More than 20,000 protesters descended upon Wall Street Thursday to demand an end to Mayor Bloomberg’s draconian education cuts and his soft touch approach to billion-dollar companies.
The May 12 event began as a series of splinter cell protests in the radius surrounding Wall Street that ultimately converged on the financial district.
Those in attendance included Reverend Al Sharpton, the United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, and various members of the City Council.
At the education protest, teachers came out in droves to protest Bloomberg’s recent decision to lay off thousands of teachers. Additionally, educators were demanding Bloomberg ask his rich friends on Wall Street to sacrifice along with everyone else.
David Pecoraro, a math teacher at Beach Channel High School and a parent to a high school freshman, attended the protest to represent the interests of his students and his son.
“All are going to be denied the right to a quality education because of these politically motivated, unnecessary cuts,” said Pecoraro, adding that it’s not just a matter of denying educations to youth, but the education cuts are dangerous in some cases, too. Some of his son’s classes use heavy machinery, and the cuts mean there’s less faculty to supervise the students. “[Bloomberg] is playing with the kids’ lives,” he said.
On top of the thousands of teachers Bloomberg plans to lay off, the mayor hasn’t replaced the 5,000 educators  who were also fired in the last five years.
Pecoraro doesn’t see the layoffs as part of a fair compromise plan in which all citizens are asked to share sacrifice. “I haven’t seen any of [Bloomberg’s] billionaire friends lose anything,” he said. “There’s no millionaire’s tax on the city level. The Bush tax cuts got extended, so these guys are still partying hardy. The party’s got to end. I’m tired of people trying to take my kid’s education away.”
Protesters consistently referred to the city’s $3.2 billion budget surplus  (pdf) as proof that the mayor hasn’t run out of money, but rather he’s simply making bad decisions by catering to the interests of the wealthy elites.
Michelle Hamilton, a teacher at The Albert Einstein School, said that Bloomberg isn’t asking the people responsible for tanking the economy to forfeit anything. “The sacrifices are being asked for from everyday people,” said Hamilton.
Meanwhile, teachers are desperately treading water in their overcrowded, underfunded schools. Hamilton puts her own money into buying books for her students, and in order to pay for trips and basic supplies.
The situation makes for a bleak future. “It’s not fair, but it’s also not wise. You can’t build a country when you’re not educating children properly."
Some attendees view the budget cuts as a first shot in a much larger cultural conflict between the wealthy ruling elites and working class people. Mike Fox, a teacher at a Brooklyn charter school, believes the cuts and layoffs are the start of a class war. “It’s anti-city worker, so I’m here not just as a teacher, but for sanitation workers, policemen, firemen, all of the people who make the city work,” he said.
As for sharing the burden, Fox said he doesn’t see people other than the poor sacrificing, and Bloomberg is playing too nice with the corporations on Wall Street when he should be demanding they contribute fairly to society.
“Corporate sacrifice is an oxymoron,” he said. “I don’t think that’s in their vocabulary. I don’t think that’s in their nature. You know that expression don’t ask the question if you don’t want to hear the answer? Don’t ask them to sacrifice. You tell them what they have to do. We have legislatures. We have political leaders. Lead. Don’t ask. Tell.”
Educator Gloria George called Bloomberg’s decision to lay off thousands of teachers “disgusting,” adding, “I think the mayor should come into our classrooms and see the wonderful jobs our teachers do every single day. The cutbacks mean we’ll have overcrowded classrooms, no more libraries, no more art, no more gym. Where are all of those children going to go?”
When it comes to comparing the sacrifice on Wall Street with the sacrifice paid by schools, George said it’s not even a worthy comparison. “[Wall Street] is talking about their jobs. We’re talking about saving the lives of children.”
Eileen Feliciano Quinn, a schoolteacher, silently struggles for a few moments to think of a response to Bloomberg’s cuts that doesn’t include profanity. “It’s B.S.” she finally remarks. “He has enough money to keep teachers in the schools, and he’s protecting Wall Streeters. Why are they not sacrificing? We saved them, didn’t we? It’s their turn to save us.”
“We can’t get smart boards in our classrooms for the kids because the principal doesn’t have any money,” she added. Smart boards are interactive, computer-driven whiteboards that are used as cutting edge technology in many schools. Many educators view the boards as a good way to keep American students up to pace with other countries that also employ the high-tech tools.
“We don’t have an art teacher because we don’t have the money,” Quinn said, “We don’t have a science teacher because we don’t have the money. The only reason we have a music teacher is because it’s through a grant.”
Arthur Goldstein, the UFT chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School described the overcrowding that already plagues NYC schools and how the cuts will make things exponentially worse. “We have a building designed for 2,100 kids. We have 4,200 kids in it. If Mayor Bloomberg cuts 8 percent of working teachers, we’re going to be even more overcrowded,” he said.
Goldstein teaches in a trailer. In fact, the trailer has been his teaching home for eight years. His school halved every classroom with a divider, so instead of holding 34 students, each room now holds 68 pupils. “The rooms have paper-thin walls. You can hear every sound...It’s unconscionable that Mayor Bloomberg treats any school like this,” said Goldstein.
Bloomberg’s decision to grant $60 million  to Geoffrey Canada to build a charter school raises Goldstein’s ire (other donors included Goldman Sachs and Google). Goldstein sees this as wealthy elites and corporations funding charter school ventures while public schools go to waste. “[Bloomberg] treats us like something he wiped off the bottom of his shoe. I don’t know how this man sleeps at night,” he said.
The May 12 protest was overwhelmingly peaceful, with tens of thousands of activists moving throughout the city streets in an orderly fashion. However, a small group of anarchists did cause a ruckus at one point, and the NYPD swiftly put up a pliable fence to contain the cell, though many people who were not part of the bloc, including myself, also got swept up. It was then that a shoving match began between police and protesters. The NYPD used crushing force against the activists, at one point physically shoving protesters backwards by their faces. Ultimately, the police arrested several people.
When my cameraman and I managed to escape the half-hearted kettle, we joined up with the protest again and spoke with UAW member, Gibb Surette, who said the country’s resources are being wasted on military spending and tax giveaways for the rich. “Then we’re being told there’s nothing left in the cupboard for children, poor people, sick people, job development, or just about anything else we need,” he said.
Powerful interests are siphoning the wealth for themselves during a time of financial crisis, he added. “It reminds you of hyenas. When hyenas go out and look for resources, they prey on the very young, they prey on the very old, they prey on the sick and those who can’t defend themselves.”
Larry Goldbetter, another UAW worker, explained why the union joined the march on Wall Street. “This is where the money is. This is where the thieves who stole it are. We’ve come for what’s ours,” he said.
Goldbetter wasn’t impressed by Bloomberg’s call to share the burden. “We’ve sacrificed enough. [Wall Street] is handing out bonus checks. We’ve come for what’s ours. We created all of this wealth.”
Image courtesy of C.S. Muncy