teachers cared about us. School was more than just a place you had to go.”

I said we do the same thing now—just not the patting and the weekly dance.

Don loves to talk. And he loves to reminisce. He keeps saying the expression, “back when I was in school.”

Turns out the lady sitting next to me is his wife. She’s quiet, also a product of Chicago public schools, and soon all three of us are having a nice time as the El stops pass. Don then tells me how he ran a building for a while. “A guy says to me, I like you, I can’t get my tenants to pay the rent, why don’t you work for me for a while? So I get into the super business on a building on Sheridan, in Uptown. When tenants didn’t pay their rent, I would take their doors off the hinges. I would shut down the elevator. I would turn off the washer and dryer. People came up with the money real fast with no door on their apartment. You see, back then, the door was considered part of the building, not the apartment. And it cost you $942 to take someone to eviction court. Better to take the door off the hinges, let them walk five blocks for laundry. Man, they paid.” He and his wife laugh, they aren’t bad people but I’m uncomfortable with this new story. I give a cursory laugh anyway.

We shake hands. I thank them for their company.

At home I find Beth in the kitchen and Simone running around the house naked. No nap. The party starts in 20 minutes. Beth hasn’t been able to clean. Simone fights me about what she wants to wear. She’s tired but excited about the party and it is a bad combination. We leave early, meet a neighborhood friend on the way.

4.

The block party is just starting and children are making their way to the three-year-old’s birthday bash. A little table with glue and stickers and party hats, a bowl full of bagged dried apples and cheese goldfish, juice boxes swimming in a tub of ice and a keg of Half-Acre beer. I’m angry at the dissonance of the world, I can’t help it, I’m too tired for any kind of decent small talk, I sit alone and brood.

I sip a beer feeling morose. The alcohol does its dark magic. The party has two ponies, one white the other black, for the kids to ride. Simone is fascinated by them but passes on getting in the saddle. “That’s too scary for me,” she tells Beth.

I lean back.

There’s a danger in writing about something as you are going through it. You begin to narrate your own life. I look up at the sun-touched branches, the green tips of the thousand leaves turned gold, and I think, “I look up at the sun-touched branches, the green tips of the thousand leaved turned gold.”

Day six has ended. The strike has not. I fall asleep quickly, but Simone awakens me at 2 to tuck her into bed. After that, I’m up. I sit down and begin writing, hoping to capture as much as I can before the memories slip away.

– Ben Beard –

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Day Five of the CTU Strike & the World is Not Our Oyster


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared at Simone and the Silver Surfer. You can read the author’s previous account on the CTU strike here.

1.

I am awake at 6:30 and feel refreshed. I eat a big bowl of oatmeal and almonds and dried cherries with Simone. I kiss my family goodbye. I pedal under subtle sunlight. I arrive at 8:05. The bulk of the staff is already present.

We remain a raggedy group. The big story is how many of our staff were in the media the night before. Kris was interviewed by ABC about tif funds. Dina was interviewed on another news channel. Robin was interviewed on ABC, too.

And I was interviewed in the Chicago Tribune. (You can read my comment here.)

People recount yesterday’s march. Some Chicagoans are angry. On Wacker, yesterday, someone said to Kris, “Get back to work, you dirty piece of shit.”

“What’d you say?” I ask.

“Nothing. I just got away from him and then cried.”

Some teachers write hopeful messages to our students in wet chalk on the sidewalk. Our principal appears, says hello to everyone. One of the many children present hands him a fair contract sign. He drops it like it’s kryptonite, makes a joke about no one catching him with a camera.

The plan is to canvas the neighborhood, speak with people, hand out flyers. We get ourselves together. People munch on bagels and donuts, slurp down coffee and eat a chocolaty confection that makes me sleepy just looking at it. Four of our students walk by.

“I saw you on TV last night!” Brian[1] says.

“Me?” I ask. “You saw me?”

“Yeah, you were marching, dancing.”

I feel a shiver of embarrassment. “Was I interviewed?”

“Nope. Just singing and stuff.”

We head out in small groups. I walk with Daryl, Hannah, Abbey, Larry, Doctor O. We walk past Dominick’s, through the EL station. Larry tells me some crazy lady upbraided him yesterday morning. “She came over and yelled, ‘We don’t do this kind of shit in China! Go back to work!’”

