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 (http://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 (http://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.
When public 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 public good.
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.