Tag Archives: Michael Brown

“Why are they doing this to me?”: Seattle students walkout on Ferguson decision and racism

Senait Brown helps lead the Nov. 25 Ferguson Solidarity March & Rally, which began at 23rd and Union and ended at the federal courthouse. People protested the decision of a Ferguson, Mo., grand jury to not indict a white police officer in the shooting of an unarmed Michael Brown. Photo by Jon Williams / Arts Editor Real Change

On Monday after school, members of the Garfield High School Black Student Union (BSU) gathered in my classroom, along with my co-advisor of the student organization, as we braced for the grand jury decision in Ferguson regarding officer Darren Wilson’s killing of unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown.

None of these students were there to find out what the fate of Officer Wilson would be; they told me they knew Wilson would not be made to face a trial because the institutions of our society do not respect the lives of Black youth. They gathered instead to hold each other up when the inevitable news dropped, and to reaffirm that Black lives matter, no matter what the prestigious and powerful believe.

As the time dragged on, we found out that the grand jury decision would not be made public until later that night. And as we packed our belongings to leave and wished each other well, one BSU member, clearly in deep turmoil, said, “Why are they doing this to me?” His question caught me off guard and I could feel my emotions swelling. Given the look of anguish on his face, should I focus on trying to help him not be consumed with worry as he leaves the embrace of his classmates?  Should I quote to him a sentiment from Martin Luther King?: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  Or should I begin to recount the history of racism in this country, long used to amass wealth and power, and quote to him Frederick Douglass?: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” I was ashamed I wasn’t ready at that moment with the right words and my own tumultuous feelings about the impending announcement kept me from producing a coherent response.

I did finally manage to inquire, “What do you mean?” He explained that he had a college application due the next day, but that there was no way he could concentrate on finishing the paperwork when the news was finally released that there would be no justice for Michael Brown. An effort was made in the group to comfort him and help him understand that it was important for him to also focus on his future. But he expressed he just had to join the demonstrations that night because if it was legal to kill Black youth, then what kind of future did he really have? The BSU parted ways and planned to rejoin the next day at lunch to discuss the next steps in the struggle for justice for Michael Brown.

Graduation portrait of Michael Brown from Normandy High School in Ferguson County, MO (Elcardo Anthony)

That evening I watched the TV in unsurprised pain as St. Louis County prosecutor—apparently turned defense attorney—Robert McCulloch announced that Darren Wilson had a license to kill Black people. There was no need for the hassle of a trial. My chest heaved as I heard him explain why Black lives don’t matter, but I tried to hide my reaction from my sons so I wouldn’t have to explain to them the vulgarity of our society. My mind turned to my BSU student—was he writing his personal essay now, or finding out who he was and what he believed as he rallied for justice in the streets?

The next morning, I joined hundreds of people in search of solace and solidarity at the local NAACP rally, which gathered just a few blocks from my school. In my remarks to the crowd, I asserted that while the media likes to talk about the “unrest” sweeping the country, the real unrest is the endless sleepless nights for Michael Brown’s parents. I asserted that what is sweeping the nation—something the media cannot acknowledge without legitimizing challenges to their own supremacy—is a politicized populace of Black people, people of color, and their allies, with a goal of uprooting institutional racism.

After speaking, I jumped in my car to make it back to school before the lunch period was over. Driving back, I was met with an amazing surprise: that very populace was blocking my way to school! I had to move over to the right because an outpouring of some 1,000 students had left Garfield High School in solidarity with Mike Brown and had taken to the streets chanting, “Hands up, don’t Shoot!” As I would soon learn, walkouts occurred across the city, including 300 who walked out of Roosevelt High School, 130 from West Seattle High School, 50 from Rainier Beach High School, dozens from Nova High School, and over a dozen from Southlake High School. In leaving the schoolhouse, these students were transformed into the teachers of an entire region as they captured headlines in the local media and eloquently explained why they had disrupted the day to challenge racism. In my years of teaching, I have never worked with a more aware and passionate group of young people—educated not by me, but by Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Darius Simmons, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, and so many other black youths whose lives were taken by racial terror.

These students were surely animated by the injustice in Ferguson, but as they expressed, they have no need to travel across the country to confront the ferocity of racism. The Seattle Public Schools are under investigation by the federal Department of Education for suspension rates for black students four times higher than white students for the same infractions. The Seattle Police Department came under investigation by the federal Department of Justice for excessive use of force, especially against people of color, and is now under a court-monitored consent decree. A recent Seattle Times article shows, “while Seattle’s median household income soared to an all-time high of $70,200 last year, wages for blacks nose-dived to $25,700 — a 13.5 percent drop from 2012.”

