THE SCHOOL CLOSURE EPIDEMIC: On March 7, some 500 protesters—including American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten—blocked a road and entrances to a hearing that would decide the fate of twenty-seven Philadelphia schools. As police escorted a handcuffed Weingarten and eighteen others off the premises, the School Reform Commission voted to shutter approximately one in ten district schools by the end of the year.
In Chicago, eighty schools are on the chopping block; in New York, the number is twenty-two. Twenty-eight closures have been proposed in Detroit, fifteen in Washington, and more in Sacramento, Baltimore, Birmingham and St. Louis. Although the politics differ by district, a shared sense of foreboding hangs over several major cities.
Neoliberal school reformers call this “school choice.” Parents have voted with their feet, they argue, depopulating “underperforming” district schools as they moved their kids into charter schools. Funding followed the pupils out, as education budgets shrank.
But for the families of some 9,000 kids in Philadelphia alone, it doesn’t feel like “choice.” Reports show that the savings from shuttering schools are paltry and that closures rarely lead to improved academics. Since students of color are disproportionately affected, activists describe these peremptory closures as a wholesale violation of civil rights.
Gaining momentum is a national movement calling for an end to “corporate-style” education reform. In January, 500 students, parents and activists demanded a moratorium on school closings at a DC hearing with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. On April 4 through 7, demonstrators plan to “occupy” the Department of Education. As Weingarten told The Nation, if any winners exist in the drive to “privatize” education, they’re charter school operators, budget-slashing politicians and corporations. “If you follow the money, you will see that it’s not kids or parents that are benefiting from these mass closings.” ALLEEN BROWN
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MAPPING MUSLIMS: On March 11, a diverse group of interfaith students, community organizers and religious leaders gathered at the New York Police Department headquarters in lower Manhattan. They came to deliver a new report to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly on his clandestine surveillance program. The report, “Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and Its Impact on American Muslims,” was written by the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition, the City University of New York’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). It highlights the many harmful effects of surveillance on Muslim life, showing its chilling effect on religious expression, freedom of speech and social interactions. Providing firsthand accounts by Muslims throughout the city’s five boroughs, whose daily life is now pervaded by a thoroughgoing sense of fear, the report is a rebuttal to the police insistence that targets “have nothing to fear, if they have nothing to hide.”
The report also shows the devastating effect on already marginalized members of Muslim communities, like former prisoners and new immigrants, whom the police target particularly aggressively. Such individuals are especially vulnerable in a climate where “attendance at mosque…has become tantamount to placing oneself on law enforcement’s radar,” as the report observes. Like all houses of worship, mosques serve as hubs for community-building by providing vital resources to underserved populations.
At the gathering downtown, Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid of the Majlis Ash-Shura, a coalition of forty New York City mosques, pointed to the link between surveillance of Muslims and other police policies that criminalize certain New Yorkers. “This is not only a matter for the Muslim community,” he said, but “part of a larger problem that includes stop-and-frisk…and Ray Kelly’s consistent resistance to external NYPD monitoring.” ELANA LEOPOLD
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A LIFETIME OF RESISTANCE: Stéphane Hessel, who died on February 26 at the age of 95, led an exceptional life. Born in Germany in 1917, he became a French citizen in 1937. After the Nazis invaded France in 1941, Hessel joined Gen. Charles de Gaulle in London and became a hero of the French Resistance. Arrested by the Gestapo, he was imprisoned and tortured in the Dora and Buchenwald concentration camps, but survived by adopting the identity of another prisoner who had died from typhus. After the war, he was involved in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and held diplomatic posts in Vietnam, Algeria and Switzerland.
In October 2010, at 93, he published his left-wing booklet, Indignez-vous!, which became an international literary phenomenon with 4.5 million copies sold in thirty-five countries. The manifesto helped inspire global protest movements, from Los Indignados in Spain to Occupy Wall Street in the United States, by calling on young people to peacefully resist injustice. It also criticized France’s treatment of illegal immigrants, the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel.
After his death, tributes to Hessel poured in. The United Nations celebrated him as “one of the great champions of human rights,” and French President François Hollande praised his lifelong devotion to “the defense of human dignity.” Hessel was a social activist who truly embodied the words with which he ended his book: “To create is to resist, to resist is to create.” CATHERINE DEFONTAINE
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STUDENTS REJECT GEO GROUP: In February, Florida Atlantic University raised eyebrows when officials announced that they had sold the naming rights to the school’s new football stadium to GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest private prison company. In response, students occupied president Mary Jane Saunders’s office and demanded a rescission of the agreement, given the role that private prisons play in society and the egregious record of GEO. Dave Zirin described the protest as a sign of the growing movement against “the New Jim Crow.” For more on this story (and to take action on this and other issues), visit the Take Action section of TheNation.com.
In “Time for Outrage!” (March 7-14, 2011), Stéphane Hessel’s extraordinary life (up to that point) was recalled by Charles Glass, the publisher of the English translation of Indignez-vous! (which is available to subscribers as a PDF here ).