“You can fool some people sometime
But you can’t fool all the people all the time
So now we see the light (What you gonna do?)
We gonna stand up for our rights!”
Bob Marley, “Get Up, Stand Up”
Grand Park in Downtown Los Angeles is quiet and still before 8 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 15. Draped in the morning shadows cast by the iconic City Hall building and other adjacent giants, the park has the amount of activity you might expect early on a weekend. The calm is belied by a small but growing group of red-clad workers, who are busily setting up for what is expected to be an amazing display of power and solidarity. Today, we march. Thousands are taking to the streets of downtown L.A. to stand with United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) against the greed of billionaires and “reformers” who threaten schools in L.A., across California and nationwide.
The March for Public Education is a defiant statement that UTLA is ready to do whatever it takes in its prolonged, contentious struggle with Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent billionaire businessman Austin Beutner. This means that unless a deal is reached in the 11th hour, the 33,000 members of UTLA will go on strike in January for the first time since 1989. Unified by their dedication to each other and neighborhood public schools, UTLA members are ready to walk off the job and onto picket lines to fight for the educational opportunity that all Los Angeles students deserve.
“Today, we are here to advocate for our kids because the future of California is in our classrooms,” said Velia Casillas, a teacher at Canoga Park Elementary School. “We are here to stand up to privatizers. We are educators, we are advocates and we are UTLA strong!”
The Buzz Builds as the Park Fills
Music is the heartbeat of any march, and as the sounds of Bob Marley encouraging us to stand up for our rights permeate the mild morning air, Grand Park is filling with life. Groups of marchers arrive steadily, unconsciously walking to the beat and wearing shirts that represent where they’ve come from to be here today. Crossing Grand Park away from the speakers playing protest tunes spun by DJ Magic Marker and toward the brass band playing a lively rendition of “Seven Nation Army,” I can feel the energy in the park building. There are probably a couple thousand people here and it’s already obvious something special is going to happen today. Nearly everyone I see has the same look on their face, excited for the brilliant explosion of solidarity to come.
It’s a little after 9 a.m. when I notice people arriving in big bursts from incoming Metro trains. I stand at the entrance to the park opposite the subway station and watch a few red shirts multiply and grow into a mass of red waiting for traffic signals to change until they burst and stream another 500 marchers and their energy across the street and into the rally. Old friends and new greet each other with hugs and high fives as this mass enters the park, while another group begins amassing on the other side of the street and waits to join the experience. It feels like after a year of watching the inspiring movements of the Educator Uprising from West Virginia to Arizona, teachers here are excited to rise together and proclaim that we also stand united, #RedForEd, with each other, for schools, our professions and the belief that we must do better for our students.
West Virginia Educators Sparked ‘the Fire of Revolution’
West Virginia educators shocked the country when they went on strike in late February to demand higher wages and lower healthcare costs. Their solidarity and commitment to each other and their students during the nine-day strike inspired similar walkouts in states across the country in the following months. I had the chance to meet a couple of these educators at the Labor Notes Conference in April, sitting on the floor in a packed basement room with tears streaming down my face listening to their inspiring story. West Virginia teacher Jay O’Neal says the sight of thousands in L.A. streets marching in support of educators is moving.
“It is so inspiring and hopeful to see that many people out in support of public schools and teachers,” O’Neal said. “It’s incredible to see how the fire from a tiny little spark of teachers and school service personnel being fed up enough to walk out of their schools has spread all over the country.”
And just as educators nationwide have been stirred by their tales of unity, West Virginia teacher Brendan Muckian Bates said the courage and fight of teachers in UTLA inspire him as they carry on their fight for public school resources in the Mountaineer State.
“To see the mass mobilization that has occurred in L.A. is an inspiration to all of us who are hoping to continue organizing now post-walkout,” he said. “I remember when we heard about Oklahoma teachers gearing up for their walkout after us, and so many of our organizers felt that our actions were the right call because the fire of revolution had spread.”
