Thousands of Newark students march against state control of schools

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Grace Tyler and Nicauris Veras address Shabazz students.
Grace Tyler and Nicauris Veras address Shabazz students.

There was a moment during Friday’s student march through Newark–a rare moment when this sometimes desperate city seemed  laced with hope and optimism. About  200 students, mostly from Malcom X. Shabazz High School, had occupied the steps at City Hall and were chanting and singing and enjoying the warm spring day. Then, suddenly, there was an eruption of cheers and many of the Shabazz students rushed into Broad Street because, blocks away, about a thousand more students were marching toward them, most from Science Park. There was a unity not often seen among young people in Newark and, perhaps a sense these young people might actually heal the wounds inflicted on this community by rich, carpetbagging strangers with names like Chris Christie and Cami Anderson.

Thousands of students at City Hall
Thousands of students at City Hall

The moment  persisted as contingents from other high schools–East Side, University, Weequahic, Central, Arts–joined the growing crowd and the young organizers created a force that then moved on, first to the federal building, then to one of the choke points of a city long ago surrounded by highways to keep it isolated–the Route 21 viaduct.

Happily, not angrily, but with the hope someone was finally paying attention, the kids, organized  by the Newark Students Union,  showed they could shut the city down to demand someone listen to their grievances about a school district that was underfunded, racially isolated, and mismanaged by state bureaucrats for 20 years. A school district where rich ideologues from New York City and Montclair could indulge in their rituals of scrubbing the guilt from their souls by creating privatized charter schools that might save a few residents while spurning the needs of most.

The students held the city but then–unlike the days of disruption Chris Christie’s thugs created for Fort Lee–the young people let go of their hold in less than an hour. Because they are not thugs trying to punish errant politicians–but children hoping to save their schools.

“We’re worried about our future,” said Nicauris Veras, a 16-year-old Shabazz junior. Her friend Grace Tyler, 17, also a junior, added: “We don’t want to become a dumping ground for students who can’t get into charters.”

Lorena Oliviera leads crowd in chants
Lorena Oliviera leads crowd in chants

The march and the rallies at City Hall lasted barely more than 90 minutes. All the speakers were students and they didn’t want all that much. Just what students in all high schools want–safe and secure buildings, a rich program, sports and extracurricular activities.

“The proliferation of charter schools is resulting in a degradation of our schools,” said Jhon (sic) Beltran, a 15-year-old sophomore at University. He had spoken to the sea of young people, most of them wearing black, that stretched from the Route 21 viaduct, back for blocks.

Anderson had tried her best to stop the march, ordering her principals to take whatever steps they needed to keep the numbers down. Some schools were circled with security officers. Others held assemblies that lasted for hours. Doors were locked.

Echoing a robo-call released the night before, administrators warned students they would be suspended or barred from their proms or graduations if they joined the walkout.

Newark students walking into traffic at Route 21 ramp
Newark students walking into traffic at Route 21 ramp

“It probably would have been a much bigger crowd without all the threats,” said Roberto Cabanas, an organizer with NJ Communities United who provided guidance for the student marshals keeping the march peaceful.

“But it’s going to get bigger.”

In a way, forces beyond the students themselves–Anderson, for example, and a dismissive media–have dictated what the students have done and will do. Anderson, who has not appeared at a public meeting in 17  months, fuels their energy by acting out the role of a hermit queen who rules as an invisible dictator through a dozen or more highly paid assistants–most of them making $175,000, the top salary of a school superintendent in New Jersey. Although local media was on hand Friday–they could hardly ignore the shut down of  city–they have generally sided with Anderson and dismissed demonstrators as a few cranks not worthy of serious consideration.

Jose Leonardo, vice president of Newark Students Union. speaks to crowd at City Hall
Jose Leonardo, vice president of Newark Students Union. speaks to crowd at City Hall

“We are here, we are doing this, and we will continue to do this until they pay attention,” said Jose Leonardo, a vice president of the Newark Student Union, who spoke to the students.

The demands of the students–an end to reforms like “renew” and “turnaround” that strip the schools of both personnel and programs–are also the demands of others throughout the city. Employee unions. Elected members of the school board. The city’s mayor, Ras Baraka, whose election last year–despite enormous donations given to his opponent by corporate privatizers–was a referendum on Anderson’s and Christie’s policies.

“We have tried democratic means,” said Leonardo, “and we have been ignored.”

Board President Ariagna Perello at Route 21 ramp with students
Board President Ariagna Perello, in yellow top,  at Route 21 ramp with students

Most members of the school board support the students. Ariagna Perello, its newly elected president, was at the viaduct ramp.

“They tried marching on 2 Cedar Street”–school headquarters–“and they marched on City Hall. Now, we have to escalate the change, escalate the chaos,” she said.

The march may have been more important for what the students did not do rather than for what they did. If they had stayed longer, into the rush hour, Newark could have been paralyzed because the Route 21 ramp they blocked with a sit-in controls access to Routes 1 and 9, 22, Interstate 78, and the New Jersey Turnpike.  If they had used Christie as a role model, they could have made the city suffer.