“China?” I ask.

“What kind of nonsense is she talking?” Doctor O. asks.

2.

The media tide is turning. After being called lazy and greedy and selfish and horrible and callous—multiple pundits warned of danger to the students if we did have a strike—things are turning our way. The issues we care about—neighborhood schools, equal funding, smaller class sizes, money for arts and music education, and so on—are percolating through the various news filters. Some of the pernicious lies remain. If I hear one more report of how charter schools out-perform public schools, they absolutely do not, I’ll scream.

Paying (often) less qualified teachers less money somehow equals a better education for students. It’s madness.

3.

A big thing is the shoes. I have one pair of newish shoes that kill my ankles, and an ancient pair of good shoes that destroy my feet. I go with the feet destroyers. The feet can handle a beating better than my ankles.  I try wearing flip flops but it feels strangely inappropriate.  For all my banter, striking is serious business.

We stand in front of the west-facing tunnel. It is a beautiful day. The sun is above but there’s a chilly breeze. We speak with a few people. Almost everyone is friendly. We mill about, try to look busy. The enervation shows. We’re easily distractable. My voice echoes through the tunnel. I pretend to be God.

Hannah and Abbey and the others speak with two teenagers sitting on a metal bench. Doctor O. and Larry talk about cutting off aid to Egypt. I feel a bouncy nervousness in the balls of my sore feet.

I walk to the corner, turn right. I see two red shirts in front of the station and I amble over to say hello.

Howard past Clark is a touch dodgy. There’s gangs and dealers and unemployed dudes and the place is turning itself around, but I wouldn’t wander around here after 10. There’s tension and toughness in the ether. It really isn’t the nicest of places.

I say hello to the other two teachers. Thirty seconds of small talk and I’m wondering why I came over. We have little in common. My mind wanders to The Odyssey of all things. The conversation ends. I want to extricate myself but am not sure how. I put my hands in my pockets.

An overgrown man-child dressed all in black rides his bike within one inch of my foot. It’s a provocative move, but I don’t take the bait. He smokes a thin cigar.

A group of dudes mill about in front of a liquor store. “I’m going to knock you the fuck out!” one of them yells. I don’t turn to see if he’s speaking to me. That’s rule number one, of course. Don’t make eye contact with anything you don’t want to tangle with. I move along.

An aged dude in a flowing green button down and expensive black slacks stands by the entrance, says hello. I say hello back and he beckons me over. He has a bandage on the back of his head, he’s slurring his words. He has a hospital discharge bracelet on his wrist. “My name is Willie,” he says. “I got robbed. They clubbed me in the head. I just got out of the hospital but my brother ain’t here. Can you give me two twenty five for the El?”

I sense I’m being hustled but it’s a good con. I dig into my bag. I have the exact amount. I hand it over. He thanks me, goes into the station. I don’t have the patience to wait for him to come out.

I return to the group. “There are some street toughs over there,” I say. No one laughs at my old fashioned word.

We all walk over to Howard. Daryl looks for the guy on the bike. He isn’t around. “There’s a Jamaican bakery that way,” he says. He grew up around here. We walk, speak with a few people, smile and wave. He buys Ginger beer and beef pockets and soon we are heading back to Clark. Daryl shares the beef pockets with the others, the ginger drink with me. It’s great, but bothers my throat so I only sip a little.

The hustler with the bandage on his head stands outside the station.

“Shit,” I say. “I don’t want him to be uncomfortable. Let’s just cross the street.”

Daryl shakes his head. “He won’t be embarrassed. Come on.”

“Last time this sort of thing happened, the guy turned it into a joke. I can’t bear a second sob story.”

We walk past him and his features have hardened. He no longer looks like a victim, but more like a hawk. He’s standing by some of the street toughs. They all seem to know each other.

Two of them argue over who is more of the neighborhood. “Fuck you man, I graduated from Field,” all in black man child says. “I’m all Rogers Park.”

We head back to school. The day remains a stunner.

“I always give money,” Daryl says. “Always. I figure if someone has to get into the street to beg, then I can spare a little to help.”

