A version of this Op-Ed originally appeared in the Seattle Times.
Seattle’s Education Association representative assembly — the union body that represents Seattle’s teachers, nurses, librarians, instructional assistants, office professionals and educational support staff — has overwhelmingly passed seven resolutions in solidarity with the movement for Black lives. These included removing police from schools (which was achieved with a recent vote of the school board) and the King County Labor Council, (which was achieved by a recent vote of the council), educating SEA members on alternatives to calling 911 on students, and my own resolution to defund the Seattle Police Department and reinvest the money in education, health care and programs to support families.
These bold resolutions, adopted June 8, were surely spurred by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and the ensuing uprising that’s swept the nation. But this vote wasn’t only about injustices elsewhere. Seattle’s educators have been fighting institutional racism and the school-to-prison-pipeline here for some time.
In Seattle, our “Black Lives Matter at School” movement erupted September 2016. A white supremacist threatened to bomb John Muir Elementary School when the educators there — in conjunction with parents, community and the group “Black Men United to Change the Narrative” — declared they would celebrate Black students with an assembly, and by wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts to school.
Black Lives Matter at School then went national, thanks to educators in Philadelphia who organized a full week of action and broke down the 13 principles of the Black Lives Matter Global Network into teaching points for each day of the week. Last year, educators in more than 40 cities participated in BLM at School, reaching many thousands of students.
Each year, Seattle’s educators have voted to support the demands of the national Black Lives Matter at School week of action during the first week in February, including the fourth SEA demand, “Fund Counselors, Not Cops.” And when Seattle Public Schools parent Charleena Lyles was killed in her own home in front of her children by Seattle police department officers on June 18, 2017, the Seattle Education Association urged our members to wear their Black Lives Matter shirts to school and join a rally to stand with her family.
Building on that legacy, educators took a bold new step to call for a 50% cut from the $409 million already budgeted for the Seattle Police Department this year. Seattle educators now understand the words of Michelle Alexander, leading human-rights advocate and author of “The New Jim Crow,” who recently wrote:
“After decades of reform, countless commissions and task forces, and millions of dollars poured into ‘smart on crime’ approaches, the police behave with about as much brutality today as they did in 1966 … More than 95% of arrests every year are for nonviolent offenses like loitering, fare evasion and theft.”
Yet the resolution passed by Seattle’s educators wasn’t simply about shrinking the size and malignancy of the police but about re-imagining justice, education, public safety and our society. The resolution also demands that,
“Seattle’s Mayor and City Council must protect and expand investments to make our communities safe, prioritizing community-led health and safety strategies. Full access to affordable housing, community-based anti-violence programs, trauma services and treatment, universal child care and free public transit are just a few of the non-police solutions to social problems.”
As the saying goes, “Hurt people hurt people. Whole people heal people.” Massive wealth inequality and structural racism are hurting people in our city and constitute the biggest threat to public safety. We now have an opportunity to make the kind of social investments in housing, education and health care to create whole and healthy communities and create new paradigms for addressing the root causes of violence.
Several Seattle-based organizations are already providing a restorative justice and community building approach to public safety, including Community Passageways, Safe Passage and Creative Justice. These programs provide such services as alternatives to youth incarceration, mentorship to youth who are involved with the legal system and staff trained in de-escalation techniques to help mediate conflicts, providing an alternative model for public safety. These and other programs are limited by their budgets, however, which pale in comparison to the funding lavished on the punitive system of policing.
Minneapolis has already vowed to dismantle its police force and start over with a new vision for investing in social workers, public-health workers and conflict mediators who are trained to care for people’s well-being.
Seattle’s educators have a lesson for city officials. We hope they are sitting up straight and taking notes: We can create safe and thriving communities by joining the growing number of cities who are re-appropriating funds from a punishment-based system and re-aiming them toward a new system that builds thriving communities.
Jesse Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies and English Language Arts at Garfield High School, is an editor for Rethinking Schools, serves as the director for Black Education Matters and is the co-editor of the book Teaching for Black Lives. He is the recipient of the NAACP Youth Council’s 2019 Racial Justice Teacher of the Year award.