But organizers called it off because they were aware the moment of hope and optimism was passing, sliding into tensions that showed themselves in a small way–the throwing of water bottles by some bystanders at the students.

The generally peaceful march was marred by only one arrest–the first in two years of regular protests. The man arrested was not identified immediately but he was an adult who was trying to persuade the young people throwing water bottles to stop.

Unidentified "peacemaker" led away by Newark police
Unidentified “peacemaker” led away by Newark police

“He was trying to calm things down,” said student Carolina Martins of East Side. “I can’t figure out why he was arrested.” Jose Leonardo, who also witnessed the incident, gave the same account–a peacemaker was busted while the trouble-makers were allowed to leave.

That shows events can spin out of control, despite the best efforts of everyone to keep the peace. The summer approaches. The union contract expires.  Nearly 200 employees will be laid off. Anderson presses on–with two years left in her contract–to impose failed reforms without showing the decency even to talk to those most affected by them.

“I am worried,” said Lorena Oliviera, a 15-year-old sophomore at East Side.”I’m worried about my school. I’m worried about my city.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

19 comments

  1. Tom2

    Thousands of Newark students from different parts of the city marching in peaceful unity….what a beautiful sight…

  2. Aixa Rodriguez

    And history was made by these students. These kids who deserve the same nurturing and support as they grow into adulthood as any other age, are under attack by the very elected officials that are supposed to protect them. One wonders what it is like to choose to be on the wrong side of history as Scami and Crispy Christie are.

  3. Teacher

    I’m so proud of our students. Despite threats of retaliation, they walked out of school, in an organized manner. They have the courage to do what adults have become afraid to do, demonstrate. Revolutions are fueled by the young, and the young men and women of Newark are fueling the change that needs to erupt in education. Cami and her crew need to be stopped from robbing the real public schools to give to the rich, private charter schools. Perhaps Robin Hood and his merry men (and women) will emerge this time in the form of children.

  4. Awilda Rodriguez

    I am ever so proud of these wonderful students of the City of Newark fighting for what they truly deserve and believe in. Bob Keep up the great work with your reporting. I always look forward to reading them.

  5. Becca Fields

    The students were truly impressive. Organized, united, respectful, passionate and strong. I also want to acknowledge the clear support of the mayor who had security and the police set to provide safe passage but not be heavy handed or intrusive. The one arrest aside which I did not see, the police were restrained. This show of support from the Mayor is another sign of his growing commitment to resistance. I am hopeful that continued escalation is coming and will bring about change.

  6. mike

    “A school district where rich ideologues from New York City and Montclair could indulge in their rituals of scrubbing the guilt from their souls by creating privatized charter schools that might save a few residents while spurning the needs of most” – As a teacher in a “renew” school, I can tell you this is exactly what is happening.

    Even funds for basic supplies are being diverted away from all the others NPS schools to support the charter schools instead.

  7. Joe

    In the video from channel 7 ABC News, Bill Ritter “reported” that the mayor said that there was a looting incident and a reporter was attacked? Is that bogus or what? In the text that was under the video, there was no mention of looting or an attack. The video did at least give plenty of time to the students and their concerns but it did interview one angry motorist who said she was late for a needed doctor’s appointment. The video did point out that the protest did not last that long and so the inconvenience to the commuters was not extreme. In any case, bravo to the students for being well informed, well educated on the issues and for having the courage to stage this protest. All the students’ comments that were aired were spot on. They know that charter schools are one big scam and that Cami Anderson is a well paid con artist. http://7online.com/education/students-in-newark-planning-walkout/735946/

    Bob Braun: While I could not see everything that was going on, I was there for the entire march. At South and Broad, I saw some students running into a store. I did not see “looting.” The Star-Ledger reported an incident but was vague about details. The reporter could not nail down what happened–if anything happened. I did not hear from the mayor about looting. I asked his PR man about the arrest and have heard nothing back. I interviewed one motorist who praised the students. I’m sure others were not pleased. Compared to what Christie did in Fort Lee, this was a walk in the park. The students and their organizers were cautious and sensitive to the needs of others. These kids were and have been provoked for months. They were threatened and treated like sheep by administrators who did not have the courage to stand up to the Hermit Queen. As someone who covered civil rights demonstrations, anti-war marches and civil disorders in the 1960s, I can say the students did themselves proud. The more they are ignored by Anderson and the laughable candidate for president–he has low approval ratings because NJ residents want him to stay in NJ. he says–the greater the chance the street demonstrations will morph into something else less palatable. But start thinking of all the things that have been accomplished because a small number of men and women were courageous enough to tick people off and inconvenience them for a few minutes and it’s impossible to fault these students.

