With the threat of heavy downpours and thunderstorms, a few hundred activist from the Philadelphia area greeted governor Tom Corbett at the Prince Theater on Chestnut Street in downtown Philly. Around 4 o’clock in the afternoon on May 15th, Anne Gemmell, a political organizer for Fight for Philly, shouted, “ROLL OUT THE RED CARPET,” and the festivities began. Six activists, yours truly included, lay down on the red carpet while local business bigwigs from the Philadelphia Greater Chamber of Commerce poured into the paid event to listen to Governor Corbett’s neo-liberal ideology, which included “trimming the belt” from social services and making Pennsylvania more “business-friendly” to big investors.
The street theater outside the Prince provided local millionaires–God forbid–a minor setback in their daily routine. Wearing their thousand dollar suits and dresses, donned with gold cuff links and jewelry to match the attire, the elite of the elite held their noses up high with smug facial expressions that stopped just short of saying “Let them eat cake!”
The action of becoming physically part of the “1%er’s Red Carpet” confronted the business leaders with the stark realities the poor and working class have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. The 300 or so demonstrators brought grievances revolving around the complete annihilation of the Pennsylvania General Assistance program, the increased funding of the prison budget, and the attack on and corporatization of the public school system.
As the event was winding down, activists accompanied by Magic Music Marching Band, based in the Kingsessing section of Philadelphia, planned on meeting Governor Corbett at the back exit of the Prince. After half an hour of pounding drums and chanting “Corbett, Corbett you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side!” and “We’re fired up and we can’t take it no more!,” an Occupy Philadelphia activist led protesters and the marching band to the other end of Samson Street. Protesters had effectively shut down Chestnut Street between 15th and Broad Streets and 15th Street between Chestnut and Walnut Streets. The action caused a major rush hour traffic jam in part because officers spent the afternoon diverting Chestnut street traffic to 15th street, a one way street that directs traffic past Samson Street. When the demonstrators made it to 15th and Samson, the Philadelphia Strike Force unit greeted the protesters with bike lines thwarting protesters attempts to completely block the theater’s exit.
For almost an hour, demonstrators stood directly in front of the bike line, chanting, conversing with one another, and listening to the amazing drum beats provided by the marching unit. The standoff with police line lasted until Governor Corbett had to squirm past the demonstrators. The governor’s driver traveled half-way down Samson towards the blocked intersection of 15th and Samson, but then pulled a three-point-turn, drove the wrong way down the one-way street, and escaped protesters. Shortly after the governor’s exit, protesters resumed activities, which included dancing to the “Electric Slide” in front of the Prince Theater. The standoff resulted in no arrests
The time between the red carpet action and blocking the intersection of 15th and Samson Streets, I had the opportunity to interview members of the 99%. What drew the ire of many protesters was the devastating attacks on public education. The most recent attacks by the School Reform Commission (SRC) is forcing the city to close 40 public schools and start the dissolution of the Philadelphia School District all the while increasing prison budgets [see Rick Smith's interview with Helen Gym of Parents United in this issue of Raging Chicken Press for more on the attack on Philadelphia public schools]. While I was interviewing people in the street, Tom Corbett was on the inside showing off his hubris, stating that he cancelled the 200 million dollar construction of a new prison, and that the protesters “should get their facts straight.”
The dissolution of the Philadelphia Public School District and the conversion of the remaining public schools to charter schools in the next 5 years is seen by the protesters and many Philadelphians as nothing short of profiteering on the backs of African-American and minority communities. The SRC’s plan will be detrimental to the communities in which those schools are located, detrimental to the overall education and students’ preparedness for college, and detrimental to good, solid middle-class jobs. In short, many protesters see the SRC’s plan as a thinly disguised union-busting tactic.
