By JR Valrey, The People’s Minister of Information
While the mainstream media is fixated on World War III taking shape in Europe, a major battle over whether Oakland’s Black and Brown students will have some of the local public schools in their neighborhood permanently closed. With the economy in disarray and inflation reaching astronomical heights already with no end in sight, the OUSD is making it harder for already impoverished students to access an education, by closing schools which will in turn, extend the transportation time to and from school for students who formerly attended the closed schools.
Moses Omolade is a parent, an educator at Westlake Middleschool, and a frontline leader in the movement to stop the school closures in Oakland. Moses and André San-Chez, Choir Director at Westlake, went on a hunger strike that lasted nearly 3 weeks this past February. I wanted to talk to him about his ideas and his beliefs around resistance. I also wanted him to give us a concise analysis of why the movement to halt the school closures in Oakland is an important struggle that the community needs to continue to support.
JR Valrey: Why is the Oakland School Board planning to close down schools in mostly Black and Brown neighborhoods, around the Town?
Moses Omolade: Anyone willing to scratch the surface can see the obvious systemic oppression, gentrification, and cowardly leadership as some of the main factors as to why schools are being closed in our neighborhoods by the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Via these closings and at the expense of our children’s futures, our communities are having fundamental relationships severed, community hubs stripped of resources and sold off to the highest bidder, trauma compounded and normalized in our children’s places of education, and so much more. Again, this is in the name of “saving money” and “better school programs,” which the board has yet to provide solid proof that closures even result in these goals. Instead of going deep into some of the specific connections that bring us to this moment like billionaire interests, charter schools, and a capitalistic, state-led branding of OUSD as financially insolvent, I want to speak plainly on how I see it.
Both historically and presently, this country has capitalized, discriminated, commodified, terrorized, and diregarded our communities through institutions like the education system, criminal justice system, healthcare system, and housing/segregation. Unfortunately, we have been told in order to make something of ourselves, we have to actively participate in the systems that are geared towards our own demise. We end up taking on its ideals, while ridding ourselves of an important commitment to serve and uplift our communities. To be clear, there are plenty of us that are fighting daily to mitigate the negative impacts of places like schools on our children. At this moment, I am primarily speaking about those that are choosing to climb that crooked ladder like OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson Tramell, California Governor Gavin Newsom, OUSD board member Clifford Thompson, and many others. Our own people sit in seats of power and choose to make choices that they know, in their hearts, are wrong. They choose to look the other way as their community members cry and shout for them not to harm us. They sit in high positions and say ‘yes’ to choices cloaked as compliance, that are really a systematic dismantling of our communities. I could go on and on, but I just want to be clear that we are in this predicament because we have people in seats of power afraid to push back on the systemic harm that’s coming as a result of poor choices, external pressure, and a deep bias and prejudice towards underserved and unprotected communities, like ours.
JR Valrey: Why is there a movement against that effort?
Moses Molade: CUZ IT DOESN’T WORK!!! For as long as I’ve been in education, there have been people hip to how broken the education system is (parents, educators, students, and community members alike). Folks are really sitting with deep awareness around the school to prison pipeline, negative impacts and failures of state mandated testing, racist curriculum, unjust disciplinary practices, and the government’s consistent defunding of our public schools. With that being said, I think the combination of a global pandemic, students and staff being overworked on our campuses, and a botched attempt at closing 16 schools without community input was a recipe that sparked engagement within our people’s hearts, minds, and spirits.
Fannie Lou Hamer said it best, “[our people are] sick and tired of being sick and tired”. Folks from all walks of life were able to witness how disrespectful this move was to our communities, especially during a global pandemic. The district’s choice was and continues to be unethical, on so many fronts. There is no community engagement, and no equity analysis. There are lies in addition to oppressive, condescending, and fraudulent statistics presented in board meetings. Mind you, these meetings are being held online while students and staff are being told to assemble themselves in school buildings, with limited PPE and limited support. With all of this and a deep awareness of all we are up against, the movement against school closures took on a different flavor.
JR Valrey: What prompted you to get involved in fighting the closures?
