In Oakland, speaking truth to stupid
October 6, 2015
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by Citizen Stewart

In a recent meeting of the Oakland school board, a woman came to the microphone during public comments and let loose a symphonic rebuke of Antwan Wilson, the superintendent of Oakland Public Schools.

At issue, his proposal to mainstream special education students into regular education classrooms which has drawn questions from teachers and parents. In some cases it has drawn overheated vitriol from professional protestors.

The young woman announced herself as Maricruz Lopez from the organization BAMN.

That group’s name has come up consistently as I’ve talked to Oakland people over the past year. They’re the loyal opposition known for erratic pressure tactics and a loose grip on facts. Every district has it’s critics, but Oakland insiders insist theirs are different. They’re more militant, more willing to cross boundaries, less likely to abide by decorum.

Oakland, people remind me, is a city that once assassinated Marcus Foster, it’s superintendent of public schools. Militants back then were upset with his proposal to issue students identification cards as a way to keep them safe from drug dealers and gang members who would wander onto school campuses.

That history creates a certain context, a lens for how today’s militants control public spaces.

In that context Lopez came to rock the mic:

Hello, my name is Maricruz Lopez and I’m also an organizer with BAMN, By Any Means Necessary. I want to first read a brief statement by a special education student, Armani. She says “I feel that special education students should get all the support they need. For you guys to only mainstream these students is absurd and shows how Oakland students get no support.”

I am here to speak out against superintendent Antwan Wilson’s plan to place special education students into general ed classes. This is a completely racist attack against the black and Latino – and immigrant – communities and especially on the most vulnerable students. Antwan Wilson knows that if he tells the truth about how he plans to decimate special ed programs he would never get any support from anyone in Oakland. That’s why he has to resort to lies, and deceptive language like mainstreaming and inclusion, when really he is excluding our students and carrying out the new Jim Crow policies of the billionaires who only seek to make a profit on the backs of our students.

She had me at “Jim Crow.” I’m part of a group in Minnesota called Black Advocates for Education (BAE). We once used the hashtag “JimCrowJr” to denounce outrageous suspension rates and the segregation of black male students into special education starter prisons. We even lodged a complaint with the Department of Justice.

Clearly, I’m not above radical language.

In Oakland, critics of the special education proposal worry about students getting all the supports they are guaranteed by law if they are placed in mainstreamed classrooms.

District leaders say the proposal will address the unacceptably low academic outcomes for students who have been segregated into special education ghettos where they aren’t challenged because adult expectations for them are so low.

That’s fair debate. I’m more to the side of raising expectations and improving outcomes.

For me, Lopez and others comparing Wilson’s special education mainstreaming plan to Jim Crow policies is not fair debate. It’s stupid. As adults who care about children, we must be committed enough to tell it like it is even if the room will get hostile.

Professional protestors

We’ve seen this movie before. Urban school districts often have a dedicated motley crew who devote themselves to being disruptive at school board meetings. I’ve seen it as far south as New Orleans, as far north as Minneapolis/St. Paul, and as far east as Philadelphia.

They get power by stopping district leaders from conducting business.

Dig in a little and you’ll find their ties to teachers’ unions. That’s the case in Oakland where BAMN and the Oakland Education Association (OEA) have overlapping members.

In a recent story about the special education protests, Mark Airgood is quoted opposing Wilson’s proposal, and Yvette Felarca pictured speaking out against it. Both are organizers for BAMN and activist teachers within the OEA.

Airgood is a special education teacher at Edna Brewer Middle School, arguably one of the best in Oakland. Except for black kids. The gap between black and white students is a 36 percentage points in reading, and 50 percentage points in math.

Yet, instead of focusing on student achievement Airgood prefers to chase ideological boogeymen. He has been a relentless anti-reform loudmouth with a reputation as a fringe-left ideologue incapable of nuance. He has run unsuccessfully for national union leadership positions in the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

According to her Facebook page Felarca works at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary, a school where three-quarters of the students are not at grade level.

Chris Thompson wrote a great background piece about BAMN for the East Bay Express in 2001. It’s worth a read. He had this to say about BAMN’s attempt to inject a misplaced agenda into groups organizing around honest social causes:

In a previous life, I was a UC Berkeley student activist, and back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the issue du jour was abortion. Not coincidentally, most of the people who would later found BAMN were members of an organization called the National Women’s Rights Organizing Coalition (NWROC), and it was an open secret that this ostensibly single-issue group was in fact a way to hide its members’ affiliation with the Revolutionary Workers League. Members of NWROC periodically tried to join other leftist groups and insinuate a broader agenda calling for a workers’ revolution, mostly by stacking meetings and, when most people had gotten tired and gone home, trying to get the few who were left to approve resolutions filled with angry, combative language, endorsing this or that revolutionary struggle. Those who just wanted the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue to leave women’s health clinics alone were dubbed “bourgeois white feminists” and misleaders of the people.

So, back to Lopez.

She isn’t an OUSD parent or student. She isn’t even from Oakland. She’s from Michigan (the home of BAMN and the Revolutionary Workers League) where she was a controversial activist at the University of Michigan. That was before she organized for BAMN in Los Angeles (where a court issued a restraining order against her).

Here she is organizing in L.A.:

 

So, how does a national organizer with no vested interested in the local community of Oakland end up taking microphone time from real citizens, and using it to humiliate a black man in good standing who has demonstrated his ability to improve conditions for black children?

Why is she seen standing in solidarity with a strident, bitter, malicious white teachers’ union that has often blocked progress for kids?

What I really don’t understand is why any black community would be so self-hating as to allow any of these folks to usher in anti-black sentiments against Wilson. Back in January the NAACP – to its credit – issued a letter calling out the Oakland teachers for stoking disrespectful behavior from students who came to a board meeting and questioned the superintendent’s blackness.

 

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Shame on the good black and brown people of Oakland if they allow themselves to be bamboozled and hoodwinked by the same folks that have been dulling our intellect in classrooms for decades.

Responsible people – and by this, yes, I mean the black people capable of keeping an eye on the prize to save black lives – should be demanding decorum at every school board meeting; demanding accountability from the superintendent, his district staff, and the teachers in every classroom where black children exist; and demanding real results that prepare black children for the type of careers that will afford them a place in a rapidly gentrifying city.

We all should be protesting. We should be overturning tables and calling people out. But we should be doing it in service of better educational outcomes for children.

These particular disrupters will tell you they’re speaking truth to power. I disagree. They are wasting staff time and misleading the public. If you’re concerned about the children of Oakland I suggest you respond by speaking truth to stupid.

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