This leads into a discussion on welfare and I start to get loud. I’ve become a terrible conversationalist. I’m combustible. I’m tendentious. I’m cantankerous. I raise my voice in restaurants. I bang my hand on tables. I’m some Don Rickles parody. “What’s so good about this morning?” I’ve turned into some foaming junkyard dog.  I’m having trouble controlling my temper over small things.

I’ve said it before. There’s something in this process that propels you.

4.

We’re not alone. Lake Forest teachers are now on strike. Highland Park is one week away. Other areas of Illinois are in the contract process. We hear rumors of other school systems, other public sector employees, getting behind us from all around the country.

Most everyone was friendly with me today. Others weren’t so lucky. Some were yelled at. Sheila was accosted by an old man. She tells me the story. “He yells, ‘I’m a taxpayer, go back to work!’ I said, ‘Do you want to talk to me about it?’ and then he gets on the bus,” she says. She pauses. “The next person who’s rude to me, I’m punching him in the face!”

Dina recounts how two people muttered rude things to her as they passed by. The Walgreens parking lot seems a hotbed of animus towards the teachers.

“If the strike goes on,” Stu says, “another week? I think there’s going to be a lot more anger towards us.”

“But if it lasts a month, I think we’ll have more support than we do now,” I say. “There’s peaks and valleys.”

Liz rallies us all in front of the school. She reads us the Boston Teachers Union letter. We clap and cheer.

Hal is on the roof. He takes photos of all of us and a few of me.

My self-concept is not in synch with reality. I think of myself as dignified. An ambassador type. In the photos I seem insubstantial, wispy. A pale-skinned scarecrow with wood splinter limbs and a haunted hawkish face. Something out of a horror movie. Ah, vanity, it never fully leaves you.

We plan to attend the Saturday rally tomorrow. Most everyone leaves.

I lose ten precious minutes to a conversation about the inequalities in the school system. I feign outrage but I’ve tired with the constant moral indignation.

Soon, I am biking home. My mind stays blank for most of it. It’s all physical sensations. The sound of crunching rocks, the working thigh muscles, the sun above in its blazing indifference.

5.

There’s been some misconceptions. We aren’t paid during the strike. We aren’t striking for money. We aren’t greedy vicious hateful racist pigs. We aren’t purveyors of avarice. We are not haters of children.

The strike has three major components: working conditions, public education, and the union’s right to protect its members.

The working conditions piece speaks to the nuts and bolts of our profession. This is the salary increases (we can’t negotiate our salaries ever, so some type of incremental increase is essential); the proposed new evaluation system (we already have an evaluation system in place. We refuse to be graded on the student test scores, for a variety of good if not easily explicable reasons); class sizes, and so on (which we, alone in the state of Illinois, are not allowed to strike over).

The public education piece has to do with social justice and equal access to a good education. The city has consistently underfunded public education in a variety of ways. The worst schools are in the poorest neighborhoods, almost uniformly, and these schools also have a dearth of resources. For instance, I interviewed at a job in a very destitute area and the students, at the end of the year, didn’t have enough textbooks. Their playground was a parking lot. They played football on concrete. They had a handful of working computers in the entire school. Contrast this with my first job, which had a computer lab on every floor, and a separate computer lab for every six classrooms. I bet anyone could guess which school has better test scores.

The mayor and his ilk see the problem as abstracted—just numbers on a spreadsheet—with a practical solution. Shut down failing schools, fire all the failing teachers, and let charter schools take over. This releases the mayor from accountability, and it’s cheaper, in a way. But the idea that teachers making less money, with less credentials, will provide struggling students with a better education makes no kind of sense. Yet, that is what the mayor wants to do.

And he wants to replicate this in over one hundred neighborhoods. That’s union jobs eliminated—one lady on the news called it downsizing—and that’s less money going into neighborhoods that really need more. A teacher working in Englewood should make $150,000 a year. Then the best teachers in the world would try to get that job. (And yet, Englewood schools would still have low test scores.)

Finally, the union piece. There’s been a national movement to eliminate or dis-empower public sector unions. Wisconsin and New Jersey both in the past few years saw a significant decrease in the teachers’ union’s ability to collectively bargain. Charter schools are part of the problem. They are fiercely anti-union. (One charter school fought the unionizing process for two years.)

