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Students prepping for protests get activism lesson from OWS

Occupy Wall Street activists Justin Wedes (right), and filmmaker Kevin Breslin (center) speak to a small group of students and staff at Paul Robeson High School, including English teacher Stefanie Siegel (left).
Occupy Wall Street activists Justin Wedes (right), and filmmaker Kevin Breslin (center) speak to a small group of students and staff at Paul Robeson High School, including English teacher Stefanie Siegel (left).

This week, the subject of Justin Wedes’s regular after school meeting with Paul Robeson High School seniors was part lesson on activism and social media, and part strategy session.

Meeting in the East Brooklyn school’s first-floor student lounge, which in the past year has served both as a place to unwind at the end of a long school day and a place to strategize ways to challenge the city’s school closure policy, Wedes detailed the plans to protest at the meeting where city officials will vote on which schools to close.

Wedes, who is a former city teacher, vocal opponent of school closures, and high-profile Occupy Wall Street organizer, is marshaling activists from within schools to join the Occupy movement in commandeering the evening PEP meeting, effectively prohibiting the agenda proceedings.

Wedes said he has spoken with students and teachers at a handful of city schools this winter in preparation for the event, including Herbert H. Lehman High School and Legacy High School for Integrated Studies.

On Thursday, the city’s Panel for Education Policy is scheduled to vote on half of this year’s controversial slate of school closures. In past years, protesters have delayed the evening vote until the early hours of the following morning. Wedes said the goal is to prohibit the vote from happening at all.

“We’re going to occupy it. We’re going to shut it down,” he said to the gathering of a half-dozen students and staff from Robeson. The PEP “won’t be able to vote.”

Under the banner of “Occupy the Department of Education,” an Occupy Wall Street spin-off, scores of educators, students and people unaffiliated with the public education system have used civil disobedience to derail or shut-down a number of public meetings where the chancellor and other education officials have appeared this school year. One meeting hosted under the auspices of the PEP, was cut short after droves of chanting protesters used the “people’s mic” to take over and staged a walk-out; but unlike tonight’s meeting, it was a special meeting on the Common Core standards with no formal agenda or voting period.

As a city teacher, Wedes made it his goal to inform students about political issues, and he became a leader in protests against school closures and chemicals in schools. But since resigning from teaching in 2010, he has devoted virtually all of his energy to activism, emerging as a spokesperson in the Occupy movement. Through it all, he has been meeting with students — most often at Robeson, but also at Lehman High School in the Bronx and elsewhere — to galvanize them to act against policies they feel marginalize them.

Wedes said the routine of past PEP meetings‘—where PEP members have never voted against an agenda item—demonstrates the need for a drastic change.

“We’ve been through this for years and years,” he said. “You can have hours of public comment, and every single parent and teacher and principal, every student and soon-to-be student who’s not even old enough to be in school can make the most heartfelt plea to these schools to keep their school open, and then at four in the morning, after 7 hours of public comment, motion to vote and then in 30 seconds all those schools are shuttered.”

Several Robeson students said they planned to attend tonight’s meeting to tell DOE officials about the detriments of rising class sizes, and how the phase-out policy has impacted their high school careers.

“I just hope that this whole thing stops, and it ends sooner rather than later,” said Ana Leguillou, a senior who has been active in past protests. “Everything fails, but you have to keep trying and trying in order to succeed. It may be too late for us but that doesn’t mean we should just stop altogether. If we can prevent other schools from meeting the same fate that we are going through…that’s what drives us to keep fighting against it.”

Wedes said the protesters will use a popular call-and-repeat speaking tactic, called a “mic check,” or a “people’s mic,” to drown out the Department of Education’s official microphone.

“Everybody will have a chance to speak, on the People’s mic—On our mic, not on theirs,” he said. “Even schools that aren’t slated for closure should come out ,and will come out.”

The thrum of OWS and the movement’s signature tactics have inflected many school protests this year. Last week, students at Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School shouted “mic check!” several times before speaking at the school’s closure hearing. And several OWS activists taught students from Legacy High School for Integrated Studies, Lehman High School, and others how to use the “people’s mic” during a protest at Union Square.

Wedes has been meeting with Robeson students on an almost weekly-basis since 2010 he said, to talk about activism and plan student efforts to protest DOE measures, such as the decision to phase-out Robeson due to poor performance. Most recently, Wedes invited the filmmaker Kevin Breslin to campus, where they screened a documentary about OWS on a computer in the student lounge after school. Following the viewing, the group discussed issues of racism, class, police power, social media and nonviolence around OWS and other movements.

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