A lesson in how to fight for Black lives

February 9, 2018

Danny Katch reports on the nationwide week of action that brought together teachers, students and others who want to fight against racism and for education justice.

YOU MIGHT think that there couldn't be a worse moment for educators to launch a Black Lives Matter campaign in public schools across the country.

After all, the Trump administration is full of reactionaries who hate both civil rights and public schools--and who are itching for more chances to whip up fears of "Black identity extremists" in the classroom to further their agenda of busting teachers unions and privatizing K-12 education.

But that's only one side of the story. On the other are thousands of educators, students and parents who have been inspired by and participated in movements against institutional racism, school closures and high-stakes standardized testing--and who are looking for ways to take those struggles forward by bringing them together.

The result is Black Lives Matter at School, a national week of action wrapping up today that has put forward three chief demands:

1. End "zero tolerance" discipline and implement restorative justice

2. Hire more Black teachers

3. Mandate Black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curriculum

Students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Milwaukee
Students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Milwaukee (Joe Brusky | Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association)

BLACK LIVES Matter as School has gotten participation from hundreds of schools in dozens of cities and been endorsed by 20 teachers unions and a number of prominent activists in the Movement for Black Lives, including journalist Shaun King and #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Opal Tometi.

They recognize that racist schooling is inextricably linked to racist policing and incarceration policies, a process that education activists refer to as the "school-to-prison pipeline."

Black students are more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as white students. Black girls are seven times as likely to be suspended and four times as likely to be arrested in school as white girls.

Meanwhile, the number of Black teachers has decreased nationwide by 26,000, even as the total number of teachers has increased by 134,000.

"We know from research that students--not just Black students but all students--need to have access to Black teachers and teachers of color," says Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price, who helped coordinate the week of action in districts across New Jersey.

"It's not that Black teachers are superheroes, but when we don't have Black teachers in society, when Latinx teachers are only the Spanish teacher, what does that teach students about what they can aspire to and who owns knowledge?"

Just as the epidemic of police killings of unarmed Black (and other) victims didn't begin with the rise of Donald Trump, the school-to-prison pipeline isn't a new phenomenon.

In fact, the Obama administration pushed an education "reform" agenda of privatization and punitive standardized testing that was cynically sold as a modern-day civil rights crusade to close the achievement gap between Black and white students. The fact that these same policies have been continued by Trump administration officials who are openly contemptuous of civil rights should expose education "reform" for the lie it always was.

THE ROOTS of this past week's activities in schools around the country go back to October 2016, when hundreds of Seattle teachers wore Black Lives Matter (BLM) t-shirts to school in solidarity with educators at John Muir Elementary School, who faced a barrage of right-wing attacks for bringing anti-racist politics into their teaching.

Members of the Caucus of Working Educators (WE) inside the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers then expanded the protest into a week of action in January 2017, and eventually a national coalition was formed to plan for this year.

The forms of action taken have varied in different cities and schools. Seattle teachers and students kicked off the week this past Monday with a rally in front of Garfield High School. Montpelier High in Vermont raised a Black Lives Matter flag.

Educators in many districts organized after school forums throughout the week. Aryee-Price's MAPSO Freedom School hosted panels on the legacy of Assata Shakur with Black Panther Party members and on school segregation with New York Times writer Nikole Hannah Jones. New York City activists organized a meeting about "the intersection of high-stakes standardized testing and race".

As the name of the week of action indicates, however, the most widespread activities during Black Lives Matter at School have taken place inside classrooms. Teachers created lessons each day corresponding to Black Lives Matter's 13 guiding principles:

Monday: Restorative Justice, Empathy and Loving Engagement
Tuesday: Diversity and Globalism
Wednesday: Trans-Affirming, Queer Affirming and Collective Value
Thursday: Intergenerational, Black Families and Black Villages
Friday: Black Women and Unapologetically Black

Philadelphia English teacher Clarice Brazas told Philly.com that the curriculum "gives students a platform and the language that they need to talk about the injustices in society."

IT'S BEEN just as beneficial for teachers, who have been able to make connections across schools with very different internal environments.

In New York City, organizing meetings drawing educators from around the city ranged from over 50 people to less than 15--always a multiracial group, but with mixed experience in terms of previous organizing.

"Some are the lone person in their school while others have the support of their principal or a larger group of co-workers and are changing their school schedule to dedicate time to BLM week," says Adam Sanchez of the Zinn Education Project. "The curriculum share on January 27 was a huge success, with around 50 people, many of whom had never been to a BLM organizing meeting."

