Hunger strikers protest school budget cuts in Philadelphia

NBC Philadelphia – Demetrius Jackson, 29, was brought to tears handing over a red ribbon to Olney Charter High School teacher Mark Karcz Friday morning. The action signified Jackson calling an end to an 8 day hunger strike protesting the School District of Philadelphia budget cuts.

“A lot people thought we were crazy. I’m here mainly because of my daughter and I care for people. The future of these children is important,” said Jackson. “No parent will feel comfortable dropping their kid off at school with no safety there.”

A handful of local hunger strikers have occupied a pop-up tent on the sidewalk outside Governor Tom Corbett’s Center City office for the past 12 days. They are hoping to convince Corbett to allocate $120 million of state funds to Philadelphia schools. The state budget deadline is Sunday at midnight.

The strikers hope their actions will sway Corbett to help Philadelphia students.

Today was the final day of fasting for Jackson who did so in honor of his 7-year-old daughter, an incoming first grade student at Henry R. Edmunds Elementary School. The red ribbon he proudly wore signified he was a hunger striker for more than one day.

Jackson said in place of food, he drank more than a gallon of water each day, used the bathroom more than 9 times each day and lost about 10 pounds. He ended the strike today because he needed to return to work.

“I ended my strike with a cup of juice today,” Jackson said.

The hunger strikers are protesting massive education layoffs in Philadelphia and are calling on Corbett to prioritize safe schools.

The rotating group of activists has been fasting since June 17 to demand the funding needed to rehire about 1,200 lunchtime aides. The original four fasters had to stop after 8 days due to health concerns. The current five fasters have been encouraged by local visitors and those who have traveled from New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, New Haven and Washington, D.C.

Juanita Jones is a lead food service worker at Olney Elementary and is hoping to get her job back. She sipped water and shared how well she felt on day 5 of her fasting participation. The strike tent has become home for her with plenty of water, fans and a quiet corner, partitioned off by a cardboard wall with a cot nearby.

“Everybody has come to visit and support us. It’s wonderful, uplifting,” said Jones. “We need as much support as we can get.”

This morning, a group of 11 community members from New Haven, Conn. showed up to lend their support and join the fast for a day. They were given black ribbons to wear on their arms in solidarity.

“I’m here because these people inspire me,” said Mark Rivera of New Haven.

His wife Susan Valentine tweeted him well wishes this morning: “My awesome husband and other leaders from New Haven headed to Philly today for one day support fast!”

Rivera said his wife would have joined him if she were not pregnant and due in a month.

Yale University employee Dolores Colon was in tears as she spoke about why she had traveled four hours to drink water for the day in Philadelphia. Colon recalled being a lunch aid when her two sons were school age.

“It reminds me of Ghandi. Citizens standing up for what they believe is right — that’s dedication,” said Colon. “I can be here for a day but go and have a steak when I go home.”

The aides are among more than 3,800 public school employees who will lose their jobs next week because of the district’s $304 million deficit.

The “Fast for Safe Schools” is organized by Unite Here, a labor union representing the aides. Participants drink only water.

On Friday, the fasters walked into Corbett’s neighboring office to deliver a petition signed by at least 1,000 people.

Fifteen elected officials fasted in solidarity with the group on Thursday, including district attorney Seth Williams and councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez.

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