Sometimes it’s really hard to pick yourself up and dust yourself off.
This post is dedicated to an analysis of just exactly what happened Thursday night, and what it means for the future. Briefly, before beginning, I will address in future posts some of the pressing questions ahead: the PTU contract, the mystifying cult of Tom Brady, the Broad infestation, and the question of union reform and rank-and-file action. But for now, let’s focus on the catastrophe that befell us last night, in particular: What the hell happened? What does it mean for Providence politics? Should we have taken more radical direct action? And what comes next?
What the hell happened?
Well, in brief, after two and a half hours of public comment from a packed auditorium, the school board, which had already made up its mind, voted to close ALL the schools on the chopping block. It should probably have been clear to us from the bored and impassive looks on the faces of the school committee members that things had already been decided. It became quite clear as soon as Kathy Crain moved to put Bridgham first on the voting list. And the responses ranged from outrage to anger to tears. Some said: let’s organize and fight more! Others said: what for? It was hard to go back to school today, and I’m not even in a closed school, and not even a fired Providence teacher. My heart goes out to those at Bridgham, Flynn, Messer, Windmill, and West Broadway, who have no idea what the future holds.
That said, there were some useful moments in the public comment. Matt Gabor of WSPEC probably had the best explicit approach: I don’t really have anything more to say to the school board, and my comments are really directed to the audience. This is how these forums should be treated generally. So the important thing about the public comment section was: what were the dominant questions and themes raised? How did people respond? In my opinion, beyond the consensus around the damage done to students and neighborhoods, the truly interesting things had to do with the broader political and social questions raised by the school closings. Below are the things that most impressed themselves in my mind; I invite readers to contribute their own personal favorites in the comments section of this post.
The question of linguistic justice was important. I was quite impressed by the comments of the Rhode Island English Language Learners Coalition—Ferdinand Rodriguez and another woman whose name escapes me. Brian Lin also addressed the issue quite forcefully—50% of Providence students come from homes where English is not the primary language, and yet the PPSD only release there proposal for the school closures in English, and on a website that may not be accessible to everyone. I think there’s much more to be explored in this connection.
There was the Flynn teacher who talked about how they found out their school was slated for closure when Channel 12 showed up the day their principal was out, and how the next day there was already an outside organization measuring the windows for new curtains. And I don’t know exactly how seriously to take the women from the West End who threatened the school committee with a “dog fight” if they voted to close the schools, but she certainly did remind me of this (especially from 0:55 to 0:59):
And then, not to toot my own horn, but it’s an important point: the city’s financial crisis is artificial. 60% of the real estate in Providence is not taxed because it’s owned by “non-profit” organizations like Brown University and LifeSpan (probable new owner of Flynn); if we simply taxed this land like normal real estate, at the rate paid by the Messer parent who works two jobs and 16-hour days to keep his single-family home, how much more money would the city have? Or, if that doesn’t work, why not simply take part of the wealth of Jonathan Nelson, founder of Providence Equity Partners and one of Rhode Island’s two billionaires? Mr. Nelson’s wealth increased last year by more than $300 million dollars—more than the city’s deficit for the next two years. Take that away from him—and he’s still a billionaire! But so that Mr. Nelson may not suffer the trauma of being separated from his money, thousands of students are being shuffled around and dozens of teachers fired without due process.
It leaves me with the question: so, given the 100% opposition to the plan from the public at all of these meetings…who benefits from these school closings?
What does it mean for Providence politics?
My friend Shaun has a theory that this sort of crushing defeat would not have happened even a year ago, under Cicilline, now universally pilloried for his role in systematically attacking every section of the working class in Providence during his tenure as mayor. We go from the first gay mayor of Providence to the first Latino mayor, “the Obama of Providence”, and this is the sort of treatment we get: a vicious attack, with little pretense that it’s actually necessary or useful and even less real justification, carried out with ruthless haste. And this even in the face of solid opposition to the plan from the public, four Providence City Council people in attendance and vocally against the cuts, and bad press coverage to boot. What gives?
To some extent, much of what’s happening now in politics and has happened since the Obama election is that, as the economic crisis devastates workers and the poor, the rich have been racing to grab whatever loot they can get from the chaos. The financial crisis of 2008 led to the $14 trillion TARP program, the massive bank bailout with taxpayer dollars that did nothing to ease the credit crunch, but did give banks loads of cash to sit on a speculate with ($4 per gallon gas anyone?). This in turn led to the sovereign debt crisis, and all of the state and local budget deficits that are now being covered with cuts to education and social services. The cumulative amount of state budget deficits is equal to 1% of the bank bailout—and yet the federal government refuses to not only to give money to the cash-strapped states, but even to extend time on repayment of their loans to the feds! This same smash-and-grab operation is no doubt in operation in Rhode Island and in Providence. Brown has racked up quite a bit of debt on the watch of Ruth Simmons—and the land they’ve acquired through the I-195 relocation project will help cover that debt. Why mess that up by paying taxes on land that is not being used for any sort of educational purpose whatsoever? There’s certainly more dirt to dig up here, even after they demolish the last of the old I-195 bridges.