Moses Omolade: Personally, I was overwhelmed with all that the pandemic and district were asking of us in schools. During the pandemic and specifically during the Omicron surge, our schools were left out to dry by the state of California, Alameda County, and OUSD. I felt more like a health administrator than a middle school administrator, both are under resourced roles in the midst of this mishandled pandemic.
All the bodies on campus had to go above and beyond just to feel and look like we were running a school. Half the kids were at home quarantining, staff were constantly out sick, admin and teachers were subbing classes, creating lesson plans that students could barely engage with given the feel of the environment. It was a lot to handle, but we love our school community and poured in everything we had available to us. In the midst of all this, the state and district are still asking us to test students. Are you F***ING kidding me??? This is the type of structural oppression masked as compliance that I am talking about. Children will now have test scores attached to their names as markers of their intelligence, when it’s actually more of a marker of a failed system. I don’t mean to paint the picture so bleak, because there was much laughter, love, and many moments of learning, but overall things were unreal and desolate during this time. To then find out through Facebook that our beloved school was up for closure, I began to feel the beginning of an internal break. The disingenuous follow up conversations between the district and our team were even more disheartening, as they gave us unbacked reasoning, took up so much space in a 30 min meeting, and simply said ‘sorry but we have to do this.’ As a parent, educator, lover, fighter, and stern believer in justice, seeing my team weep during a zoom call was not right by my standards. I don’t enjoy being mistreated in my personal life, and was not about to stand around and let them bully our community. Our kids deserve better! Westlake deserves better! Black and Brown students and families deserve to have safe spaces! Oakland deserves better! With all of this swirling, I had sleepless nights thinking about whether I had enough in me to get busy on this matter in a way that felt good. Being an activist or simply a person that stands up for something in this country will have you feeling grief-stricken. So I took a day or two to think about it, process with loved ones, and asked myself the hard questions. When meeting up with a loved one in North Oakland, an old student walked up to me and shared with me that another student of mine was just killed in West Oakland. This news not only devastated me, but shifted my internal state of being and in that moment, I chose to fight against school closures.
JR Valrey: What prompted you and your comrade to use a hunger strike as a tool of resistance in this battle?
Moses Omolade: In December 2021, I was participating in a spiritual detox program that a loved one of mine created. It provided me with specific challenges and exercises that inspired self-reflection, self-discipline, and integration of my body-mind-soul. In the midst of the intense previously described circumstances during the beginning of this year, I intentionally held back from processed food, coffee, sugar, complaining, judgement, sex, alcohol, and other things to detox and clear my energetic, spiritual, and physical bodies.
While prioritizing rest, nature, journaling, reading, play, and acts of getting into my body, I was able to be more clear about interactions with all things outside of myself, in a very clarified way. At the board meeting on January 26th, I witnessed community member after community member call into the zoom meeting, outraged about the closures list that was leaked. Parents were crying foul, pleading about why this is so wrong, begging, and asking the board and district to please rethink their actions. The board was not only unmoved by the community, but displayed disregard for their voices. I was witnessing a morally deficient group of board members, with the exception of Mike Hutchinson and VanCedric Williams, operating within an antiquated system that silenced the people it was intended to serve. The state I found myself in, directly because of this detox, allowed me to know that this fight was a spiritual one. Being a student of African American history and Ethnic Studies, I was well aware of hunger striking as a tool of resistance, especially as a tool that engaged the morality of all in the fight. This tool has been deployed during the Civil Rights era, Apartheid, in the fight against colonialism, inhumane conditions in prisons, and many other fights against injustice. While having a casual conversation with André San-Chez, Choir Director at Westlake, I mentioned that hunger striking against this closure issue had come to mind, and they looked at me with wide eyes and said “What? I thought the same thing!” From then on I looked closer into groups like the Frisco 5, Third World Liberation Front 2016, Dick Gregory, and Cesar Chavez, and began the necessary preparations. Andre and I made our announcement at the January 31st OUSD Board special meeting. It felt very fitting that Black History Month was upon us, and I felt poised to stand on the shoulders of our ancestors for this fight.
JR Valrey: How long did y’all go? What were the best and worst parts of the hunger strike?
