March 4th Demonstrations: "The World is on Fire!": the Fight to Defend Public Education

By Dennis Loo

To this house where nearly all of the light has been cut off because the windows are boarded up, choking off the air, comes now a large crew of carpenters to rip down these cursed boards. The vermin and mold that have been filling the suffocating air with their toxic fumes can then be exposed to the sunlight and the house cleansed by powerful gusts, the winds of genuine change.

The March 4th demonstrations to defend public education involved hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, staff, workers, and community members in thirty plus U.S. cities. The call for these protests originated in California in November 2009, and was taken up not only by many other states, but also in a number of countries.

These actions in the streets and on the campuses mark a vital and overdue development. They are the harbingers, if the organizing efforts move forward and escalate as planned, of a very different political landscape. The battle for public education represents nothing less than a major part of the cutting edge of a movement that could potentially unravel McWorld.

The people in charge of this dysfunctional McWorld have been riding high for some thirty years, doing grievous damage to everything they touch. They are about to be taken on the ride of, and for, their lives.

What a refreshing development, this taste of a different future! Many of the people coming into the streets on March 4th are new to political actions, probably the vast majority of them. It certainly looked that way to me in the streets of L.A. The age range was about as wide as could be, with, of course, many young people intermingled with red-shirted UTLA teachers, white-and-black shirted CSU students, and yet another variant of red-shirted CSU faculty. Signs ranged from “Defend Public Education” to “Revolution.” The intensity of the feelings here was remarkable. As one student leader put it in her spoken word poem in a Cal Poly Pomona rally prior to boarding buses and cars to attend the L.A. downtown march/rally, “The world is on fire!” This powerful sense of urgency also comes through in the student poem that I end this essay with.

The bankrupting of public goods such as public education from Kindergarten to University, which has reached a critical point here in California, has been a deliberate strategy by those who run this country. After withholding the requisite funds for public goods in order to strangle these services, public officials and educational administrators have been busy privatizing everything they can, on the grounds that the institutions and organizations are “failing.” Public education and higher education in particular have been enormously successful for a very long time. California’s K-12 system, until the privateers engineered the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, was the foremost school system in the nation, the envy of the world.

Because of Proposition 13, a major part of the “Reagan Revolution” of starving public services and the public domain in the interest of private capital and private interest that has led nationally and state by state, to bankruptcy and mind-boggling deficits, California’s K-12 system has gone from first to last: it is now at the bottom along with Guam and Mississippi.

This awful outcome has not shamed the privateers – the neoliberals and the neoconservatives – who have taken their disasters and parlayed them into grist for furthering their destructive agenda: “We’ve made a grand mess of things. Now give us more power to do even more of the same! Let us do to higher education what we’ve done to K-12.”


The privateers’ cure for their induced – iatrogenic - disease is to kill the patient. Their target has been from the beginning to eliminate public education and all other public goods. But because they can’t attack these public goods straight on they have to be circumspect about it and attack them indirectly, using ploys.

Their strategy has been and is the equivalent of a doctor applying a tourniquet to a healthy limb, thereby inducing gangrene, and then declaring that he has to amputate to save the patient because the limb’s gone bad. And now, after amputating two limbs, they are tying a noose around the neck of the patient, claiming that the head is diseased and it’s a tourniquet that’s needed to save the body.

Even before this current “budget crisis,” brought on by the policies of those who claim to have the solution to this crisis, the leadership of California’s higher education attempted to carry out “restructuring” – that is, department and program eliminations - under the signboard of “Prioritization and Recovery.” Faculty fought these plans successfully and the administration had to back off.

Now that the budget crisis has hit full-force, the administration has reintroduced their restructuring measures, now citing the budget as the compelling reason for their draconian cuts – annihilating departments, programs, colleges, faculty, raising student fees and denying places for students, even while they refuse to cut administrative bloat and curb their grossly extravagant self-dealing and corrupt contracts with corporate friends.

