Bloomberg and protesters grapple over MLK's education legacy

Mayor Bloomberg was greeted with boos as he tried to tie the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. to his own education policies Monday during a speech at the city’s largest celebration for the slain civil rights hero.

A small group of parents and students gathered outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House in Fort Greene to protest what they said were school policies that King would oppose if he were alive today. Once the 26th annual Brooklyn Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. began inside BAM, the group joined with other activists and continued their protest inside.

The event featured live music and speeches from several elected officials, including Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

The protesters, who also included teachers from the Occupy the DOE group and activists from the Alliance for Quality Education, sat quietly through those speeches, but the jeers began raining down from the balcony levels as soon as Bloomberg was introduced.

Bloomberg didn’t hesitate to address his hecklers.

“For those of you who want to express yourself, there’s a time and a place for everything,” he said. “Just remember that we’re here to honor a man who valued education.”

Bloomberg then spoke about his administration’s focus on education over the past decade, telling the audience that “improving the city’s schools has been, hands down, my number one priority and it’s going to remain my number on priority every day for the next two years as well.”

“We’ve made a lot of progress in the city, no matter what some people want to say,” Bloomberg said, adding that that black and Latino students “have led the way.”

The boos continued throughout the entirety of the mayor’s five-minute speech and one particularly disparaging remark rattled the mayor.

“Thank you very much. That’s very gentle. You probably belong in … never mind,” he said in response.

The boos subsided for Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, the event’s keynote speaker. In his 15-minute speech, Walcott talked about his own experience attending city schools and said that it was small but significant gestures of support from neighbors and mentors – what he called “Dr. King moments” – that helped him stay on his path after the death of his parents as a young man.

“You can never underestimate how important it is to remind a young person what they’re capable of and the character that it takes to stay on task and achieve your dreams,” Walcott said.

After the speeches, the protesters gathered in the lobby to discuss the speeches.

“I didn’t agree with what he was saying,” Legacy High School senior Kayla Marte said of Bloomberg. Marte’s school is one of nearly 60 that the city is trying to close this year. “His policy of closing down failing schools just defeats and contradicts what his message is.”

Sonya Rivera, a teacher at the Academy of Business and Community Development, an all-boys secondary school that serves at risk black and Latino students, said that instead of shuttering her school, the DOE should turn it around as part of their Young Men’s Initiative.

“You say you want to help young black and Latino men?” Rivera said. “By all means, use our school as a laboratory.”

Bronx student teacher Elissa Vinnick, of Occupy the DOE, said she attended in part to protest the Panel for Educational Policy and the rubber-stamp process through which school policies are approved.

“I cannot imagine that Dr. King would approve of community members spending hours pouring their hearts out to a panel of people who fundamentally don’t care about what they have to say,” Vinnick said.