Update: The Oakland Unified school board voted late on Friday night to uphold its plan to close and merge schools this year. Read more.
Around two weeks after Andre San-Chez stopped eating in protest of Oakland school closures, the educator wrote in their journal, “Do they really care? They’re just going to let me waste away.”
San-Chez was referring to district and state leaders who have the power to put a stop to a school closure plan that the OUSD school board approved last week. When they began their strike, San-Chez and their colleague Moses Omolade acknowledged that they could die doing this, but hoped that school board members would feel enough empathy to reverse their decision in order to bring an end to the strike.
Two weeks into the high-stakes protest, and one week after the school board’s vote to close seven schools over the next two years, district officials still seemed reluctant to reverse course.
“I got really sad on those days and I saw our government for what it was, at the state level and our district leaders,” said San-Chez, 33. “It really got me down, but what got me through was the community, and also singing.”
San-Chez, who serves as the choir director for Westlake Middle School, which the board initially proposed relocating by merging with West Oakland Middle School, and Omolade, Westlake’s community school manager, began their hunger strike on Feb. 1. While their school was taken off the modified list of campuses to be closed or merged, that didn’t end the strike.
The pair’s demands were for no schools in Oakland Unified School District to be closed, relocated, or consolidated with another school, for the state to use its budget surplus to pay the remaining balance of the debt that OUSD owes to the state, job protection for teachers and staff who are protesting the closures, and to meet with each of the school board members, the superintendent, and the governor.
As the days wore on, they modified their demands: A meeting with Gov. Gavin Newsom would bring an immediate end to the strike. Newsom didn’t show up, but members of his staff have. Omolade and San-Chez have also met with several school board members and district leaders, including superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell.
On Friday, after 18 days, or more than 443 hours without eating, San-Chez and Omolade announced they are planning to end their strike following a specially scheduled school board meeting in the evening with one item on the agenda: a proposal to postpone all school closures until the end of the 2022-2023 school year.
“I definitely call it a compromise. Because if I had it my way, I wouldn’t end my hunger strike until the vote goes the way I want it to go,” San-Chez said. “But it does feel like a victory for them to even consider this.”
The pair each came up with the idea of doing a hunger strike on their own. San-Chez said they were moved to action after hearing the community plead against school closures during a Jan. 26 board meeting. The next day at school, San-Chez started talking with Omolade, who brought up the idea of a hunger strike. They agreed to do it together.
Omolade, a father of two, is pursuing a degree in Africana Studies at San Francisco State University. He’s studied forms of peaceful protest, and was at the college in 2016 when four undergraduate students participated in a 10-day hunger strike to secure more funding for the College of Ethnic Studies. When news broke in January that OUSD was planning to close schools, Omolade said he felt “powerless.”
“But I know the power of a protest like this, and I’m really glad it shaped up the way it did,” he said.
Throughout the 18 days, visits with friends, neighbors, and community members kept their spirits up.
Omolade’s toughest day was day 4. He was hungry, angry, and on edge. One of his friends, a therapist, came to visit and helped him meditate. They focused on his breathing, and from that moment on, “there weren’t too many more tough moments,” the 35-year-old said.
San-Chez, who was raised in El Paso, Texas said their father was the one who taught them to stand up for their loved ones. For San-Chez, right now this means their students. Each day of the strike, San-Chez talked with their dad, who often ended the calls in tears.
“But he’s been supportive from the start,” San-Chez said.
Each day of the protest, San-Chez sported a jean jacket, embellished with a sparkly Black power fist on the back, and handwritten mottos like “No cuts, no closures.”
Omolade carried around a Fujifilm instant camera to document the protest. He estimated that he’s taken 100 pictures a day. Initially, Omolade set out to document what he thought could be the end of his life for his children, but now he’s eager to display the photos for the community.
A medical team from the “Do No Harm” Coalition at UCSF has been monitoring the hunger strikers. A week into the protest, the team took Omolade to the emergency room for medical attention, but he was later released.
Over the next few weeks, the pair said they will spend time recovering and introducing solid foods back into their diets. In the past 18 days, they’ve had nothing but water, vitamins, and electrolytes. Omolade, who is Nigerian, said his first solid meal will be iyan and egusi, or Nigerian pounded yams with melon seed soup and callaloo, a leafy green, from Ruth’s Buka in East Oakland.
“I truly believe in the resiliency of the human body, so I’m really excited to get back to the process of eating good food, of laughing belly laughs, of running and chasing kids, and exercising my body and my spirit,” said Omolade, who lost 20 pounds.
For San-Chez, tamales from Tamaleria Azteca in North Oakland will be their first meal of choice. In a few weeks, San-Chez will head back to the classroom to start planning for Westlake’s first spring musical.
But they said their fight isn’t over. If OUSD votes today to postpone the closures, the pair will continue organizing with the community and start looking toward the fall, when three school board members will be up for re-election.
“This might seem like an end but we’re committed to this cause,” San-Chez said. “If you mess with the kids, you mess with us.”