A Veteran, Activist, and Teacher: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

At the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, when many activists were still gathered in a park in lower Manhattan, I was part of a small team that was organizing a community group in West Harlem.

It was in October of 2011 when David Suker, a local activist, teacher and veteran, initiated two meetings that brought together this group of activists who started a community-based version of Occupy Wall Street called the West Harlem 99%. The group was based on ideas similar to Occupy Wall Street like using open space to facilitate democratic discussions to create social justice. However, even though the group of us that organized the West Harlem 99% were all heavily involved in Occupy Wall Street, this group was much different—we focused largely on the needs of the community.

One of our first meetings brought together about ten activists in the basement of a small church in the middle of West Harlem. As we settled in, several uniformed police officers invaded our meeting and began to harass us. They tried to coerce individual members to leave the room and talk to them outside. Most of us refused.

We found out later that the police had contacted the priest (who was a supporter of Occupy Wall Street and the West Harlem community) before our meeting and told him we were a group of thugs and he shouldn’t let us gather in his church and he was in danger. The priest, of course could tell we were friendly and well-intentioned, so he tried to support us, but he asked us not to meet in his church because he didn’t want to be harassed by the police. As a result, we were forced to organize meetings in our apartments, cut off from the community, and our larger assemblies in a church 20 blocks away.

As an outspoken member of these groups, David, a fourteen-year tenured teacher, became a prime example of how corporate and government institutions use power to silence citizens who speak out against injustice.

A lot of people argue against teacher tenure. They say the unions protect lazy and ineffective teachers, but when teachers are not protected, how can they stand up to the system we all want to change? Most teachers want to teach. They want to help kids learn and get a good education: it excites them when their students light up with ideas and when they understand a new concept. Most importantly, teachers understand the school system from the inside. They know why it doesn’t work, but they are often afraid to speak out against it. David’s case is an example of why.

After becoming a vocal member of Occupy Wall Street and the West Harlem 99%, David was systematically attacked by the city of New York and the Department of Education (DOE).

David was arrested as part of a large group at Occupy Wall Street when the NYPD caged protestors on a march across the Brooklyn Bridge. He attended political demonstrations frequently and quickly became a target of the NYPD, which pulled him out of several legal protests and political demonstrations and arrested him for political activities including distributing copies of the Occupied Wall Street Journal. Furthermore, by mid-November, the DOE implemented the disciplinary action know as the “rubber room,” which meant David had to report to work but couldn’t teach because of his political arrests. Instead he spent everyday in a disciplinary room while his case was reviewed.

For months the DOE worked to compile a list of charges that led to David’s termination. Since most of the charges were minor infractions and unrelated to his ability to teach, the DOE based his termination on a fraud charge because they claimed he used a false address on his daughter’s school applications to intentionally deceive them.

 Knowing the entire investigation had been an attempt to politically silence him, David brought his case to the New York State Supreme Court. In a rare decision the Supreme Court overturned the DOE’s ruling against David because it determined that the list of charges the DOE presented were not nearly enough reason to terminate a teacher and showed no bearing on his ability to teach or the quality of education he provided. Instead, Justice Schlesinger noted that David was targeted by the DOE stating, “the conduct … regarding a false address for his daughter, never involved Suker’s own school and never would have been discovered but for the DOE’s decision to target Suker to see if an investigation could find something to be used against him.”

For a variety of reasons, including not having steady housing, David had in fact used the address of a friend’s house (where his daughter often stayed) on his daughter’s school applications in 2001 and 2006. However, whether or not David is guilty of this fraud is irrelevant because the law states that the DOE cannot bring up these charges if they are more than three years old. And since NYC high schools are open to all students through the five boroughs, his daughter’s address is irrelevant since she’s been in high school.

Justice Schlesinger determined, “The school’s leadership did not want Suker to remain there as a teacher. They did not like him or approve of his actions. They believed he was insubordinate, that he did not conduct himself properly, that he was getting arrested too often, and probably that he was not a team player.” In other words, the DOE doesn’t like that David is politically active.

People in many jobs who want to exercise their right to speak out against injustice face overwhelming challenges. It raises an important question for us as a society: do we want to live in a world where individual people can express their political beliefs freely without fear of persecution, or do we want corporate and government institutions to hold the power to oppress free speech, press, and assemblage? Do only people who agree with you or only express themselves quietly deserve freedom of speech? While unions may have a bad reputation for several reasons, including protecting ineffective workers, should we trust society’s most powerful institutions with the right to decide who can exercise freedom and who can’t?

David is a veteran who served his country, a teacher who serves his students, a son who cares for his elderly father, a father who works tirelessly to make a life for his children, and a citizen who only wants to utilize his rights and freedoms as an American. But he is still unable to return to work for 12-18 months because the DOE is appealing its case. Even though David had initially won, the witch-hunt against him continues. In a gross injustice by the NYC DOE, he has been presumed guilty until proven innocent over and over again. Now, being unable to work for almost two years, David is struggling to provide for his daughter and two-year-old son.

Do you really support the troops? Do you really believe in freedom for all? If so, call the public advocate’s office at 212-669-4102 and tweet @deBlasioNYC to let them know you want the case against David Suker dropped.

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The Declaration of Independence (with some minor edits)

Originally presented before Congress on July 4th, 1776:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which … Nature … entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among [people], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. —Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.

The history of the present [American Government—Congress, Courts, and Executives, as well as their cohorts in various media, corporate, and banking industries] is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over the [American people and those abroad]. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

[Government, corporate, and banking institutions and leadership have] refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

[They have] forbidden [the people] to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, (i.e. the US Congress) unless suspended in their operation till [their] Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, [they have] utterly neglected to attend to them.

[They have] has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, (i.e. voting rights, gerrymandering, etc.) a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

[They have] called together legislative bodies [that are incapable and unwilling to submit to the will of the people, except those American who hold enormous fortunes], for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with [their] measures.

[The Executives have ignored the] Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness [their] invasions on the rights of the people.

[They have] refused for a long time, after such [disregard for the rights of the people], to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within (i.e. money and corruption).

[They have] endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners [so corporations can continue to exploit the people]; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands (except to Exxon Mobile, TransCanada, Monsanto, etc).

[They have] obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing [their] Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

[They have] made Judges dependent on [their] Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

[They have] erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

[They have] kept […], in times of peace, Standing Armies [of our young men and women, in positions all over the world] without the Consent of our legislatures [or the people].

[They have] affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power [and use it to usurp civil powers of other free peoples abroad].

[They have] combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving [their] Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops [and police] among us [and keeping us under surveillance]: For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For [control and manipulating] our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offenses

For [disregarding] the free System of […] Laws in [the United States], establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and … [wielding unnecessary military power beyond its] Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these [states].

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For [corrupting and mismanaging] our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

[They have] abdicated Government here, by declaring us [under their] Protection and waging War against us [and in our name].

[They have] has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, [fracked] our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

[They are] at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries (see Academi, formerly Blackwater Worldwide and the exploitation, by government, of our own military abroad) to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

[They have] constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against [other peoples], to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

[They have] excited domestic insurrections amongst us. (deletion of racist characterization of Native Americans)

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. [Political and economic leadership] whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our [wealthiest] brethren [and their congressional counterparts]. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We [the people], therefore, solemnly publish and declare, That [we] are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent [people]; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to [illegitimate power], and that all political connection between [the people and the rule of the wealthiest Americans], is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent [people], [we] have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent [people] may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”