Taking a stand in the California Capitol

May 11, 2011

Elizabeth Terzakis reports on the protests and civil disobedience in California's Capitol as teachers and college students rallied to demand funding for public education.

SOME 68 activists were arrested the night of May 9 as the California Teachers Association (CTA) continued a week of protests against cuts to state funding for K-12 education, which has already been slashed by $20 billion since 2008.

The majority of those arrested were college students, who attended the rally to support public school teachers and students, as well as oppose the additional cuts targeting higher education.

The action began as with hundreds of CTA members in pale blue T-shirts circulating through the halls of the Capitol, lobbying their representatives, while students from Bay Area colleges prepared to occupy the building and, if possible, sit in overnight.

Yet from the beginning, the CTA leadership attempted to limit the protest. The morning started with a meeting of CTA members in a theater near the Capitol, where union members heard a prayer for "legislative courage" and were instructed to focus on lobbying for one demand: the extension of regressive taxes, including a 1 percent increase in sales taxes and an increase in vehicle licensing fees.

Public school teachers and college students demonstrate in the Capitol in Sacramento
Public school teachers and college students demonstrate in the Capitol in Sacramento

These are Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's only proposed "solutions" to the budget crisis--he and fellow Democrats have rejected any measure to increase taxes on corporations or the rich.

CTA officials handed out a packet with pictures of the four Republican representatives who are standing in the way of the tax extensions getting on the June ballot for statewide referendum--union members were told to find those politicians and convince them to support the extensions.

But rank-and-file activists clearly had different ideas in mind. At several points during the day, groups of students and teachers came together in the central chamber of the Rotunda, chanting "Tax the rich" and "Students first, corporations later," and singing labor anthems. By 4 p.m., California Highway Patrol officers had given orders to disperse three times.

John Gallagher, a CTA member from Fremont in the East Bay, explained what happened:

The state police closed the rotunda off sometime before 3 p.m. This was where the CTA had planned a prayer service of some sort and unity activities at 5 p.m. After teachers had finished their day of lobbying, there was talk of just meeting back at the union's "Camp Inspiration"--some were calling it Camp De-escalation--which was several blocks away from the Capitol.

The CTA initially stuck with the plan and had people go back to the Capitol for the unity activities. But once they realized the student contingent was not on message--extend the current taxes, and nothing more--union officials encouraged people to leave the Capitol.

As I was trying to convince some of the individual teachers to stay, one of the CTA staffers said, "You people have your agenda," and that we weren't going to be here for the long term. This was the same person who also told a large group of students and teachers that our chant, "Tax the rich! That will fix the deficit!" was isolating some of our members.

When I told her I was a teacher from Fremont and asked her what she meant by "you people," she went off on how the students had taken over "our" rally. In the end, about 20 to 30 CTA teachers stayed in the Rotunda area, and a few were arrested.

Ragina Johnson, a socialist activist from San Francisco, gave a similar account:

CTA staffers literally pulled their members from the rally, and one of them even slapped one activist, Kitty Lui, while calling her the b-word, because the whole crowd started chanting "CTA--where you at?" as they were leaving. Union leaders also gave no support to those of us who were arrested while we endured up to 12 hours in the county jail. This showed how much the CTA's leadership wanted the event to stay "on message" and not veer towards any criticism of Brown and support for taxing the rich.

That said, the action was amazing and so inspiring. It made a difference to all the teachers who participated to get arrested in solidarity with the students, and vice versa. The teachers who stayed were disgusted that the CTA left young people hanging after the union leaders were the ones who called for an occupation in the first place.

ABOUT 25 teachers were among those arrested, including the leadership of the Oakland Education Association and five members of the Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) caucus of United Educators of San Francisco.

"We were in kept in cramped holding pens with no place to lay down--maybe 30 people crammed into a 20-by-30-foot area," said David Russitano, an EDU member and a middle-school math teacher in San Francisco. "They gave us medical exams and tried to give people TB tests so they could stick us with needles. They gave us the whole run-through, like we would be staying for months for what should have been a cite-and-release arrest."

Those arrested, along with their supporters, argued that civil disobedience was necessary to highlight the high stakes in this struggle. As University of California-Santa Cruz (UCSC) student Courtney Hanson explained, "I'm here in solidarity with all the students, teachers and other workers who are suffering because the people at the top of the hierarchy won't take responsibility for their actions."

Hanson, who came with 100 other UCSC students and planned to stay the night, made it clear that her goals go way beyond extending regressive taxes. "I'm here because of my concern for the children of the future--for my children," she said. "Right now, the future doesn't look good, but as a collective, we can change that. People have to understand that revolution is a process. It can be frustrating, but you have to keep going."

Hanson was not the only activist at the Capitol with solidarity on her mind. Berkeley Federation of Teachers member Lorna Cross described herself as a "spokesperson for the kids. Teachers have to advocate for students, who get less and less. They are our future--the future of America or wherever they will end up going if we let America get too messed up. Somebody needs to speak for them; sometimes their parents can't."

The situation is dire. Republicans have proposed $28 billion in cuts, while Brown, a Democrat, wants cuts of $13 billion--but Brown's proposal depends on the passage of the regressive tax extension.

By putting forward the demand "tax the rich," activists took a stand against both the Republican and Democratic versions of austerity to demand a free and fully funded public education for all.

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