It’s also the case that Taveras’s electoral win was based on a coalition of the Broad St. Latino noblesse de robe and the East Side noblesse d’épée. Taveras’s real constituency is not the Latino community in Providence, which is certainly being hurt disproportionately by the school closings. And, sorry to tell you, Mr. Davian Sánchez, but it’s not really Sánchez Meat Market en la calle Broad, neither. It’s the East Siders, who can shell out a cool million dollars for Sheldon Whitehouse when he stops by for a weekend, but certainly can’t bear the thought of parting with their hard-hoarded money, should it happen to go to benefit poor children on the other side of I-95. It took far too long and far too many betrayals for people to realize what the deal really was with Cicilline; let’s not waste time waiting for Taveras to be any different than he is right now.
Which leads to the last point to consider for the moment. Budget-cutting and austerity are a bipartisan program in the United States—so just because Taveras is a Latino Democrat, and not a Scott Walker teabag Republican, we should not be surprised. They agree on the budget-cutting, union-busting program. I know that the Latino Teachers’ Coalition worked to elect Taveras, and the sting of betrayal has turned them into an active force against Taveras’s attacks. But let’s be honest: there are also some who are now vocal in their opposition, verbally radical even, who call for Taveras’s recall—who worked for his election, or at least gave him a left gloss, last fall. These same folks performed the same service for Cicilline. It undermines our struggle to line up the votes for the Democrat every time, and then to get upset when that very same Democrat does exactly what those in power do. Your shouting when they attack you must be that much more amusing to them.
Should we have taken more radical direct action?
This is a big question. The PTSCC (perhaps we should change name and/or acronym?) is a fledgling group, but with a real promise to unite people across traditional divisions. However, it’s important for the group to get this question right, especially if we want to organize real people for an actually (and not just verbally) radical struggle in the future.
At the Monday meeting, the PTSCC rally drew about 100 people before the actual meeting, including a good proportion of teachers and parents. On Thursday, the number was closer to 40 or 50, with many fewer of those participating actually falling into the parent/teacher category. It was heartening to move into the auditorium, even more packed than it had been on Monday, chanting, “stand up fight back”, and to have the whole audience stand up in imitation of the chant. But after that, there developed a gulf between those who wanted to make a lot of noise, generally established activists, and the teachers and some parents in the audience, who felt that approach was unproductive. As the votes were taken, many people tried to shout down the votes—but others shushed the shouters. One activist I was standing next to expressed frustration at the shushers—they’re closing our schools, so why would you be quiet about that? While I share her frustration and sentiment, I think it misses a crucial point about mass struggle: the role of self-activity of the oppressed.
What do I mean by this? In order for a struggle to actually be radical, it has to be those at the center of the attack who decide to take a course of radical action for themselves. A struggle is doomed to failure if the people at the heart of it are not those at the center of the attack—which is not to say that outside activists have no role. It is rather to say that those activists must be mindful of the real work of politically and ideologically organizing new people, teachers and parents, in a way that brings those people along with us, that values their opinions and ideas genuinely even if we disagree, that helps to teach people through concrete lessons and not through haranguing or “propaganda of the deed”.
Someone posted a video on the Facebook event page of students in Tuscon taking over a school board meeting to prevent the destruction of their Mexican-American Studies program. Nice example—but note that it’s the students themselves taking the action. Are we there yet with Providence parents and teachers? In a few cases, yes; but in most cases, not at all. And there were many more teachers and parents who should have been there, but who will not be convinced to come out if what we first ask of them is to take action far more radical than what they consider necessary or even desirable. It’s keen attention to the consciousness and will to struggle of the teachers and parents that will allow us to judge the appropriateness of radical tactics in the future.
Most immediately: PTSCC meeting, Wednesday, May 4, 6pm at the Providence Teachers Union Office, 99 Corliss St., Providence.
I expect the struggle now to shift back to the teachers. The questions on the table are rescinding the firings, defending teachers in the intervention schools, and crucially, the contract. We formed PTSCC after the firings and as the school closings were announced, and so our initial work was building community and teacher support for the schools. I hope that, going forward, we can keep PTSCC together as a group, now to build parent support for the teachers.
A few people have suggested to me that we take the struggle to the politicians, picketing Taveras’s events in one case, picketing the houses of the school committee members in another. I’d invite those people who’ve made those suggestions to expand on them in the comments.
I think we need to start building a network of rank-and-file teachers, with representation from every school in the district, who can organize people in their buildings to come out to protests, town-hall-type meetings, etc. I’ll write more about this soon.
The key is: let’s get the general sense of everyone’s reactions before we advance. I’ve made some analysis and suggestions, but only a democratic discussion summing up the results thus far and setting out the tasks at hand, can really be the basis for figuring out what’s next.