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My Reflections on the 2019 Oakland Teacher Strike by Nathaniel Bates

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                        My Reflections on the 2019 Oakland Teacher Strike

                                                Nathaniel Bates

            In 2019 I worked as a Physics teacher at Oakland Technical High School.  The year was a year that I participated in a strike that shook much of Oakland.  Much like France in 1789 or 1968, vague talk of change preceded the action.  We discussed for months what the strike would look like and how we hoped it would change a dysfunctional educational system into something that would benefit ourselves, students, the community in ways that would prioritize none and ennoble all. 

            The strike was preceded by a spectacular display of student walkouts and teacher days of action.  Coinciding with the strike was a parallel movement by the Oakland Civil Rights community to save 24 schools from being closed and merged with other schools.  I participated with other teachers in protests and actions to stop these school closures.  As the strike loomed I still had to grade papers, engage with parents, call Counselors, and please Principals. 

            The strike began in earnest when communications with the District broke down.  Our walkouts did not work.  Our solidarity actions went nowhere.  Our pleadings with the School Board were met with mockery.  The strike was inevitable even if its outcome was uncertain.  On the first day of the strike we met in front of the school to the rousing music of social protest.  We heard “Fight the Power” from Public Enemy to rouse us to righteous indignation.  Protest music as a long history from Beethoven and the French Revolution to Woody Guthrie, from Jefferson Airplanes to Hip Hop, IWW songs to Punk Rock.  The unifying theme is the idea that ordinary people can stand in a place of liminality in any social structure.  Teachers can stand up to the School Board.  Students can stand up for themselves.  People from the community will stand up to the structures that hold them back.  Liminality in a living state of insurrection beats alienated revolutionary eschatology any time!

            The strike lasted seven short, bitter-sweet days during which time I met many people with diverse perspectives from the religious, progressive, radical and liberal communities.  I met someone who knew the great intellectual Schachtman.  I met others who worked in dead end jobs in Silicon Valley and who wanted to reach beyond themselves to meet other workers in solidarity.  I met students, some of them mine, who linked themselves to our struggle.  I met police who did not interfere with our rights.  I marched through the State Building, an imposing symbol of power, with other teachers shouting protest slogans.  We had bands perform for us.  We even stood up to our own leadership when they attempted to break away from us as Union Reps and form their own power base.  We shut down the School Board twice, filling us with a sense of power that we could stand up for ourselves against that ominous symbol of power linked with sacrosanct moralism.

            At the end of seven days, our District and the Union imposed a settlement on us.  Radical liminality ended and normal power relations resumed.  We voted on the contract and those of us who opposed it lost.  We would be returning to work, like it or not, without much change.  A number of us protested that the reforms offered were too moderate and that many schools would still be closed.  It was to no avail.  The Union leadership threatened us with the prediction that refusing the deal offered would mean an imposed contract.  The efforts of the most dedicated Strike captains were not exactly in vain but it did not extend as far as we had hoped.  We won, but only so far and the disappointment left us disenchanted.

            I learned something from this experience.  I learned that my vision was wider than that offered by the “realists.”  I learned that the Union leadership was too wedded to the liberal technocratic state, and that I myself leaned more and more in a radical direction.  I do not consider myself a Marxist or an Anarchist.  In the tradition of Groucho Marx, I reject any club that would have me as a member.  I do not accept labels, period.  I would probably define myself more as an Autonomist since that philosophy is the most permeable to a plurality of perspectives.  But I no longer have a whole lot of faith that “representative democracy” will be anything more than a coalition of compromises presided over by a meritocracy of opportunists.  My hope now is in the direct actions of real constituent assemblies holding in common the most direct democracy possible. 

            The hope of the protest was the hope in liminal insurrection, not in reform or violent revolution.  The latter two are the dead dream of intellectuals.  In the context of education, they often privilege Universities intellectuals and Professors above the teachers in High School.  Both give so-called experts and political leaders the power that they have in society, and Professors the privileged position they hold among teachers.  Alienated forms of political discourse privilege Union leaders in the case of reformers, or else vanguards in the case of revolutionaries.  I contrast both with the ideal of liminal insurrection, which allows for maximum participation in the moment and that continues social change as a network of relationships or exploration and wonder.  It levels hierarchies and puts Professors on the same level as other teachers.  It is what will sustain our movement long after any one particular strike because it is rooted in a revived organic order.  It will provide the hope of an education system transformed in *our* image and not in that of the School Board or Charter Schools.   I do not know what this revival of the human spirit will look like.  The Sixties and the Occupy movement may have come close.  But I know that we need it.

I do not suggest that any one philosophy holds all answers, including “liminal insurrection.”  Nor am I any kind of living embodiment of this philosophy (Groucho Marx again).  For one thing, I know that I ignored the issue of student power and my own position of privilege in the classroom.  That issue I have no real answers for, and realize that students themselves will have to be the ones to negotiate that issue.  What I can say is that I hope our next strike will be a movement of all of us as leaders, including students.  This is what I learned from this strike, my own personal 1848.  Like 1848, 2019 was my personal magical year that rivers went uphill, but the year that I also learned that wishing was not enough to overcome gravity. 

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