NYC Public School Teachers Protest Budget Cuts
JOHN YANNO rushed out of a pharmacy in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, across the street from the John Jay High School building where he teaches sixth-grade social studies. A solid mass of untrustworthy gray clouds stood still above his head.
Shortly before school let out for the day at 3 p.m., most people on the street were dressed in winter coats; but Yanno wore a short-sleeved flannel shirt, his cropped, salt-and-pepper goatee his only protection from the cold.
He had gone to the pharmacy looking for poster board; not finding any, he returned to the school, sailed past security with a quick hello, and whizzed towards the art teacher’s classroom. There, he scored a few pieces.
Heading up the stairs with the oak tag under his arm, he stepped over a pair of gum-snapping girls and made his way through discarded plastic bags and candy wrappers, on his way to his studentless classroom—cramped, boxy and about ten degrees warmer than the hall, thanks to a radiator with a busted thermostat. Lockers lined one side and windows with drawn shades the other; tightly packed desks covered nearly every inch of floor space and posters covered nearly every inch of wall space.
Yanno laid out a small square of poster board on a student’s desk.
MONEY FOR, he wrote in black, SCHOOLS, in green, NOT, in black, WAR!, in red.
“This is all I do,” Yanno said. “I spend half my life making signs.”
It was March 19, the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, but Yanno wasn’t preparing for an anti-war protest, though he had participated in nearly all of the New York peace marches since he had become politically active in the city in 2004. This year, he was gearing up instead for a rally outside City Hall against cuts Mayor Michael Bloomberg had recently proposed to the city’s education budget.
Yanno, 40, started teaching in Brooklyn a little over four years ago. He grew up in Pennsylvania and twenty years ago joined the Navy, with tattoos on his arms from ports around the world to prove it. A petty officer, he served in Operation Desert Shield, the build-up to Operation Desert Storm; his ship transported Marines to the Gulf.
After his discharge, he bounced around the east coast in different jobs and different schools, eventually earning his teaching certificate and going on to get a Master’s degree in history. He taught in the Florida Keys for a few years before moving to Brooklyn.
Most of his friends were in New York, and the city fits his politics better than conservative Florida. Since adolescence, he has leaned left, toppling over at times into ideologies from Maoism to anarchism; about two years ago, he settled into socialism.
Given his card-carrying membership in the International Socialist Organization, his military service seems politically inconsistent. He considered himself anti-war at the time, but more importantly he longed to get out of the Pennsylvania town where he’d grown up and where he was working aimlessly as a gas station attendant.
Yanno’s personal life informs his socialism, from the trials he sees his working class family go through—his sister has to send her kids to her parents’ house in the winter because she can’t afford the heating bill—to the hardships that face his students, who like most teachers he calls his “kids.”
His kids often have to bear the burden of what isn’t their fault. They didn’t cause the latest recession, and yet they have to suffer its effects. A lot of his students live in housing projects with a dearth of open spaces in which to run around, so Yanno started a running club and would take them to Prospect Park. But he worries that, because of the cuts, he won’t be able to do that this year. With all the problems these kids have to face, the last thing they need is cuts to their education, Yanno said.
On Fridays, “movie day,” he shows his students films like “Walkout,” about Mexican-American students who led thousands to walkout of their East Los Angeles high schools in the late 1960’s, and “Boycott,” about the African-American boycott of municipal buses in Montgomery, Ala. The belief that change comes from below drives Yanno’s life, so he protests against the injustices he perceives and tries to enlist others to do the same.
With his poster finished, Yanno hit the halls to collect fellow teachers. Already, a few had bailed on him. One wasn’t coming because he’d taken the day off after a student had punched him the day before.
In the halls, Yanno kept one eye on the kids to make sure they were behaving, and kept half his mouth open, ready to tell them to. But with the situation under control, Yanno stopped to talk to John Miller, a short, clean-shaven teacher in a tie and slacks.
“You coming?” Yanno asked him.
“No, I’m not.”
“Are you scared of the rain?”
“Yeah,” Miller said, laughing.
“The Bolshevik Revolution was in the winter.”
“Well, this isn’t the Bolshevik Revolution.”
“Yeah,” Yanno admitted, adding, “maybe one day.”