Moses Omolade: My hunger strike lasted 18 days and André’s, 20 days. Some of the best parts of the strike was witnessing the activation of the community. The love, support, and mobilization around school closures was beyond palpable. Sensing and communing with Ohlone land and Black Panther land beneath our feet, held us up in more ways than can be articulated. We became educated about different aspects of this fight, its history, all the players, and the realities of how flawed the public school system is, which fueled our hunger for morality in our district. This was huge because our network has increased by 10 fold, which will be needed to sustain this fight. The veil lifting off of folks in leadership positions and the revealing of who they really are, was both a relief and a disappointment. To witness a shift in public consciousness around what is possible, was everything. Lastly, to watch our team rally was not only inspiring, but a strong enough reason to choose life. Shout out to all the members of the Convocation Team (hunger strike team), Dr. Rupa and the Do No Harm Coalition, Walter Riley, and many others!
The more challenging parts of the strike were while sitting in circles and rubbing elbows with politicians, board members, OUSD leadership, and being reminded of how callous and manufactured they are. Tony Thurmond, Loren Taylor, Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Gary Yee, Sam Davis, Aimee Eng, Clifford Thompson, Shanti Gonzales, folks that support them, and Gavin Newsom’s team (since he wouldn’t show up himself), spoke of their own heart felt ties and past experiences that lead them to run for their elected positions or why they were selected in their appointed ones, but did NOTHING to stand with us in the current fight. Talking with these folks for hours on end felt like a complete slap in the face, when it became clear that they were silent when we asked what they were willing to do with their power to change things. They had no intention of actually helping Oakland’s children. Each and every one of them had a sinister feel to their speech and general presence, which had to be some of my worst moments, especially realizing that these are the folks running our district. Some of the physical realities were also hard to sit with.
JR Valrey: What were the demands of y’all on the hunger strike, and how did the powers that be respond? How did the community respond?
Moses Omolade: Convocation for Student Justice Hunger Strike Demands
That will end our hunger strike immediately:
- We demand a meeting with Governor Gavin Newsom
- We demand a meeting with Kyla Johnson-Trammel and the entire Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) board
- Since we understand there are constraints on meeting with all 7 of you outside of an official board meeting, we are more than okay meeting with you all in smaller groups, the priority for us is meeting in person as soon as possible.
3. We demand that Governor Newsom put an immediate stop to school closures in OUSD by including a line item in his budget to repay the remainder of the $100 million dollar loan forced on OUSD.
We demand Gavin Newsom, Nancy Skinner and Tony Thurmond cancel the remainder of the loan which is preventing the OUSD Board of Education from acting in the best interest of the students, families, and educators that they were elected to represent.
4. We demand that the State of California amend state law and revise the ADA formula that penalizes schools for student absence, due to sickness.
5. We demand that Oakland Board of Education immediately stop violating all of the following policies passed in the last year:
- the Equity Analysis piece of the Reparations policy
- the Moratorium on closures
- We demand the Oakland Board of Education join calls for an investigation and audit of The Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), and call for a REFUND to OUSD of fees paid to FCMAT for re-investment into our school programs.
- We demand that the Oakland Board of Education start the process of applying for the $3 billion dollars of full-service community schools funding.
- We demand that the Oakland Board of Education be an ally to the movement by compiling real numbers on how much we are going to get in funding next year, from all sources.
- We demand a public, transparent, and thorough audit of the OUSD budget in light of the egregious fund-mismanagement outlined by the grand jury report on OUSD titled 2018-2019 Grand Jury Final Report.
- We demand no Alameda County or State takeover of OUSD.
- Continue to love and support us, continue to show up and put on the pressure.
Know that this win may not be over tonight. If our school board continues to fail us, this is not the end. We will continue to fight and we ask that you do too. We ask that you get informed about the larger structures that we are facing, and understand that this is as much about real estate as the pushing out of Black and Brown communities for gentrification.
We ended up shifting our demands to postponing closures until the end of next year, and tried to negotiate with the board about it. All with hopes that if we got more time, we could then implement other tactics of resistance to those closures like passing legislation to incorporate more accountability of the board for future decisions around closures, community engagement committee or advisory, direct action occupation of public land, etc. Our community demands were embraced by the community and we are out here fighting something serious.
