Several members of the DSA Communist Caucus in the East Bay have been working on a local chapter campaign called “Classroom Justice,” an effort to keep Oakland schools public and challenge the incursion of charter schools into the city as well as the imminent closure of currently operating public schools. The campaign has made significant inroads fighting for public school funding, halting closures, and connecting with parents and teachers across the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) through a range of organizing initiatives. These included the crafting and distribution of a coloring book for school children, now available in English, Spanish, and Mandarin. Recently the Classroom Justice campaign provided support for the local Black Organizing Project (BOP) which worked to craft and secure the passage of an OUSD resolution to disband the school district police force. This was the culmination of years of BOP’s organizing to get cops out of Oakland schools. I talked to Lew L, a Communist Caucus member and one of the lead Classroom Justice organizers, who spoke about the kinds of organizing work that classroom justice campaigners have been doing, their efforts to aid BOP, and the challenges and contradictions of organizing among teachers, students, parents, and other organizers around issues of educational justice.
What is “Classroom Justice”? What is the campaign you’re working on about and responding to? What kinds of organizing does it entail, and how did it arise?
“Classroom Justice”… started around a year ago. This was following on the heels of the union strike of the Oakland Education Association. The local chapter was supporting the union strike by providing material support in terms of fundraising, doing solidarity school, and turning out for the picket line. During that time, we built a close relationship with the union. Our local chapter didn’t follow up on that relationship, so after the strike ended, all the work in the education area in terms of organizing stopped. Coming out of that, at the time, we were thinking that this was such a good area for organizing in terms of revealing the contradictions within society in general. The district was being put under a lot of pressure due to the charter movement… it was closing all these schools as part of this “Blueprint Plan” that resulted from a lack of money, and their response to lack of money was to close down all these schools or merge them into existing schools, perhaps turning some of them into charters (see the OEA’s response to the OUSD Blueprint Plan for more information). At the school sites that get closed down, they might sell off some of the properties in order to recoup the losses. They were kind of running a school district, a public service, like a business. In response to that, we thought that we should be organizing in this area, especially if we have this previous relationship with the union.
And so, to follow up on that, in the last year or so, what kinds of things have you been most focused on doing, in terms of challenging the charter school movement or rebuilding relationships with the union?
When we first started, there was no follow up on the work we did with the strike and so there was not a continuation of this relationship. For the most part, we were not the same organizers as those who were working on the strike. We had to rebuild those relationships from the start, so when we first started, we were going to school board meetings every other week (as often as they had them)… We were going there not only to make ourselves known but also to build out relationships aside from the union, so like with the teachers, parents, students, and other activists [I’m just going to say activists because I don’t know if they’re socialists per se]… From there, we started building out relationships. Around this time, there was this group called Oakland Not for Sale – they were a group of Kaiser parents and some teachers as well. Kaiser was a school that was being closed down. Oakland Not for Sale started doing direct actions at school board meetings to gain attention for school closures and to stop schools from being closed… I don’t know if you remember the video of them trying to take over school board seats at the actual meeting, but the first time they did it they were able to shut it down, and the second time, the school board had police on hand and they formed a barricade. They had metal fences and actual officers on hand in the adjacent room, and all these police officers rushed out like a line. It was kind of ridiculous and all these parents were arrested. Just talking about it, it seems so ridiculous, but they were like pushing parents onto the ground and arresting them and that made local news and I think a lot of people saw that. That was kind of the first major event that we were a part of. We weren’t directly in this group, but some of us started attending their meetings and making connections with them. But yeah, it started from there and then in response to closures, OEA, the union, started having various town halls and then other groups started forming. And then the group of us going to these school board meetings were going to every single one of these meetings if possible and kind of just getting out there and meeting everyone and started to organize from there.
At some point, we wrote a resolution to bring this work to the local chapter and to form an actual official campaign within the East Bay [DSA] chapter and since then, we’ve been kind of navigating those relationships and contacts and the emergent events. From there, we transitioned to making bi-weekly coloring books. When we made the campaign, we were wondering how to make use of the relationships we built and work with the people we know in this space. We were thinking of coalescing a more unified front: as we were looking at it different groups were emerging, like Oakland Not for Sale but also other groups. A lot of groups popped in and out and everyone who we worked with broadly agreed on the schools not closing and not having the charter school system expand and take over the public school system, especially in terms of resources, so everybody was agreed on that, but often there was disagreement on the tactics. We [DSA] were working on trying to help cohere a more unified front. We were thinking of that and we were thinking of the upcoming elections also, because 4 of the 7 school board seats were up for election this November so there was a possibility we could retake the school board in terms of having a majority vote. When corona hit, there was that element of what is education going to look like in the future during the corona crisis and the continuation of that, and then with the murder of George Floyd and the protests going on, there was an element of defunding and getting rid of the police department within the district. The district is one of the only California school districts that still has its own police department. There’s a group called Black Organizing Project (BOP) that’s been working on this in Oakland for 10 years, so how do we support them in doing that?
That was a very helpful overview. From this last comment, I was going to ask what has been accomplished or successful, what you see as a victory since the campaign started. I know the effort to disband the district police department was successful in the last month or so. Are there other victories that you would want to speak to?
