The sight of young children digging into a planter box full of soil and sprouts is nothing new – an activity that happens at any given summer school for elementary school aged kids. The difference with this picture is that the gardening activity is taking place at a school site, Lakeview elementary, that’s been taken over by parents, teachers, community members and radicals. On the last day of school, June 15th, this motley mix of people held a bbq that marked the end of the Oakland Unified School District’s 2011-2012 school year and marked the beginning of the transformation of the Lakeview elementary campus into the People’s School for Public Education. This initiative is led by a committee of activists, parents, and teachers that formed out of the struggle against school closures in the fall of 2011; this struggle was itself intimately bound up within the context of a general strike called for by Occupy Oakland one day after 5 elementary schools were announced to be closed by the OUSD. The purpose here is to document and explore some of the context behind this current struggle, the complexities and contradictions involved in its organizing, and thoughts on moving forward.
Shrinking Social Reproduction
The capitalist system’s crisis is a crisis of reproduction. On the one hand, capitalists across the globe have become unable to keep producing commodities at profitable rates and have responded to this by laying off workers, attacking unionized workers wages and benefits, and auotmating all that can be automated. We’ve seen examples of this in the attacks on the accumulated power of the ILWU longshore and dock workers; the increased “soft raids” of E-Verify against undocumented migrant workers; and we’ve seen the ongoing dismantling teacher unions from Wisconsin to Oakland, and of public sector unions as a whole. As these attacks against working people happen, the working as a whole begins to contract and the total amount of wages continue to decline.
Additionally, capitalists seek to keep as much of their profits as possible, and by any means necessary. Both the contracting total wage bill and the contracting set of profits which are taxed by the state mean that the revenue used to fund public institutions such as schools, hospitals and transportation begin to be cutback. All of these institutions are sites of social reproduction – the reproduction of society and the workforce that it maintains and is maintained by it. Schools train labor power; hospitals heal labor power; and transportation systems move labor power from the community to the workplace in back – all three of these function to keep the capitalist system functioning properly as well as keeping the working class alive enough to come back to work the next day. When capitalists cut back on these institutions of social reproduction we see a contraction in the livelihood of working class life. While the normal functioning of capitalist existence involves exploitation and oppression, the crisis acts to exacerbate these. The crisis of capitalist reproduction becomes a downward spiral with no clear sign of recovery, and the effects are felt most severely among the most vulnerable of society – one sector of which is the youth.
The State Retreats and the People Takeover
In the context of a contracting capitalist system and the corresponding shrinking of its state institutions, we are reminded again that the material needs of working people are not met by this system. Throughout the 20th century we’ve seen working people stand up and take responsibility for facilitating their own lives through revolutions, occupations, and strikes. In Algeria during its war of independence against French colonialism, we saw peasants taking over agricultural estates, which were abandoned by French colonialists, and keeping them running in the name of providing for the Algerian people. Chilean workers re-opened factories which were shutdown by capitalists during the counter-revolutionary process that the bosses unleashed against social-democratic president Allende. More recently, Argentinean capitalists decided to abandon the factories they owned as the economy collapsed in 2001; and workers found themselves in a position where they could either starve or re-open the factories and begin operating the under worker control. All these examples, and countless more, demonstrate the fact that when the state and capital leave, workers have the capacity to rebuild society in their own image.
Though the takeover of Lakeview school by community members, teachers, parents, and radicals is nowhere near the level of militancy and significance as the aforementioned actions, it still fits into the category of institutions which the ruling class has abandoned. But it’s not the building itself that’s been abandoned – no, the district wants to move a set of its offices into the building – but rather the children’s futures.
Those who have stepped up to takeover Lakeview have not done so simply to hold a space. Rather, they’ve organized the takeover in the name of maintain the school’s function: to provide for the educational development of Oakland’s young people. A summer school has been in operation since Monday of this week (June 18th, 2012) and has been composed of volunteer educators. Everyone from after-school workers, to substitute teachers, to full-time classroom teachers, to housekeepers from Vietnam who were teachers in their country of origin but have been denied employment in their field due to language barriers – all these people have composed the voluntary labor force of the People’s School at Lakeview. What’s happening at Lakeview is a tiny microcosm of what a communist society will be like: people gathering together communally to provide for one another, and prioritizing the most vulnerable in the process. All those cast out of regular employment by the capitalist system begin to find a place in the social reproduction of a real human community, rather than finding their place within a degenerated failure of a system that only seeks to reproduce profits.