JR Valrey: What made y’all abandon the tactic of the hunger strike?
Moses Omolade: Throughout the strike I began to witness the power of our voices and the mobilization around school closures. We had wise counsel from folks like Cat Brooks, Walter Riley, Rupa Marya, Dolores Huerta and countless others about the impact we could have if we left this tactic without long term health complications. Being that myself and André were very skinny to begin with, we were consistently warned about the physical impacts of the hunger strike due to our low BMI. After day 10, my body began showing signs that concerned the doctors. By day 15 we were in the critical stages of internal organs being harmed and potentially having long term effects. We initially committed to death if we saw no shift from the Board toward no school closures. Once it became clear that the OUSD Board was willing to let us die rather than change their decision, I sat with the gravity of what that meant for us, our loved ones, and our Westlake students. I am a father of two and missed them dearly.
JR Valrey: In this movement, is there anything politically that can happen that can make you employ the hunger strike tactic again?
Moses Omolade: Most definitely! This tactic is one that has teeth and after seeing how impactful it was, if and when it is considered again, as an option, we will only be stronger and more well-resourced, now that we have had this experience. Back in January 2022 when the Board made their announcements and votes on school closures in less than a 2-week time span, we felt like our backs were against the wall in the fight to keep our schools open. With the current circumstance, we are fighting even harder for the schools set for closure/truncation/merging at the end of this school year (Community Day School, Parker, La Escuelita, and RISE/New Highland). We want to make it clear that we will stop at nothing to prevent the irreversible harm that can come from letting this happen––if that means going on another hunger strike, we will.
JR Valrey: What are thoughts on the recent Gov. Newsom interview where he discussed his lack of involvement in the local school struggles in California, what exactly did he say on KQED, and what is your response?
Moses Omolade: I’m going to pull a Jeen-Yuhs and say that Gavin Newsom does not care about Black and Brown children. This person is one of the most blatant hypocrites I have witnessed ascend in politics, in recent years. Governor Gavin Newsom ignored us for weeks while attending the Super Bowl, where thousands were unmasked during his COVID-19 State of Emergency. The Omicron surge was tearing up the country, while he mandated that we all wear masks for our safety, and then proceeded to enjoy himself with thousands of unmasked fans at the newly built SoFi Stadium. Children are mandated to wear masks all day at schools, while he does as he pleases at super spreader events. When it comes to the discrimination and mistreatment of Black and Brown children by OUSD though, Newsom claims that “local decisions are local decisions,” then turns around and makes a local decision by overturning a judges cap for UC Berkeley enrollment. There is so much to say about how he handles himself and the state of California, but I will save that for another article solely on him.
To answer your question, on KQED Newsom said that he appreciates our advocacy and compassion for our community, and in the same breath says, “I don’t know the details of the decision. I just don’t.” This all came after we had a meeting with his most senior staff, where our Convocation team laid out the details of why we were hunger striking, and the unjust actions of OUSD and the board of directors. He is lying when he says he doesn’t know, but that isn’t anything new. Newsom and his office had full awareness of what was happening, and wanted to focus more on how to remove the social media pressure he was receiving. In a discussion with Newsom’s office, they had two questions, what would it take to end the hunger strike and what would it take to alleviate the social media pressure? This is the “leader” of our state with over $30 billion in surplus and the ability to support Black and Brown children at the stroke of a pen, being more concerned about the press he was receiving on Instagram and Twitter. Shall I say more?
JR Valrey: How could people stay informed on the movement to halt the school closures in the Oakland Unified School District?
Moses Omolade: Folks can follow us on instagram at: @hungerstrike4Oaklandschools (turn on notifications). We will be keeping it updated with board meetings, petitions, actions, and more. We also have some upcoming events where folks can plug into the community building that’s happening. Freedom Fridays, an event birthed during the strike that celebrates community joy in the midst of the struggle, happening on the last Friday of every month. This event will be taking place at Westlake Middle School 2629 Harrison St, Oakland CA. 94612.