Parties Unite at Pershing Square Protest

Teachers, students and concerned citizens came together Thursday in downtown Los Angeles to protest education funding cuts. Starting at Pershing Square, demonstrators marched and then rallied at the governor's office on South Spring Street. A broad coalition of organizations were present in what was called a "National Day of Action to Defend Education." Central to their complaint was the disparity between the funding of education and the funding of war.

"If we stop the wars for one week, we can pay for the entire amount of cuts to education," Cameron Quinn said, addressing the crowd of protesters. Quinn is the president of the SMC Students for Social Justice. He argues that community colleges are working-class campuses that bear the brunt of budget cuts.

Iraq war veteran and ANSWER Coalition organizer Michael Prysner also addressed the protesters. Prysner, who was part of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, says within a year he realized the U.S. government was not in Iraq for its stated altruistic purposes. "Our enemy is not over there," he told the crowd. "Our enemy is right here."

Prysner says the amount of money California taxpayers contribute to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could pay for 17 million four-year scholarships. "The wars only benefit defense contractors and industry moguls," he said.

Also present at Thursday's march and rally was SMC student Jung Gatoona. Helping hold up a banner for the LaRouche Political Action Committee, he says he is unhappy with the Obama administration and state budget cuts. "The money being spent on Iraq, Afghanistan and corporations could go to education," he said. "We are not investing in infrastructure."

Many protesters drew a connection between California's education woes and America's wars. When referring to the U.S. defense budget, high school teacher Sherwin Boucher said, "a fraction of that can solve all these problems."

Boucher emigrated to the U.S. from Trinidad, a country, he says, where education funding is much different. "In Trinidad, all education is free, all the way up to Ph.D.," he said. "And this country, with all its wealth, cannot give it to us."

This understanding of war and education funding might exist in part because of someone like Andy Griggs, a social justice educator and progressive activist. "When we go to war with Afghanistan and Iraq, we are also going to war at home against social services programs, whether it's for women, the disabled, the elderly, children in terms of education or healthcare, all of those suffer," he said in a telephone interview. "I've been trying to make the connections...and that's one of the reasons why I really got involved with the March fourth movement."

Jim Lafferty, KPFK radio host and Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild L.A. Chapter, put things in a historical context. He said the anti-war movement has always demanded money for jobs instead of war, but not since the Vietnam War has the disparity been so great.

"It's more prominent now," he said. "Social sacrifices have moved to front and center."

Lafferty was present at the demonstration as part of a National Lawyers Guild effort to make sure the rights of protestors were not infringed upon by the LAPD. To which, he said, he had not observed or heard of any such incidents.

Aside from the arguments made against funding wars, there was a visible camaraderie between teachers and students as they united in a common cause. Los Angeles Community College professor Salvador Sanchez brought several of his political science students to the protest.

Sanchez despairs over the current state of education. "We have a class room capacity of 35," he said. "I have to tell some students I don't have room for them. We are destroying people's lives."

Natalia Swader, one of Sanchez's students, summed up in a few words what everyone at Thursday's protest was doing. "I'm fighting for better education," she said.

The march and rally occurred peacefully. LAPD Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz said there was only one arrest just prior to the demonstration after a person pushed a police officer. "I'm not even sure if that was related to the protest," he said.

Diaz estimated the crowd size at 2,500. Thursday's downtown demonstration was part of a larger coordinated effort to call attention to budget cuts, layoffs and tuition fee increases. The Los Angeles Times reported there were "generally peaceful rallies, walkouts and teach-ins at universities and high schools throughout California and the nation."