Challenging politics as usual

March 5, 2012

Berkeley teacher and union activist Dana Blanchard and Bay Area activist Ragina Johnson look ahead to a day of demonstrations at the Capitol building.

CALIFORNIA STUDENTS, teachers, union members and community organizations will converge on the Capitol building in Sacramento March 5 to oppose drastic cuts in education and other parts of the bipartisan drive by Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers to solve the state's budget crisis at the expense of working people.

The demonstrations in Sacramento come in the wake of a day of action for education on Thursday, March 1 that saw protests and actions across California and in other states. One theme sounded at many demonstrations was the need to take our message to the politicians in Sacramento.

March 5 was the date set for the annual "March in March" rally and lobby day organized by the University of California Student Association and other statewide student groups.

The main activity of the day for these organizations will be a march and 11 a.m. "Fund Our Futures" rally on the Capitol steps that will be addressed by state Democratic Party leaders, such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. But Newsom supports Brown's budget proposal, with its further cuts to a host of programs, from education to health care--along with the threat of more than $5 billion in "trigger cuts" hitting schools if his plans for temporary tax increases is rejected.

Demonstrating against education cuts outside the Capitol building in Sacramento
Demonstrating against education cuts outside the Capitol building in Sacramento

This year, hundreds of people will come to Sacramento with a plan to challenge the Democrats' support for slightly less extreme budget cuts--and to take their demands inside the Capitol building.

This grassroots day of action is being organized by Occupy Education, which came together during the fall of last year. It was organized by some veterans of the anti-budget cuts movement, but also drew many new people from campuses and community Occupy General Assemblies. The result is a strong coalition of students, union members and community activists, based mainly out of the Bay Area.

With endorsements from several major California unions, Occupy Education will hold a People's Assembly on the Capitol grounds at the same time as the official Fund Our Futures rally--as a space for students, teachers and other public-sector workers to talk about their issues and present an alternative to the austerity agenda that Democrats and Republicans both agree on, despite their differences over the details.

Later, at 1:30 p.m., Occupy Education supporters plan to take their message directly to state lawmakers with plans for an occupation of the Capitol itself. Occupy activists intend to convene a General Assembly in the center of the state government. Whether the occupation will continue past March 5 is an open question, but activists are determined to make sure their voices and vision are heard inside the Capitol.

THOSE OF us going to the capital as part of Occupy Education have two main goals for the day. We want a vocal challenge to the austerity agenda for public education and social services supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

But we also want to bring together students from every sector of education and union members for a large action that can put forward an alternative--most prominently, the "tax the rich" initiative for a "millionaire's tax" being put forward as a ballot measure--and provide a forum for discussing the next steps in our struggle.

The ideas that Occupy Education is putting forward go well beyond the mainstream rally planned by the statewide student groups, but our proposals fit with the political mood in California today.

Democratic Gov. Brown is pushing a budget proposal that is highly unpopular. It makes deeper cuts in spending on public health and welfare to close half of the state's multibillion-dollar budget deficit, and proposes a referendum for temporary tax increases that will hit working people hardest to fill the rest of the gap. If Brown's tax proposals are rejected by voters, his only answer is more "trigger cuts," focused most of all on education.

Brown's slash-and-burn budget is deeply unpopular, even among officeholders in his own party--and especially among the unions that got Brown elected in 2010.

The California Federation of Teachers and California Nurses Association have joined together to sponsor a "millionaire's tax" initiative. The proposal hasn't qualified for the ballot, though it seems likely to. If it does, it will be the only 100 percent progressive tax measure up for consideration in November. Polls show the "millionaire's tax" is supported by close to 70 percent of voters, dwarfing the backing for Brown's tax plan.

At the California Democratic Party Convention last month, Brown barely mentioned his tax plan. He has been challenged by articles in mainstream publications like the San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee that highlight how the "millionaire's tax" is in line with what the majority of Californians want right now.

That's why it's a wasted opportunity for the Fund Our Futures rally to turn over the microphone to leading Democrats like Newsom, who will shill for Brown's budget.