  8. Wisdom

    As I read this article I was overcome by tears that would not stop, even if I wanted them to stop. I have read so many comments that the teachers and unions have put the students up to this. The belief, the statement is idiotic and racist. Our students are bright and intelligent. They know when you cut their school budget by 500k -1mil that key people who teach or provide services will not be their to support them. They know they will be in classes with 29+ other students and will be hindered from getting the individualized support they need to master the subject matter. They have formed bonds with teachers and administrators who they know look out for there best interest will now be gone. School is the stabilizing force for many of them and their families. No crisis teachers, no parent liaisons, no attendance counselors or student support personnel to assist students and families in crisis. No music programs, ESL support in some schools. It is insulting for people to think that these students don’t know that their mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, Sunday school teachers and ushers in their local churches worked at 2 Cedar street for years, experienced and qualified were replaced with people who don’t live in the city or contribute to the economy of the city. These students absolutely know what is going on and how it is affecting them. Get out of the Ivory tower. It’s fictional. Come to Newark to see what is really going on. Those of you who are complaining about your tax dollars need to follow the real money trail.

    • lola

      AMEN WISDOM!!! One of the assistant superintendents, Gary biedelman, the dolts who gave teachers in NYC boom boxes that had cameras and microphones in them for spying on teachers , was stationed at west side highs door threatending students, 185k a year, idiots like these need to get cut, not sports and the arts

  9. Michel Fiorillo

    Bob, thank you for the in-depth and respectful coverage that you’ve given these beautiful young people, which they deserve in their efforts to overcome Christie, Anderson, Booker and their apparatchiks.

    The contrast between the honest dignity of the students’ message and the flagrant dishonesty of the so-called reformers could not be more obvious.

  10. booklady

    It’s almost funny that Cami’s minions threatened to revoke prom for student protestors. 1. Do they not realize these issues are more serious than prom? 2. If NSU & NJ Communities United were savvy enuf to execute the registration & trip to AEI in DC for Anderson’s scheduled talk last November, they could plan an AlternaProm if principled protest required.

    • Adrian DeVore

      Newark Public Schools would have to spend time refunding prom deposits to students, lose more deposits (which usually are non-refundable) to the venues hosting these proms, and returning ticket monies to the class funds for these cancelled proms. Furthermore, students and their families, who were planning to attend prom, would have to return their dresses and tuxes to the places of purchase (with a receipt, if not, they are stuck with these items). Transportation, pre-prom dinner, hair styling/barbershop/makeup, floral, photography, and post-prom event costs would also be factored into these impulsive cancellations.

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  13. Allen Patterson

    Because it is Sunday, I will refrain from saying, “dumb ass mayor”. Nevertheless, it was quite disappointing to hear Mayor Ras Baraka speak this morning on WBLS about the educational crisis, Cami Anderson and Newark Public Schools. It is clear that he does not have a plan to regain local control. A listener from Queens called in and criticized his soft approach and suggested that he should be more radical and rather than pleading and kneeling to the powers to be, she was absolutely correct in her assessment of which embodied the spirits of Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell III, ” What’s in your hands?” The only way that the powers to be would yield to our attention is through a radical economic and community involvement approach. The City of Newark contributes $100M+ annually to NPS. If I was mayor I would withhold the city’s contribution to NPS and put that money into an interest bearing escrow account (the state might sue the city and mayor as a result, but, so what) until the state gives the city full control and full funding for at least five years (local economic development must take precedence). As a consequence, this would add to the increasing deficit of the district and the state would either provide more funding to make up the loss (leading to an impact on the state budget) or fight the city in court ( which would cost the city and state legal fees) or punish the city by not providing sufficient aid to the city ( which would not be a good PR move for the governor and his relationship with the state’s largest city). The community involvement unifies churches and civic associations as a colossal force. Some of the big churches (Metropolitan Bapt., St. James AME, Bethany Bapt., New Hope Bapt., and others) have combined budgets exceeding $100M. With the funding from our churches and associations, the city could begin to build and create a new and improved educational environment controlled by the local people and with local dollars. That’s if I was mayor.

    • Ato

      To Allen:
      But you’re not Mayor, and you don’t know exactly all the forces he is fighting to get things done. Plus, you really think that withholding money from the NPS will cause the state to give more? The state and NPS are already reducing funds to the schools. If you haven’t heard. Christie flat funded school districts for a 2nd year. So what makes you think that will actually have an effect? They are already defunding the NPS themselves. Since you are so critical of the Mayor. Help him organize.
      That is what will stop this madness. Organization.

  14. teacher1

    So proud of these high schools! When East Side walked out a few weeks ago, I said that all the high schools have to rally together to send a clear message. Wow! was someone listening to me?? The kids in Newark are just like anywhere else. They believe strongly in things and elect to stand up for themselves. No encouragement from adults is needed or wanted. They can think for themselves. Now- how can the elementary schools can involved somehow?????

  15. Allen Patterson

    To Ato:

    It is apparent that you are a Ras Baraka supporter. And, as such, I’m sure you remember his motto as a mayoral candidate, “when I become mayor, you become mayor”. Well, based on that premise is the basis of my statement. Second, I have been highly involved in Newark and folks who know me will defend my theory. Third, you missed the entire point of economic chaos to challenge the powers to be. Had you carefully read my post and understand the economic status of the state, this approach would cause a negative impact to the district and state. It would have a greater impact if this new alliance of black mayors would do the same in partnership with their local churches and civic associations.

    Do you believe it was wise for the mayor to write a letter to the superintendent (I do not support her actions at all) requesting her resignation knowing that he would be asking the state for aid with Christie as governor?

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