Notes on 2006
2006 marked an astounding year for street activism in Los Angeles. With the draconian Sensenbrenner Bill looking to squash immigrant and workers’ rights, people responded in ways not seen in the US since the Great Depression. For weeks, there were rolling student walk-outs from middle and high schools throughout the region. A general strike was called and adhered too on May Day leading to a virtual standstill of business in areas throughout LA. An estimated million people attended the massive rallies. These events might be seen in the light of the precarity actions elsewhere, perhaps not. What is also extraordinary of course is how the actions were organized both spontaneously and with the help of mass media.
Artist and teacher Ami Motevalli attempted to collect from students stories from these historic events. Read her student's reflections here..
In 2006, I was teaching Art and creating integrated curriculum at a small charter school in central Los Angeles. We served the Korea Town, Macarthur Park and Pico-Union areas. I was one of the founding teachers at this school that we designed as a school for "social justice", modeled after Zapatista education, Freedom Schools and the Oakland Community School. Our students were predominantly children from immigrant families of Mexico and Central America. Most of our students also came from families who ere involved in leftist struggles in their countries, who had to leave because their lives were in danger. I loved this about our families, because my own migration story was close, my family fled an oppressive King and his regiem and came here to work and survive.
Part of my own education was in Iran, where planning and structure within a classroom was vital. It allowed us as students to use all of our time in the classroom on learning. I apply this to my own pedagogy today. For my art classes, I created a daily plan for a 50-minute period that went like this;
*5 minutes to settle in
*5 minutes to "set it off" (students would take turns standing in front of the class and calling out "All Power to the People" with his/her fist in the air and we would respond in the same way as a group. This was a sort of energy release and affirmation that we are the people and are capable of self-determination)
*10 minutes of silent journal entry (journal topics were put up on the board and students would draw and explain, these were only read by me, so they became a dialogue between each student and myself)
*25 minutes of class project
*5 minutes to clean up
On one particular day of walk outs, I had heard the buzz of our students planning to leave. The journal entry that day was "What are your feelings about a school walkout? Draw and Explain"
Just before this, students had been taking stands throughout the Alameda corridor, in South Gate, Jefferson, Locke, Jordan, Lynwood. The organizers were youth who were talking to each other and spreading the word via relatives, myspace, etc. I remember going to work on a day that our students had been buzzing about a walkout and it was cold and pouring rain. Throughout first period students were asking me if I would walk out that day. My answer was "If I was a student, YES! As a teacher, I want to, but if there are students who stay, I have to be here for them"
Second period –
We set it off really loud. During our journal time, I started to hear rumbling in the halls. Students kept looking up and whispering to each other. The same question came up as in first period and so was my answer. My students kept staring at me as if they were waiting for me to say "go ahead, walk out", but I couldn't do that. This stand had to be chosen by each child, their passion, politic. In pedagogical terms, Agency.
I unusually announced to the class that I would be going to get supplies in the closet. I stayed in there for about five minutes. When I came out, half of the class was gone. The rest of the class was silent and kept staring at me. I turned my back and wrote on the board without turning back for a very long time. Another few were gone. Those of us who stayed got together and had a discussion about all that we were feeling about the walkouts that day, the walkouts before and what may be ahead. My feeling and what I heard was that the rage that was bubbling in so many of us wasn't just about the laws that threatened. It was about on-going institutional brutality, poverty, health, survival, food and lack of, land and theft of, dignity and it's destruction, and constant confrontation of white supremacist hatred that manifested itself in far too many ways, even in our own mirrors.
We were very worried about the students who walked out of our school. Our kids were much younger (10-14 years old) than most of the other students involved. Some of the students ran back and said that the administrators were standing at the doors and trying to stop them. They told me that students were being threatened with calls home, expulsion and calling police if they did walk out (let me remind everyone that we were a "social justice" charter and supposed to create alternatives to repressive tactics to control students). The administration started to call our parents, but most of the parents said that they were proud of their children. Some parents even said that our school should have planned a collective march in solidarity.
A few teachers decided to follow the students who walked out to make sure they were safe. Our students walked to every march they could and were greeted by supportive high school students. They got back to our school in the late afternoon. Everyone was soaking wet. Student came running to me and gave me wet hugs. Some of the parents who worked in our kitchen made hot tea so the kids could warm up.
As our students were recounting their revolutionary adventures there was a very different look of determination on their faces. I felt so honored at that moment to be a part of my students' lives and experience this growth. It felt at that moment that things would not be the same, that we were moving toward a unified ideology and action. I was hyped; I wanted to hear all the details.
Meanwhile the admin came out and started telling the students that they would be punished. They said that the students were irresponsible, careless and just wanted an excuse to ditch. They even went on to point out the black students who walked out and said that they had no business walking out, that this "isn't your issue". Our ex hippie, former civil rights attorney "director" went on to say that he knew that me and another teacher were responsible for inciting the students and he had plans to discipline us.
These were the contradictions- young people from the most oppressed communities of southern California were taking the streets demanding equality and humanity for themselves, their families and their neighbors but not supported by most of LA's "progressives". The true politics of many began to show. The traditional left of LA was not only absent, but also began to show their fears of losing power at this crucial moment of change in LA.
The numbers that came out on March 25th of 2006 were amazing. The whole world was looking at LA. We had that whole next month to dialogue at the school. We decided to call May Day a holiday that year and close the school. May day was always my favorite holiday and that year, I designed a poster for Self Help Graphics to be passed out at the march. I really was beginning to believe that my dream of an autonomous LA within the belly of the beast was about to come true.
Sadly by May 1st, professional organizers from non-profits, plump with government and corporate money, had gotten to many and convinced folks that the change came from within the American way and that everyone should carry American flags. The marchers were prepped with sound bites of just wanting the "American Dream". I saw so much red, white and blue; I thought it was the Fourth of July, not international workers day.
All right, my dream was sabotaged, but I rely in this… I saw the look in my students' eyes… so look out LA, look out ugly beast with a big belly. As Fanon wrote, "For the last shall be the first".