More than 100 supporters of Detroit's public schools marched from Catherine Ferguson Academy to the Fisher Building May 10 to protest the recent slew of school closings.
Students, teachers, members of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary -- known by its acronym BAMN -- and other education supporters marched in the street during the nearly four-mile walk that took them from neighborhood streets to Martin Luther King Boulevard, Woodward Avenue and West Grand Boulevard. At times, protesters took up all three lanes of northbound Woodward.
Their goal was to protest in front of the office of Detroit Public Schools emergency financial manager Robert Bobb to express their anger and disappointment at the closure of schools in their community.
The group began its march at CFA in acknowledgement of the students and teachers who occupied the building April 15 in protest of its potential conversion into a charter school. Those inside were arrested and ticketed for being unauthorized persons on school grounds.
CFA caters to teenage mothers by offering daycare for students’ children. Behind the school lies a working farm where students learn agricultural skills.
Chantasia Levingston, a student graduating from CFA in 2012, brought her 2-month-old daughter with her as she marched “because we don’t want our school to close.”
“(CFA) means everything. I’m young, I got a baby, and I’m trying to graduate. I’m trying to keep going. If they close this, I don’t have anybody to watch my baby while I go to school,” Levingston said.
Ikeeah Aoziar travels half an hour from Warren every day to attend CFA but said it’s worth it because she can keep her 19-month-old son, whom she pushed in a stroller during the protest, with her at all times. If she were separated from him while at school, Aoziar said, she would worry about him.
“But here, I can handle my education with a clear mind because I know he’s right downstairs, and if anything happens, I’m right there,” she said.
Nicole Conaway, a teacher at CFA who was among those arrested during the occupation of the school, came to support the cause.
“I’m here to try to keep the school open…We’re saying that our voices are still going to be heard,” Conaway said. “We’re not going to be silenced.”
She said her experience during the occupation of CFA was “exciting” and “definitely well-worth it.”
Schools are a major factor when deciding where to live, Conaway said, so if schools are closed, people leave the neighborhoods. Such depopulation could harm the city.
Donna Stern, the Midwest coordinator of BAMN, said the march was “directed toward all the powers that are behind the drive toward closing schools and privatizing them.”
“We’re trying to basically make clear that no matter who is in that office…Detroiters are prepared to fight to save their schools,” Stern said, referring to the office of the DPS emergency financial manager.
Last week, Gov. Rick Snyder named retired General Motors executive Roy Roberts as Bobb’s replacement as emergency financial manager of DPS. Roberts told The Associated Press that May 14 would be his first day in office.
Bobb told the AP that he would give himself a “B” or “B-plus” for the work he has done since being appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2009.
During his time in office, Bobb has advocated for a $500.5 million bond that allows schools to update their classrooms. Under his watch, the graduation rate in DPS has increased while the dropout rate decreased, according to an article on MLive.com.
Stern, however, disagreed with Bobb’s self-given grade.
“Well, I would certainly give him an ‘F’ from the point of view of trying to improve public schools,” Stern said, referencing his closure of nearly 60 schools, with more possibly on the way.
When Bobb came into office in 2009, the deficit was $200 million. It now totals at least $327 million. Enrollment in the Detroit school district plummeted from 104,000 in 2007 to 74,000 this year, according to the MLive.com article.
In terms of serving Detroit and its students, said Stern, “He’s not just failed; he’s done an aggressive attack against the people he’s supposed to be serving.”
As of press time, a call to the Office of the Emergency Manager had not been returned.
“Everyone has the right to a quality education with extracurricular activities,” said Marie Buck, a WSU graduate student earning her Ph.D. in English.
Buck was one of the “Lansing 13” arrested during the March 24 protest at the State Capitol against budget cuts to higher education. She said her case goes to court May 24.
During the march, protesters carried signs advocating their cause and chanted slogans: “Public education is our right. By any means necessary, we will fight”; “When Detroit students are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”; “Bobb says Jim Crow, we say hell no.” Onlookers curiously watched the group march as car horns honked in support.
After the group headed north on Woodward, an occasional squad car from the Detroit Police Department intermittently drove next to protesters to usher them back onto the sidewalk. After protesters refused, the police cars at one point blocked the two inner lanes of northbound Woodward, forcing protesters to move to the outside.
Three protesters were ticketed. Lacey Harris, one of the three, was put in the back of a police car, but was soon released. She said police did not explain exactly what her ticket was for.
“It was worth it,” Harris said. “It’s a small consequence for the consequences that the youth and…teens are going to have here if their schools are closed and they’re forced out of the education system.”
Once the group reached the Fisher Building, police cars and building security stood nearby to ensure the rally remained peaceful.
Stern said the group did not have a permit to protest.
Students from CFA, Southeastern High School, Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men and Denby High School motivated the crowd with stories of how they were fighting to preserve their schools or extracurricular programs such as fine arts, choir, physical education and robotics teams.
“This is what leadership is,” Steve Conn, a teacher in Detroit for 25 years and a member of BAMN, told the crowd. “We came here today to stand up to save our city. We united across generations, races, genders, political persuasions to save Detroit.”
After the protest, Monica Smith, a BAMN representative who helped organize the event, said she thought the movement was “very powerful.”
“This is only the beginning,” Smith said. “We really wanted to moralize people and get people moving. This is the start of the next phase of keeping the schools open.”