Yanno continued on, greeting everyone from students and fellow teachers to security personnel by name. As he walked briskly through the halls, his keys—nearly every teacher at John Jay has a large set of keys on a long string—slapped against his leg, keeping beat like an allegro tambourine.
“Are you coming tonight?” he called out to one young teacher standing several yards away.
“I got class,” the teacher said apologetically. Several young teachers had given Yanno the same answer.
He went back to his classroom and the school’s librarian, Linda, arrived.
“I got posters if you want to make signs,” Yanno told her. “There’ll be signs there but they’ll be pretty generic.” She picked up a marker.
“I know we’re protesting,” the librarian said, “but who are we protesting to?”
He also might have added New York State, which has been short-changing city schools for decades. After ten years of lawsuits, a judge ruled in 2005 that the city was due $15 billion in funding, but most of that money still hasn’t arrived. In fact, before Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned, following the revelation that he had solicited a prostitute, he had proposed cutting $193 million from classroom operating aid, money that schools use, for example, to reduce class sizes and staff English as a Second Language programs.
On top of that, the city had proposed cutting $180 million to the education budget—$100 million of it coming right out schools—while proposing 5 percent cuts next year from each school’s budget, totaling an extra $324 million. As the country moves into a recession, city, state and federal governments have called for cuts to budgets across the board.
“This is Round One,” Yanno told the librarian. “There’s a Round Two coming up, and probably a Round Three.”
Standing at the front of his classroom, Yanno went on a tirade against wasteful government spending.
“$280 million a day are going to fight the war in Iraq, they’re spending millions to bail out Bear Sterns. This is what I call upside-down priorities.”
Linda the Librarian got lost. Isn’t this a city issue?
“It’s the same concept. The money’s there,” Yanno said. “It’s misplaced priorities.”
They returned to sign making.
“Can I say something about how much whores cost?” Linda asked, in reference to former Gov. Spitzer. Yanno, however, recommended that she settle on something more anodyne, along the lines of, “No More Broken Promises. Fund Our Schools.”
“Should I put it on both sides?”
The wall clock was ticking, so they collected their signs, shut the lights and moved out to the hall. Yanno locked the classroom door.
“What’s important,” he said, “is that we get our bodies to the rally.”
IT MIGHT have seemed ill considered for organizers to plan an anti-budget cuts rally to coincide with the Iraq War’s fifth anniversary, but the protest was unlikely to lose many supporters to other demonstrations. For starters, anti-war organizers had not planned any significant events for March 19. The anti-war movement in America has splintered into competing groups whose rivalry impedes the organization of large-scale, unified marches. Also, Yanno said that he believes the groups are laying low this year, an election year, in an effort not to embarrass the Democrats.
Secondly, few people are protesting these days. Public opposition to the war has snowballed, but organizers can’t translate that into bodies on the street. About two in 10 Americans polled in 2003 thought the war was a mistake; today, that number stands at around six in 10. The anti-war movement, though, climaxed too quickly; on March 19, 2003, the day the war began, estimates say that between 200,000 and 1 million marchers took to the streets of New York City alone. Five years later, organizers could not muster 2,500 people on a Saturday to stretch, hand in hand, from river to river along 14th Street.
Judging from low turnout, potential protestors seem to have become jaded. Those who took to the streets in 2003 saw the effects of their resistance in the subsequent five years—increased violence, increased troop levels, skyrocketing spending and no real anti-war support mainstream politicians. It seems like the Iraq War has become a fact of life in these United States that large demonstrations can’t stop.
This year, Yanno focused his activism on the education budget cuts, a fresher wound than the stale Iraq invasion and an issue local enough, maybe, to make one’s voice audible. But the teachers’ movement suffers from some of the same kind of infighting that has fractured the anti-war movement. Like many large unions, the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City teacher’s union, has a divided membership that disagrees on matters of policy and planning. At least one separate contingent of teachers from John Jay planned to attend the rally separate from Yanno and his group.
The UFT had hardly promoted the rally, putting a flier on their website only the day before. With a membership of nearly 100,000 teachers and paraprofessionals, as well as another 100,000 administrators, counselors and technicians, the union expected 10,000 people to attend the rally. Yanno attributed the low-turnout estimate to cynicism but ever the idealist, he helped to mobilize as many co-workers as he could and together, they headed out.