Alex Caputo-Pearl Leads a Movement
When UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl stands front and center during the pre-march rally, the roar of the crowd welcomes the 22-year educator. It’s reminiscent of a stadium that explodes into cheers when their all-star first baseman is introduced, just before hitting a three-run shot to end the game. Caputo-Pearl outlines where they stand after 20 months of negotiations, from L.A. Unified’s record $1.98-billion reserves to their expensive consultants and countless lies. All this with almost no movement at the bargaining table.
Somehow, the crowd gets louder with each point the UTLA president makes. I turn around and everywhere I look is red as far as I can see. The steps in front of L.A. City Hall are thick with marchers, the street where I stand is packed shoulder to shoulder, and not a patch of green grass in Grand Park is visible through the crowd. There are educators, community members, sisters and brothers in labor, and other allies in the struggle all from different backgrounds and experiences bathed in a bright, passionate hue of red in every direction. And I mustn’t forget the kids—this march is full of children, toting their own handmade signs and excitedly adding their voices when the chant goes: “We are the students! The mighty, mighty students!” What a beautiful sight to see the leaders, educators and activists of tomorrow here to witness the power of collective action and the possibility of what we can accomplish when we move as one.
Caputo-Pearl’s words echo through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, resonating with the massive crowd and creating an electric energy as he invokes the teacher uprisings of Arizona.
“What we have here in L.A. is a community uprising,” he proclaims. “Amidst the wealth of Los Angeles, we should not have classes with 45 students. We want a reinvestment in our neighborhood public schools!”
The Arizona educators’ strike, from April 26 to May 3, happened for exactly that reason—because elected officials refused to provide adequate funding for public schools (along with denying support staff the raise they offered teachers). Arizona teacher Rebecca Garelli is one of the founders of Arizona Educators United, which started the #RedForEd movement that spread across the country and organized the teacher uprising to fight for Arizona public schools, packing Phoenix streets this spring with 75,000 educators and supporters. She says that seeing the more than 50,000 marching today solidifies that UTLA is continuing the historic #RedForEd movement to stand and fight for public education.
“I had anxiously been waiting for the march to happen today for quite a while, and it was incredibly inspiring and exciting to see educators in LA using their collective voice and demonstrating their power and the will to fight for the schools our students deserve—just as Arizona educators did in spring,” Garelli said. “Teachers across the nation are finally, and rightfully, standing up and joining together to fight the aggressive agenda to defund public education in all of our states. I am incredibly proud and inspired by my fellow educators and fellow union members because we all collectively understand that this is part of a much bigger scheme to privatize our schools and drain funds from public education.”
‘Billionaires Can’t Teach Our Kids’
The march is getting underway and I am near the front of what will snake around downtown, through the Third Street Tunnel and end outside The Broad, the museum of billionaire businessman and school privatization funder Eli Broad. The corporate charter schools that have drained precious funds from L.A. Unified enjoy favor with self-described “reformers” like Broad, the Walton family and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who are trying to dismantle public education. As we leave Grand Park, the crowd begins chanting “Billionaires can’t teach our kids!” and “Privatizers, take a hike! Education is a right!” The pace is brisk for a march, like everybody wants to get to The Broad as quickly as possible to give old, rich Eli a piece of their minds. Audrey Greene, a teacher at the Communication and Technology School at Diego Rivera Learning Complex, said she’s ready to fight for L.A. public schools.
“We’re ready to strike. We’re not backing down,” Greene said. “Bottom line, our profession isn’t respected.”
The march pauses and a chant starts that would make labor legend Dolores Huerta smile, as “huelga, huelga, huelga” echoes through the late-morning air. It continues in English, with a unified “strike, strike, strike” as the march heads into the Third Street Tunnel. As we enter the tunnel, the chants begin reverberating, louder and louder, combining with the sounds of whistles and cowbells and vuvuzelas into a deafening cacophony of bone-rattling solidarity.
“When our schools are under attack, what do we do? Stand up! Fight back!” I feel like I’m shouting at the top of my lungs, yet I cannot hear my own voice. The tunnel is reflecting the sound every which way and I can literally feel the power of our combined voices. I have participated in many marches, rallies, actions and uprisings, and I have never had an experience like this — people stand in lines at amusement parks for the adrenaline rush of these moments. I look up and notice CTA President Eric Heins only about 10 feet ahead of me. Almost as if he heard my thoughts, Eric turns around and our eyes meet. Acknowledging the sheer energy of the moment, the mind-numbing loudness and staggeringly beautiful solidarity, we both break out into massive grins almost simultaneously. I snap a photo, capturing his joy.