We hope the People's Assembly planned for the same time will draw energy and participation from the students and teachers in Sacramento for the "March in March" rally, as well as those coming with groups like ReFund California and Occupy Education. This is a real chance to connect with the sentiment sparked by the Occupy movement for an alternative to a world run by the 1 percent--and to take a step forward for the Occupy movement as well by bringing back the mass character of its protests from last fall.

Above all, Occupy Education's plans for March 5 will be focused on putting forward concrete demands that are widely popular--like taxing the rich, stopping school closures and teacher layoffs, and maintaining affordable education and social services for the 99 percent.

THE CAPITOL occupation plan for later in the day is another opportunity for a concrete alternative to liberal strategies that accept the Democrats and their policies as the limits of what's "realistic."

Occupy Education activists will hold a General Assembly inside the Capitol to be a democratic space to discuss and vote on what we want and on next steps for our movement. What else this occupation can accomplish--for example, if it can be continued after the building is scheduled to close down--will depend on assembling hundreds of people to participate, including students, union members and other activists.

Outside the Capitol, there will be sign-up tables with hundreds of millionaire's tax petitions. The Sacramento Labor Council has called a 5:30 p.m. BBQ and rally to support people who are planning on occupying the Capitol. This will provide a space for people who are not going inside to congregate in solidarity.

The proposal for a Capitol occupation on March 5 gained special momentum because of the support among unions and their members.

The main driving force behind Occupy Education has been the union for graduate student employees at the University of California. The radical caucus of the union that won elections last year has brought energy, organization and material resources into the movement against budget cuts.

Grad employees union members helped build alliances for March 5 with other forces, like ReFund California and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). ACCE, for example, has been the leading organization in the fight against evictions and foreclosures with activists from the Occupy movement. In the Bay Area, this has produced some amazing victories in keeping people in their homes over the last few months.

Because of the alliances built up by Occupy Education, larger unions like the California Federation of Teachers and Service Employees International Union Local 1021 have endorsed the call for the occupation and the push in support of the millionaire's tax--SEIU Local 1021 is sending 20 buses to Sacramento. The Alameda and San Francisco Central Labor Councils are also endorsers.

Occupy Education participants will face challenges in carrying out the occupation plan. The police will be ready, and they have grown more confident in cracking down since the coordinated attack on the Occupy movement. Organizers of the Democratic Party-supported Fund Our Futures rally have openly opposed plans for the Capitol occupation.

Moreover, the last several months of Occupy movement activities have underlined the dangers of a small core of activists acting in isolation from broader support and focusing on confrontations with police regardless of the balance of forces. In Oakland, in particular, a lack of clarity about tactics and strategy has contributed to a backlash against the movement.

Occupy Education won't be helped if a small group of protesters, in defiance of the majority, decide that they will try to continue the occupation after hours, no matter what--even if it's clear that our forces aren't large enough to succeed.

But the wide support for the call to occupy the Capitol, including among important parts of the labor movement, shows the widespread desire to take action in support of an alternative to plans for more austerity from both Democrats and Republicans alike. If hundreds of people decide to participate in the action and take a stand, this could inspire broader organizing around the state, and other occupations across the country.

Whether or not a successful, after-hours occupation of the Capitol happens, we want the message of the day to be clear: growing numbers of people are opposed to the continuing bipartisan attack on our schools and government programs in California--and they're ready to rally, to march and to participate in protest actions.

The movement has many possibilities ahead of it. We're looking forward to hearing discussion at the GA inside the Capitol on a proposal for a statewide conference against the cuts, and another for a statewide day of action based on the demand that Brown drop his tax initiative and budget cuts, and endorse the millionaire's tax instead.

We also need to discuss how we can organize and protest to oppose fee hikes in the state colleges and universities, to win relief from crippling student debt, to stop local schools from closing, and to defend educators who are facing the threat of more pink slips in the coming days.

March 5 can be a challenge to politics as usual in California--as practiced by the Republicans and Democrats who both support austerity, but also by liberal organizations that defend the policies of Democrats, even when they impose harsh cuts.

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