We are fighting in part for our right to exist.

6.

I’ve been through a tornado, a house fire, the death of a dog, and three minutes of CPR for my oldest daughter. But this strike—the facets to it, the swirl of vitriol and misinformation, the heft of it, its dimensions and nooks and crannies—it’s in some sense more terrifying than the other travails. A cloud of uncertainty. If we lose, if all of this were for nothing, I don’t know. The job would feel tarnished. I would feel betrayed by my profession.

I recall some of the things I’ve said and heard the last few days.

Such as, “The U.S. has had a containment policy since Johnson. We do good work in a bad system.”

And, “We’re operating under an industrial model. Our educational system in the whole country is hopelessly outdated.”

And, “You got your handout, too. You were born white in the U.S., there’s your handout.”

And, “They demonize Karen Lewis because she’s a strong, black woman with a shrill voice who’s overweight. If she looked like Paul Ryan, the criticism would be different.”

And, “We should declare victory, and take the board’s latest proposal.” (This last one is from me, not my most courageous hour.)

7.

Hannah calls mid-afternoon. Turns out the word choad has two meanings. She actually looked it up. “And, as a teacher, I thought I would be remiss if I didn’t share them both with you. And, oh, the strike isn’t yet over. They say there’s a framework, but not an agreement.”

I hang up. I tell Beth. I go over the mistakes I’ve made due to the psychic dissonance in the atmosphere. I feel that queasy dread in my insides. The idea of this going for four or five more days fills me with profound weariness.

Simone naps. Beth goes to work out. I play with Pearl. She crawls for the first time. Only five months old. She’s some kind of advanced superhuman.

“Maybe she’ll be an Olympian when she grows up,” Beth says.

I spend too much time looking for the video of me Brian mentioned. Ah, vanity, there you are again. I never find the video. It’s just as well.

Night and I’m making dinner. Beth has our daughters at the park. The apartment is quiet. I realize I haven’t listened to a single piece of music all week. And there’s that about this process, too—it squeezes out the simple pleasures, the small joys.

Day five is over. I stumble through Jack’s nightly walk. It’s only 11 and I can’t keep my eyes open. Sleep comes quickly. I don’t remember my dreams.

– Ben Beard –


[1] Not his real name, of course.

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Dispatches from Chicago’s Teacher Strike, Day 1: Out of the Classrooms and into the Streets


Chicago, IL – You know things are getting serious when you find yourself sitting with a roomful of occupiers, silently and on the edge of your seats watching the evening news.

This past Sunday I attended GA at one of our most active neighborhood occupations, Occupy Rogers Park. Afterwards we went to a nearby café for some coffee, then on to an occupier’s home for more socializing. I kept nervously checking Twitter, knowing that negotiations between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union were coming to a head. When we got word that press conferences had started, our hosts took a minute to figure out how to turn on their TV (it had apparently been a while) and we watched it all unfold with bated breath.

Full disclosure: I am a certified teacher, currently unemployed due to severe education budget cuts that have schools firing teachers and increasing class sizes rather than hiring new ones. My father is a public school teacher in the suburbs; his mother (my grandmother) taught at CPS. This is my city’s fight, my family’s fight, my fight.

My first thought that night was to head downtown immediately to join the picket line in front of CPS headquarters in the Loop. Then I remembered how little sleep I was running on, and that there were bound to be plenty of opportunities to show support in the morning. So after a flurry of social media updates and a blog post I headed home to get a few hours’ sleep.

In the morning, I had about 600 picket lines to choose from. Every non-charter school had teachers in front, wearing red CTU shirts and carrying signs. The focus was on the 144 schools which remained open, providing half days of activities for students. But even the schools I visited that were closed had large crowds of strikers and supporters outside.

