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The ‘Silliest’ Revolutionary: Tongo Eisen-Martin Writes Poetry at an Occupied School

“Before we even get to the classroom, we start with the energy of resistance and in that way, a poem or any type of writing takes care of itself,” Eisen-Martin says.

In his poetry, Eisen-Martin writes about “the neo-confederate tendency that’s been sweeping the nation.”

For him and his fellow activists, this occupation represents an important stand for the right of Black and Brown people to exist and thrive in rapidly gentrifying Oakland.

“The moves they’re making to close these schools is really part of a plan of ethnic cleansing of Oakland,” he says. “If you take a neighborhood and you take out all of its centers of gathering, we’re easier to move to the next reservation.”

A Summer School for the Community, by the Community

The schedule for students on Wednesday, July 6, included breakfast, community circle, jewelry, reading, PE, political education, lunch, math/STEM, free time and history.

Political education is one of the main things that sets occupied Parker and OUSD Parker apart for 13-year-old Jasionna Landry, one of the students at the school.

“[Before], they would only teach us about simple Black history,” she says. “They didn’t really teach us about anything beyond that.”

Another student, 15-year-old Jayvien Bolden, says he is working on a play—admittedly, it’s a little autobiographical—about “a kid whose childhood school is getting shut down and he’s not gonna let it go so easily,” he says . “He’s gonna do everything he can to try to save it. And it’s about him bringing the community together.”

Rochelle Jenkins (right); her son Ella Jayvien Bolden, 15, a graduate of Parker; her daughter Ella Zariah, 12; and another Parker student pose outside the school, May 26, 2022. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Although Eisen-Martin is one of the more high-profile activists in the occupation, “I’m not the main protagonist here,” he says.

That credit goes to Rochelle Jenkins, who began protesting with her four children, including Bolden and her two younger daughters who were still enrolled at the school. That was back in February, when Parker K-8 families found out about the proposed shutdown.

“They were like, ‘Well, mom, we need to go protest.’ And I was like, ‘You guys are absolutely right,’” Jenkins says.

So Jenkins, her kids and a few friends walked down to the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and Ritchie Street with homemade signs and started raising awareness. That snowballed into the current occupation, which Jenkins says can host around 25 to 30 students, teachers and volunteers on any given day.

Christina Beach co-taught a Black history lesson on the day that KQED visited. A former activist, she began to cry when she discussed her reasons for volunteering at Parker.

“The best thing you can do as an activist is create future leaders, and develop them and give them the confidence, skills, knowledge, to carry it on to future generations,” she says. “I feel like I’m part of it, and that’s exciting.”

There’s a lot going on at Parker among the volunteers, the teachers, the students and the spontaneous roller skate parties in the wood-floored gymnasium. But Jenkins says Eisen-Martin is “the glue that holds this whole thing together.”

“We actually all share a similar passion, and that’s a passion for people in the community,” she explains.

“He is truly a revolutionary poet in the sense that his words and his art are revolutionary, and his actions are also revolutionary,” says Anthony Walters, another school volunteer. “He has integrity as a Black man standing up for his community, and that is the strongest message that he can convey.”

Oakland teachers march on the picket line on April 29, 2022, outside Parker K-8 in East Oakland. The Oakland Unified School District closed the school on May 25, 2022. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

‘A Fly In The Ointment for the Powers That Be’

With all the talk of revolution and the fight against fascism, things feel pretty mellow at Parker Community School on a recent Wednesday afternoon. A group of about eight children play piano and run around in a large gymnasium. About four volunteers filter in and out. An older man comes in to get some free food and coffee.

This leaves Eisen-Martin some time to focus on his other projects. His publishing company, Black Freighter Press, put out two new poetry books this month and has one more slated for August. Eisen-Martin’s duties as Poet Laureate include authoring a new collection of poetry for San Francisco’s iconic City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, co-founded in 1953 by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It’s “a beautiful obligation” that’s “coming along,” Eisen-Martin says.

Elaine Katzenberger, publisher and executive director of City Lights Books in her office. (Blue Dahlstrom-Eckman/KQED)

[Read an excerpt from the poem “Third in the World” from Eisen-Martin’s collection Blood on the Fog (City Lights, 2021), published with permission from City Lights Booksellers & Publishers.]

“Poetry is not going to change the world by itself, but poetry changes people,” says Elaine Katzenberger, publisher and executive director of City Lights. “Poetry opens people’s minds and their hearts and stimulates their brains. All of that is what stimulates social change and a sense of community. So poetry used for that purpose is ultimately more powerful than reading some revolutionary tract.”

Katzenberger says that previous San Francisco Poet Laureates have also used their role for activism. “You’re supposed to be in the community stimulating minds and bringing poetry to the people somehow, and different laureates have done that in different ways.”

But at 42 years old, “Tongo is a great deal younger than previous laureates, and he’s also more politically active than I think anyone has been so far,” she explains.

Katzenberger says that Eisen-Martin is a perfect representation of the idea that a poet should be a “fly in the ointment for the powers that be.”

She first heard Eisen-Martin at a poetry reading in 2019, and thought hearing him perform was more like listening to a musician.

“It sounds improvisatory. He’s not reading, he’s actually reciting,” says Katzenberger. “Each time there is a performance it’s a little bit different from whatever else you might have experienced.”

Eisen-Martin’s 6-foot-8 frame commands its own gravity. His voice rumbles, at times lethargic, offering his deliberate, pensive view of the world.

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