The People’s School, Occupy the Farm, and Previous Attempts at Occupying Buildings in Oakland
Thinking back to the failed occupation of the Traveler’s Aid building on November 2nd of 2011, we begin to picture hundreds, if not a few thousand, people gathered in downtown Oakland ready to defend the occupation of an empty building. Familiar images of trashcan barricades and “Occupy Everything” banners come to mind, followed by the bright white lights of flashbang grenades cutting through the fog of tear gas. In a matter of time the attempted occupation was destroyed and the news media began to spin the entire days events as if this were the main event of the evening rather than the shutdown of the port by tens of thousands of people. Similarly, the events of January 28th were attended by hundreds if not thousands of people, and still the attempt to establish a community center at the Kaiser building failed. Both of these attempted occupations were heroic, and they were also attempts at occupying spaces which the people involved had little to no direct connection to.
Fast forward to the recent past and we recall that the “Occupy the Farm” encampment was able to hold ground for a few weeks. The community of Berkeley and Albany generally supported the effort to turn the lot into a site of agricultural production for community members. The people taking over the plot – UC Berkeley students, Albany residents, and others – held a common goal to re-establish the tract as a space for the direct production of healthy food for local communities. It took weeks for the police to evict the farmers.
Now, in the present, we see that the takeover of Lakeview involved a handful of parents, teachers, and activists. The action was organized in an open way, with the main structures in place being a set of principles which sought to keep the space organized in a child/family friendly way. The space has been kept open by the participants for 6 days now, and has been run as a People’s School for 3 days. Throughout this time the police have showed up to intimidate the participants, but they have ultimately left. Bourgeois media coverage has tended to portray the school as a legitimate site of familial participation and has at times provided air time for the demands of the People’s School to be heard.
What are we to make of these extreme differences? One question to consider is the strategic importance of selecting spaces for takeover that are directly connected to people’s lives. While the Kaiser building and Traveler’s Aid office surely provided services and employment for people at some point in time, they are more detached from recent community use than the Lakeview school. The takeover at Lakeview involved weeks of open preparation by the organizing committee: flyering at the 5 schools set to be shutdown, making phone calls to parents, organizing house meetings, and conducting parent inquiries to gauge interest in participation in the takeover. This is in distinction from the relatively covert and underground nature of the organizing for the Traveler’s Aid and Kaiser building occupations. What does it mean that a more open takeover of a school building can hold out as an occupied space longer than a clandestinely planned occupation which lasts less than an hour if it happens at all? these are some of the living questions of our movement.
What comes after summer school?
The march to defend the Lakeview takeover is tomorrow and will be some indication of the support that the People’s School has. However, the initiative on the part of the participants in the takeover opens up questions that bring us back to the central question: what will it take to win? This is a question of power. The district has been put in a position where they are re-justifying their austerity program of school closures, as well as making clear that they want the takeover to end. Their plan is to move in their administrative offices in July 1st, so the question of holding onto the space and refusing to let them move forward comes up. What would happen if the parents of all 5 elementary schools targeted by the district this year came out with their families and made clear that they demanded the district reverse its decision? What would happen if the teacher’s union in Oakland declared Lakeview a strike zone and mobilized labor unions across the city to come and defend the takeover and demand that the 5 schools be re-opened? And what if occupy activists, who have been instrumental to shutting down the port of Oakland twice, joined also? All three of these groups together could force a situation where the district’s office materials are nit delivered because of the power of the picket line and, hopefully, the refusal to cross by the workers driving the moving trucks. Something along these lines are what the authors would consider the beginnings of a winning scenario for the struggle against thins round of OUSD austerity.
But even if this situation does not happen, this is only a new beginning. Occupy Oakland opened up a whole set of possibilities in the fall through both it’s strengths and contradictions. The Lakeview takeover represents a new contribution on the part of Oakland to the arena of class struggle. Parents, teachers, students and community members will do well to learn from this as the class struggle in education continues. Deeper roots must be sunk by activists and revolutionaries into working-class communities, and the working class must refuse to accept the terms set by politicians and administrators of the system. The future is unclear, but preparations are underway on both sides.