Oakland middle school students hold walkout and rally for Palestine (Oaklandside)

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Oakland middle school students hold walkout and rally for Palestine

Student and teacher activists accused the district of ‘suppressing’ discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict after a weekend event was canceled.

by Ashley McBride
Feb. 28, 2024, 4:37 p.m.

Westlake Middle School students march from their campus to Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2025. Credit: Ashley McBride

More than 100 students walked out of Westlake Middle School on Wednesday to protest the cancellation of a meeting that Bay Area labor groups had planned to host at the campus over the weekend in support of Palestine.

The demonstration, planned by Westlake’s Black Student Union, is the latest action by students and staff who are dissatisfied with the district’s handling of events and discussions related to the war in Gaza. 

Bay Area Labor for Palestine, a coalition of local unions, had reserved Westlake for what was billed as a “mass organizing and teach-in” meeting on Sunday. OUSD allows the public to reserve and rent space in its facilities through an online platform. On Saturday, organizers said they received notice from the district that their event could not use the campus because of staffing shortages. 

OUSD did not respond to a request for comment about the meeting cancellation or the student walkout.

Westlake students were joined by representatives from Bay Area Labor for Palestine—a coalition that includes the Oakland and San Francisco teachers unions, Arab Resource and Organizing Center, ILWU Local 10, Jewish Voice for Peace Bay Area, and others—who viewed the district’s action as censorship. Timothy Killings, the advisor of the Black Student Union at Westlake, said his students came up with the idea for the walkout after he told them about the canceled meeting.

Students from Westlake Middle School and Envision Academy gathered at Frank Ogawa Plaza for a rally in support of Palestine. Credit: Ashley McBride

“We pride ourselves on this being a safe space for organizations to talk about the dynamic and the genocide, to be frank, that’s happening in Palestine,” said Killings, who also serves as Westlake’s community school manager. “I’m wholeheartedly for public debate and I tell my BSU that—let the ideas flow and let the community decide what’s right.”

Hamas attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 hostages. In response, Israel has carried out airstrikes and a ground war in an effort to destroy Hamas, a political and military organization that controls much of Gaza. The U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist organization.

More than 29,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war, according to the territory’s health ministry. About a quarter of Gaza’s population, over half a million people, are at risk of famine because of restrictions on food and aid by Israel, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The International Court of Justice ordered Israel in January to take every necessary step to prevent genocide in response to South Africa’s request for an immediate ceasefire. 

Since the war began, the Bay Area has been roiled by protests. Palestinians and their allies have called on local governments to issue ceasefire resolutions and held large rallies in multiple cities. Pro-Israel groups have pushed back, saying that Israel has the right to defend itself and prevent future attacks like the one Hamas carried out and that if local governments weigh in it should be to condemn Hamas.

Between 200 and 300 people attended Sunday’s Bay Area Labor for Palestine meeting, said Judy Greenspan, a member of the Oakland Education Association. The event ended up moving to the Oakland Peace Center not far from Westlake school. Supporters of Wednesday’s protest viewed the school district’s decision to cancel their reservation to use Westlake as the latest move intended to “suppress” discussions about the war in Gaza. 

“Someone in the district closed the school meeting that was going to be held here and we’re going to be walking out because we don’t think that’s okay,” said Davionn Johnson, a seventh grader at Westlake. “We also don’t think that it’s okay for Israel to just go into other people’s land without permission and take their stuff and kill innocent citizens.”

In October, student leaders asked the district to provide them opportunities to discuss the conflict in class and support a ceasefire. This week, more than 200 students and teachers have signed an open letter to OUSD asking the district to expand its curriculum to include Palestinian perspectives. 

Several dozen teachers participated in an unsanctioned teach-in in December to balance what they viewed as one-sided instruction about the war in Gaza and highlight Palestinian voices on the war and the history of the conflict. School district leadership condemned the teach-in. Complaints about the teach-in, including from some Jewish families who feel that it shows a pattern of hostility toward their community by some OUSD staff, have since prompted an investigation by the Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education.

In the fall, a ceasefire resolution was proposed by school board director Valarie Bachelor, but it has not come formally before the board, despite demands by community members at school board meetings. The school board president and vice president, Sam Davis and Mike Hutchinson, released a statement last month explaining that the board supports Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell’s position supporting peace in the region, and the board does not intend to make any other statements about the issue this year. 

Students gather outside of Westlake Middle School after walking out of class on Feb. 28, 2024. Credit: Ashley McBride

Students left Westlake around 11:30 a.m. and walked through downtown Oakland chanting slogans in support of the Palestinian people. They ended at Frank Ogawa Plaza, where they were joined by students from Envision Academy, a charter school in downtown Oakland. As students led the crowd in chants, Killings took groups of students to the nearby Black Panther Party Museum exhibit about the Oakland Community School. 

Students were also planning to speak out at the OUSD school board meeting Wednesday evening. 

“If they’re trying to suppress what we want to say about the Israel-Palestine conflict, then that is suppression of freedom of speech, which is no better than something that the communist nations of China or North Korea might do when suppressing dissidents,” said Forest Cho, an eighth grader at Westlake. “I heard a saying a few years ago, ‘If words are crushed, soon too people will be.’ Which I think means that if freedom of speech continues to be suppressed, a nation will fall more and more into nationalism, fascism, or any other type of extremist ideology, which will most likely result in a dictatorial state,” he said.

In recent years, Westlake has been the site of multiple student and staff protests: In 2022, students held a walkout to oppose a school closure plan that would’ve merged Westlake with West Oakland Middle School, and two staff members went on a hunger strike for 18 days to protest the closures.


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