The decimation of the public interest by private, for-profit corporations means that nothing but naked cash transactions are supposed to rule our mean spirited McWorld. The McWorld clown is, however, an evil clown. The goods, this malignant clown says, shall go to those who already have a lot (think Goldman Sachs) and when they get into trouble the filthy rich will be bailed out, using the public’s money. But when precious public goods like public education are in trouble, precisely because the largesse has been going to the big corporations through tax breaks and subsidies and thereby slowly strangling the public sector (California is the only state in the union that doesn’t tax the oil and gas companies for extracting oil and gas), they scurry in like rats to put private corporate entities in charge.

This is wholesale theft. It is a crime. The people presiding over it are criminals. These criminals are far worse than the criminals depicted in crime dramas.

Not only is this the taking of wealth and resources and hoarding it for the few, like a giant vacuum scooping up whatever isn’t anchored down, governmental and business elites’ goal is grander than this: to dictate to society as a whole with no institutional opposition to their power. They’re instituting a plutocracy, plain and simple. After all, as the Supreme Court just said, corporations are people too!

The last remaining major institution that has not yet been brought to heel by these privateers is higher education. The privateers have already, through taking over school boards and the Board of Education, under Bush and now Obama, turned K-12 public schools into test-taking mills in which the teachers “don’t have time to teach,” and history, music, art, P.E., and social studies have been cut back sharply or eliminated altogether, because there’s yet another high-stakes test they have to administer every few weeks. Students coming out of this system, trained under No Child Left Behind (aka No Child Left Unharmed), have real difficulty knowing how to see the whole picture and the parts within that larger context, the basis for critical thought, because they have been so inculcated with being told what to memorize and what the answer is.

The privateers themselves don’t tend to go into education as faculty because the money isn’t enough to satisfy their large appetites for material goods. The people who gravitate to education as teachers and professors tend to value non-material things more than cold hard cash. Silly things like knowledge, being mentors for the young and for the disadvantaged, curiosity, skepticism, learning about and from history, exploration, co-operation, dissent, debate, flexibility of thought, consideration of alternative viewpoints, empirical data, and open-mindedness.

In order to take over this arena, the privateers have thus had to do so from the very top, via highly over paid, ridiculously privileged, perk-ridden, high administration positions, as Trustees, as Chancellors, as Presidents and as Provosts. These are the people who have little or no appreciation for education, for what teaching is, and what true learning is and requires. Either that or they, like many or all of the Provosts, have turned their back on their academic backgrounds. Their orientation, and in many cases, their occupational backgrounds, are as business-people, not as educators. They think that education is no different than a business.

The roots of the troubles here stretch back several decades.

The targets of the privateers are the public interest and public goods. They wish to dismantle New Deal programs such as welfare, unemployment compensation, and social security and reverse the 1960s movements’ gains that challenged the old boy network and authority: programs such as affirmative action, women’s rights, abortion rights, the movement to end the Vietnam War, anti-imperialist soldier movements, Miranda Rights, FISA, exposures of and restrictions on programs, such as COINTELPRO, of police agents provocateurs, and the Watergate scandal that revealed the skullduggery and dirty deeds just beneath the surface. The problem with the 1930s and 1960s, from these privateers’ perspective, is that the people challenged authority altogether too well. They demanded too much, became “entitled,” and dared to think that they could be more than pawns in the game of the rich and powerful.

The neoliberal attempts to annihilate these programs and reverse these gains achieved by the people and mass struggles are part of their larger effort to quell dissent, free thought and inquiry, critical thinking, and behaviors that don’t promote the world as they want it to be: a populace consumed by consumption, oblivious to the predations and inequities of capital’s relentless march to exploit everywhere it goes, the savage measures taken to protect and advance imperialist Empire, and obscene further gross enrichment of the plutocracy.

Under their mantra of privatization and doing things the way business does them, these free marketers ought to be shamed by the dramatic evidence of the bankruptcy of their policies – depression level unemployment, a financial crisis that threatened to bring the entire economy down, Katrina’s devastation worsened by Bush’s neoliberal policies, and the debacle of California going from #1 in the nation in K-12 to next to last.