A new generation of young activists in cities across the nation are confronting the contradiction of living in the “the land of the free” yet having to face militarized police when they assert the basic premise that “Black lives matter.” I hope my student finished his college paperwork (I’ll ask him about it when I see him after the break) and is accepted into college. But he and his classmates have goals beyond the individualist “career and college ready” objective prescribed by self-styled education reformers. These students have learned a lesson that can’t be taught by institutions of higher learning: Only collective action has the ability to grant the power of sight to a society unable to see you as a human being.

Jesse Hagopian teaches history and co-advises the Black Student Union at Garfield High School. He edited the book, “More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing,” which includes a foreword by Diane Ravitch, an introduction by Alfie Kohn, and an afterward by Wayne Au (Haymarket, December). A Twitter chat for “More Than a Score” will be held Monday, December 1, at 8:30pm Eastern.  The Seattle book launch for “More Than a Score” will be held at Elliot Bay Books on December 2, 7:00pm.

“This is a test”: Educating to End the School-to-Grave-Pipeline in Ferguson and Beyond

“We were at graduation, me and him, and we were talking. He said he wasn’t going to end up like some people on the streets. He was going to get an education.”

Hershel Johnson, a friend Michael Brown’s since middle school.

MikeBrown_CapGown

Graduation portrait of Michael Brown from Normandy High School in Ferguson County, Missouri.

In the wake of the police murder of the unarmed 18-year-old African American high school graduate Michael Brown, and the ensuing uprising of the people of Ferguson, the Ferguson-Florissant School District announced classes would not resume for the school year on Aug. 14 as planned, and as of today, school is still not in session.

The unrest between police and protesters prompted Gov. Jay Nixon (D) to declare a state of emergency in Ferguson and then impose a curfew. Comedian John Oliver described Gov. Nixon’s curfew announcement as “patronizing,” and charged him with speaking in the tone of a “pissed-off vice principal” attempting to further restrict the freedom of the people of Ferguson. Oliver’s school analogy may have been prompted by Nixon’s statement that,

“…to protect the people and property of Ferguson today, I signed an order declaring a state of emergency and ordering implementation of a curfew in the impacted area of Ferguson… But if we’re going to achieve justice, we must first have and maintain peace. This is a test.”

For all of his authoritarian scolding, Gov. Nixon is correct about one thing: This is a test. But it isn’t one that will be scored accurately by a police force or a political class that sees itself as above the law.

Ferguson, like cities around the nation, has plenty of problems of race, class, and education to choose from. The schools in Ferguson—like to many districts across the nation—are still separate and unequal. 77.1 percent of the students in the Ferguson-Florissant School District are black, and some 68 percent of white students who live in the district attend schools outside of the district. Black students make up a disproportionate 87.1 percent of students without disabilities who receive an out-of-school suspensions, according to 2011-12 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. And the black youth continue to be targets when they leave the schoolhouse and enter the streets.  Last year, black residents accounted for 86 percent of the vehicle stops made by Ferguson police and nearly 93 percent of the arrests made from those stops, according to the state attorney general. FBI statistics show that 85 percent of the people arrested by Ferguson police are black, and that 92% of people arrested specifically for disorderly conduct are black.

The city of Ferguson is 67.4 percent black and 28.7 percent white, yet five of the six city councilmembers are white and six of seven school board members are white.   The first African American Superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant School District, Dr. McCoy, was forced out of his position in March by the then all white school board. Normandy High School, the alma mater of Mike Brown, has a poverty rate of 92 percent. As Daily Kos related,

“The grinding poverty in Mike’s world only allowed Normandy High School to acquire two graduation gowns to be shared by the entire class. The students passed a gown from one to the other. Each put the gown on, in turn, and sat before the camera to have their graduation photographs taken. Until it was Mike’s turn.”

“Career and college ready” are the new buzzwords in the education reform world and every teacher certainly hopes their students achieve these personal successes. Yet to limit education to only these puny goals is to extinguish the true power of education. Education must also be in service of transforming our very troubled society.

