As hundreds of people congregated at the south end of the Empire State Plaza concourse, conversations crescendoed to a loud rumble. It was like standing on a crowded uptown platform while the downtown express is barreling through.
But when organizers at Monday's "Call Out Cuomo March on Albany" got everybody pointed in the same direction and chanting in unison — "Fee Fi Fo Fum, look out Cuomo here we come!" — it felt more like a freight train pulling everyone along.
"We are here to make some noise!" said Tracey Gold of the Ichabod Crane Teachers Association.
More than a thousand parents, educators and public school advocates came together to protest Gov. Cuomo's anti-public education budget that shortchanges students while advancing a "test-and-punish" agenda.
"We need to let the public know what it's really turning into in the classrooms every day," Gold said, as advocates were still arriving. With the insane emphasis on testing over teaching, on blaming and shaming, "it's not always the environment they'd wish for their children."
Laurie West, a special education teacher from Ossining TA, described the tears of her students with disabilities who simply cannot perform on endless standardized tests that have no connection to the progress they are making.
When we force these students to take tests they are not prepared to handle, "It is an act of cruelty. It's child abuse," she said.
Asked what's missing from her classroom, Barbara Rink said, "Respect, trust, faith and a belief in our ability to teach." A 23-year teaching veteran, also from Ossining TA, Rink said it didn't used to be this way, but now, "I feel there's no confidence that I know what I'm doing in the classroom."
NYSUT members and their supporters came from the North Country, Southern Tier, the Hudson Valley, Central and Western New York, Long Island and the metro area, as well as the Capital District to join the march.
"I'm here to lend my voice to the masses and to speak against the governor's budget proposals that are harmful to our children and to the democratic fabric of our communities," said Utica TA President Cherie Grant, holding up one end of a "Call Out Cuomo" banner.
Using a bullhorn, NYSUT President Karen Magee told the crowd, "The governor has declared war on students, parents and educators. He has done it through his inflammatory anti-teacher rhetoric, and through his proposed budget that pushes the agenda of his billionaire backers. Make no mistake: We will not back down."
NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta said: "Gov. Cuomo's education agenda is vindictive and dangerous. Yet, despite the wealth of his billionaire backers and hedge fund friends, we will not be intimidated."
UUP President Fred Kowal said the fight unites public education -- from pre-K through graduate school. We are in this fight together. What we do is under assault; an assault on education and on the ideas of equality and justice. The injustice and oppression must stop."
PSC President Barbara Bowen engaged the crowd in a little lead-and-response, saying: "We're here today because we believe in people, we believe in learning, we believe in justice, and we believe in love... It is cruel and criminal that we are being prevented from doing the work that we love," she said, "and denied the basic human right to teach and to learn."
Following the brief bullhorn rally, the army marched the length of the concourse to the Capitol, filling the wide corridor from side to side in a column three hundred feet long. The group mustered for a Moral Monday vigil with labor leaders and faith-based activists at the Million Dollar Staircase.
Even the palatial steps weren't big enough to hold them all. In a scene reminiscent of the protests at the Wisconsin Capitol, protesters filled four floors of the winding staircase holding banners and chanting "Call Out Cuomo" to the man on the second floor.
"Gov. Cuomo, the budget you have put forward is a disgrace," roared President Magee, leading a thunderous chant of "Shame on You."
As the proud parent of a public school student and a teacher of 30 years, Magee said she couldn't understand why the governor is more interested in pushing the agenda of his billionaire backers than meeting the needs of the state's students.
"This is about respect," added Pallotta. "The governor has no respect for public education. I see hundreds and hundreds of respect buttons on all of you. The governor didn't want these (buttons) in the mansion, but they're in the house today. This is the people's house and the people's voice will be heard!"
Ever the teacher, Magee couldn't resist giving a homework assignment to the crowd. She urged each and every person to engage at least two more people in the fight when they return to their communities. "Together, I am confident we will win," she said.
Magee said she is grateful for the strong support of coalition partners like state AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento, who told the crowd the house of labor is with them. "You are not alone in this fight," Cilento said. "Your fight is our fight. Your fight for the future of public education is everybody's fight!"
Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education representing parents and community members, said the governor once said he would be the "great equalizer" when it comes to educational opportunity. "He's turned his back on that promise," Easton said. The gap in funding for the state's neediest schools is at an all-time high, he said.
Easton said state lawmakers need to know their job is to "say no to Cuomo."
The crowd chanted back "No to Cuo-mo, No to Cuo-mo."
Several state lawmakers made their way to the crowded landing to voice their support for public education, from pre-K all the way through college.
"It's critically important for you to be here," said Assembly Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan, D-Queens. "You have to make your voice heard and speak out in your communities ... We have stood with you for years in this cause of equity and fairness for all our children. Together, let's keep fighting for less testing, support for teachers and full funding!"
Other legislative speakers included state Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, and Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, who all pledged their support and thanked the crowd for "reminding us who we work for."