Movements of the people often lag behind events since mass mobilizations are very difficult to accomplish, especially in a country such as this where protest actions aren’t a customary thing. It sometimes takes matters getting very bad first before people will rouse themselves into sufficient action. That time is now for education.

The carpenters are on the move, ready to tear down these boards.

The fight for public education is a battle for all of us because it concentrates all of the elements of what ails the rest of society. Young people, who have always played an indispensible leading role in awakening the rest of society, are in motion. Who can stop them?

The following is a poem by Giezi Perez, read by him at the Cal Poly Pomona campus rally on March 4:


Mi nombre,

No es AB 540

Y mis esfuerzos y mis ganas,

No las vas a degradar con tu dinero

I said my name

Is not AB 540

And you will not degrade my determination and my struggle with your currency

Because currently, you pamper special interests and men in suits who juggle the people’s trust and hopes

Jesters making gestures ridiculing the masses behind classes

We hold you accountable for the future of this state

Where you’d rather incarcerate criminals than invest in the education of the youths so they won’t become one in the first place

The cost of housing an inmate is over $30 thousand per year

And putting a student through college is around half that

It’s apparent where your priorities lie

You focus on people who have done

And not on those who can do

Yet expect me to forget the past

We see through your intentions behind expensive framed glasses and listen past your over intellectualized rhetoric

I hear I have to be patient, to have faith

But you are full of deceit

Like the LIE hidden in the middle of the word “beLIEve”

You’ve given the people a sweet tooth with all the sugar coating of the truth that you’ve done

And you have the audacity to try to blame us for the cavity

Ya Basta

We are people, not statistics

Estudiantes who are tired of being tucked in bed by idle hands from idle lands

But only a people who have been asleep for too long will accept Dream Acts instead of rightful progress

Some of us are waking up

See I, like most of us had no choice but to be brought along to our ancient territory which was invaded by greed and borders

Roadblocks made by gluttonous to provide the sufferer with more struggles

Your belly full but we hungry!

Your ThanksTaking day tables are infested with food, most of which most likely will go to waste

You would rather threaten to take the meals of school children and eliminate 200 of California’s 279 state parks than find better ways to make up for your mistakes

But I refuse to give my seat to someone who is more privileged

Because a transcript cannot transcribe my life and my story and my will to learn and to succeed

Just because someone else can pay you off doesn’t mean he can help build a better society

You are pimpin education and I aint trickin for my knowledge

My name is not AB 540

But I do have an identity, and it on aint laminated paper

No I don’t have a greencard, no I can’t get no license, no I don’t qualify for financial aid at school, I can’t even open an account with Blockbuster how can you expect me to find some legal labor?

For the same reason that when I was a kid they’d hardly let me play outside with the neighbors

And I wish I could truly put to words how much it hurts

Metaphorically it’s like, my life has been dirt

But I’ve made it fertile enough to germinate this heart underneath my secondhand shirt

And cultivate the destiny I was given at my birth

See poverty is my other mother and she raised me to believe

Mi segundo padre es mi patria y me enseño como resitir

Now I guess I conduct felonies everytime I (exhale) breathe (inhale)

And with every criminal intent, I speak, because I know that it’s their intentions to make me feel weak

See I was born a Soul Rebel so forever my spirit fights when I breathe

Because “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees”

Yo soy Joaquin

I am the stories in the news that you hear about but never see

This is for them, for the hungry and the meek

This is for the sixth year elementary school graduate my father never got to be

This is for all the opportunities that have eluded me

For the strife this life is giving to my entire family

For the dreams my younger brothers have that they will never see

For the WIC coupons that mama got to give us something to eat

For those first years that we lived in garages and hid from cops out on the streets

I breathe, and with each breath I move suns like Quetzalcoatl because we all have god inside us

And I know there aint no law against divinity


For more on this subject, see In Defense of Higher Education


World Can't Wait mobilizes people living in the United States to stand up and stop war on the world, repression and torture carried out by the US government. We take action, regardless of which political party holds power, to expose the crimes of our government, from war crimes to systematic mass incarceration, and to put humanity and the planet first.