Mike Brown was to have started attending Vatterott College on August 11, two days after he was killed, exposing the fact that the work of educators to help students achieve a diploma means little if our society succumbs to lawless police who gun down our unarmed children in the street. Many black youth have had their caps and gowns snatched from them and replaced with orange jumpsuits, as students are funneled into what is commonly called the “school-to-prison-pipeline”—a series of interlocking policies such as zero tolerance discipline and high suspension rates, overbearing police presence in schools, and high-stakes exit exams required for graduation. But increasingly it appears police are intent on constructing what I guess we now must term the “school-to-grave-pipeline”— a series of interlocking policies such as giving police weapons designed for war zones, the disproportionate policing of areas frequented by black youth, and incentivizing police to shoot black people by not arresting them and giving them paid leave when they do. The school-to-grave-pipeline is not only a problem in Ferguson.  Nationally, a study revealed that a black person is killed by police somewhere in the United States every 36 hours. When there are witnesses, or when onlookers are able to capture these murders on a cellphone camera, we get to hear about their case; people such as Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and many others. Yet too often, black people are shot down by police and discarded with little attention.

If education is not dedicated to empowering our youth to solve the problems they face in their communities, in our nation, and in our world, then it isn’t really an education at all—it is an indoctrination designed to reproduce oppression. As Richard Shaull explains in the forward to Paulo Freire’s masterwork, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

The way you know that those who control the education system—the many corporate style education reformers who push high-stakes testing and standardized curriculum—are not actually interested in nurturing black youth, closing the achievement gap, or supporting education that undermines oppression, is that you won’t hear any of them publicly defending Michael Brown or calling for the arrest of his murderer, Darren Wilson. (Or maybe Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and Michelle Rhee carpooled and got lost on their way to the rally in Ferguson?). On the issues that most deeply affect the lives of African Americans—mass incarceration, police terror, unemployment, housing discrimination—these education reformers and officials have nothing to say, content to prattle on with the exhortations about “accountability,” “career ready,” “21st century education,” and other hollow pronouncements devoid of the social supports that would make them a reality.

Thankfully, educators in Ferguson and around the nation are rising to the challenge of redefining the purpose of education with the intent of building a more just society in wake of the killing of Michael Brown. On August 17, Dr. Marcia Chatelain tweeted a call for resources for parents and educators to talk to young people heading back to school with the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus.  People from around the nation began collecting and retweeting articles, books, videos, and photos to aid educators in lesson ideas that engage students in a critical dialogue about the meaning of Michael Brown’s death and the mass uprising it has inspired.

Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D (@JackieGerstein) tweeting with #FergusonSyllabus, wrote:

 

And Caryn Riswold (‏@feminismxianity) tweeted:

Some of the best lessons ideas shared on #FergusonSyllabus include a link to the video, “Race the House We Live in”, about redlining and housing discrimination, a Rethinking Schools lesson on teaching about The Murder of Sean Bell (a young African American killed by New York City Police), Christopher Emdin’s essay, “5 Ways to Teach About Michael Brown and Ferguson in the New School Year,” and Teaching for Change’s, “Teaching About Ferguson.” Any teacher of American history or civics would do well to discuss Amy Goodman’s essay, “The ghost of Dred Scott haunts the streets of Ferguson,” outlining the case of the slave (buried just down the street from where Mike Brown was killed) who took his case for freedom to the Supreme Court, which subsequently ruled that African Americans had, “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

National Public Radio ran a story on August 19th, “Ferguson Teachers Use Day off As Opportunity for Civics Lesson” where they reported, “So this morning, instead of being in the classroom, 150 area teachers took part in some unusual professional development: picking up broken glass, water bottles and tear gas canisters from the street. “It says ‘Defense Technology’ on it,” says social studies teacher Arthur Vambaketes, showing off a busted canister from his trash bag.”

When the schools reopen in Ferguson, teachers would do well to close up the jingoistic textbooks, discard the bubble tests, and ask students what they think about the fact that our nation spends more on “defense technology,” militarized policing and mass incarceration than on education. It might not be on the new Common Core exams, but the killing of Michael Brown is a test for our nation’s schools nonetheless.

As I prepare to head back to the classroom, I pledge to Michael Brown and his family that I will do my best to foster a classroom that allows for the emotional intensity and critical dialogue vital to achieving a world that puts institutional racism in its final resting place and gives our black children a bright future.

—-

Jesse Hagopian is the editor and contributing author to the forthcoming book (available for per-ordering), More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Jesse teaches history and is the co-advisor for the Black Student Union at Garfield High School, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP standardized test.  Jesse an associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, a founding member of Social Equality Educators (SEE), and recipient of the 2013 “Secondary School Teacher of Year” award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences. Follow Jesse on his blog at www.iamaneducator.com or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian

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