I wouldn’t call that directly DSA’s – Black Organizing Project has been working on this for 10 years. I think they were instrumental in coalescing at least a public front on this. I think, in terms of the organizing work, Black Organizing Project was going to various unions and asking for a letter of support for the resolution that was going to appear at the next school board meeting and that resolution called for the complete elimination of the school district police department. So they were conducting a campaign of getting unions to write them letters of support and religious leaders in Oakland, and other groups. As a part of that, DSA, we were offering to use our own union contacts or the union contacts we had within DSA, we offered to ask for or write letters of support within our contacts and then also generally boost events that Black Organizing Project were planning. I think that’s the more public side of defunding this police department. I think there was also an element of not so visible pressure from the various street actions…Throughout that part, we were trying to up the pressure on the school district as much as possible by holding protests in front of school board members’ houses, some planned by Black Organizing Project, some planned by teachers. Some also just happened. For the elimination of the police department, they’ve passed the resolution but it’s not been put into implementation yet, so it’s hard to say it’s a victory until we actually see those police officers go. I’m going to say that’s an ongoing thing.
In terms of other victories, it’s hard to say, this is still an ongoing campaign. The successes we’ve had are mostly on intangible things so far. I’m thinking about the success in terms of more people being engaged in this organizing within the Oakland community or people paying attention to what’s going on.
To what extent has the campaign run up against barriers or resistance? What are the difficulties and limitations for classroom justice organizers?
In terms of working with other people, especially non-socialists broadly, I think there is a lot of an activism state of mind that’s leftover from (or we are still in that era) the neoliberal era, kind of this mode of…neoliberal civic engagement that’s an extension of the idea and the preoccupation with interests, power brokerage, and advocacy. A lot of people are stuck in that state of mind. There’s also within DSA itself, I would say, an obsession with power. I’ve heard it explicitly said, “we should go after this because it’s the most direct route to having power over the situation.” I don’t think organizing for that should be a number one organizing goal – logically that makes sense: “ok, we want to stop schools from closing down and who has power in this situation, oh yeah, the politicians in the school district and at the state level have power.” I think that’s not particularly helpful in the long term and as socialists, we should be more oriented towards organizing to obtain or perhaps exercise control over the means of production, and by extension, if you have a say in the means of production, then you have some power, a portion of the power. I don’t know if directly organizing for power is a good frame.
Some of the other contradictions in this space I think arise because of the place in society different organizations are in, and not seeing that they’re in that position because they hold a certain place within the economic system, and not being able to see beyond the place they’re at. For example, I think the union bargains with the school district on working conditions for the teacher. But they hold a certain place: the union oftentimes or the union members don’t see that that’s a kind of a limited position. That’s just one lane that they’re in – oftentimes, they’re not able to get beyond that narrow lane: “Oh yeah, our main purpose is to bargain with the district and represent the teachers.” Oftentimes, they’re not able to see beyond that and organize in ways that might be broader than that and that would help them in the long term.
Looking at contradictions [more generally], I feel like most people have a lack of U.S. history, specifically I’m thinking, oftentimes parents or teachers or activists in this space would say ‘oh yeah, we need more funding for immigrant families,’ ‘we need more this,’ or maybe ‘we need more support for students with disabilities,’ but I think there is a lack of understanding of why we don’t have support in these areas. I’m thinking of just the history of immigration in the country and the closing of the frontier and the racist immigration policies, maybe like the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Bracero program, this program that didn’t allow migrational labor from Mexico into the U.S., kind of how U.S. immigration policy is almost always very racist and tied to demand for labor and very reactionary. Tying the history of that and the emergence of neoliberal politics from the 80s, and maybe also not just neoliberal policies but also a focus on technical decisions, as if the school district or the state of California 100% make these decisions based on technical considerations: ‘We will fund schools at this level because this is the best level of funding for these schools. We will tax property owners at this level because these are the best level of taxes for this society.’ Because there is a lack of an overall understanding of the history of how we make these policies, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that most policies that come out is just the best policy, and if something is a bad policy, like school closures, the mindset is we can just find the bad policy and fix it.
I think you’ve highlighted some of the difficulties or challenges with this work. With those in mind, what are the plans right now for the Classroom Justice campaign, specific events or longer-term organizing projects. What are your aims and how do you see something like the bi-weekly coloring books working within the plans you have?
In terms of the work, we’re looking at the coloring book, and expanding from that and reaching out to an older section of the students, so like making a zine for the teens. Some of our younger organizers, some of the zoomers in the campaign are making zines. The hope though is to get the teens in the school district to write it, or do most of the writing eventually. That’s the hope in terms of the printed stuff. We have been handing thousands of them out every month. But we’re also tabling with them – we’re going to food distribution sites and talking with the parents there and the hope is to continue doing that and to build up better and more relationships with the parents. Now, there’s starting to be more of a focus on the upcoming November election. That’s still to be worked out – we don’t know who the chapter’s going to endorse yet. We’ve submitted some names but we’re just keeping an eye on that. There are already some groups doing direct electoral work – we’ll support where we can, but I think the focus is always to build relationships in the community and the base-building that comes with any work in the space. I am just one member in this campaign so most of these decisions we do by vote. This is where I think the overall orientation of where this has been going might go in the future.
If you were to give a 5 word answer as to a dream vision of something, whether a particular action or decision, that would happen as a result of a really awesome, built out base of parents, teachers, students, and organizers, what would you say?
Lew: Take back the district permanently.