Last Night's Ruckus: The Great Walk-Out on Cathie Black

by Chadwick Matlin

Last night in Fort Greene, more than a thousand people came to shout their way through a hearing. They were at the Brooklyn Technical High School to voice rowdy opposition to the shuttering of twelve more New York City public schools. Earlier this week, the city’s Panel for Education Policy — a body separate from the Department of Education, though filled with a majority of Bloomberg appointees — had already voted to close ten schools. So last night, everyone was back for a second helping — and the teachers’ union and its supporters came hungry.

Before the meeting, the union rallied its members along Dekalb Avenue for more than an hour. The union was here to protect its teachers’ schools, regardless of whether the Dept. of Ed. is right in classifying them as failures. The Dept. says these schools are better closed than salvaged: that a new culture is what’s necessary, and you can’t have a new culture without a new school. The union says the schools only “failed” because they were saddled with a great influx of special needs and non-English-speaking students. It believes Bloomberg rigged the system, and that the schools had no choice but to choke on their own hardships.

But this wasn’t just about the teacher’s union and an administration frustrated by it: there were hundreds of charter school advocates in attendance as well.

So the crowd’s passion was also laced with worry over charter schools’ role in the future of American education. Other schools — some of them charters — will move into the closed schools, which means, for one thing, that the union may not have as much influence as it once had. (For another thing, it means that a number of people will make a lot of money.) The charters — as people who have seen Waiting for Superman can attest — think the union’s intractability is part of the problem.

Both constituencies believe the same thing — the children are our future. But each side has so zealously protected their different methodologies that they’ve curdled into warring ideologies.

The auditorium of Brooklyn Technical High School is a regal space: hundred-foot ceilings, a balcony with golden railings, four chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Many came dressed for a color war. P.S. 9 parents and teachers wore white shirts with a hand-designed logo. Brooklyn Collegiate East was in yellow; there was a swath of people in blue with shirts that read “Chancellor Black, Do Your Homework.” Jamaica High School’s beaver mascot — whose life is at stake, along with his school’s — waddled through the aisles. Students — just as plentiful as teachers — ran up and down the aisles blowing neon whistles that were even shriller than their screams. Somebody had an airhorn.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please find your seats, the meeting is about to begin” came over the loudspeaker. Another yelp went through the crowd, and if there was anyone who was seated before, they were now standing and chanting.

Four minutes later, she emerged: Cathie Black, up on the stage, her gaze focused on her seat. The boos were immediate, and the chanting turned to: “Black Must Go!” and “Send Black Back!”

Black and her colleagues sat at a concave semi-circle of card tables draped with cheap plastic tablecloths. Black was at the back of the semi-circle, at least thirty-five feet from the front row of the audience.

Her opening remarks were completely drowned out by boos, whistles and chants. She was more a captive than a scapegoat. Once the crowd quieted down — it took another few minutes — the true power dynamic revealed itself. She was, after all, the one still on stage.

Eventually the hearing began in earnest — and it was truly a hearing. For the next four hours, the panel spoke only to call the next speaker and then to tell speakers that they’d run out of their allotted time. No matter how severe the insult, the panel would not respond. 350 people had signed up to have their say. A sampling:

• “I never saw a more blatant example of racism.”

• “You have created the Lost Generation.”

• “Since I know you’ve already made up your minds, I’m not going to address you, I’m going to address the audience.”

• “As far as the UFT is concerned, this panel, this process, is illegitimate.”

Black was attentive throughout. She glanced down every now and then to read something, but her eyes most often remained on the speakers. A young man addressed her directly: “Chancellor, you have a chance to change this. The students are not stats. There is a human element.” (Black nodded.)

Once the elected officials — who received priority speaking slots — were done addressing the panel, a student spoke: “John F. Kennedy High School was set up for failure. This entire process is ludicrous. It’s a complete joke,” she began. And at the end: “Save our schools now!”

With this, the room was standing, cheering, clapping, whistling, airhorning. Someone was playing a djembe. And then everyone headed for the exits, cramming through three doors, even as the chairman of the panel was calling for the next speaker. “We’re going to keep running the clock,” he warned, but it was no use, the walkout was on. Black looked out at the crowd, one hand casually held in the air.

Outside, there was jubilation. One couple explained that the union walked out because the panel’s minds were already made up. What’s the point, they asked, of staying and voicing opinions if the results were preordained?

The walkout took at least fifteen minutes. “This is what democracy looks like!” yelled Carlos Martinez — Manhattan-born, Bed Stuy-raised and Bushwick-settled. He says this reminded him of the Egyptian revolution, and that’s inspired him to look at local politics differently. “Seems like our great mayor is becoming a dictator,” he said.

* * *

The rest of the evening was anticlimactic. After the walkout, only a few hundred people remained, and their numbers decreased steadily as the hours march on. A few people spoke out in support of the plan to close the schools. “If I had cancer, I would not be waiting for the treatments that are not working to heal me,” one testified. Most who remain debated whether a Prospect Heights school should be forced to let a charter school come in and share its space.

It was after midnight when the voting finally started. All the schools up for closure were, as expected, voted to be phased out — update: except one! Otherwise, the panel fell in line with the Department of Ed’s — and thus Bloomberg’s — recommendations to close the schools.

Black is not a member of the panel, so she didn’t get a vote. But she did get the floor for the final comment. It was precisely 1 a.m., seven hours after the hearing began.

“It’s been a long night, it’s been a productive one….” she said. “A great deal of time and thought and angst have gone into this, but we believe we have come out at the right place.”

She was speaking off the cuff, looking up into the auditorium. But the room was empty; there was no audience but a scattering of journalists and Dept. of Ed. aides. Everyone else who cared had already turned their backs on her.

Chadwick Matlin is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. He’s on Twitter, but would far rather you just email him.