My first stop was Amundsen High, a school on the north side. Teachers lined the entire campus in small bunches of 5 to 10 and bigger groups of 20 or more, waving at passing traffic honking in solidarity and sharing coffee and conversation. There were a few police cars on scene but CPD was more relaxed than I’ve seen them in the past year, chatting with teachers on the sidewalk. One group of students approached the school, and a teacher explained to them that there was a strike and the regular school day was cancelled. They asked if they could still get breakfast inside, and he sent them in. I know I was raised to never cross a picket line, but you can’t blame kids who have no other way to eat during the day. There is such a wide range of services provided by our schools, and it really is unconscionable that we refuse to fund them properly.

Next I headed to Lane Tech, a large college prep high school. As I parked a couple blocks away, I noticed several trees draped in red ribbon and lawn signs announcing support with CTU. I also noticed two or three “red shirts” standing at each corner with on-duty crossing guards, keeping them company (since there were no students trying to cross) and eliciting plenty of honks and cheers from passing cars.

There were a few hundred people on the picket line at Lane Tech. Parents with small children, teachers, and a rather vocal group of students. The students found drums and took to marching the perimeter, lively chants receiving approval and applause from teachers lining the sidewalk. CPD drove by every few minutes, blaring sirens in solidarity. It made me jump every time, because usually the police are not on my side when I’m protesting. A news helicopter hovered overhead.

I spoke with a teacher and school librarian who referred to our current and recent mayors as “King Rahm,” “Richard the Second,” and “his father, Richard the First.” Their no-nonsense disapproval of politics-as-usual was entertaining and refreshing. Other teachers quizzed students on what the strike was about and why they were supporting it. Meanwhile cars pulled over and drivers gave their own messages of support.

When I told people I met on the picket line that I was with Occupy Chicago, the first question was always, “Were you at the NATO protests?” They seemed impressed that I was. Some asked me about the NATO 5 cases, which I was happy to discuss, as well as my jail support work. And they all loved to find out that we have a library.

I was getting ready to leave when I was stopped by another teacher who commented on my shirt (which reads: RADICAL MILITANT LIBRARIANS). He told me he’s thankful for the Occupy movement because in his 15 years teaching social studies, he’s always found it difficult to teach about economic stratification in a way that his students will respond to. “For 14 years, it just went over their heads,” he told me. Now, in the past year, Occupy has given him the language to discuss it in a way that is meaningful to his students. They understand the concept of the 99% and it’s a great tool to show economic inequality.

I stopped by one final school on my way home, Mather High School, which had at least 100 people outside despite being closed. A teacher held a sign that said, “We are teaching right now.” I overheard a student say to his friend, “I would rather sit through seven hours of school than have to stand out here so our teachers can get paid.” By this point I was exhausted, and it was only 10am. So I headed home for a quick nap.

What struck me about joining the picket lines was the power of having public spaces for communities to gather and discuss topics such as workers’ rights and the state of our public education system. It’s what I have spent the last year seeking out, with the help of Occupy. Want to talk about the economic crisis? Let’s meet in the financial district. Mental health clinics closing down? Meet us across the street and we’ll discuss why we need them to remain open and public. NATO bombing civilians without your consent? Time to show up outside their summit and bear witness to veterans decrying the War on Terror.

We can become so insulated in today’s world. We spend so much time inside, interacting with people via electronic devices. But we must not forget the power inherent in meeting with our neighbors, face to face, and standing together to confront the challenges of our communities and world at large.

In the afternoon, I took the train downtown to the rally. My train car was full of red shirts and more got on at each stop. I saw a tweet from a local mainstream media news outlet claiming that “hundreds” of teachers were converging on downtown; I tweeted them back to let them know there were hundreds on my train alone. Try tens of thousands total. Waves of red shirts getting off the train streamed toward the rally, forming informal marches that fed into the mass gathering.

It was exhilarating to be in the streets with so many people, fighting for public education. There was a drum line that kept everyone stepping lively. The march moved through downtown with surprisingly little police interference. We eventually circled City Hall, chanting such gems as: “We want teachers, we want books. We want the money that Rahm took!” Students and others wrote notes with their reasons for supporting Chicago teachers and posted them along the march route.

And then, far too soon, I had to leave to go to work. It was tough to pull myself away, but I knew I would be back in the streets the next day, and for however long it takes to get a fair contract.

