Local Peace Economy

Oklahoma's Revolution Didn't End with Teacher Strikes—It's Going Much Further

Oklahoma is gearing up for changes across the state in the 2018 midterm.

Oklahoma teacher walkout, April 2018
Photo Credit: Atom Ray / Flickr

Oklahoma is in the midst of a revolution, with rolling teacher strikes statewide. Teachers have taken over the state capitol building, pressuring legislators to give them—and their fellow school employees—a raise. At the time of this writing, more state agencies, from Corrections to Mental Health to Transportation, are joining the teachers in their fight, and are getting louder about their budget shortfalls, too. While the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA—the primary teacher’s membership organization) recently announced the strike is over, the teachers continue to strike and walk out, and, according to a leader of the teacher’s strike, are seeking a new union that will actually represent their interests.

Meanwhile, legislators are seeking ways to punish the striking teachers, and have accused the teachers of bussing in protesters, and local police call the teachers “terrorists." 

In other words, the current state of unrest in Oklahoma is far from over, and state workers are far from being done protesting.

Adding fuel to the fire is the 2018 gubernatorial election. The state primaries, along with a popular medical marijuana ballot question, are June 26. (The state currently has some of the toughest marijuana laws in the nation, with 55 people still serving life sentences for non-violent drug crimes, including marijuana offenses.)

There is a rallying cry rumbling in the state to replace every single elected official this year.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media continues to miss the mark on what’s happening on the ground locally. The state’s demographics betray the media’s portrayal of Oklahoma as Republican red and lily white: Most registered voters in Oklahoma are registered Democrat or are unaffiliated. Bernie won the primary easily, and got more votes in the primary than Trump did. A third of Oklahomans are African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and those of mixed race.

And still, the demographics of Oklahoma are changing: In Guymon, a small town in the Oklahoma panhandle, just north of the Texas border and hours from the nearest shopping mall, 37 languages are spoken in the public school system of just 3,000 students. Here, a teacher assistant’s full-time salary starts at just over $12,000 a year.

The news has been teeming with tales of teachers selling their plasma or working five jobs to make ends meet, yet the truth is it’s state workers who are impoverished, across the spectrum. While the poverty rate in the U.S. has fallen over the last 10 years, the poverty rate in Oklahoma has steadily risen

And that’s only scratching the surface of the reasons for Oklahoma’s revolution. What’s boiling underneath is the knowledge that the state should be exceedingly wealthy: Fossil fuels are kings here, and oil, gas, and coal are sucked from the earth, from the rural countryside to the state capitol building in Oklahoma City. Decades of sweetheart deals have left the state paying those industries more than those industries pay the state.

Fossil fuel industries have been polluting with impunity for as long as they’ve been mining or pumping the resources, leaving entire towns, like Bokoshe and Dover, poisoned. Former state attorney general and current EPA director Scott Pruitt eliminated the environmental unit of the OK-AG’s office. Add in a slurry of corruption, cutbacks, and incompetence, and the state’s biggest environmental offenders are free to continue to poison Oklahoma’s citizens, air, land, and waterways. 

The bottom line of what’s happening here is that people are sick and tired of politics as usual—the good ’ol boy system, they say, must end. 

But many are skeptical of both parties. Even most of the Democrats in Oklahoma are considered “Dixiecrats,” and in the primaries, the Democratic Party favorite is former state attorney general Drew Edmondson, who oversaw the death penalty execution of dozens of Oklahomans.

Meanwhile, Connie Johnson, the Our Revolution candidate, is the African-American former state senator who started the state’s Our Revolution chapter. Johnson is in a strong position, but seems to currently be out-fundraised by Edmondson.

With replacing every elected official becoming a rallying cry, it’ll be interesting to see who gets voted in to state offices—and how many continue business as usual—and how the revolution impacts the rest of the country.

 

 

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Valerie Vande Panne is an Independent Media Institute writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. She is the founder of Blackbird Literacy, an organization providing books to residents and literacy programs in Detroit. Connect with her on Twitter @asktheduchess.