Occupy DOE Speakers, Protesters Hurl Racial Epithets, Insults

Michele McNeil writes on Education Week that the Occupy DOE 2.0 movement, a gathering that is meant to express the public’s dissatisfaction with the way the government exercises its power to reform education around the country, turned hostile. This time around, the protest took the form of a rally around the Department of Ed building, where participants used “inflammatory” and in some cases racially-insensitive language when opposing high-stakes testing, the role that corporate interests play in education policy, and efforts that protesters see as the “dismantling of public education.”

Epithets like “the Asian Bitch” were directed at the former head of Washington D.C. public schools — and currently the most visible Democrat on the issue of education reform — Michelle Rhee from some of those who have gathered in front of the DOE headwaters in downtown D.C. “Asian Bitch” in particular was delivered by Ceresta Smith, a teacher from Florida’s Miami-Dade County.

Another organizer, former teacher Shaun Johnson, called teachers “meek” and urged them to start speaking up, “cracking skulls,” and losing their jobs in protest of policies they say are destroying public schools. United Opt Out National, which hosted the Occupy DOE event, held a similar event a year ago. Both are offshoots of the Save Our Schools march in 2011. This year’s event, set to include a march to the White House on Saturday, drew a couple dozen people on its opening morning. Attendees later in the day heard from speakers including education historian Diane Ravitch, and on Friday are to hear from Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, among others.

“Corporate education reform” was the target of all the early speakers who equally blamed Republicans and Democrats for giving private interests so much power determining the country’s education policy. Cory Booker, the popular mayor of Newark, New Jersey, also received criticism along with both President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

On the Republican side, both the current front-runner for the Republican 2016 Presidential nomination Marco Rubio as well as one of his closest competitors – at least when it comes to education – Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush had words directed at them.

According to Education Week, even teachers and other education unions came in for some shellacking from the speakers who called their efforts to halt education reform in its tracks weak and disorganized – especially when it come to stopping efforts to bring widespread standardized testing to America’s schools.

Smith, the Miami-Dade teacher and an African-American, was particularly critical of Rhee and other nonwhite leaders, such as Booker, for embracing “corporate reform,” such as high-stakes testing, that she says hurts minority children. In her speech, she suggested that while some black teachers have been indicted in a cheating scandal in Atlanta, Rhee suffered no consequences in the wake of testing irregularities when she was chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, which she headed from 2007 to 2010. (The federal Education Department’s inspector general found no evidence that district officials were engaged in widespread cheating during that time.)

“We are in a real war, and it’s hard to identify who the real enemy is,” Smith told the crowd. In an interview after the speech, she was largely unapologetic about the language she used about Rhee. “It was loaded,” she said. “But she’s aligned with those corporate reformers.”

Diane Ravitch, who spoke at the protest, issued an apology on her website for the behavior of her peers:

I want to make clear that this kind of language is unacceptable and intolerable. No one should resort to racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural slurs to express their views. It is just plain wrong.

I don’t use that kind of language, and I encourage others to have a high personal standard of civility.

We must be able disagree about ideas and policies without getting personal.