The fact that this bold initiative is succeeding in the current repressive atmosphere has taken even some of the main organizers by surprise.

"We've found a way for the BLM movement to have an expression on a national scale," says Jesse Hagopian, a well-known Seattle teacher and activist, who helped organize the original 2016 action. "It's weird, but under Trump, we've been thriving."

Hagopian hopes that this initiative can show some ways forward for the larger movement:

There's a real challenge that faces the Black Lives Matter movement in that reforming police departments is one of the most challenging things that a movement has ever taken on in U.S. history because of how important the police are in terms of maintaining the status quo of dramatic inequality that this country is founded on...It can be demoralizing when we see Black people getting gunned down in the streets, and there's incredible outpourings of support, but then that movement recedes, and it can be difficult to see how it's building.

So my hope is that this aspect of the movement for Black lives that's connecting with public education can help give some momentum to that movement and provide some tangible goals that we can organize around and win in the short term--things like winning restorative justice programs in our schools or winning the implementation of Black studies and ethnic studies courses...Those are concrete victories that can empower thousands of students.

In fact, Hagopian himself is now teaching ethnic studies as a result of the movement that he and many others have built for years at Garfield High and the Seattle school district.

Across the country, Black Lives Matter at School has enabled educators and activists to build on the work they've doing for years.

MAPSO Freedom School, for example, had its origins in the summer of 2016 when Maplewood Police tried to "maintain our border" at a July 4 celebration by physically pushing teenage Black town residents into the neighboring city.

That incident caused national outrage, but what took place under the radar was the response by Aryee-Price and others. As she explained:

It was a reflection of what they were experiencing in the school, being overly suspended and overly disciplined. The students needed a place to be heard and seen because they weren't being heard and seen in the community.

We held readings and had discussions for the summer, and at the end of the summer, the students organized their own small conference for parents and people in the community with group discussion...Then, at the beginning of last summer, we decided we wanted to do more. We held a Charlottesville teach-in, with a packed house of people from all over the state.

JUST AS Black Lives Matter at School has shown how the fight against racism is helped by the involvement of teachers, it's also shown how teachers' unions benefit from taking up social questions of equality and justice.

The endorsement of the week of action by over 20 unions came about because of the activism of union caucuses like Philadelphia's Working Educators, as well as activist members in other locals. "It's been totally grassroots," says Hagopian, who is a member of the Social Equality Educators inside the Seattle Education Association.

"When people started seeing other unions signing on, they started pushing their own unions," says Aryee-Price. "In New Jersey, [where the New Jersey Education Association voted to endorse], it wasn't like everybody was all in agreement...It was something that had to get pushed."

Notably, New York City's United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the largest and most influential teachers union in the country, rejected an endorsement resolution put forward by the Movement of Rank and File Educators caucus.

UFT leaders argued that Black Lives Matter was too "divisive" for a union that needs to stay united to deal with the coming Supreme Court decision in the Janus case which could severely weaken public sector unions.

This decision was a mistake--one that will do nothing to "unite" the UFT's many members who care passionately about challenging racism and the ways it impacts the over 300,000 Black students in New York City schools.

But the process of bringing this debate out into the open--including an opinion piece in the New York Daily News and a sympathetic feature on the local news--has marked a step forward by showing Black residents that there are growing numbers of teachers working to challenge racist schooling.

Similarly, this past week of action has built activist networks inside and outside schools. "Seeds have been planted, and they're sprouting all over the place," says Aryee-Price about New Jersey. "It's hard to keep track of all the wonderful actions happening all over the state."

For educators in the handful of places whose school districts endorsed the week of action--including Seattle and Prince George's County, Maryland--next steps will include working to get school administrations to back up their words with actions, by implementing the demands for restorative justice, hiring Black teachers and adding ethnic studies.

Nothing will come easily. The right-wing atmosphere created by the Trump White House has a real impact. Hagopian has had the windows of his car parked in front of his house repeatedly smashed, and he and his school have gotten "e-mails from people saying I'm trying to start a race war."

But the success of Black Lives Matter at School has shown the resilience not only of Hagopian and thousands of teachers like him, but of the movements in defense of Black Lives and public education that many of them have been a part of.

At a moment when centrist politicians are running away from the fight to defend immigrant youth, these teachers are showing that an open and proud stand against racism is the only way to win in the Trump era.

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