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Thanksgiving, Public Education, and Criminalization

At 4:30am on November 26, a couple thousand people started ferrying from San Francisco to Alcatraz Island, to witness and participate in the annual Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Gathering.  This year, it commemorated the 40th anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz, an event which brought renewed energy and visibility to Indigenous Peoples movements.

As the rising sun reminded us of the immensity of life, the enormous biodiversity of which we are just one interconnected part, a woman spoke of the importance of education and of how the stories we tell shape our understandings of one another, of ourselves, and of the world.  She spoke specifically about the miseducation of children regarding the myths of Thanksgiving and the United States.  She emphasized that it is important to educate all children — not only American Indian/Native American/Indigenous/First Nations children — about the histories of genocide on which this country was founded, about the specific massacre which the Thanksgiving holiday silently commemorates, about the cultures (as well as lives) that the European settlers attempted to annihilate and later fossilize and commodify, and about the resistance and survival of Indigenous Peoples.

As I listened to her speak about education and the occupation of the island and the importance of how events are framed, I reflected again on recent actions in defense of public education at my UC Berkeley campus and on the miseducation taking place in how those events have been framed by some.  In his multiple emails regarding the November 20 occupation of Wheeler Hall, Chancellor Birgeneau spoke of how 40 individuals prohibited 3,800 people from attending class that day, and this line has since been repeated by many others.  This one little line, insidious in its commonsensical simplicity, speaks volumes as to the misunderstanding of public education by those who speak it.  Their understanding of education is that of an individual private good.  The demands of the occupiers of Wheeler Hall, however, demonstrate an understanding of public education worth fighting for, and I hope that their actions will bring renewed energy and visibility to this struggle.

Setting up a comparison between the 40 occupiers and the 3,800 students who had classes scheduled in Wheeler Hall that day is a false framing of the event.  The occupiers were not acting (solely) on behalf of themselves.  They were acting on behalf of future generations of students (far more than 3,800) and on behalf of the kind of education all students receive (including those 3,800 who were not able to attend class that day but, I would argue, were given the opportunity to learn a great deal through the actions taking place).

Their demand to save Rochdale Village demonstrates an understanding that accessible education does not only mean affordable tuition/fees, but also affordable housing, acting as a reminder that living conditions (having health care, enough to eat, a stable place to live, etc.) affect one’s ability to learn, both at the K-12 level and in higher education.

Their demand to reinstate the 38 AFSCME workers, and their solidarity with the campus’ workers’ unions’ demands for living wages, demonstrates an understanding that higher education should be accessible to all who desire it but should not be accepted as the country’s primary solution to poverty.  All workers should be respected with safe workplaces and living wages, whether or not they have a college education.

Their demand for the fair treatment of immigrants (in this case focused on providing the owners of the Bair’s Lair with a fair contract) demonstrates an understanding of the fact that “there is no such thing as immigration, only migration,” as another speaker at Alcatraz put it.  This country has repeatedly used the notion of civil rights to distinguish between those worthy of humane treatment and those whose treatment as subhumans is sanctioned.  While there are important critiques that have been made regarding the notion of “human rights,” I think it is an important concept to hold on to, and one that can be used when discussing the rights of all to a public education.

While recent actions have been more focused on the accessibility of education than on the content of that education, the demands for the fair treatment of immigrants and campus workers (as well as the critiques of the large gap between the salaries of top administrators and those of faculty and other employees) does get at one issue of content: the desire that our university teach us — through actions, not just words — to respect and value one another as equals rather than instill the notion in us that those who have U.S. citizenship and/or college degrees are more worthy than others.

The focus of recent actions has been partially directed at the state, which is essential given the system-wide issue of needing to prioritize public education starting with K-12.  After all, if students do not receive a quality K-12 education, they will not even be eligible to apply for UC.  And, furthermore, students deserve a quality K-12 education — especially if they do not desire to enroll in more schooling after high school: a quality education should not be a promise deferred to higher ed.  Additionally, the issues of race- and class-based underrepresentation of students at Cal is connected (though certainly not exclusively due) to race- and class-correlated under-resourcing of K-12.

But the focus has also — rightly — been on the actions of the UC Regents whose attempts to pass the full responsibility on to the state are disingenuous.  Fee hikes, the laying off of workers, and faculty furloughs are not inevitable responses to dealing with cuts in state funding.  They are reflections of the priorities of our administrators.  (See <> and <> for some analyses of this.)  And what has become incredibly clear is that this public education institution is being managed by people who do not actually value public education.  That is a big problem.

In fact, our administrators are not only either ignorant as to the definition of public education and/or hostile to it, they have endorsed the criminalization of it in the form of criminalizing those who are defending it.  The brutality of the riot-gear-clad police forces at the November 20 occupation was despicable, and that brutality — often followed up by the brutality of incarceration — is a larger ongoing problem in this country, directed especially at young men of color.  But even before the acts of brutalization took place, there is the question of why a police presence was summoned at all.  What or who was being protected?  Certainly not public education.  To demand public education was being made into a criminal act.

I was having a conversation yesterday with a woman who passed by the annual Black Friday demonstration outside Emeryville’s Bay Street mall.  When I explained why we were asking people not to shop there — that the mall’s construction on the site of a 3,500 year-old Ohlone shellmound and burial site is the most recent disregard of Ohlone attempts at control over this sacred site, and that in the course of its construction unearthed human remains were deposited as waste in landfills — she declared: “They did that?!?  You would think that would be illegal!”  What is considered legal and criminal does often seem surreal, doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, the miseducation many of us have received can make many acts of supremacy, exploitation, and dehumanization seem inevitable, if not logical or even just.

So this thanks-giving, I give thanks to all the teachers who keep the faith in and strive to embody the possibility of justice and love for all.  To those teachers, wherever they are — in classrooms, on the streets, locked behind the doors inside Wheeler Hall, in homes, in prisons, in houses of worship, in songs, in writings, in art — thank you.

Cecilia Lucas is a PhD candidate, Social and Cultural Studies, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education.

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