Rachel Allshiny

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The Universal Pilgrim


New York, NY – I closed my store and marched yesterday, May 1st, 2012, out of respect and solidarity for the International Labor Movement, aware, thanks to an NPR program, that the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886, Chicago, had been acknowledged in Poland and other countries during their own labor and political struggles.

The personal takeaway, having trudged from Union Square, late in the afternoon, to Wall Street, later that evening, was being an active part of history, punching a big red balloon high into the sky, and observing personal solidarity–as well as some interesting fashions (a number of bleached heads on the guys)–with the cadre I was marching. More significantly, I felt it answered a call to an urgent civic duty, and, quite unexpectedly, also gave me a role in ‘compassionate history.’

At one point, as the NYPD muscled our stream of lumpen marchers aside, I felt like a  doomed pilgrim, a Kurt Vonnegut character of sorts, headed for a slaughterhouse chute. Or perhaps even some hungry lions. But I was also reminded that spiritual values, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” and Constitutional ones, “to provide for the common weal,” were being resurrected. My faith restored, progressive political reform, better education, fair labor practices, fair treatment to newcomers and their first generation American children, and respect for the rights of LGBT, became, in my heart and mind, the pilgrimage and actual shrine to which we were all headed.

After several rewarding, at times, colorful hours, having stopped at the banks to say “get a job,” chant an expletive or two at the powers that be, while also having been flashed many different signs from enthusiasts, and a few detractors, out the windows of our building-lined ‘canyon’ known as Broadway, we finally arrived, end of the line, at the US Customs House near the American Stock Exchange at the Bowling Green IRT [subway] Station. There, the seasoned Occupiers sat down and began to educate. It’s then I experienced the ripened fellowship of Universalism, as if Logos, The Word—or even just, “Word?”—had been made flesh. A pilgrimage the recounting of which only a modern day Chaucer, or perhaps George Orwell, if only, might be worthy.

-James Sarzotti-

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When the Rain Goes Away


NEW YORK, NY–When my girlfriend and I arrived at Byrant Park it was cold and raining. Mutual Aid was just setting up a table and the kitchen was spreading out food under an umbrella. The turnout was lower than I was hoping for but the spirit was high, especially across the street at the picket in front of Bank of America.

The rain stopped after thirty minutes but a persistent mist hovered over us and hid the tops of the skyscrapers. We met our affinity group and headed uptown to join a picket in front of News Corporation, but the picket had moved on by the time we arrived. Still, it was exciting to get out into the streets of midtown. I had a sign that read “Another world is possible. STRIKE!”and as we walked we crossed other groups of occupiers and pedestrians that raised their fists and cheered. The groups of occupiers heading to the various pickets became more frequent and we stopped to exchange information about where occupiers and police were massing. It slowly began to feel like the city was ours.

The crowd had doubled by the time we returned to Byrant Park but before long a group announced they were marching to reinforce another picket, and we headed out with them. Hundreds came with us. When I ducked in to use the bathroom at Grand Central it seemed the crowd had once more doubled in the few minutes that I was gone.  The sun was really coming out now.

After picketing in front of Capital Grille and Chipotle restaurant we were back in the park where the crowd swelled to a few thousand people. We ate sat down and shared snacks among ourselves and with strangers. In the background Tom Morello and a mass of other guitarists prepared for the Guitarmy march.

After the crowd left the park and turned down 5th avenue I crossed the street to get a better view. I had to run ahead four blocks to catch up to the front and stood in the crosswalk on the other side, waiting for the march to catch up.  Other occupiers gathered at the crosswalk with me and started chanting “Cross the street!” The marches on the other sidewalk, across four lanes of traffic, heard them and gathered at their crosswalk. When the light turned red, both groups crossed, met in the middle, then in unison ran down fifth avenue yelling “Whose streets! Our streets!” It was electric. The crowd poured off of the sidewalk and into the street. The police scurried ahead to set up a blockade of motorcycles two blocks down but we went around and poured into the street again. Two blocks further down we did it again at another police blockade. The energy was amazing.

After we by passed the second blockade the police retreated and ceded the streets to us and we held them all the way to Union Square where all the clouds had receded. And now, all the decentralized actions around New York City are converging at Union Square for a march on Wall Street. May Day may just live up to my wild expectations. A better world is possible. STRIKE!

