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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”