Nicole Hunt, a resident of North Philadelphia and the Secretary Treasure for Unite Here Local 634, and Heidi Hoskins, a Masterman High School teacher, expressed their concerns about how these cuts will affect the communities. The schools that are slated to be closed over the next year are located in West, Southwest and North Philadelphia, all of which have the highest percentage of poverty, crime and minorities in the city. When I was speaking to Mrs. Hunt about Governor Corbett’s education cuts and how the steepest cuts went to school districts around the state with the highest percentage of minorities and poverty, she replied that the cuts “don’t affect the rich.” “[The cuts] affect the poor people, the people who are trying to make it own their own.” When I asked Mrs Hoskins if charter schools are profiteering on the backs of the African and minority communities, her response was damning. She explained that “[the state] is targeting Philadelphia, as opposed to suburbs…where schools are not being are not being touched.”
The communities that will be most affected by these cuts are in West, Southwest and North Philadelphia. These areas have some of the hardest streets in all of Philadelphia. Yet, the public schools have been one of the few bright spots for the community. The public schools provide services to the community above and beyond their educational mission: a place for children to play sports and/or participate in after-school programs. Mrs Hunt explained that residents of North Philadelphia and other parts of the city are worried about the abandoned school buildings because “drug addicts use abandoned buildings for their needs,” and vagrants or homeless people may squat in the buildings. Susan Dejarnatt, a West Mount Airy native and public school parent, echoed these same sentiments, but went one step further explaining that “charter schools tend to be in business corridors, and the public schools are in the neighborhood.”
Over 10 years ago, the SRC was created to bring charters into the city. The plan from the beginning was to set the school districts up for failure and to bust the unions inside the school district. Mrs. Hoskins argued that charter schools are receiving tax payer money that would otherwise go to the school district, essentially choking the school district dry. Earlier this year, the Philadelphia School District began laying off unionized nurses, guidance counselors, and librarians, labeling all these positions as non-essential for operations. The layoffs will have an effect on children’s education because the shift to charters will only teach kids how to take a standardized test, with a curriculum that guts music and arts (a historical and cultural pillar inside the African community).
Mrs. Dejarnatt explained how the Philadelphia Public School district has been cutting music from their budget for a long time, and how the arts were critical to the success of both of her children. Her child, who is still in the public school system, plays the French horn. Mrs. Dejarnatt made the consequences of the SRC’s plain as day saying “an individual school is not going to be able to come up with a French horn teacher by itself, which is what one my kids plays.” We were also talking about the “All City Orchestra Concert,” and she explained that most of the “runners-up in the competition, I don’t know how many, but it was striking to me the large number of minority children, who were on that stage…many of whom will not have the opportunity to do this if not through the school system.”
The general consensus from the people at the Red Carpet demonstration was that the attack on the Philadelphia public schools is a form of union-busting. I heard this sentiment from Mrs. Hoskins to Wayne MacManian Jr, a representative with SEIU 32 BJ. There are a lot more union employees involved with the school district who are not part of the teachers union. The bus drivers, maintenance workers and janitors are all represented by 32 BJ. These employees make around $15 to $16 dollars an hour, and Mr. MacManian explained that “[p]eople will take it into context and say ‘wow that’s a lot of money’.” However, he continued, “[a] $16 per hour job means you make $34,000 / year. That’s not a lot of money to support a family.” These union employees face layoffs, and the potential of having their salaries cut in half with the corporatization of the school district. According to Mr. MacManian the planned pay cuts will facilitate “eliminating [the] middle class, which we consider a union job,” and it will put a strain on the welfare and justice systems because it will make people “think if I am going rob a bank or something because they can’t feed their families.”
Occupy Philadelphia, the ball is now in your court. Not only will the elimination of the public school system be a direct shot of the direct democracy we have strived for since the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The corporatization of the school district will increase the income gap between the 1% and the 99%, it will also take advantage of a minority community that has been used and abused time and time again by for-profit interests.
Videos from the Demonstration
Sean Kitchen | Raging Chicken Press Social Media Organizer, Kutztown University student, co-founder of Occupy Kutztown