SF Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin talks about life as a full time organizer with the community occupation of Parker Elementary School in East Oakland
by People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, SF Bay View Oakland Bureau
The community occupation of Parker Elementary School, which has been going on since late May, was a courageous act in order to stop the Oakland Unified School District from closing the East Oakland school, which lies on a small hill overlooking the MacArthur strip. At the beginning of the month of July, the School Board had a re-vote on the school closing, where the community was outvoted again by politicians who hold the interests of developers and charter schools higher than the interests of the Black, Brown and Pacific Islander students who live in the area surrounding the school.
Tongo Eisen-Martin, the San Francisco poet laureate, has been one of the original and core organizers holding down the Oakland school occupation on a 24-hour basis. I got an opportunity to sit down with him to discuss some of the looming questions that supporters of the occupation have as well as people who live in the surrounding community.
We talked about his reason for being involved, as well as what actually is and has been happening at the community-occupied school. He also gives his thoughts on why he believes utilizing the community occupation tactic was necessary. Tongo has a very sharp mind with some great ideas that he, his comrades and the supporters are organizing to put into action. Check him out.
JR Valrey: What made you personally get involved with the community occupation at Parker Elementary in East Oakland? How long have you been involved?
Tongo Eisen Martin: I got involved with Parker as soon as I heard that mothers and students decided that instead of accepting the further destruction and destabilization of the cultural life of the people through school closure, they were going to put themselves on the line in an act of direct resistance and self-determination. This was night one of the liberation and I have been with them ever since.
JR Valrey: What has been happening inside of Parker since the community takeover/occupation of the school?
Tongo Eisen Martin: We have been basically providing people’s education for youth and adults, keeping the school running while also holding political education classes for adults, survival programs like free food and clothing, movement trainings as well as throwing cultural events.
JR Valrey: Why was the community occupation tactic necessary at this juncture in the campaign to keep Parker and other Oakland schools open in the Black and Brown communities?
Tongo Eisen Martin: We believe it was necessary because Oakland, and really the Bay Area in general, with the successful ethnic cleansing of Black and Brown people from its municipalities, has grown more and more institutionally hostile towards us. We don’t have the numbers to keep them in electoral check.
The powers that be looked on all of these efforts sociopathically.
At best, some of us have eked out some neocolonial power in our domestic colonies to do a little negotiating. But ultimately we are too few and too destabilized to even be taken serious by their politicians. Please believe that all other avenues of asking for the schools to not be closed had been exhausted, including a hunger strike where people did serious harm to their bodies in protest.
The powers that be looked on all of these efforts sociopathically. You can actually expect even more hostility from the governance of the Bay Area in the near future. And so it is time for us to move our organizing efforts into more efforts to take liberated territory ourselves and not wait for benevolence or conscience that the system has long displayed that it has never had.
JR Valrey: What kind of jobs have you had within the community occupation campaign? Can you talk about what you are doing with the political education class at Parker and why you feel it is necessary?
Tongo Eisen Martin: I have conducted political education classes for a program we have called Solidarity Sundays. Every Sunday we do a combination of political education and trainings. Our main focus now is on current events – the current state of geopolitical events, getting a sense of the macro picture that is creating the conditions we are fighting in so that we can, in turn, synthesize the correct political strategy for revolutionary struggle.
JR Valrey: How has the community responded to the community occupation of Parker so far?
Tongo Eisen Martin: The community has supported the campaign from day one. We are still providing educational programming for their children. But even small acts of showing that they were in spirit with the resistance were big for morale, especially in the opening stage of the liberation.
Every Sunday we do a combination of political education and trainings.
In the beginning, we had a lot of people posted outside the school 24 hours a day. Small acts like them bringing us water and food went a long way in sustaining that most grueling phase.
JR Valrey: What are the organizers’ plans for the community occupation of Parker when school starts in less than two weeks?
Tongo Eisen Martin: We are looking at different models for running programming for the liberation once school starts. There will still be a hybrid of youth and adult oriented programming. We’ll just have to readjust the schedule to match the new conditions. But the objective is to remain structurally fluid.
JR Valrey: What are your views on the person who was appointed to the school board to replace the school board member who resigned recently? What are your views on Azlinah, one of the founders of the community occupation of Parker, possibly running for that seat in the upcoming November elections if she applies to run?
Tongo Eisen Martin: I’m not too familiar with the person who was appointed, but I hear that they are just another henchperson for the ruling class agenda. I think Azlinah is a good leader in general (regardless of what position she ever gets her hands on) in that she synthesizes her actions from a position of the people’s needs and never loses that mass tether.
JR Valrey: What kinds of material support is needed at Parker?
Tongo Eisen Martin: The priority is mass participation. We want the people to know that this is your place to put your revolutionary ideas into practice. We are looking for more people who would like to facilitate their own programming and use the place as a meeting space to throw people’s assemblies, to throw cultural events – and of course come participate in the programming we have going on. This was always meant to be an exercise in the growing mass imagination and consciousness, never just the instincts of a few people.
JR Valrey: How could people stay updated with what is going on with the community occupation of Parker Elementary in East Oakland?
Tongo Eisen Martin: Parkercommunityschool.com
JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, heads the SF Bay View’s Oakland Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook. Visit www.BlackNewWorldMedia.com to read more.