John Dennehy

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The Art of Change


Editor’s Note: This story first appeared on ilovechile.cl, and is republished here with consent from the author.

Police clashing with protesters, shattered bits of glass from broken street lamps and bus stops littering the sidewalks, disemboweled traffic lights idling on street corners; the charred remains of a bus, lit on fire in Macul. These are the pictures circulating through the public consciousness following the October two-day national strike in Chile, images of the violence and destruction – the fallout from almost six months of education protests that have yet to yield any sort of concrete result.

In the nascent days of the education movement, when spurts of violence were just starting to make their way onto the streets and into the headlines, I remember hearing the justifications for such acts. They went something like this: The clashes and public vandalism are necessary because they are the only certain way to grab and maintain public attention. They also show the seriousness of the protesters, who have to make it clear that they will refuse to be ignored or shunted aside by an intractable government bureaucracy.

How pallid and naïve those arguments seem now, after this six-month (and counting) war of attrition. The seemingly never-ending stream of street confrontations between the police and the hooded, rock-wielding, Molotov cocktail-hurling encapuchados  or masked protesters have begun to alienate people, especially moderate Chileans fed up with the constant, sometimes dangerous disruption of their daily lives. Maybe at one point there was a justification for these acts. Violence was a useful little stimulant, able to rivet the country’s attention for short bursts. But like any harmful drug, habitual use has begun to lead to destructive side effects that are slowly wearing on the Chilean body and psyche.

Two important points need to be made here. First, the police and government response to the marches bears just as much, if not more blame for the current situation. And second, the perpetrators of these violent irruptions make up a minuscule portion of the people fighting for education reform.

To the first point: the aggressive tactics (tear gassing, water cannons, etc.) utilized by the police special forces unit since the early days of the protests have, far from restoring order, served only to escalate tension and engender more violent reaction. The police want to do their jobs: enforce the law, maintain order and keep the streets safe for ordinary citizens. Fair enough. But the events of the past half-year show that these tactics are having just the opposite effect. At first, the violence was unexpected. Now it seems inevitable. It’s almost as if the troublemakers are taking to the streets because they are expecting to clash with the police forces.

The street confrontations play out like an elaborate game of cat and mouse. Police trucks rumble up and down the streets, spraying water and tear gas at delighted protesters who duck for cover and then emerge again, a few moments later, chucking stones back at their pursuers. After getting riled up into a frenzy, the protesters retreat, and that’s when the real destruction begins.

During the Oct. 6 protests, generally agreed to be one of the most violent days of the education movement, police vehicles chased students down the streets. As they retreated, groups of people would swarm around streets signs and park benches, using their collective force to turn them out of their concrete foundations. Of course, there is no justification for this type of vandalism, but the police response certainly didn’t help. If anything, it created the hysterical, fear-laden atmosphere that made those acts possible.

To the second, and perhaps most essential point: the vandals, encapuchados and whoever else is taking advantage of the strange, uncertain environment brought on by the marches, represent a tiny portion of the protesters, the great majority of whom conduct themselves peacefully and with great dignity. On Oct. 19, the second day of the two-day national strike, nearly 200,000 people came out to march in Santiago. They marched peacefully and without incident for most of the afternoon, until a small percentage of troublemakers broke off from the group and started causing problems. But this is what people were talking about the next day.

And that is perhaps the greatest tragedy brought on by specter of continuous violence; it dominates the conversation and saps urgency from the student cause. When I went out to observe the Oct. 19 march, I was struck by the enthusiasm of the crowd and the air of passion and positivity that ran through this mass of people. Protesters came out in costume and groups of musicians and dancers performed in small pockets of space. People, young and old, marched together. They laughed and joked with each other, but there was also an underlying seriousness of purpose. It was a culture event, a parade of discontent but also an expression of joy, creativity and possibility.

The process of reform – lasting and systemic – can be messy and slow, full of setbacks and frustrations. But the art of change, something we are seeing not just in Chile but all over the world, from Wall Street to Tunisia, can be a beautiful, collaborative process that shows humanity at its best. Ultimately, violence is not a means to anything but more violence- a distraction that obscures the true potential of people searching for a better path.

Titus Levy

 

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