WW interview with youth leader: Country-wide struggle unites students, workers, community

Published Mar 7, 2010 11:12 PM

Hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and other education workers demonstrated, rallied, sat in and marched across the United States on March 4. Protesting cuts in education budgets and layoffs, they raised the powerful demand that education is a right of the working class. A national leader of this action is Larry Hales of the youth organization Fight Imperialism, Stand Together. Hales had mobilized for the national action and co-chaired a rally of 2,000 people outside New York Gov. David Paterson’s office in midtown New York City. Hales spoke with Workers World managing editor John Catalinotto and explained the issues propelling this new movement, how the mobilization grew and what’s next.

Larry Hales co-chairs rally in New York<br>March 4.
Larry Hales co-chairs rally in New York
March 4.
WW photo: John Catalinotto

Workers World: What were the issues driving this massive student-led demonstration?

Larry Hales: The movement to defend education comes at a critical time. Youth unemployment, at depression levels for a long time among young people of color, has again spiked drastically. In inner city areas the buildings are dilapidated. Functioning schools are being closed and privatized. Young people know they need education to get jobs. The education crisis combines with the economic crisis to compel this struggle.

People in the streets are questioning the system. They raise “education is a right” and they see they are being denied that right. Unemployed youth believe going to school will help them get a job. In New York’s City University [CUNY], enrollment has actually grown as much as 40 percent. Now that right to education is being attacked. This is the main motivation.

How much of the country was involved in the movement?

We have reports of 126 actions in 33 states. There might be more we haven’t heard from yet. There were hundreds of thousands in California alone. In New York 2,000 people rallied outside Gov. Paterson’s office, including a good contingent from the Professional Staff Congress, representing the city university workers and teachers. Most marched to the Fashion Institute of Technology to join an action the Transport Workers Union had organized. Thousands took part.

What was behind the dramatic action of Baltimore high-school students who besieged the detention center?

The Baltimore Algebra Project called this action. The group is a peer-to-peer tutoring organization with a political component. It promotes the interest of students and young people, like fighting school closings and for funding for student and youth jobs.

I had attended a meeting where BAP planned to demand the government take the funds they use to lock people up and use it for jobs. We gave out flyers for March 4. They invited me to meet with them and I did, along with a Workers World Party comrade from Baltimore, Stephen Ceci.

They were pushing a national student bill of rights. A week after we met, they told me they would organize a meeting in front of the Juvenile Detention Center, demanding $100 million to create jobs for young people.

A thousand mainly high-school youths marched on the center; 13 pushed inside and occupied the building. There were no arrests. The youths made their point in this courageous and militant way for jobs, not jails.

This struggle had opened up in California last fall after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced drastic cuts. How did it become a country-wide action?

It piqued interest when people saw large numbers of California students willing to fight. When education workers joined this struggle it provided the push needed to call out people from other parts of the country to defend their rights to education. It couldn’t have happened without the young people in California, where this struggle is most advanced.

We first raised the idea of a national demonstration at a Workers World Party conference in November, at a FIST workshop with 75 students and youths. We had to win people over to the idea, but by the end of the workshop activists there from other organizations picked up the idea with enthusiasm.

We talked to students from CUNY, from Students for Educational Rights at CCNY, the CUNY Campaign to Defend Education; to national leaders of Students for a Democratic Society; to Students Taking Action to Reclaim Education at the University of Maryland and Connecticut Students Against the War.

From then it grew toward a national conference call with 42 people in December. We had found out before that California had planned to call a March 4 statewide action and we successfully motivated that same date for a national action, which was in solidarity with the California action and complementary to it. It was clear that the action had potential.

What role did FIST play in building the demonstration?

FIST mobilized actively behind the March 4 national action, playing an especially strong role in New York City, North Carolina, Detroit, Cleveland and Boston. Connecticut SAW took on building a Web site, and we used the Internet to spread the world. But you can’t build an action like this with the Internet alone.

We issued a national call when the California organizations issued their statewide call, making both calls public around the same time.

I personally traveled and spoke to college and high-school students and other youths in Boston, Michigan, North Carolina, Baltimore and around New York. Everywhere I went, the high-school and college students and their parents were all for it. There was a mood to struggle and a need to do it based on the cuts they all were facing.

What was the role of teachers, other workers and the community?

The Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, K-12 organizations like Teachers for a Just Contract and Grassroots Education Movement in New York; and other organizations of community leaders and educators, like Coalition for Public Education, also were enthusiastic and did a lot of organizing. The powerful Transport Workers Union here had demands that complemented those of the high-school students.

Many students and youth, who may not now be working, come from working-class families and know their future is as workers — if there are jobs. Most youths value their teachers. They don’t want their teachers to lose their jobs or get pay cuts. There was a lot of mutual solidarity.

FIST encouraged this solidarity in our literature and organizing, but the economic crisis was the objective basis for solidarity. Teachers saw the rebellious students as allies. There is even more reason for there to be mutual solidarity as the attacks continue and the movement grows.

In New York, for example, the move to eliminate student passes on subways and buses creates a basis for solidarity between the youths and the workers in the Transport Workers Union, who are threatened with layoffs.

Police tried to pen in the marching youth as they approached the TWU rally at Fashion Institute of Technology. What happened then?

Even as we marched along Lexington Avenue, police tried to confine the marchers to the sidewalk. There wasn’t enough room. We stopped and said we would stay there if we didn’t get the streets. The marchers started shouting, “Whose streets? Our streets.” The police negotiator decided to cede the streets to the marchers.

Near FIT, the youths chanted, “We want unity” with the TWU. The police tried to surround the marchers. Some TWU workers began arguing with the police, saying they wanted the students with the workers. Finally we suggested the students go around the barricades and across the streets to the rally at FIT. Some, who the police blocked with mopeds, managed to cross Seventh Avenue and then cross back to rejoin the rally. They refused to be penned in.

What’s next?

Since March 4 we’ve gotten lots of email messages saying we need to keep the momentum up and call for another day of national action. That’s under discussion.

The May 1 Coalition had participated in our last three meetings in NYC. Many students look to that action, not only to support the initiative of the workers and especially the many immigrant workers in the coalition, but also to include demands from the student movement in the May 1 protest at Union Square.

The students see the need to join with the workers. The May 1 Coalition workers saw the strength of the student movement. We are hoping that the upsurge of the student movement will give a further push to May 1 in 2010, along with the immigrant and other workers.

There may be lots of local actions too. In some states there were lots of arrests — in University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, in California, some in New York, in Texas — and there will be actions in solidarity with the arrested students.

Our next conference call will decide the exact next step. What we saw on March 4 is the desire of young people to revitalize a movement of young students and workers. We plan to go forward in the militant spirit of the March 4 actions to the next steps in the struggle for education and jobs — for youths and for all workers.


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