Power of Art on Display
Protests and rallies in the last couple years have seen an increase in creative signs and other uses of art, but this march is the first where I’ve seen it on parachutes and muslin. Utilizing original creations from local artists, volunteers screen-printed the thousands of signs that bounced along the march route during an art build last weekend. Community art is a huge part of Los Angeles culture and these signs capture the emotion of the struggle, the dedication of educators, and the importance of winning our fight. Marchers brought their own creations as well, which were creative, incisive and touching. The homemade signs are icebreakers of sorts, with marchers stopping each other to snap pictures of their favorites to show friends and family at home. In addition to the different types of visual art, there are dancers, drummers and the UTLA Marching Band for Public Education. This mosaic of creation, these expressions of frustration and hope and defiance, are being posted to social media accounts and shared worldwide even in the midst of this march. These will be the lasting images of this event, when the community stood with educators in the streets and declared #WeAreLA.
From Oakland to L.A., it’s California Love
I met Keith Brown on the corner of Seventh and Market streets in West Oakland on Tuesday when I joined teachers from Oakland Education Association (OEA), who held 60-minute demonstrations in locations throughout the city in an action they call the Hour of Power. That day, Brown told me that OEA and UTLA have a lot in common, the most pressing of which is that they’re both standing on the precipice of historic strikes — OEA is about to enter “fact-finding” with Oakland Unified — to fight for the public schools their communities deserve. Today, the OEA president is here in Los Angeles, helping hold a banner at the front of the march with UTLA leaders.
“The OEA stands united with UTLA. Both Oakland and Los Angeles have suffered the unregulated growth of charter schools. Our vision for public education is that our children deserve full-service community schools with wraparound services,” Brown says. “We are prepared to take a strike if necessary to end the teacher retention crisis in Oakland. It’s inspiring to see we are not alone in this fight.”
At the closing rally, UTLA Secretary Arlene Inouye echoes Brown’s desire for fully funded schools. She says that L.A. Unified’s claims of financial issues are a matter of being “broke on purpose.” As the bargaining chair, she outlined some of UTLA’s demands: class size caps, a nurse at every school, a living wage for educators, teacher-librarians at middle schools and charter school accountability.
“Not only does LAUSD have the money but they must invest in our schools, our students and our educators now,” Inouye said. “We know what is at stake: The very heart and soul of education.”
The closing rally features inspiring speeches by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and NEA Vice President Becky Pringle, who captivates the crowd when she quotes Bishop Desmond Tutu: “I wish I could shut up, but I can’t and I won’t” in promising the support of the country’s educators as UTLA readies for a strike.
“You are not alone!” Pringle said. “Three million NEA members — the largest labor union in the country — are right here with you!”
UTLA a Coiled Snake as January Approaches
Delivering his closing remarks to what he announces are 50,000 people in attendance today, UTLA President Caputo-Pearl says the march shows the power of collective action, and he vows to continue marching forward with his fellow educators, no matter what it takes to win the resources schools need and the respect teachers deserve. His voice raises, straining at times, as he delivers a passionate plea.
“Who’s ready to fight for the nurses, counselors and class sizes our students need? Who’s ready to fight for educational justice? Who is ready to win the schools L.A. students deserve?” Caputo-Pearl said, reminding me of his words earlier this morning. “If we are forced to strike, it will be because we think our kids deserve more. Because we dare to have high expectations. Because we dare to be audacious about all of our kids’ futures. If we are forced to strike, it will also be a strike of hope. And there is hope in the air, make no mistake.”
As the march ends, the first couple notes of the closing song let me know I’m not leaving without shedding a few tears. And considering what we’ve all experienced marching together today, this labor anthem couldn’t be more appropriate:
“When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
But the union makes us strong.
For the union makes us strong.”