Sep 24, 2009
A few years ago a Colombian friend told
me a story that took place in the 1970's in Buenaventura, a large port town on Colombia's
Pacific Coast. What happened there was both violent and inspiring, and
it makes me think about the crisis in public education we face in California
today. As we embark on a statewide University of California strike on
September 24, it is worthwhile to contemplate where we are going if
we continue down the road we are on.
In my friend's story, as far back as anyone
could remember, corruption had been the norm in Buenaventura. This was
especially true among port officials, who routinely charged illegal "taxes"
on, and confiscated items from, arriving merchandise. Everyone in town
had become resigned to the abuses of a few privileged port workers,
who did as they pleased and answered to none. That was just the way
life was in Buenaventura. That is, until one day when a carton of cigarettes
turned Buenaventura upside down.
A young boy inadvertently caused the upheaval.
He was only ten or eleven years old at the time, and had taken to hanging
around the port during the day. It was on one of these days, lingering
at the port, that the boy was caught stealing the carton of cigarettes.
The response of the port officials was swift and severe. Rather than
reprimanding him and sending him on his way, they roughed him up and
then called the police -- who in turn carted the boy off to jail.
Accounts of what had happened to the boy
rippled through the town. After years of enduring the abuse of port
managers, people in Buenaventura had had it. The very same scoundrels
who were the epitome of thievery themselves had sicced the police on
a young boy who had only done what they did every single day. Angry
crowds gathered at the port gates and demanded that the boy be released,
but to no avail. And then, from the depths of the crowd, calls rang
out to march to the houses of the port officials. In a matter of minutes,
Buenaventura erupted into chaos.
A boy himself at the time, my friend remembered
being caught in his family's apartment during the uprising. Fearing stray bullets,
his parents yelled at him to stay down on the floor. But as angry throngs
streamed by the apartment windows, he could hear the cries for vengeance
from the street below. The next day he learned of the justice meted
out by the mobs.
Upon arriving at the port workers' homes,
the crowds broke down the doors and dragged the men from their houses.
But rather than kill them - which in Colombia would not have been unheard
of - they tied the men to trees in front of their homes. And then the
mobs chose an extraordinary and poetic course of action.
They entered the officials' houses again
and this time took everything out - furniture, TV's, dishes, paintings - all of the ill gotten gains
that the men had accumulated over the years. And then, with the contents
of the houses - the sum total of these men's possessions - piled high
in the middle of the street, they doused the plies with gasoline and
set them on fire. In front
of their eyes, the port officials were forced to watch all of their
"stuff" burned to ashes.
Here in California, on August
6, it was revealed that on the same day that the Board of Regents approved
$813 million in cuts from UC budgets, they also approved pay raises
for more than two dozen executives (https://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/08/06/BASG194N2P.DTL). It was then revealed that on September
17, the same day that the Regents approved a 32% tuition increase, they
once again approved more pay raises for UC employees who are already
making a lot of money (https://www.upte.org/moreexecraises.pdf).
We cannot march to the Board
of Regents' homes, break down their doors, tie them to trees and burn
all their stuff. But some days I sure would like to. Vengeance has its
virtues and in some cases, vigilante justice does too.
officials abuse their positions and the political and justice systems
don't defend us, what do we do? When a select few consider "tough
measures" appropriate for some while doling out goodies to others,
how do we correct this injustice? When officials betray the public trust
by acting on the behalf of only some, rather than in the interest of
the whole, what is to be done? The people of Buenaventura were fed up,
and the people of California should be too.
Earlier this year in Washington, D.C., when
it was revealed that some of the same institutions that had received
taxpayer bailouts were afterword giving out excessive bonuses, Americans
cried foul. In response, the Obama administration pressured executives
and in the end the practice was at least curtailed. Governor Schwarzenegger
should follow president Obama's lead and reverse these unnecessary --
and given the circumstances, obscene -- pay raises. Some of these public
employees make much more than $240,000 per year: a UC salary data publication
shows many faculty and staff making upwards of $600,000 to $2 million
per year. (UC salary list) Who is worth that much money? Answer: In this
budget crisis, no one. The UC Regents should have started their
cuts right there. And if they wont do it, then the Governor should.
Which brings us to back to Buenaventura.
Neither the Governor nor our state legislators have the political will
to insist on any of this. The people who are deciding the fate of public
education in California have failed miserably and have betrayed the
public trust. Therefore, the game for them should be up. Public education
in California should be committed to a new system of management in which
boards of educators AND non-academic employees AND parents AND students,
decide how California's education money gets spent -- and who gets pay
raises and cuts and who doesn't.
During the Bush administration, another
Colombia friend had commented to me, "Man, you guys could really
use a guerrilla here to keep your oligarchy under control."
I admit that at the time of that Republican Reign of Terror, this idea
did have a certain appeal. However, I am not sure that a Californian
FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Californianas) would accomplish
much more than Colombian FARC has there.
But more to the point, in California, we don't need to shoot bullets
to fix things -- at least not yet.
Here in California, our Regents, legislators,
and Governor still understand public outrage in the form of calls to
their offices and most importantly, in the form of a statewide strike
like the one called for on September 24. Now if only Californians will
participate in and support these actions, California could retake its
place as the leader in this country's social policy reform by transforming
its public education into a truly publicly managed
And this would certainly be a preferable
to tying people to trees and burning their stuff. But it never hurts
to hold on to options for the future.
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