AFTER A short walk to the subway in a soft drizzle, Yanno stood on the F train platform, holding his protest sign by the edges.
“Mine’s bleeding already,” he said, the colored ink starting to run from its encounter with the light rain.
A group of about 25 fellow teachers and some students, including a small boy, surrounded Yanno on the platform. The boy wore a t-shirt with a photograph, cracked from too many spin cycles, of his deceased uncle printed on the front.
The boy was headed home—not to the protest—but seeing all the signs he smiled and playfully pretended to take part.
“More books!” he shouted, stamping his feet in rhythm. “No money!”
“What was that?” Yanno asked him. “‘No books, more money’?”
The boy laughed and repeated what he had said.
“Oh,” Yanno said. “How about, ‘more books, less sleeping in class’?” The boy laughed again, with embarrassment, and slunk away.
The train pulled in and the group got on. Yanno leaned against the door, civilly disobeying the sticker exhorting not to, and expounded his political philosophies to a young female teacher.
“Anger doesn’t translate into action,” he said. A few feet away, the boy with the cracked t-shirt stood with a friend, looking up at two young male teachers in ties and black overcoats.
“What are you guys doing?” the friend asked.
“You know how you’ve been asking me for papers and pens?” one teacher said. “Well, we’re going to get your paper and pens back.”
“Why can’t you just buy them at the store?”
“Oh, ok. Gimme $20,” the teacher said, holding out his hand. “Unfortunately, we’re not the highest-paid profession.”
When the group exited the subway station near City Hall a little before 4 p.m., they were disappointed to find it had started to rain. Hard.
“It’s not acid rain,” Yanno told them as they huddled beneath the subway entrance’s overhang. “You’ll survive.”
At City Hall, metal makeshift barriers penned in a mass of opened umbrellas, protecting protestors, on the east side of Broadway; police officers turned Yanno’s group away from the head of the rally and directed it to the rear, several blocks north. The west side of the street handled two sidewalks worth of foot traffic. Rush hour had just begun.
Yanno took a windbreaker out of his backpack and slung it over his head by the hood, so that it dangled off his back like a cape. With the librarian and a handful of teachers and students—the larger group had already lost each other in the chaotic traffic—he walked north a few blocks, beneath scaffolding that made maneuvering through the unusually large crowds difficult, to where the free speech zone opened to let people in. He entered the demonstration with his entourage.
Moving through the rally, he immediately began handing out homemade fliers about the cuts, which promoted a talk he was to give in April at Brooklyn College on the flip side. He also sold copies of the Socialist Worker newspaper for a dollar.
“Schools under attack,” he shouted, “find out how you can fight back.” Some passersby took the fliers, which quickly began to disintegrate in the pounding rain.
Around him, a gang of male and female students, giggly and playful, formed a circle and started chanting, huddled underneath multi-colored umbrellas.
Exxon, Mobil, BP, Shell! Take your budget cuts and go to hell!
Yanno watched them with a half-smile, no longer having to worry about keeping kids under control within the confines of the school walls.
Bloomberg, you liar! We’ll set your ass on fire!
Nearby, a rumpled, middle-aged man in a floppy fishing hat stood alone.
“Fix our Xerox!” he shouted.
The rain refused to let up; the crowd, on the other hand, began to give in. What had looked like a large mass when Yanno and the rest arrived soon shrank. The washable marker ink used to make the protest signs mixed with the rain.
“Looks like blood,” a passing cameraman said to a student holding a messy, multicolored sign.
Linda the Librarian held out her hand, her fingers covered in her sign’s bleeding ink. She resembled an Iraqi voter who’d cast several ballots too many.
“My hands are frozen,” she said, “my neck is frozen and I have to get back to Westchester.”
She said goodbye to what was left of the group that she’d arrived with only half an hour before. The few students who remained snuck away shortly thereafter, as well. It was around 4:30 p.m.
Yanno looked at his waterlogged poster, the ink running and the paper shriveling from the rain.
“I’m giving up on this guy,” he said, and tossed the crumpled oak tag to the sidewalk.